Builder of worlds: Tampere often the centre stage of Salla Simukka’s stories
Salla Simukka finished her first book at twelve years old. Now in her thirties, she is one of the most translated authors in Finland. Tampere plays a special part in her personal life as well as her writing.
A blue cat grows into the size of a tiger and an orphan girl rides it to another world. There people live in three separate islands: children, adults, elderly people.
Over 150 hand written pages titled Tuhansien toiveiden maa [the land of a thousand wishes]. Salla Simukka finished her very first book when she was 12 years old – after three years of writing.
“I must say that I was determined because I finished it. I had this problem that I really enjoyed starting new stories and thinking this is going to be the greatest and thickest book in the universe. What happened was I wrote 10–20 pages and thought to myself, I should start something new. They tended to remain unfinished.”
So far Tuhansien toiveiden maa remains in her mother’s records and has not been published.
The 1980s were boom time in Tampere, and one of the indicators was building the Delfinaario dolphinarium at Särkänniemi amusement park. The traditional textile industry business faded, and new landmarks such as Koskikeskus mall and Hotel Ilves were built along the Tammerkoski rapids. Born in 1981, Simukka’s memories of the ‘80s revolve around school and libraries. In first and second grade she attended Kissanmaa school, after which she transferred to the visual arts class at Tammela. The Tiina series, the Famous Five series along with other Enid Blyton’s books and the Nancy Drew books are only a few examples of the amount of library books she devoured.
“I even read horse book series, even though I wasn’t the least bit interested in horses!”
Growing up as an only child until the age of 11, Simukka names imagining as her childhood hobby.
“If an only child hasn’t got anything else to do, the poor kid has to come up with something to entertain themselves. Luckily, at some point I found two best friends, who were interested in exactly the same things I was meaning reading, writing and drawing.”
Together the three of them created fantasy worlds, with histories, characters and stories.
Tuhansien toiveiden maa, however, was Simukka’s own creation. In the story, people were allowed wishes, but the problem was they could not wish for correct things. In the end, the protagonist wishes for the unification of the islands of children, adults and elderly people.
The snowing won’t stop. The world is slipping into endless winter when luckily a girl stumbles through the snow into another world. Saving the people from eternal frost and snowfall becomes protagonist’s mission.
“Sisarla pays tribute to that Salla who started writing her first stories,” Simukka says.
Published last autumn, Sisarla is Simukka’s first children’s novel. The author has previously penned a collection of teenage fiction, and young adult novels such as the Snow White trilogy.
Simukka’s debut novel Kun enkelit katsovat muualle came out in 2002. The love story between two girls takes place in TYK, an upper secondary school specialising in performing arts in Tampere.
The same place Simukka graduated from.
Selecting where to attend high school was preceded by deliberation between visual arts and writing. She attended a visual arts class at school and studied writing in Viita-akatemia in her spare time.
“I did okay in visual arts, but I felt that I could excel in writing so I should focus on that.”
“I did okay in visual arts, but I felt that I could excel in writing so I should focus on that.”
Her two childhood friends ended up attending the same upper secondary school, which meant that the story-making trio remained united up until the student caps were placed on their heads. Nevertheless, Simukka does not associate peer pressure with the application process.
“It was awesome that we all got in. It was not set in stone.”
TYK is a well-known upper secondary school in Tampere with approximately 200-300 basic education graduates applying annually. The graduate’s certificate average has to approach nine to be successful. On the Demi.fi website, the screen name mightykites has this to say about TYK:
Yeah, the TYK spirit is not really about people walking hand in hand while singing kumbaya, but there is some truth behind the idea of TYK spirit as you can really enter this Toivottomien Yksilöiden Kuntoutuskeskus [rehabilitation centre for hopeless individuals] as you are.”
For Simukka, getting into performing arts upper secondary school felt like “coming home”. During the last few years of basic education, the lack of interest among her peers when it came to things like discussions and reading baffled her. Outside of her own trio of friends she felt odd.
Kirsikka, the protagonist of Kun enkelit katsovat muualle, is concerned about her peers at school, and especially her crush, finding out about her sexual orientation. In the school hallways, people are split into cliques. Simukka points out that the image of TYK created in her novels is fictional.
However, as the years went by, she started to see her school with a new perspective in real life as well.
“Cliques and hierarchies existed there too, but then again, they exist everywhere.”
The senses of the upper secondary school student are heightened. She notices the smallest facial expressions, can smell the scent you’re wearing and assess the emotional state surrounding her. This almost supernatural sensibility dates back to her grim childhood experiences and violent bullying in school. The personal history of the Snow White trilogy’s protagonist Lumikki Andersson is disturbing.
Salla Simukka herself did not experience bullying during her school years and does not generally put her own experiences on paper. As an author, Simukka says she has always considered texts that reflect on facts difficult.
“I’m thinking, why can’t I just make this stuff up.”
However, one crucial fact in the Snow White trilogy is based on real life. Lumikki Andersson lives in Tammela, goes to TYK upper secondary school and visits a house on Palomäentie. Tampere is the centre stage of the trilogy.
Simukka considers her roots to be in Tampere. Having moved to Turku in pursuit of her studies in the yearly 2000s, after which she moved to Berlin in search of something new, Simukka eventually returned to Tampere. It feels right.
Simukka likes the idea that she has walked around the same street corners at different ages with different states of mind. She considers Tampere, with its neighbourhoods, scents, trees and plants, a crucial part of her personal journey.
“Places tell as much about my life as a diary.”
Lumikki Andersson, who left home to attend upper secondary school, is originally from Riihimäki, but Tampere latches tightly around her in no time. At the insistence of her stalker, she runs though Tampere at night, from Tammela alongside Lapintie to Tampella all the way to Näsinlinna. After a series of strange events, she breaks into Särkänniemi amusement park. Her loved one breaks up with her on Näsinkallio.
Simukka chose the locations in her stories based on how effortlessly they could be imagined – readers shouldn’t have to use their time memorising different locations.
Effortless is an appropriate word for describing her writing also outside of location descriptions. You can devour one book cover to cover in a day or two. Journalist and critic Suvi Ahola has written that many people consider the strength of the story the distinctive feature of young adult fiction. The novel’s events take place in the present but the stories are sprinkled with pieces of fantasy, the future and supernatural phenomena. On a worldwide scale the most popular examples are perhaps Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, and the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins.
“It is completely bizarre to see the book and inside there is text written in a script that you don’t recognize.”
Popularity of young adult fiction is one of the literary phenomena of the 21st century, and it is also the wind beneath the success of Simukka’s works. According to the series’ publisher Tammi, the translation rights of the Snow White trilogy, originally published 2013-2014, have so far been sold to 52 countries, which is more than the translation rights of for example Purge by Sofi Oksanen. Simukka’s most recent trip was to Bangkok, Thailand to promote the latest translation.
Simukka tells about a Brazilian fan who contacted her to say that Lumikki has been a character that helped them accept themselves.“It is completely bizarre to see the book and inside there is text written in a script that you don’t recognize. Or receiving Facebook messages from all around the world.”
Merchandise is a common feature of young adult fiction genre. For example, the Twilight Saga was made into movies, and all sorts of by-products from jewellery to backpacks and notebooks sprouted around it.
In the spring of 2016 it was announced that Zero Gravity Management production company was making a movie of the Snow White trilogy. A year later, Simukka takes a calm approach to the project. There are no news about the script writer, actors or locations. Simukka is the movie’s assistant director, so she has a say in the movie’s contents. However, she doesn’t have a comment about for example whether the movie will take place in Tampere.
“When I see the script, I will know what the key issues are and what elements must be included. A movie is such a different art form.”
Even though the movie would take place namely in Tampere, it could very well be shot in the United States or somewhere in Europe.
The second book in the Snow White trilogy takes place is Prague. Lumikki is wandering the streets like any other tourist would when a blond girl approaches her. What follows is a series of occurrences involving a famous TV reporter and a cult following their leader’s instructions.
Simukka says that she has only stayed in Prague for a week. The tourist point of view was enough to situate the events in a strange city as the protagonist is a tourist herself. On the other hand, it is possible to familiarize oneself with foreign cities from a distance and Simukka sends links to maps of Tampere to the translators of her works. She is not worried about how readers in different countries experience the city’s atmosphere.
“I have also read books that take place somewhere I haven’t been. It’s like taking a vacation while sitting at home.”
Tourism can also benefit from popular culture. Dubrovnik in Croatia is one example with its inescapable Game of Thrones tours. Simukka says that in Japan, the translated book comes with a map of Tampere where the story’s locations are marked. Still, she has yet to hear of Lumikki-inspired tourists roaming the city. Instead on knocking on her front door, so far the fans approach her on social media and via email.
Simukka lives right next to Sorsapuisto park. The Moomin Museum is scheduled to open soon on the other side of the park. Simukka wonders if they could also sell maps featuring her novel’s locations to the Japanese tourists.
Many might wonder whether the worldwide success will take Simukka away from Tampere. She doesn’t think so.
“More so travelling has strengthened the idea that you need a place and a city to call home whilst being aware of the possibility of travelling to other countries, even for a year if you want to. Nothing is standing in the way, but it’s important to have a fixed focal point.”
For her, it’s her home with a pink office. In another world, only a stone’s throw away, resides the upper secondary school student Lumikki Andersson.
Born in 1981 in Tampere.
Studied Nordic philology, literature and creative writing in the University of Turku. Her studies are complete minus her graduate thesis.
Her works include e.g. the Tapio ja Moona series, the Snow White trilogy and the children’s novel Sisarla.
Edited the short story anthology Marilyn, Marilyn and has written two humorous fiction books together with Kari Hämäläinen.
Is one of the two people responsible of the programme of the Turku book fair 2017, and is the chair of the board of the Finnish Reading Center.
Has received, for example, the Topelius Prize (2013), the Suomi Prize (2013) and the Kaarina Helakisa Prize (2017).