Thursday, June 11, 2009

Kevin Wignall in Finland

As part of the new paperback series I'm editing for the Arktinen Banaani publishing house, we invited Kevin Wignall, the author of Kuka on Conrad Hirst? (Who Is Conrad Hirst, orig. 2007), over to Finland to promote the book. He came to Finland last Thursday when the weather had suddenly turned to worse, which he got to hear a lot. He said to me that the first person he met in Finland - the taxi driver from the airport to the hotel - apologized to him for the weather. "It's not your fault", Wignall said to the driver.

I met him early on Friday morning at the lobby of his hotel. He's enormously tall, almost two meters (which you'll see in a photo). There's a feel of an indie rock singer in him, maybe due to the fact he was wearing sunglasses almost all the time. First Wignall gave two interviews, to Helsingin Sanomat, the biggest newspaper in Finland and practically the only that's national, and the Ruumiin kulttuuri magazine, the magazine of the Finnish Whodunit Society (meaning Body Culture). Both of the interviewers had really liked Kuka on Conrad Hirst?, especially Janne Mäkelä, who writes for the Ruumiin kulttuuri magazine. I got to talk with him a bit about Conrad Hirst and he was really taken by the economy of Wignall's narration and his melancholy, but effective style. And he's absolutely right.

After those interviews, we had a press launch for the book which went fairly well, with Wignall wondering what on earth is the Finnish Donald Duck Magazine and what its editor is doing in a crime book launch. I interviewed Wignall shortly and we discussed Conrad Hirst and its relation to the Yugoslavian Civil War and the war's effect on the European self-consciousness. We also talked about his coming novel, Dark Flag, that's about the 9/11 conspiracies and sounds very, very interesting. The book hasn't found a publisher as yet, but it's more than likely that it already has a Finnish publisher. (Arktinen Banaani's publisher Harto Pasonen was very taken by how well liked Conrad Hirst was by all who had had time to read it and that's a perfectly serious novel. As if the earlier novels in the paperback series, à la The Wheelman, aren't serious!)

We also talked about writing short books, and I asked Wignall whether he sees there's a new generation that's concentrating more on short books. "Yes." Do you see anything particular behind the phenomenon? "No." Could you elaborate? "We are going in cycles. Long books have dominated the scene for long and now it's simply time for shorter books." I had wished we'd gone for a long discussion over hardboiled and noir masters who delivered great tales in 50,000 words, but clearly Wignall isn't nostalgic over old paperbacks. Instead he said that one of his big influences, Graham Greene, wrote short books. "I also remember hating Camus's The Stranger as a teenager, and after reading that I said to myself I never want to write anything like this, but after people have read my books, they keep telling me I remind them of Camus's The Stranger!", Wignall laughed and said that maybe it did leave an impact on him.

After the lunch we headed towards Suomalainen Kirjakauppa's (the biggest chain of bookstores in Finland) store where Wignall gave a short interview with me and signed some books for readers. One of the customers was Antti Tuomainen, the Finnish noir writer, and one was the series illustrator Ossi Hiekkala, but one of them was also a nice elderly lady who had already read the book and seemed having liked it quite a bit! Wignall said to me later that this was a success. "Usually in the UK the customers don't come asking for an autograph, the writer just signs the books in stock and walks away."

After this we went for a dinner at the classic Finnish restaurant, Elite, and talked about immigration, wines, climate change and publishing. Wignall had a share of nice anecdotes about publishers' stupidities, including some absolutely ridiculous stuff about advances - he mentioned at one point a female writer in the UK who was paid I believe 60,000 pounds (or was it even 600,000?) for the first two books and when they didn't sell "enough", they dropped her out and she's just sold her new book to a small press for 1,000 pounds.

Saturday morning we headed early to Kouvola where the Crime Fiction Festival takes place. I said to Wignall that it's a smallish town, but when we arrived to the town, Wignall was very taken by the town: "This isn't small by British standards." Wignall - who turned out to be very interested in modern architecture - said he liked the Kouvola theater building where the festival is held. (I should the building is from the early sixties. We could talk about architecture a bit, since that's the subject I'm very interested in.)

We had been thinking that maybe Kouvola isn't very important to us, it being small and all, but it proved out to be a success. Wignall said later that when he'll tell his colleagues how much audience he had, everyone wants to be published by Arktinen Banaani and have a panel at Kouvola: 150 listeners in the audience! Wignall laughed that Michael Connelly, who's one of the best known crime writers around the world, had only the audience of 60 at the Bristol crime festival. And we sold almost some 40 books which was way more than was anticipated, and there was a line leading to Wignall who signed the books patiently.
The talk before that went very well and we got pretty deep into Wignall's books, starting Graham Greene and Albert Camus and ending up in a long discussion over what he is aiming at in his books. Sounds serious, doesn't it? Actually we joked around a lot and kept the audience happy. And what is he aiming at? I should say that Wignall's main point in his books is to explore the short moment during which someone turns into a killer and the possibility to go back and start anew. In that he shares themes with Greene who was also interested in the idea of redemption.

There was a strange thing during and after the panel. I introduced the paperback series and said that these books are pretty tough and violent. I noticed a lady bursting out. After the panel, I was standing and waiting for Wignall's signing duty to end. An elderly lady came up to me crying and saying: "Why did you say the books are violent? I couldnt' stand it and had to go out. My neighbour beat me up and police can't do a thing about it. I listened to his [Wignall's] philosophy in the lobby and it was beautiful. Why did you have to spoil it?" I said I was sorry, and when the lady looked almost collapsing, I asked her if she was alright. She said that she is, which she cleary wasn't. "Here's hoping things turn better", I said. "No, they won't." It was a very sad exchange, but should I have lied to the lady? And when I said about this to Wignall, he asked: "What was she doing then in a crime festival?"

We talked afterwards with some people at the festival and met Tuuli Rannikko, a Finnish crime writer, a very charming lady who lives nowadays in London. She said she'd buy Wignall's book in English. Turned out that she has lived in Turku in the same building as we are now when she was young!

Then we ate at the local pizza place and Wignall couldn't resist a Rudolf, pizza with reindeer meat. And then we drove back to Helsinki and Wignall fed me with stuff I really can't go public with: the book he was supposed to like but didn't, a crime writer who's not what he says he is, the thing between the British officials and Wignall... We had still one gig at another store of the Suomalainen chain, but this time we sold only two books. The other went to a nice, but shy young woman, and the other one to a middle-aged man with a scruffy beard. Wignall: "I'm aiming for the afore mentioned, but end up having only the latter mentioned."

The store clerk however was genuinely interested in Conrad Hirst and books in general, which is rare in this particular chain. Wignall wrapped his fingers around the lady soon without being flirty - a thing which I really admired. I hope she continues keeping Kevin Wignall's books up!

Wignall left on a ship to Stockholm on Saturday afternoon, with plans to take a train to Britain, and I hope he's back safely. I had great time with him and we have been eager about inviting other writers in the paperback series to Finland. Over a cider we talked about other business plans with the publisher and there's a possibility we'll be seeing original Finnish books in the series. I have actually been promised two manuscripts... More on them later!
The pictures from the top: Kevin Wignall in front of the Kouvola municipal athletics building (right next to the theater; photo taken by me), Kevin Wignall and me on stage at the Kouvola crime festival, Kevin Wignall signing. (Photos by Jussi Katajala to whom many thanks!)

1 comment:

Peter Rozovsky said...

Wignall did a brief, accurate and amusing impersonation of Marlon Brando in "The Godfather" at the hotel bar in Bristol during CrimeFest. It might have lasted longer had he not almost swallowed one of the napkins he'd stuffed in his cheeks.

He looks like he should be short and pugnacious, but he is amazingly tall, the tallest short guy I have ever seen.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"