Anna-Leena Harkonen



Smile at Me, Tatiana!

As a little girl, I dreamed of walking into a library and seeing my name on the spine of a book on a shelf.

This dream was related to the library in particular: the local library was a second home to me. The nearest bookstore was far away, and we hardly ever went there.

I wrote my first “novels” at the age of ten. They had touchingly dramatic yet hilariously solemn names: Heart on the Sleeve and Smile at Me, Tatiana! 

I WROTE POEMS as a teenager, and the first manuscript I submitted to a publisher was a poetry collection. I think I was fifteen at the time.

I waited for their decision with eager anticipation. A few months later, I received a polite rejection letter: “Elaborate reflections on life. The telltale sign of a young person who is still trying to find their place. Unfortunately, we cannot recommend this for publication in our program.”

I still have that collection of poems. It makes for horrible reading: a teenager trying to sound like a philosopher sharing morsels of wisdom.

I FELT AN URGE to write, but I lacked a topic and a distinctive voice.

Reading The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger was a turning point in my life.
I realized that writing doesn’t need to be overly solemn and serious. It can also be relatable and joyously insightful.

My parents supported my aspirations wholeheartedly. They never said that I should think of something more sensible—that writing was not a real job.

AT SIXTEEN, I spent the summer with relatives in the countryside. I began to write down the expressions used by the local young people because their language was so different from what I was used to.

Suddenly it dawned on me: I should write a story about a teenage boy who lives in a city but must spend a summer in a completely different environment in the countryside. Of course, he would experience his first love during that summer.

From the very beginning, it was clear to me that I wanted to write from a boy’s perspective.

I have always been more attuned to boys’ sense of humor. Besides, I had gone through a tumultuous puberty. I was an anxious and overly sensitive young woman who was bullied at school. I wanted to get as far away from myself as possible, and writing from a boy’s perspective felt incredibly liberating.

WRITING MY FIRST BOOK felt like an endless celebration. I wrote almost manically for several months.

When I read what I had written, I was disappointed and alarmed: it read too much like an imitation of Salinger. I put the manuscript into an old suitcase and pushed the suitcase under my bed.

Six months later, I decided to revisit the manuscript one last time. Much to my surprise, I was able to recognize a voice of my own: something joyful and distinctive.

Having gained distance, I was also able to omit what I had stolen from Salinger and continue in my own style.

When I had completed the manuscript, I asked my Finnish teacher to read it. She was very encouraging. I decided to submit the manuscript to the first publisher whose name occurred to me.

I EXPECTED REJECTION and was prepared to submit the manuscript to many other publishers.

However, six months later, the publisher called to let me know they had decided to publish my book—as literary fiction, no less, and not as young adult fiction as I had expected.

When I was able to finally hold the book for the first time, I kept brushing its cover with my fingers and squeezing it gently in my hands. And when I saw my name on the spine of my debut novel in the library, it felt exactly as good as I had dreamed it would.

Anna-Leena Harkonen

New Terrain Press 2024. All rights reserved.

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