Date and place of birth: 1972, Sudbury, Suffolk.
Author Joel Willans is never short of a sentence, neither on paper nor in person.
SITTING with Joel Willans is somewhat of an exercise in keeping up with the pace of conversation. Moving swiftly from topic to topic, pausing midway through a thought to embellish something he was saying a moment earlier, Willans remains engaging company, with heavy dollops of humour and self-deprecation punctuating his flow.
Arriving on the dot of our agreed meeting time in downtown Helsinki, Willans plonks himself down on the couch and adds a dash of milk to his coffee. Having recently returned from time spent in Spain and Portugal, his first port of conversational call is about the English retirees who move to Southern Europe to live. “They’re a funny lot. You’ll often hear them moaning about the Spanish – then the next moment, without any sense of irony, they’ll moan there’s too many immigrants in England.”
Soon we are taking in a description of his home, a converted mental hospital in Jokipuisto, Sipoo. Willans has enjoyed his time there, however, after three years spent indulging in fresh country air – and running out of things to do in the evening once the winter darkness sets in – the Willans family is moving back to Helsinki.
With his first collection of short stories, Spellbound: Stories of women’s magic over men now published, the English author has lots to say about love, life and Finland.
Why did you come here to Finland in the first place?
Surprise, surprise, I followed a girl. I originally met my wife, Anna Maria, in a club in Brixton. I was dancing when she tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I’d buy her a beer. Clearly when a beautiful blonde girl in a dazzling silver dress asks that question, you’re going to say yes… although I did wait until the tune finished. Later, I asked her back to my house for a cup of tea. She politely declined, but a year later we were living together.
Then, in 2001, we went travelling for a year. When we retuned to a British summer of battleship grey skies and drizzle, I thought, ‘Screw this! Let’s head over to Finland’. Happily, it was the hottest summer in something like 300 years. After a few glorious weeks of swimming, biking and hanging out on terraces, I had no desire to go back to England. So we stayed. Other than spending a year in Peru, I’ve now been here nearly ten years.
What was your first impression of Finland?
I really liked it. It’s always exciting to get to know a new place and Helsinki’s a beautiful city. Of course it was the honeymoon period, when you feel like an explorer. Plus, it’s an easy place to be English. I think Finns quite like English people in general and they like to speak English, which made things easier.
How has your opinion of Finland changed over the years?
Although I’m still a big fan of Finland, I’m inevitably a little more critical. Take the intrusive bureaucracy – Finns have a different relationship with government. They’re more trusting of it, which I understand, but I still find it annoying that institutions like the naming committee have the power to veto my choice of name for my child.
I’ve grown to love Helsinki even more though. It’s now a truly European multicultural city, which makes it infinitely more interesting. When I first came here in 1996, it was very much a monoculture. Now it’s a lot more culturally rich… there’s loads more bars, restaurants and theatres. Regarding the country in general, I really like the way people are looked after by society. It’s unfortunate that political parties like Kokoomus are trying to change that. I was brought up in Thatcher’s Britain and taught greed was good and wealth brought you happiness. It doesn’t. People do.
What about Finnish people?
My perception of Finnish people hasn’t changed as much. I still admire their honesty, and the way they’re so comfortable with silence and nature. I like the fact that once you befriend them you have a friend for life. One thing that has really saddened me in recent years, though, is the rise of the True Finns. The idea that they truly represent Finnish people is laughable, but clearly they’ve struck a chord with some. I’ve been appalled by the casual acceptance of racism, both in the press and in general.
When I lived in Peru I discovered what it’s like to be distinctly different from the locals. Even though I spoke pretty good Spanish, it was really tough to integrate. It’s human nature to be wary of difference, but as far as I’m concerned, anyone who comes to live in a country that’s dark for four months of the years and freezing for five should be given a medal, not abuse. But despite the sickening rise of petty nationalism, I still very much sing Finland’s praises when I’m abroad.
What about raising your kids here? If you were raising them in the UK would things be different?
Absolutely, Finland and the UK are two very different types of society. School is a great example of that. I remember being amazed that kids here don’t start school until seven, have very short school days and massive holidays. Yet despite this, Finland always comes top, or thereabouts, in UN rankings of worldwide education.
I first got a clue to why that is when I started taking my son, Eliot, to day-care. It really struck me how, when kids walk in the door, the first thing they do is take their shoes off. It’s a small thing, but basically it makes them feel like they’re at home. Clearly kids study harder when they feel comfortable and happy in their environment. In the UK you never take off your shoes at school. Everything is much more regimented. You wear a uniform, you call your teacher ‘Sir’ and ‘Miss’ rather than ‘Pekka’ and ‘Outi’. It’s much more geared toward competition. I loved school, but it can be a cruel, heartless place if you don’t fit in.
I think this is also reflected in the work place. People in the UK are often amazed that Finland scores so highly in research like the World Economic Forum’s Global Competiveness Report. This year I think Finland was ranked third, despite the fact it’s a social democracy, and not an über-capitalist corporate paradise like the UK or US, which both ranked lower. It just shows that, despite what the right wing economists say, when people are treated with respect they learn better and work better.
So, I’m very happy for my children to grow up here. They visit England quite often but they are clearly more Finnish than English, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
So, they must be comfortable with silences then.
Ah no, they are not actually very silent at all. In fact, sometimes I wish they were a bit quieter [laughs]. But then neither my wife nor her family are very traditionally Finnish in that sense. Dinner at her parents’ house can be like eating at a debating club!
Tell me about your time in Peru.
It was my wife’s idea to go. We were both working for advertising agencies as copywriters, and she wanted to do something more worthwhile. I saw it as a great opportunity to help some people out and focus on my writing. We volunteered to work for an NGO and were sent to small Andean town called Andahuaylas. It’s on the way to Cusco, the old Inca capital, and was very central to the fighting between the government and the Maoist rebels, the Shining Path, in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It’s really beautiful, but hardly ever visited by tourists. We lived there for a year, teaching kids art and English.
So, you’re an artist also?
I wish! I love drawing and painting, but wouldn’t call myself an artist. The kids were very young, so mainly we did things like finger painting, collage, papier mâché masks and potato prints. I tried to write most of the time, too, but the trouble was that Andean Peruvians are very, very sociable. We’d get invited to picnics and lunches, dinners and parties every day. They found it very strange that I wanted to be alone. Some even asked my wife if I was a bit loco. I loved their lust for life, but drinking Cuba Libre until 6am just isn’t very good for your muse or your head.
So how was it when you then returned to Finland? How did this experience inform your life here?
When I first went travelling I realised how lucky we are to live in Europe. Living in Peru simply reinforced this. Lucky in the sense that the vast majority of us don’t have to worry about going hungry, or having access to clean water. We get free healthcare, education and we often have the chance to follow our dreams. That said, in Peru, family is very important, and there seems to be endless fiestas. Most don’t have the material wealth or enjoy the comforts we take for granted. Yet in many ways their lives seem richer and in some very human ways, happier.
I tried to write about this while I was there, but never really captured it properly. Probably because the indigenous culture mixed up with Catholicism made the everyday so strange to me. One day I could be at a cock fight, the next getting hammered with the local medicine man who’d just read my future from coca leaves. Trying to write about this somehow made my Peruvian stories feel about as authentic as an American daytime soap opera.
Why did you start writing in the first place?
I’ve always written stories. My first attempt at a book was when I was about 14. I remember sitting in the forest at the back of my garden and writing, in incredible detail, about the movements of a ladybird. This was all to set the scene for a great battle featuring elves, dwarves and other fantasy creatures. Nothing very original, I’m afraid.
I started to seriously write fiction when I studied creative writing at the London School of Journalism, a year before Peru. I began with short stories because I wanted to lean the craft of writing without dedicating myself to a novel. I churned a lot of stuff out at the beginning. I actually felt guilty if I wasn’t writing. And it was a challenge. Writing fiction is a lot, lot harder than I ever imagined. Other than that, I’ve always liked the idea of sneaking my words, my characters and my ideas into people’s heads. It’s probably an ego thing [laughs].
How did Spellbound come about?
In the last few years I’ve had dozens of stories published in magazines and anthologies. I’ve won literary prizes and had a couple of stories read on BBC radio, so a collection of my own was a natural progression. When my publisher Route invited me to meet them in Leeds, they asked me what I thought were the unifying themes in my stories. I suggested the evils of materialism, culture shock, the obsession with careers. My publisher, Ian Daley, shook his head and said, “No, it’s a lot simpler than that. It’s girls.”
That was a real epiphany for me. But he was right, practically all my stories revolve around women, hence the subtitle, Stories of women’s magic over men. Interestingly, the most heroic characters in the book are Finnish women, while two of the most unpleasant characters are English women.
Why would Finnish girls come out so well? Is there a major difference in your mind between Finnish and English women?
That’s a good question. I’ve got nothing against English girls. I like them and in the past I’ve loved them, but if you were to generalise, I suppose English girls are a bit more superficial, more into appearance and shopping. But that’s British culture for you – the idea that buying stuff will make you happy, the worship of celebrity, the obsession with bling. The English women in the book tend to be unhappier with their lives, more materialistic and money obsessed, while the Finnish girls are wiser and more grounded, more worthy of respect. I didn’t consciously write them like this. It’s just how they came out. It’s probably my wife’s subtle powers messing with my head.
What does Spellbound mean to you, now it is published and in people’s hands?
It feels brilliant! It’s something I’ve dreamed of my entire life. The best thing is having people tell me how much they’ve enjoyed reading the stories and reading some fantastic reviews. What’s surprised me is how my many men have said that they really loved them.
I think short stories have something of a reputation of being a genre read by women, even though historically some of the greatest male authors have been short story writers: J.D. Salinger, Philip Roth, Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Stephen King all wrote them. Raymond Carver only wrote short fiction. I’d love to see short stories make a comeback. They’re perfect for the fast paced life most of us live these days. What better way to start the day than with a short, sharp shot of fiction!
What lies ahead for you?
Well, in terms of fiction, I aim to finish my novel. It’s about 75 per cent done and now Spellbound’s out I can really focus on it. It’s been a lot of fun to write. I’ve really learnt to love the characters. Someone who read the first ten chapters told them me it seems like a cross between The Beach and Bright Lights, Big City. It’s a pretty good analogy. I suppose you could call it a 21st century quest, a road trip that takes the characters from London to Peru to Finland,
How do you balance all of this with the work you do with your own communications agency, Ink Tank?
It’s a challenge. Ink Tank’s really growing at the moment. We have six people writing for us, as well as myself and my wife. Currently, we specialise in writing blogs, which generate sites lots of traffic. Our own blog at www.inktank.fi gets over 400 thousands visitors a month. Ultimately the aim is the same as in fiction though, to write brilliant stories.
Fiction, unfortunately, has to take second place to work at the moment. But it’s nice way to chill my mind out. There’s no need for self-editing, I can just make let my imagination go crazy. It feels invigorating after a day of blogging.
Finally, how much of an influence is Finland having on your writing?
A lot more than I probably realise. Nearly a third of Spellbound’s stories are set in Finland or have Finnish characters, and the novel’s final section is set in Finland. I’ve lived here for nearly ten years, so it’s inevitable that Finland has changed the way I think about the world and how I write about it. Happily, I think Finland is also interesting to an English speaking audience. The Nordic countries, with their intense winters, their strange customs and blonde populations, have an exotic allure for English people.
Spellbound: Stories of women’s magic over men is available from Inktank.fi, Amazon and Helsinki’s Luckan.
Text James O’Sullivan, images Adam Monaghan.