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Interview with Anja Snellman

Updated: Jul 19, 2020

Anja Snellman has been a best-selling author for nearly four decades and to say that her career has been prolific is an understatement. The Finnish author has produced 25 novels, three collections of poetry, and two nonfiction books. This impressive collection does not include any of her published columns that she has produced as a journalist. In addition, she has recently completed her studies to become a practicing psychotherapist. Oh, and that reminds me, Anja also happens to have hosted two talk shows, Sore Spot and Anja Snellman: May I Introduce?, and currently hosts a podcast about mental health for a medical publisher. If you can think of a way to use words and emotions to speak to current events and enduring social issues, to touch your heart, and to make your point known poignantly and poetically, Anja has probably done it and done it well.

Her debut novel, Sonia O. Was Here, took the literary world by storm in 1981. Having sold over 100,000 copies, Anja has maintained her place as the highest selling debut author in the history of Finnish literature. This feminist response to the classic coming-of-age narrative is still lauded by readers of all ages today because of its enduring relatability and Anja’s uniquely poetic prose. My full thoughts on this revolutionary novel can be found here.

Continents: A Love Story, Anja’s meditation on the evolution of love throughout a failing marriage, alongside Sonia O. Was Here are the first of ten of Anja’s celebrated novels to be translated into English and sold in the United States over the next five years. Continents: A Love Story was one of my favorite books that I read in June, this summer, and in fact, this entire year. A full collection of my thoughts can be found here, but I can assure you that if you loved reading Normal People by Sally Rooney or watching Marriage Story, this is the tragically gorgeous novel you need to pack in your beach bag (with an extra pack of tissues of course).

Anja has graciously shared her thoughts and memories about her celebrated career and advice for new and struggling writers. Without further ado, here are the words of Anja Snellman, novelist, poetess, journalist, and psychotherapist.

Photo Credit: Vesa Linna

1. What authors and books have been your inspiration, and what have you been reading recently?

I have always read widely, all types of literature, all genres, very different authors. Novels, poems, nonfiction, fairy tales, scientific literature at the university. Naming favorites is difficult, but I find myself returning to Margeurite Duras, Anton Chekhov, Sylvia Plath, Wislawa Szymborska, August Strindberg, Michael Ondaatje, Karen Blixen, and Henry Miller, for example.

I love not only stories, but also language. Especially language. And words. Long ago I wrote in my journal: “My purpose in life? I keep rare words alive and protect endangered sentences.”

2. Tell me a little about your inspiration for writing Sonia O. Was Here. While it was published decades ago, Sonia O’s experience is still relevant today. Can you tell me about the novel’s legacy and impact on women and men? Have the public’s opinions on the novel changed over time?

It took me seven years to write my first novel. I was a student of literature and psychology at the time, and I wanted to reveal the double standards of our society and the glaring differences in attitudes toward men and women. Men were seen as great adventurers who loved boldly, primitively, and passionately, while women were expected to listen, watch, and admire. Boys were regarded as prospective geniuses, while girls were expected to become average, adequate, good enough.

I wanted to write about women’s right to enjoy life, love, explore themselves and their boundaries, and feel restless. Young women continue to discover Sonia O. Was Here in the wake of the Me Too movement. Women still need to fight for the right to control their bodies, sexual identity, and pleasure. In some parts of the world, women still need to fight for their right to get an education, to drive a car, to leave their homes to take a walk or run errands on their own.

Back in the eighties I wouldn’t have believed this would still be true in 2020. Sonia O. continues to be relevant—which makes me happy, but also sad at the same time.

3. What inspired you to study psychology, and how has that field influenced your writing?

I wanted to become a writer. I wanted to understand myself and others, the human mind. I read Freud, Jung, and R.D. Laing, and became interested in the anti-psychiatry movement at a very young age.

As I mentioned, it took me seven years to write my first novel, and the manuscript was rejected by many publishers. Even the major publishing house that eventually published the book rejected it initially and asked me to rewrite, several times. It was unbelievable how much rejection hurt. I was paralyzed, unable to do anything for a long time. I just cried and kept thinking that if I cannot become an author, I want to become a psychologist and start helping others through their crushing disappointments.

My first novel was published, and I did not become a psychotherapist—not until ten years ago or so, when I happened to see an advertisement about a four-year program at the University of Helsinki. I decided to apply on a whim, and I did not tell anyone about my plans.

4. In Continents: A Love Story you examine how love changes over time. Do Oona’s beliefs on the subject mirror your own?

Maybe. The novel is based on my divorce. I wanted to write a different kind of book about divorce, more delicate, perhaps even more beautiful.

5. What does a typical day of writing look like for you? Do you have a specific routine that you follow? How long does a book typically take you to write?

I currently write in the mornings and evenings. During the day, I work as a psychotherapist at a counseling center. Routines and rituals are important. It takes me two or three years to write a book.

6. What book was the most challenging for you to write and why?

Every book has its challenges. Although I have written 25 novels, I am always overcome with self-doubt when starting a new book: Do I still know how to do this? Have I lost my touch? Have I lost my language—all the nuances that I love so much?

7. Where do you travel, and what do you like to do on your trip?

I have travelled fairly extensively. I have lived—and written—in Greece, Israel, and India. These have become my second home countries.

8. Who or what inspired your love for literature and writing? Do your children have a similar love of literature?

My parents had a difficult marriage, and my childhood home was riddled with conflict. My father was wounded in the war and became an alcoholic. I had an older sister, who suffered from a birth defect and was sickly. Stories and writing were my escape from our turbulent and sometimes violent family dynamics.

Both of my parents loved literature and writing. This inspired me, of course, and we lived next door to the local library. I learned to read and began to explore books at the age of four. My two daughters are avid readers as well.

9. What advice would you give to new and struggling writers? What has been the best piece of advice that you have received?

Read a lot. All kinds of literature, everything you can get your hands on. And listen to people; foster your curiosity.

10. How have your writing and writing process changed over time?

Not much. Mornings are still the best time for me to write. I write all my novels at least three times. I write poems all the time and put together collections every now and then.

11. What has been the most rewarding moment of your writing career?

Every time I can sense the heartbeat of a new story within me.

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