Honest to the extreme


Anna-Leena Harkonen is not afraid of tackling difficult topics. In her novels, she draws on the highs and lows of her own life. The events may be fictional, but the emotions are always true.

In her native Finland, Anna-Leena has been a public figure for more than three decades. She first appeared on television at the age of 12, in a television story called Anna-Leena’s Christmas. It was based on her own script about Christmas Eve at the Harkonen household.

In her teens, Anna-Leena acted and wrote plays at the local youth theater in Oulu in northern Finland. At the age of 17, she was spotted by a director at an amateur theater event to star in a major feature film, Mona and the Time of Burning Love. That summer, she also learned that she had been accepted to attend the Theater Academy and that her first novel, How to Kill a Bull, had been accepted for publication.

FEW PEOPLE DEBUT at such a young age and in two fields at the same time. Navigating the sudden celebrity proved difficult.

“At the time, the teaching methods at the Theater Academy were controversial and cruel. It was sheer hell. I would have lost my sanity if I hadn’t transferred to another school,” Anna-Leena explains.

Combined with the performance pressure after a sensationally successful debut novel, the stress was too much. Anna-Leena fell into depression.

“I will never forget what it really feels like to be depressed. For six months, I just wanted to stay in bed and barely had the energy to take a shower,” she says. “This is why it annoys me if people speak dismissively about depression. All too often, those suffering from depression are told to just get over it.

“Despite the success, I don’t miss those years. And I wouldn’t want to be under 30 again. Being young is hard—the worst part is the pressing, almost pathological need for approval. Of course, I still want people to like me, but the world won’t end if they don’t.”

ANNA-LEENA HAS NEVER been afraid of putting herself out there in her books. Where does she get the courage?

“Perhaps I’m driven by a need to be honest to the extreme, to voice the thoughts and feelings you are not supposed to talk about, even though everyone has experienced them,” Anna-Leena says. “My books have one thing in common: the intention that we should talk about feelings plainly and honestly, without seeking approval by trying to sound conventionally appropriate.”

In Faint Lines, she writes about her postpartum depression, which bordered on psychosis. She suffered from severe sleep deprivation during her pregnancy and had great difficulty breastfeeding after the birth of her son. The feeling of failure and inferiority was unbearable.

“Dead tired, I kept stressing about breastfeeding. I couldn’t produce much milk, but I kept trying desperately because the doctors and nurses urged me to. They told me the closeness was important for the baby, and I thought I was ruining his life from the very beginning. Only later did I realize that I could also hold him close while giving him the bottle.”

In addition to talking—or writing—things through, she gains strength from the important people in her life: her son, husband, and friends.

“There is something primitive about a mother’s love for her child that surpasses anything and everything.”

ANNA-LEENA SAYS she definitely is a relationship person, even though she and her husband, author Riku Korhonen, live in different cities.

“This arrangement works perfectly for us. I need a great deal of alone time without someone being constantly present. Besides, we both work at home, so one of us would need to get an office if we lived together. I can deal with sleeping alone, and I’m not yet tired of the train trips between Helsinki and Turku, where he lives.”

Traveling is one of Anna-Leena’s favorite pastimes. Her favorite destinations are Thailand and Greece.

“When you work at home, the only way to really get away from work is to travel abroad. If I have the money, I make several trips a year.”

ANNA-LEENA OFTEN HEARS from readers that her books have touched and consoled them. Does she see herself as a helper?

“Ultimately, I don’t write to help people. That is not my motive, but I’m always delighted to hear that my books have brought people solace. I write because being an author is my profession.”

Judging by the amount of feedback from readers, Case Closed is one of her most popular books. Her younger sister committed suicide in December 2003, and Anna-Leena spent the following year writing the book.

“The book helped me clear my mind and come to terms with what had happened. This type of therapy literature is despised in some circles, but I see nothing wrong with it. Why shouldn’t literature help and console people?”

Writing helped Anna-Leena with her grief process, and time has also had a healing effect.

“I no longer cry about her death, but I sometimes dream about crying. And she appears in my dreams. Many times she has said that the whole thing was a hoax—that she is still alive and continues her life somewhere abroad. Perhaps I’m still processing her death on some level.”

Anna-Leena has come to the conclusion that suffering does not make us better or more mature people.

“Life is unfair. Some have it easier, while others have it worse—and everyone must somehow find the strength to survive. In the grand scheme of things, my life has been quite easy.”

WORK IS IMPORTANT to Anna-Leena and fills her life. She takes her work very seriously: each project feels like a matter of life and death.

“I feel you should do your work properly or not at all,” Anna-Leena says. “I tend to stress about work, and careful preparation is the best way to manage that stress.”

She confesses that because she is very disciplined and diligent about her work, she has very little patience in other areas of life—waiting in line, for example. Her nerves get stressed easily when work is a matter of life and death. Writing, however, is also very rewarding.

“I feel immense joy when I come up with the perfect sentence to describe an emotion or a solution to a problem with the plot. When writing a novel, you have to think about how to fit all the pieces together. Moments of insight are moments of pure delight.”

By Katariina Romppainen

Published with permission from Eeva magazine

Anna-Leena Harkonen is celebrating her 35th year as an author in 2019 . Photo: Jouni Harala / Otava

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