10 Facts of Life


Anja Snellman grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in the working-class district of Kallio in Helsinki. Her childhood and youth were overshadowed by her father’s alcoholism and violent behavior.

“Books and writing have always been my safe haven,” she says. “Without the troubles at home, I might never have sought refuge in hiding under the table and writing poems.”

Since childhood, Anja Snellman had wanted to become a poet. However, after a colleague saw a piece of her prose at a summer camp for young writers, he persuaded her to give prose a try.

She started writing her first novel in 1974. At the time, she was studying applied psychology, literature, and English philology at the University of Helsinki. It took her seven years—and a great deal of encouragement from her publisher—to complete her debut work. The response was overwhelming: the book remains the best-selling debut novel in the history of Finnish literature.

1. IT TAKES ALL SORTS. I grew up in Kallio, a working-class district of Helsinki. It was colorful and rough. When I had children of my own, I didn’t want them to grow up where I did.

I had witnessed stabbings and shooting before I turned five. The father of one of my friends shot himself; a mother hit her child so hard with a meat grinder that the child died.

I have since wondered: for how many kids was this a normal childhood? Growing up in Kallio taught me that it takes all sorts. People come in all shapes and sizes.

2. HIDING UNDER THE TABLE. My father was an alcoholic. His family had had to flee from Karelia, the former Finnish territory, during the war. Displaced, he never really fit in. I remember how he would bash my mother around and sometimes my sister, too. Never me, though, for some reason.

My childhood was overshadowed by our fear of his violence, and my mother had health problems. My coping strategy was to stay out of the way. I spent school nights away from home, doing sports or hanging out with my friends in a park nearby. My relationship with my father eventually came to a head with physical conflict, a hands-on fight. Our relationship never recovered from that.

My sister was born with a cleft palate that was never properly treated. That is why her speech was difficult to understand. My mother and I were the only ones who could make out what she was saying. I will never know all the trauma and difficulties that my sister endured. She had no personal relationships; she lived a tragic life and died in 2011. I was her carer, just as I had been with my mother a few years earlier.

Books and writing have always been my safe haven. Without the troubles at home, I might never have sought refuge in hiding under the table and writing poems.

3. CRACKING THE CODE. I left home to study at the university when I was 19. It was enchanting: a whole new world, with so many intriguing things to learn. At last, I could allow my curiosity to run wild. I was free; nobody was asking after me.

I had done well at school but had found it socially challenging. I was an introverted child, timid and shy. Many of my anxieties were explained only a few years ago when I realized I was born with a neurological condition that made me a highly sensitive person. Understanding this has clarified many things for me. When my husband read a book on the subject, he said that the pieces simply fell into place—that he understands me so much better now.

4. REJECTION HURTS. I started writing poems when I was eight. I would send them to literary magazines and critique services. Both my parents were verbally gifted. My father used to write for corporate magazines, and he dreamed of becoming a writer. My mother kept a diary and wrote poems all her life.

At a writers’ camp, my instructor said he could see a narrative, a storyline, in my poems. It took me seven years to write my first novel, Sonia O. Was Here.

I sent the manuscript to several publishers. I was studying literature at the university, and I knew how very difficult it was to get a publishing contract. Yet those rejection letters hurt, especially from the major publishing house that eventually published the book. In hindsight, I think that the publisher was simply being tough but encouraging. At the time, however, all I could see was rejection. I felt like a failure.

I still remember how badly it hit me: I was paralyzed, unable to do anything for weeks. I just cried and kept thinking that if I cannot publish my first book, I will become a psychologist and start helping others through their disappointments—others with crushed dreams.

5. A NOMAD BY NATURE. I went back to my plan B five years ago and trained as a psychotherapist. Having seen an advertisement at the university about the four-year program, I made an intuitive decision: I applied and did not tell a soul.

Now I am also working as a therapist. The combination feels natural to me: both writing and counseling are about the human mind. Sometimes I need a break from being a writer—from how literature, publishing, and the book trade have changed. I do not like trends or branding, or how literature, along with everything else, is being reduced to hype and clickbait entertainment.

Sometimes I get tired of the self-centeredness of being a writer and the ever-gnawing feeling that I should be writing or I will run out of money or let my readers down. I am terrified of being stuck in a rut, being alive but dead. I am restless; I have the spirit of a nomad.

6. WOMEN PLAY BY DIFFERENT RULES. People often remember Sonia O. as an immediate, huge success. But that is not entirely true. The book also received prejudiced and even really terrible reviews.

In the novel, Sonia has a relationship with another woman, and she also falls for a man who has a male partner. Back in the day, I had to keep explaining myself: Was I lesbian? Was I bisexual? I also had to keep explaining why I described the men in my book in the same way as women have been described by male writers for centuries. I could not believe that, in the 1980s, people were still responding as they did.

I keep wondering if a novel could still cause such a scandal as Sonia O. did 35 years ago. Would the religious groups still deem it appropriate to mail me packages full of feces?

7. SWIMMING AGAINST THE TIDE. For me, my books are not individual works, but rather mileposts in my career, my journey. I write about different themes in different styles. I like variety; I like taking risks. I have changed publishers, and I have changed my name.

I have written autobiographical works, as well as novels that have very little, if anything, to do with my life. However, a writer always writes through herself. When I can feel the presence of the author, those works are always the most powerful for me. Rather than calling such works confessional, I prefer to talk about presence.

I do not want to be taken for granted, and I never take things for granted. I have never lost the rebellious side of my nature: I always swim against the tide, questioning things. Looking back, I think I could have allowed myself to veer off the well-trodden path even more often.

8. I CAN BE AN INCONSISTENT FRIEND. I have very few people who are close to me, and I do not need more. I love being on my own and in solitude, even for long periods of time. In that respect, I can be a bit inconsistent as a friend, and sometimes people in my life have not understood this. It may have cost me many budding friendships.

I am infinitely curious and love people, but only in small doses. I find it easy to get to know people. Just today, I had an intense conversation with someone at the swimming pool I go to. Our discussion left me thinking all day.

9. BREAKING A CYCLE OF PARENTHOOD. I really wanted to have children since I was young. When I became a mother, I made a conscious decision to break a vicious cycle in our family. I did not want to pass on the culture of silence, secrecy, and bitterness. The violence also stopped with me.

In my work, I often see how women who grew up with alcoholic fathers choose partners who are like their fathers. They go for men who drink and beat them. I never had that tendency.

I did not want to be overprotective, unlike my mother, but I may have failed at that one. However, I have surprised myself by being a much calmer mother than I thought I would be.

I have never thought about whether I am a good or bad mother. I have tried to give my children a peaceful and secure, but suitably eventful childhood. When the children were young, we stayed for long periods in Crete. Our wooden house in Helsinki had a yard where the kids could play and hang out with their friends. Admittedly, that was quite idyllic.

10. GREECE HAS CHANGED. We first landed in Crete 23 years ago, and I still remember it well. My mother had just died, after what had been a tough spring. I circled Chania on a map and told my then husband that we were going there.

Stepping out of the plane, I was immediately struck by the smell of wild oregano, rosemary, and thyme growing on the hills, and I saw the light and the colors of Crete. That was it for me. I feel I am an adopted Cretan.

In one of my latest novels, Closer, my protagonist approaches Crete from the sea. She is an experienced diver and has seen Minoan palaces, old galleys, and sunken villages at the bottom of the Mediterranean.

Now the sea has changed. It is the grave of shipwrecks, rubber boats, and children’s bodies. The Greece that I write about is completely different from the country where I once used live. I still consider Greece as one of my home countries, in addition to Finland and India.

By Ville Blåfield and Anja Snellman

Photo by Panu Pälviä

Published with permission from Sanoma Corporation

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