Straightforward but gentle


Anna-Leena Harkonen is talking on the phone. She seems concerned and distracted. Soon she disappears into the kitchen and then into the bedroom. She sounds sad.

Anna-Leena has just received a phone call no one wants to receive: her longtime friend and classmate from drama school has died, without warning, at the age of 50.

“This is it,” she says, her face heavy with sorrow. “Our generation is beginning to die.”

A little later, the phone rings again. Anna-Leena apologizes: she has to take the call because it’s probably about the funeral.

“Unbelievable,” she keeps repeating on the phone.

Soon she sits down at the kitchen table again, curling up on the chair, and flashes a smile: she just learned that she has been selected as a recipient of a Finnish National Prize. More news to digest.

“This was supposed to be just a perfectly ordinary day. Nothing unusual, just a visit to the market for the first time in a long while. That would have been enough adventure for me,” she says with a smile.

ANNA-LEENA LOVES her ordinary, routine days. She works at home until the early afternoon, but then she needs to get away: to a nearby café or to a superstore in her friend’s car. She brings along printouts so she can edit her work in progress while waiting for a tram, for example.

When writing, Anna-Leena bribes and rewards herself like a dog: 30 more minutes, and I can have a piece of chocolate.

“This profession is not that suited to my personality. I’m too impatient.”

Nevertheless, Anna-Leena always wanted to write. When she was 16, she spent the summer with her relatives in the countryside, where she began to write down what she heard. These were the beginnings of her debut novel, How to Kill a Bull, published in 1984 and still widely read. Twenty books and a few plays and scripts later, Anna-Leena says she had no idea what she was getting herself into.

“I dreamed of becoming an author, but I never thought I would become a full-time author. My biggest dream was a one-bedroom apartment and a permanent job at the local theater.”

ANNA-LEENA’S LIVING ROOM is dominated by a huge bookshelf and an armchair, where a permanent depression marks her spot. The armchair is larger than most, almost a two-seater. Anna-Leena kicks off her black beach sandals and relaxes into a half-lying position. Obviously her favorite place.

“One day I found myself just sitting here with a cup of coffee and looking out the window. That’s very unusual for me. I don’t have the peace of mind for such serenity.”

Because of her witty, sarcastic columns, many people think she must be snappy. However, face to face she is gentleness embodied, although straightforward. She is not one to pretend.

“Everyone thinks I must be terribly aggressive. I’m passionate but not in the least confrontational as a person.”

This impression is supported by the lovely antique dolls she has placed around her apartment. In the hallway, she has a display cabinet full of old toys, watched over by a worn-out, nearly furless bear on wheels.

“I have found these in flea markets in Paris and London.”

THE MEN’S SHOES in the hallway—Converse high tops, black sneakers, and such—belong to Anna-Leena’s son, from her first marriage. He recently turned 18.

“It will be hard when those shoes disappear at some point. My work as a mother will be done then.”

Anna-Leena wrote about her motherhood in Faint Lines, an autobiographical novel. It shed light on the less-discussed sides of being a mother, such as postpartum depression. Since then, motherhood has come naturally to her. It has been an ordinary life: comics at the dinner table, cussing, and yelling.

“We have had two definite rules: promises must be kept, and other people must be treated fairly.”

The mother and son celebrated his coming of age at a Greek restaurant.

“When I turned 18, I walked straight in the nearest bar. I ordered a drink, a Blue Angel, and was extremely happy.”

ANNA-LEENA IS MARRIED to author Riku Korhonen, but his shoes are missing from the lineup in the hallway. This is because he lives in Turku, on Finland’s west coast, and she lives in Helsinki. This has been the case for more than ten years, but people still wonder about their living arrangement.

“Anything different from the norm seems to be difficult for some people to grasp. Everyone is supposed to do things in the same way.”

For the first time in our interview, Anna-Leena is nearly aggravated. She can’t understand why people stay in horrible situations year after year.

“Many people seem to think that their suffering will be somehow rewarded. Or that they should never give up. Why so? Sometimes you need to give up.”

It is even more difficult for Anna-Leena to understand why people stay in bad relationships or spend years and years fighting over a house or a piece of land.

“Divorce is scary, of course, but it’s better than suffering.”

Anna-Leena seeks to rid herself of people and things that are not good for her. She doesn’t care to hang on to the past.

“I am a solution-focused person. It seems strange how some people are only satisfied when they can be the victim.”

SINCE HER DEBUT NOVEL at the age of 18, Anna-Leena has been used to seeing her face in magazines. The success of her literary debut introduced her to the circus called celebrity.

“If someone breaks into a convenience store as an adolescent, their crime is forgotten over time. If someone writes a book at the same age, it will never be forgotten,” she says.

According to one editor, Anna-Leena’s continuous popularity is based on how she turns her personal experiences into universal ones. Readers can relate to the topics that she picks from her life.

Nearly 800,000 copies of Anna-Leena’s books have been printed since 1984. In a small market like Finland, this is a huge number. However, with a couple of exceptions, literary prizes have evaded her. Juries tend to show no love for plot-driven novels, regardless of the quality of the prose.

“Humor is not appreciated here,” Anna-Leena says.

IT’S ALMOST COMICAL how much Anna-Leena seems to detest writing. The worst part is starting a new book: the intense three-year process looming ahead makes her feel something close to depression. The walls seem to be closing in, and all purpose is lost. And what if, despite all this, she is able to finish the book? She has to write the next one.

A colleague has told Anna-Leena that they are happiest when writing. “I’m happiest on my summer vacation,” she confesses.

Then again, she cannot help writing. Her brain is always working on a story, which is the greatest and most enjoyable part of the job. “I always carry another world with me.”

ANNA-LEENA FEELS particularly compelled to write when something unexpected happens. A few years ago, on a rafting trip, her boat tipped over. Under the surface, the water showed its immense power.

“I thought I was going to drown—that I would not live to tell it or write it.”

After agonizingly long minutes, Anna-Leena was pulled out of the water. She was overcome with shame and embarrassment: how stupid she must have looked, floundering in the water, with her too-large helmet over her eyes.

Only later did she realize that she had survived a life-threatening situation. In her hotel room, her hair still wet, she took up a pen and wrote down what had just happened. The incident was published, almost unchanged, in her novel Last Call.

LAST CALL IS A NOVEL ABOUT a depressed author who wonders whether one her of friends will help her kill herself. In pure Harkonen style, the book deals with a serious topic, but the story flows beautifully and effortlessly. The humor borders on being inappropriate.

I close my eyes and dream of different kinds of death. This would be much easier if I were allergic to fish. A can of tuna—and that’s it.

After the book was published, a couple of journalists concluded that Anna-Leena was self-destructive herself. “It was outrageous,” she says. “The book is fiction.”

Last Call was one of her most difficult novels to write. Early in the process, her father died after having suffered from Parkinson’s disease for a long time. In his final years, he no longer recognized his children. “In a way, he had died much earlier.”

BEFORE LOSING HER FATHER, Anna-Leena had lost her sister to suicide, and her little brother died when he was just one year old. Anna-Leena wrote about her sister’s death in Case Closed, a byproduct of the mourning process. She thinks Case Closed is her best book.

“There is nothing that is too much, unless the truth is too much.”

The loss of her little brother may be the reason why Anna-Leena did not become a mother until the age of 34. The fear of loss was still affecting her. She still finds herself missing her siblings every now and then. What would they look like today? What if they were sitting here, drinking tea? What would they talk about?

Nevertheless, Anna-Leena feels that everyone is entitled to make their own decisions. She was one of the people who signed the popular petition to legalize euthanasia in Finland. “I fear my pain will not be treated if I fall seriously ill.”

AT THE COFFEE TABLE, Anna-Leena is chewing her Karelian pasty a little lopsidedly, as her left cheek is still swollen after her visit to the dentist the day before.

“The doctor said that, in principle, your face cannot be paralyzed by local anesthesia—that is, in principle,” she says with a grin.

The last time her cheek was swollen was at the Theater Academy, where she was studying in her late teens. The teaching methods used at the Academy back then proved detrimental to many students’ mental health.

“We were asked to bite each other, for example, and we had slapping contests: we had to slap each other on the face, harder and harder, to evoke our real emotions.”

At the end of the day, Anna-Leena tried to explain to the teacher how bad the exercises made her feel. His answer took her by surprise: “It’s not your fault that you weren’t beaten as a child.”

One student after another left the school, including Anna-Leena, who transferred to the Degree Program in Theater Arts of the University of Tampere.

“I have never understood the point of the teaching methods at the Theater Academy back then. I cannot believe all that was simply allowed to happen.”

SINCE THEN, ACTING has become a welcome source of change and variety for Anna-Leena. While writing may often feel difficult, acting is liberating. The director tells everyone what to do, and all she needs to worry about is her own performance.

“I find acting in front of the camera easy, but I don’t miss live audiences. I fear I would freeze under the pressure.”

Today, Anna-Leena appreciates safe and familiar things: pajama days at home, a glass of good wine, a piece of Fazer milk chocolate, a package vacation in the Canary Islands every winter to make the darkest time of the year feel shorter.

“I’m not an adventurer, not in the least. I’m even terrified of nature nowadays. There are mosquitos and ticks that could damage you for life, and a snake might fall around your neck at any time,” Anna-Leena says, seriously—and, at the same time, jokingly.

Just like in her books.

By Mirjami Haimelin

Published with permission from Fokus Media Finland

Anna-Leena Harkonen has a love-hate relationship with writing. Photo: Mari Lahti

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