Follow the Reindeer: Hanna Pylväinen's novel tracks missionaries and herders living on the Scandinavian tundra in 1851
How do you know when an action is a mistake or a choice?
As character Risten Tomma reflects on her decision to marry Mikkol:
But was that all it was, then? You said a thing and then it all changed, you lived with another man now, someone else came into your lávvu and slept with you across the fire from your parents. There would be a new dog, and even their dogs would have to learn to get along.
Some changes are anticlimactic, while other changes are catastrophic.
The sweeping, well-paced novel is set in 1851 in the Scandinavian tundra with missionaries and reindeer herders both vying for their ways of life. Another one of the main characters, Willa, the daughter of the pastor Lars Levi Laestadius, faces numerous life-altering decisions over the course of the book. Early on "she was a kettle left at a gentle boil, and with her heat she did nothing more than make coffee or tea.” Yet, when she starts encountering Ivvár Rasti on her walks, a stronger wave begins to roil in her for him, despite the fact that he calls her “a good little báhpa nieida, good little church-girl.”
Willa steps deeper and deeper into an irreversible series of events in which:
She had been so used to thinking that there was God and there was her father and there was the church and that these would always be uppermost in her mind, but now they were nowhere, they were little nothings—the real miracle of the world was the ability of the body to set aside the soul. Now her father’s warnings seemed much more sensible—this was her trial and as he’d warned, she did not have the faith for it, she was happy, eager even, to take up league with anyone or anything if that anyone or anything brought her to Ivvár. Worse, it was just how he’d warned: everything about the church, about God, began to bother her, so that even the mention of Jesus Christ irritated her, and her father’s followers irritated her, mystified her, even, so that one day she found herself wondering what these people were doing on the cabin floor. The woman with the little boy, why was she here? Why was she crying so hard and saying she was so full of sin? Where was her husband? Why did she grab her little boy and try to make him be awakened, too?
Willa’s interactions with Ivvár and subsequent turning points lead to a very different life than the sheltered one in which she lived with her family. The answer to whether her desires or the outcome of various events will dictate the course of her life unfolds with drama.
Pylväinen holds an MFA from the University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers’ Program and previously published a short story collection, We Sinners. She currently is on the faculty at the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. I interviewed Pylväinen about her time in Ann Arbor and new novel.
Q: How did your time in Ann Arbor and at the University of Michigan contribute to your growth as a writer?
A: I came to Michigan thinking it would be very nice to be a writer but that it seemed unlikely. I continued to feel that way through both years of my program there, and it wasn’t until I got a third-year fellowship that I thought, well, I guess I have this whole extra year to write so I should probably try, and I have to say, I did try. At the end of the year, I sold my book––it was like a piano fell on my head while I walked down the street. I didn’t know what to make of it, or myself––at that point I had never published anything, anywhere. So I always think of Michigan as where I started to try, see what happened if I took myself seriously.
Q: When did you start writing The End of Drum-Time, and how long did it take to write?
A: I started the first draft of The End of Drum-Time in 2011, and I drafted it in full at least five, maybe six, times, with one draft 700 pages or so. The drafts varied pretty heavily, but the opening scene of the earthquake held steady throughout, as did the final scene.
Q: Tell us more about your writing process for composing The End of Drum-Time.
A: The adage is “plot must follow character,” but several drafts in, I realized that for this novel anyway, plot had to follow reindeer––my characters’ lives were determined by the reindeer and their migration, so in fact my whole book was. I made a truly gigantic chart I referred to as my “novel wall” in which I accounted for all kinds of things, like what other characters were doing at any given point, but also, the amount of sunlight, the reindeer––where were they in their antler cycle, were the antlers coming in or falling out, when were they calving, etc. And when I began to really put that down I could see how things were going to influence the plot––and it was these kinds of shifts in composition that meant I needed so many drafts, and so much time to write it.
Q: The characters in the novel sometimes do not act in their best interest, even when they follow the thing that they want most. Sometimes their error is immediately clear to them, while other times the problems emerge later. Did you grapple with the characters’ options and ever wish they could pick an alternative, yet nevertheless need them to choose what they elect? Why or why not?
A: It is terrible to be a writer because you have to let terrible things happen to your characters and worse, you have to let them make terrible mistakes. At the same time, the mistakes they make must come from them, not you––it’s happened before that I’ll think ahead of time that X or Y will happen, but as I write closer to the moment I realize, no, my character would never do that, it isn’t believable or right for them, and that’s always a moment when I know I can’t force it into being, or the scene will really fall flat, and it’ll feel painfully clear that I, the writer, wanted to make X or Y happen. So to me, it’s never really possible to fully chart out a plot ahead of time without knowing who my characters really are or what they’re like, and at least for me that’s hard to plan. I think in the most ideal writing scenarios I am very surprised by something my character does––it will feel to me like I could have never made that up, which is ridiculous to say, but there it is.
Q: The third-person narration flows from one character to the next seamlessly and sometimes even in the same paragraph. How did you land on this perspective and style?
A: Oh, I’m so delighted you noticed this; I spent so many years and drafts making up my mind about perspective especially––working in the right perspective is so much more tricky a problem than it seems at first. My first draft was written in omniscience, moving from one perspective to another, but for many years I was working in rotating close thirds, meaning that each chapter was kept to only one character’s mind or point of view. This change to writing in close thirds came from an anxiety about what it meant to represent characters who were indigenous when I am of Finnish descent; I was doing a good deal of thinking and reading and researching on positionality and representation and decolonizing methodologies, and rotating thirds seemed both democratic (they all got the same kind of access) and also meant that I wasn’t using omniscience (the “God” voice) to speak on anyone’s behalf or directly about anyone.
But rotating thirds has its own limitations––for my novel, specifically, the big one was that I was writing about a time of such great complexity and unfamiliarity to the reader that it was quite difficult to write without info-dumping––characters who already know who the king is, for instance, aren’t going to explain why Sweden and Norway are a union in 1850 but are ruled by a Swedish king––how are you going to help readers understand that, especially if it’s pertinent to the plot? It’s very tricky. So I had a practical consideration I was dealing with, but more than that, I came to realize that working in rotating thirds was its own form of dishonesty, and I ultimately found more freedom in omniscience, because it was an honest form of narration––I am in fact the one telling the story, the faults and limitations of it are mine, and I was trying to tell a story which wasn’t just Finnish––in some ways, it seemed to me, to use multiple thirds was a way of trying to hide that, if that makes sense.
And you can also limit omniscience––you can show its boundaries––thereby acknowledging your own. In a way, omniscience allowed me to feel more free to say: here’s what I understand, here’s what I know I can never understand. And once I knew I was happy with the kinds of freedom and boundaries omniscience gave me, that they were the right ones for the novel, it was a matter of really making sure the omniscience was sustained––it’s much easier to plunk some omniscience down at the opening or closings of chapters, as a kind of summary move, but more difficult to have flexibility in perspective as you go, so I studied other writers who wrote in omniscience that I admire––José Saramago, for instance, and Tolstoy, and Zadie Smith, to name a few––to understand how they did it. Tolstoy in particular can really move fluidly between characters, for instance, in a single paragraph, or even a sentence.
Q: How did your research inform the novel? What aspects of The End of Drum-Time did your research help you develop?
A: Most important to my research was that I went and stayed with the same family of reindeer herders over the years, trying to visit during different seasons to experience different times of year and different aspects of herding. Very early on these visits began to feel nothing like “research” at all––in fact, that word started to feel weird, almost uncomfortable, though of course while I was with them I was learning, all the time, but they were, and are, also friends. So much of what I experienced with them made it into the novel––there is nothing like getting fur in your mouth when reindeer are running past you to make you realize how much reindeer shed, for instance, but I think I especially learned from them an ineffable “Sámi-ness”––not to mention, of course, the stories they told, the things they showed me––family handicrafts, old photographs, sledges that had been in their family for a hundred years––it is difficult to both believe and explain how extraordinarily lucky I was to be able to spend time with them.
There are many quintessential newcomer-to-Sápmi experiences that I went through that made it into the book––learning how to lay down birch branches to make the “springs” that go beneath your reindeer pelt, for instance, or even how to build a fire Sámi-style. And, of course, they taught me about snow, and reindeer, though by the time I finished the book I really understood, then, of course, the enormity of what I do not know––I always found being there quite humbling; I was always in a state of being useless or a fool or both and I am aware now that at best I understand, I’d say, a little bit about reindeer herding.
Of course, I also did more traditional forms of research. I read an enormous amount, from missionary journals to vaccination records to hundreds of scholarly articles and books. I got especially great access to research via my fellowship at the New York Public Library; I got to read a first edition of Schefferus’ Lapponia there, for instance. I also read as much as I could by Sámi people––poems and novels as well as scholarly works. I listened to Sámi music; I went to Sámi museums. Naturally much of this, too, did not really feel like research. Twice I went to a month-long residency at the Lásságámmi Foundation, which is the former seaside home of the poet and artist Nils-Aslak Valkeapää––I went once in the darkness, in December, and once in the light, in May––each day I awoke to the fjord out the window and was aware it was all luck, all of it.
Q: Since studying at the University of Michigan, you have gone on to teach at several institutions. How do the two identities of professor and writer coalesce?
A: In the most ideal world, teaching is really a way to both loosen and firm up ideas I have about how writing works; that is, very much the adage: if you want to learn, teach. I’ve learned so much this way, trying to teach. I think if there’s anything similar between my approach to writing and my approach to teaching it’s a kind of doggedness–––I want to understand and I want others to understand. And I want to teach my students to approach drafts like experiments, things that you naturally expect can or will go wrong––it’s not so precious, writing. The thing to respect is reading, and work.
Q: What is on your to-be-read stack?
A: Right now I’m in the middle of Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day, which is excellent––beneath this on my nightstand is Annie Ernaux’s A Man’s Place, Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These, and two books of poems: Henri Cole’s Touch and Natasha Tretheway’s Thrall.
Q: What are you writing next?
A: I am one draft into another novel, which naturally I now must draft all over again. No research, though––and it’s not historical fiction. And there’s no reindeer. There’s not even snow!
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.