Marko Hautala is one of Finland’s best contemporary writers. His books employ the methods of horror and thriller literature to look into the minds and pasts of their characters – with terrifying results.
Order his books here.
Below is my interview with Mr. Hautala.
(photo Veikko Somerpuro)
1) Who are you? Tell us a bit about yourself!
I’m a Finnish writer who’s mainly written psychological horror, but also essays and even poetry. My writing has been translated into eight languages.
2) When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I first started to write a novel when I was seven years old but didn’t finish one until I was 27. I suppose that means that the plan has been there all along! It just took time and several short stories to get there.
3) Your works are set in the city of Vaasa, which is refreshing, as most Finnish novels are set in Helsinki. Does Vaasa inspire your writing? How would you describe the city to someone who has never been there?
Vaasa is a small city on the West Coast of Finland, close to Sweden. It’s very middle class but also culturally diverse due to the big international companies in the region. That may sound a bit boring as a setting for horror stories but actually it’s not. Vaasa has a long history and all the mystery and tragedy that goes with it if you know how to look beyond the polite façade.
4) One thing I love about your books is how you play with the feeling of uncertainty, and use it to build horror into your characters and, subsequently, the reader’s heart. The characters are often going through a period of transition of some sort, and the future is uncertain. Is uncertainty, the fear of what comes next, the basis of horror, in your opinion?
I’m really happy you point that out! Horror as a genre is often seen in too simplistic terms. For me it’s a form of fiction that offers the most suitable tools for tackling with those aspects of life that are strange and almost unbearable. For me, both as a writer and reader, the best horror stories go straight to that basic uncertainty that we as vulnerable creatures with limited understanding of reality have. It doesn’t really matter to me whether the story deals with that aspect of life through the supernatural or in purely realistic terms, but my own stories often fall somewhere in between. Whatever you believe in, you have to admit that reality is so strange and endlessly complex that our view of it is helplessly limited. A good horror story makes you acknowledge and face that fact.
5) Is there a specific method you employ to build suspense, or do you just aim to tell a scary story and things come naturally from there on?
The funny thing is that my intention is not to scare people, really. At least I don’t usually think about it that way most of the time. My main motivation is to create a strong atmosphere that would be intriguing, mysterious and yet strangely familiar. To me atmosphere is at least half the story and I do pay a lot of attention to it. Having said that, in every novel there is at least one scene that I realize might scare the reader. Then I sometimes work it up a little bit just for the joy of making someone I don’t know feel uneasy while reading a book.
6) Do you plan the entire arc of the story before hitting the computer, or do you go one section at a time, making it up as you go along?
Every novel is slightly different, but I often do make plans and drafts and synopses at some point. Usually they don’t have much to do with the final story, but they serve as temporary signposts I think. Mostly I just follow my instincts because they tend to take me to places I didn’t even know exist. If and when I get lost in my own imagination or run out of inspiration, I go back to story arcs and stuff like that just to find my way again. Often when I run out of steam, I also start drawing pictures as it seems to reactivate the verbal side of things really well.
7) How “connected” are your books in your mind? Or are they “islands” onto themselves?
Yes and no. I don’t enjoy writing series but on the other hand I sometimes feel that everything I’ve ever written is just one long story about things I try to get a grasp on or come to terms with.
8) The book Black Tongue (Finnish Kuokkamummo) employs faux folklore beautifully to create a kind of sinister past to a place. How much do folkloric tales inspire you? Do you read a lot of them?
Actually the urban legend in that novel is an authentic one! It’s from my childhood neighborhood and it really scared me when I was a kid. The legend basically included an old woman who haunted the surrounding woods and killed children. Like all urban legends, it probably had a basis in a real event (in this case in a tragic incident of a mother killing her own children decades before) but it had changed over time into this ubiquitous, almost demon-like character.
I recently also wrote a Finnish folklore-based short story that was published in several languages. The story is called Sauna Requiem and you can read or listen to it on Storytel (I don’t know if that’s available in all parts of the world though).
My latest novel Leväluhta (The Red Marsh) is also based on a real place, an ancient water burial site close to my home town. The place and all the stories connected to it have fascinated me for over a decade but it took time to find a way to write fiction about it. The funny thing is that this became possible only when I started to feel that two other seemingly unrelated elements had something to do with the place, namely a life-form known as mycetozoa (do look it up!) and early 1990’s black metal. There’s no logical connection, of course, but I felt that on some deeper level these things were connected.
Overall, I think stories and legends are important if they survive long periods of time. Although they might be factually wrong, there’s some other kind of truth in them if they survive.
9) How and where do you write? At home, at a cafe? Can you write anywhere anytime, or do you need a certain atmosphere?
Whenever possible, I write at our summerhouse (even in the winter). In the past I used to also write in cafes and bars and places like that but nowadays I feel that other people are an obstacle to intensive writing. I’m most productive when I haven’t heard a human voice for a couple of days. Lack of speech does something to your imagination. It makes you turn inward and your dreams become crazily vivid.
10) Have you personally ever experienced anything paranormal?
I’ve seen a ghost but I don’t think I believe in them. It was a strange experience though. When I was younger I used to work as a nurse in a mental hospital so I know that the mind can do all kinds of tricks, but that experience still sometimes bothers me. We lived in an old wooden house back then so the setting was right I guess. I woke up to noises from the front door and rose from the bed to look at what was going on. Then I saw an old woman walking towards me. I tried to wake up my wife but she only has a vague recollection of that. It might have been something like sleep paralysis without the paralysis part, but the experience was quite unusual. I wish my wife would have woken up so there’d be confirmation that it was just a hallucination!
11) What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a novel, an audiobook, game script and a book of essays. At least those. Then there are several small ideas that I’m toying with.
12) Where can people write to request that more of your books be translated into English?
I really don’t know! My agent Ahlback Agency takes care of my foreign rights so I don’t really get involved in that side of things at all. I’m really, really happy to get my stories translated though. [Write to firstname.lastname@example.org -admin]
13) Where can people keep up with you and your work?
I write a blog at markohautala.fi but it’s only in Finnish, unfortunately!
And, finally, my standard questions:
14) Your top 3 movies and why?
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (saw it as a kid, didn’t have the slightest understanding of what’s going on but was completely mesmerised. I still watch it at least once a year)
2. Psycho (took horror film to a completely new level)
3. Rosemary’s Baby (a prime example of a great horror story: creepy, atmospheric and a great finale which is terrifying and blackly humorous at the same time)
15) Your top 3 albums and why?
1. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds: Murder Ballads (this album marks the transition from the young, angry Nick Cave to the calmer one we have today. On Murder ballads you can hear both)
2. Ghost: Meliora (the best pop metal album ever. I almost feel bad for the band because they will probably never be able to top this)
3. Lustmord: Songs of Gods and Demons (a classic dark ambient album to which I have written several novels in the past)
16) Your top 3 books and why?
This is even more difficult than the ones above! I’ll approach this from the genre angle:
1. Everything by E.A. Poe and H.P. Lovecraft and the best novels of Stephen King (sorry but I have to make the first slot like this, otherwise this is impossible!)
2. Clive Barker: The Books of Blood 1-3
3. Sara Gran: Come Closer
17) Do you have a favorite place to read?
Anywhere by the sea in the summer, otherwise in my study or on a train. I also try spend two hours every day walking and listening to audiobooks.