ANNA-LEENA HARKONEN

Journal

SINS OF MY YOUTH

A while ago, I thanked a colleague for writing one of her novels. “Oh, that sin of my youth?” she said with a laugh, sounding slightly apologetic.

A sin of her youth? The book is a beautiful work of historical fiction, with an accurate and fascinating portrayal of the era, as well as touching life stories of characters. I wonder why authors are so merciless about their older works. Admittedly, it would be strange if we read our books in a state of self-congratulatory euphoria—but we shouldn’t be ashamed of our earlier works. Have some mercy on yourselves, people!

Older works fall into the same category as failed haircuts, regrettable boyfriends, and other mishaps and blunders. It was not our fault that we were young. It was not our fault that we thought we knew everything about anything. These are prerogatives of the young.

THE BIGGEST SIN of my youth is my debut novel, How to Kill a Bull. This book has been both a source of joy and a burden. At times, I’m monumentally ashamed of its worldview: that of a hopelessly unexperienced person. On the other hand, the novel has a certain uninhibited fervor that I can no longer reproduce in my books.

An author’s first few works are usually a sizable sore spot for them. If I have a choice, I choose not to think about my first five novels. Ten years from now I will be ashamed of the book that I’m currently working on.

IN THIS PROFESSION, you must get used to self-loathing. It takes over during the writing phase, and sometimes its paralyzing effect stops you from working altogether. Some colleagues start several manuscripts—and end up throwing them all into the digital or physical wastebasket.

I can relate. Sometimes you despise what you are writing to the point of blushing with shame. It’s something of a wonder that books are published at all. When I’m overwhelmed with self-loathing, I try to keep in mind that the book’s topic and text are completely new to the reader. Readers are not necessarily bored or scornful if an author writes in the same style year after year. And you cannot help your style of writing.

A FEW MORE ANECDOTES about my debut novel:

We were spending the evening with friends in an atmospheric cellar restaurant. I got into an argument with my husband, and a colleague took my side—albeit for questionable reasons.

“Hey, come on now,” he said to my husband. “Stop that. Don’t you realize she’s the one who wrote How to Kill a Bull?”

From my husband’s expression, you could read three words: couldn’t care less.

I DECIDED TO TAKE CARE of my grocery shopping on my way back from a run. Still sweaty, I was putting my purchases on the conveyor belt at the checkout. A beautifully dressed woman kept looking at me.

“Oh my God,” she said. “You look exactly like the girl who killed the bull!”

I hesitated, then replied, “I guess so.” That was all I could come up with. She had not exactly paid me a compliment, so I couldn’t thank her.

AT THE LOCAL MUSEUM in the region where I grew up, I was astonished to spot a first-edition copy of How to Kill a Bull among the spinning wheels, old tools, and other artifacts. Somehow it didn’t seem to belong there.

A notice on the table admonished “Do not touch the artifacts!” But I couldn’t resist touching the book.

MY SON HAD A CHANGE of heart at thirteen. He had previously announced that he would never read any of my books. However, after the end-of-semester celebration at his school that spring, he told me he was going to read How to Kill a Bull. “One of my friends said it’s surprisingly deep,” he explained. “And you’re my mom and everything.”

I waited with mounting excitement for his feedback. After he had completed the first chapter, I couldn’t help asking what he thought.

“I’m sure it will get better,” he said in an encouraging tone. He never started chapter two.

By Anna-Leena Harkonen
Published with permission from Rights & Brands

How to Kill a Bull (Häräntappoase, “Poleax”) was published in 1984. Photo of Harkonen: Ilkka Ranta / Lehtikuva

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