The Story Begins
First, the phone went crazy. Then my mailbox started filling up. I can only imagine what my inbox would have looked like if email had existed back in 1981.
I was a student in my early twenties; I had worked on my first novel throughout the seven years I had spent at the university. I had yet to finish my thesis and sit for my final exams. I had run out of money many times over, both my own and my boyfriend’s.
We had to move about once a year, as the apartments were sold out from under us. Pick nearly any building on some streets there, and I’ve probably lived in it at some point. The final version of Sonia O. Was Here was written in three different apartments.
MY PUBLISHER TRIED TO REASSURE ME: my money worries would soon be over. I had to laugh—what else could he say to his nervous protégé? He had read my manuscript over and over again; if I went quiet, he’d call to check up on me, and he gently pestered me for my novel that remained a work in progress.
But even my publisher had no idea what was to hit us in the fall of 1981.
A COLLEAGUE AND FELLOW WRITER was the first to call—it must have been 5:30 in the morning—to congratulate me. I was really touched, for he was the one who, as my tutor at a writers’ camp, had suggested I try prose instead of poetry.
Reviews appeared. Opinions diverged widely, and the reviews of many male critics brought me to tears back then, but now they make me laugh. Some would be praying for my soul. There were marriage proposals. I had to keep changing my unlisted number. The presses were churning out new print runs almost weekly, my diary filled up, we drank champagne from shoes, and I even received a prestigious award.
I was asked to give talks at libraries, schools, and festivals. The film and theatre rights were sold. The late Pentti Saarikoski, one of the most influential Finnish poets and writers, said he wanted to translate my book into Swedish. (Incidentally, I would later marry his son, and the copy of Sonia O. Was Here that I gave to Pentti returned to my bookshelf as part of Saarikoski’s estate that my husband inherited.)
MY LIFE WAS NEVER THE SAME after fall 1981. People started to recognize me on the street, and I was suddenly a person strangers would approach to speak to. Not that that as such was anything new—talking to strangers was normal in the neighborhood where I grew up—but that had been one stranger talking to another stranger.
I made enough money to buy an apartment, in my beloved home neighborhood. Those were the days: blue leather pants, purple bangs, cats, parties, progressive arts camps, love.
Fame had come to stay. For years, I was “the one who wrote Sonia O.” After a while it started to feel a bit old and even a little irritating, but with time I’ve realized that if you want to succeed as a writer and want people to remember your name, it is best to do it with your first novel. I did change my name a few years later, but that did not really change anything; people still knew who I was.
I THINK BACK TO THOSE YEARS with a certain longing: how genuinely curious journalists were, and with what great insight they wrote about Sonia. These days it is rare to come across journalists who have that same love and passion for the world of literature.
Many of them were women’s magazine editors, who have always—completely unfairly—been discounted professionally. They were often well-read, profoundly cultivated writers with an ability to recognize and embrace new phenomena. After reading Sonia O. Was Here, many of them seemed to sigh with relief: good riddance to the 1970s!
I still receive letters from young girls telling me how they have just finished reading Sonia O. (probably picked up from their mother’s bookshelf) and want to share their thoughts about life and their experiences, or discuss book presentations they are thinking of giving at school. I am deeply moved by their ideas, dreams, and passion. Every now and then, one of them says she wants to become a writer and asks me how to have the strength to hold on to such a crazy dream.
I HAVE SINCE WRITTEN 24 MORE NOVELS. I now read my 40-year-old firstborn with a certain sense of nostalgia. It captures an era, the transition from the 1970s to the 1980s. Sonia O. Was Here reflects the joy and defiance of my youth, my family history, mad love and anarchy, the heartbeat of Finnish punk culture, and the pulse of a new, alternative way of life.
By Anja Snellman
New Terrain Press 2021. All rights reserved.