The Man Who Died by Antti Tuomainen
translated by David Hackston
A successful entrepreneur in the mushroom industry, Jaakko Kaunismaa is a man in his prime. At just 37 years of age, he is shocked when his doctor tells him that he’s dying. What is more, the cause is discovered to be prolonged exposure to toxins; in other words, someone has slowly but surely been poisoning him. Determined to find out who wants him dead, Jaakko embarks on a suspenseful rollercoaster journey full of unusual characters, bizarre situations and unexpected twists. With a nod to Fargo and the best elements of the Scandinavian noir tradition, The Man Who Died is a page-turning thriller brimming with the blackest comedy surrounding life and death, and love and betrayal, markinng a stunning new departure for the King of Helsinki Noir.
Where Do You Get Your Ideas, or, The Anatomy of The Man Who Died
Two things have happened: I have worked very hard for a number of years and I have been, at times, very lucky. Both have been elemental in my becoming a fulltime writer and having written seven novels to date. Of those seven novels, five have been translated from the original Finnish to other languages. One book has been translated into 28 languages with the other four getting anything between 12 and 2 foreign editions per book.
I think no one is more surprised by this than I am. I never expected this. It nevertheless happened and it’s been wonderful. In the beginning, almost surreal. But – and I will eventually get to the point, I promise – what it has also done is getting me invited to other countries. This is where it gets even more surprising. Somebody somewhere is willing to pay for a writer to visit her/his country and talk about – and this is where it gets just downright unbelievable – her/his books. And I have been invited. All over the world. From Mexico to Hong Kong. From Stockholm to San Francisco.
On these numerous trips both home and abroad, I’ve done what has been asked of me and I have indeed talked about my books. Hundreds of times to what must be by now thousands of people. What most often happens after I’ve talked or been interviewed for the allotted time is that there are audience questions. And no matter where I find myself, a few of these questions seem indeed universal: Why do you think Scandinavian crime novels are so successful? Is Finland really that cold? What do you think of (insert here the name of the country you’re just then visiting)? And, of course: Where do you get your ideas?
Now this is where it becomes slightly difficult – never mind the questions about family (I’m married to Anu who is both beautiful and funny), my sobriety (14 years and counting, one day at a time) or money (no, I’m not rich). It gets more complicated because I feel there really isn’t a simple, ready answer. So I usually reply with what feels like the most honest and thought-through statement: I really don’t know. After all, it is to a large extent true. But that of course makes no one any wiser, myself included. So I thought I’d try to answer that question a little more thoroughly here and thought it would be easiest through a case study of sorts: by seeing how my new book The Man Who Died came to be.
My new book The Man Who Died marks a great change of direction for me. After writing five very dark novels ranging from the icy North of The Mine to the dystopia of The Healer I felt I had given all I had in that direction, at least for the time being. I tried to write a few things in the same vein but they felt forced and wrong. I had to do something different, something new. This was the first lightbulb moment. I had to take a step back and do a little inventory.
Two of my great loves, artistically, have been with me ever since I made up my mind about becoming a writer at 18. Noir and comedies. I dearly love them both. And I realized I had been curiously restricting myself. I had held back on the comedy aspect. I don’t know why the realization hit me so hard just then and there but it did. It was quite obvious I needed to combine the two. I needed to write a noir comedy. I was through with restricting myself. You have to write what you have to write. First hurdle cleared.
This led directly to the main character and his dilemma. Every story I’ve ever worked on, I always start with a character/characters. I don’t worry about the plot. Well, not anymore. I used to, but I’ve gotten over it. I trust the characters will show me where to go. I needed a person with the biggest problem and suddenly had him: a man is sitting in a doctor’s office and hears he is dying. That’s a problem, I thought. He’s been poisoned over a long period of time. That’s an even bigger problem. For a good reason, he doesn’t want to go to the police. Perfect, I thought.
I still had a number of problems. One of them was setting. My first idea for the setting of the story was an advertising agency in Helsinki. I was already on page 45 or something like that when I was about to fall asleep. The setting was so boring. I’ve worked altogether 12 years as an advertising copywriter in various advertising agencies and I can assure you that it is nothing like what you see on movies, TV and books. It is not sexy, flashy, dangerous, slick or even very cool. It is work. You enter the agency in the morning, work, leave in the evening. In between, you think, write and speak with people. I would think that applies to quite a few jobs nowadays. Anyway, that setting had to go.
One morning I was walking to my office on the other side of downtown Helsinki. I remembered an article I read a while back. It was the kind of article you see haphazardly, glance your eyes over it and forget it. And I had forgotten it, until just now. The article was a speculation about a certain type of mushroom you can (potentially) find in the Finnish forests that is (presumably) in high demand in the culinary circles in Japan. The article further speculated that if someone in Finland were to pick them and export them that might be a good business.
I called my agent immediately. Not because I wanted to start a mushroom exporting business but because after weeks of desperation I had a suitable setting for the kind of story I was telling. There was something wonderfully absurd about this. In a short time, I built a successful mushroom business – on paper, I mean. I invented a whole operation to make it possible for someone to succeed as a premium mushroom entrepreneur and exporter.
In hindsight, I must have done it quite convincingly because I was later interviewed for the Finnish Mushroom Magazine and many people who were into mushrooms told me that they never would have guessed that I know so much about mushrooms and both the international and the domestic mushroom industry. Truth is, I don’t know anything. There is neither an international nor domestic mushroom industry. I made it up. But, to get back to the original task, this was one more hurdle cleared.
The mushrooms were beneficial in another way as well. In my previous five novels, Helsinki, my home city where I’ve lived all my life apart from a year in the US and a shorter period in Berlin, had been one of the main characters. I had loved writing about Helsinki, showing its many sides, but now that had to go as well. There are no mushrooms on the streets of Helsinki. Well, there are, but they are of the illegal kind.
So the location presented another challenge. But I didn’t have to look far. I found what I was looking for in less than two hours’ drive from Helsinki. I spent my boyhood summers in Hamina, a small town on the Baltic shore, east from Helsinki. To a boy, it was a magical place in the summer months. The sea was everywhere as the town was built on peninsulas and islands. And I knew the town. I knew how it feels, how it is, I knew the streets and the environments. There were the dense forests around it, perfect for mushrooms. And somehow the small town atmosphere was, again, perfect for the kind of story I wanted to tell.
The rest of the answer, I think, lies in the writing, the physical act of sitting down and writing the book. Because that is actually where the ideas really happen. You write to see what you have to write. It might sound a bit simplistic, but it is true. For me, at least. By writing I find what I need to write next. I can think about things no end, but I won’t know if it works unless I write it. The proof is in the pudding, as I’ve heard said.
To conclude: I seem to get my most of my ideas one at a time, gradually. Both by being honest about what I want to do and by seeing what needs to be done in order to achieve that. Secondly, I need to write to see if it can be written at all. And what still remains a mystery is the part that really can’t be explained: Where did this strong urge to change directions come from? Why did I suddenly think about that article? To properly answer the original question seems impossible. But hopefully my little case study has provided some answers. I know I’m a little more aware of the anatomy – both of the novel and my own.
Finnish Antti Tuomainen (b. 1971) was an award-winning copywriter when he made his literary debut in 2007 as a suspense author. The critically acclaimed My Brother’s Keeper was published two years later. In 2011 Tuomainen’s third novel, The Healer, was awarded the Clue Award for ‘Best Finnish Crime Novel of 2011’ and was shortlisted for the Glass Key Award. The Finnish press labelled The Healer – the story of a writer desperately searching for his missing wife in a post-apocalyptic Helsinki – ‘unputdownable’. Two years later in 2013 they crowned Tuomainen ‘The King of Helsinki Noir’ when Dark as My Heart was published. The Mine, published in 2016, was an international bestseller. All of his books have been optioned for TV/film. With his piercing and evocative style, Tuomainen is one of the first to challenge the Scandinavian crime genre formula, and The Man Who Died sees him at his literary best.
via publisher: http://orendabooks.co.uk/antti-tuomainen/