In this episode I talk to Helena Halme, London-based Finnish author about writing books in a foreign language.
Tim Lewis: [00:00:30] I’ve met Helena quite a few times over the years. She’s been involved with the Alliance the Independent Authors and she’s a Finnish author who’s been living in London for the last few years. However all of her books are written in English rather than in Finnish.
Tim Lewis: [00:00:46] I thought it would be interesting to talk to somebody whose native language isn’t English about how that process works. So now to the interview. Hi Helena welcome to the show.
Helena Halme: [00:00:56] Thank you Tim.
Why Write in English?
Tim Lewis: [00:00:58] So I’ve got you on today because obviously you have been a Finnish writer who’s been writing in English. Why did you first decide to write in English rather than Finnish?
Helena Halme: [00:01:08] Well I studied English at school in Finland since I was seven and then when I was in my pre-teens we moved to Sweden then I learnt Swedish and then when we moved back to Finland when I was quite a lot older in my teens I was sort of a little bit mixed about my language and I had to relearn Finnish. So I’m always studied and spoke in several languages.
Helena Halme: [00:01:34] So when I then moved to the UK at the age of 23 as a newly married navy wife, very naive and very young and I started writing a diary.
Helena Halme: [00:01:44] I’d always written a diary anyway. I was writing a diary but it became very difficult to describe what was happening to me in Finnish because everything was in English so I turned the book around and started writing in English on the other side.
Helena Halme: [00:02:02] I just haven’t looked back. The Finnish was just left I didn’t even write any Finnish diary entries after that and that’s how I began writing in English
Helena Halme: [00:02:15] Then I worked for the BBC as a journalist and translator and I obviously learned English in a better pronunciation and as an expression at the BBC and then 2003 when I’d written a novel and thought he was absolutely excellent.
Helena Halme: [00:02:34] I decided it was going to take an MA in Creative Writing that novel will never see the light of day as it’s terrible. So I just really sort of convinced myself that I could write in English. And so I took that in 2003 and since then I’ve written six novels and I am writting my seventh. Yeah. So it just comes naturally to me. I couldn’t write any other language at all.
Did a lack of English upbringing hurt?
Tim Lewis: [00:03:01] So how much do you think not having grown up in an English culture has hampered you in your writing?
Helena Halme: [00:03:09] Well not being a native speaker I sort of think of it more as an opportunity rather than a threat because I think that my readers and my reviewers tell me that I’ve got a Nordic, sparse sort of style of writing which I don’t think I would have heard in English was made my mother tongue.
Helena Halme: [00:03:27] So you know when I was a journalist and so as they did sort of taught me a lot about the use of English in a way I sort of think it’s a good thing because also my books have been to do with Finland so I don’t really consider me it hampers me in anyway at all, actually.
Helena Halme: [00:03:44] Sometimes some things are difficult to find like proverbs and prepositions as in times difficult to find. But then I find English people can’t do that either.
Helena Halme: [00:03:52] I sometimes think of when I watch Agatha Christie’s Poirot and he always mixes his metaphors and he always gets the proverbs wrong and stuff like that.
Helena Halme: [00:04:04] And I really have sympathy for him because I know exactly how he feels and people are either puzzled or laugh at him and I feel sorry for him.
Helena Halme: [00:04:12] But anyway so I guess the only downside. But I don’t feel it as a downside at all actually I guess.
Tim Lewis: [00:04:20] So I suppose. You’re, from looking at your novels, they seem to be very much based on your own experience on your own life and largely based in Finland.
Tim Lewis: [00:04:30] It probably means that you’re not restricted by like having to wonder about particular facets of say British society because your book is just not set here. I suppose that helps.
Helena Halme: [00:04:41] Well yeah. I mean read the latest books in the series, the one I’m writing now, is actually set in London in the 1990s so more than it is in Finland. But the main character is Finnish so I can do it from her point of view which you know I know what I’m do there. So that helps.
Helena Halme: [00:04:59] And I am actually applying for, after 33 years in the country, I am applying for UK citizenship and I’ve just taken the “life in the UK test” and when I was sort of quizzing people around me people didn’t have a clue and I passed.
Helena Halme: [00:05:18] So I really don’t think there’s much difference if you’ve lived in a country as long as I have.
Tim Lewis: [00:05:31] So what would you say is the biggest difficulty you’ve faced in writing in English?
Helena Halme: [00:05:36] I think it is the proverbs and the sayings you know because I know there is one but I can’t think of it. So Google is wonderful I use a lot of Google and I always have a native speaker here who reads my work first and they work through it. I do know quite a few revisions and then it really goes to an editor.
Helena Halme: [00:06:00] Mind you I have written six books. You know the first one was fairly difficult I guess because I hadn’t been a native speaker I mean in any language; I mean I don’t think like I’m a native speaker in Finnish anymore because my Finnish is so poor now.
Helena Halme: [00:06:14] That I don’t really feel that I’m not English as this sounds crazy but I’ve lived here longer than I lived anywhere else so it just yeah it’s strange. I’m a strange animal.
More editing needed?
Tim Lewis: [00:06:30] So more generally I mean obviously you’ve been here for quite a long time. But say somebody who’s listened to this who there native languages isn’t English but they’re fairly competent in it. Do you think they need to spend more time on editing than native English speaker would?
Helena Halme: [00:06:46] Oh definitely yes. I mean having said all that I said before I do think everyone needs to be edited more than they think. But yes I do as I said I have a native speaker here who checks it and then I correct it and then he corrects it again and so we work on it quite long before it even goes to my editor for the first edit.
Helena Halme: [00:07:08] So yes I think you do. But as I said it’s one of those things that you would have preferred doing you do. But as a non-English native speaker obviously you need to edit more.
Tim Lewis: [00:07:21] So I suppose the question is what advice do you have for somebody who is wishing to write in their non-native language will say in English presumably with that being from your experience point of view?
Helena Halme: [00:07:34] Yes. Yes. Well I mean I would say that this checking and rechecking and the grammar and the spelling and all that sort of stuff is very important.
Helena Halme: [00:07:46] You have to write first and you have to write the worst first draft which is always rubbish as everybody says and you have to let yourself go and let yourself write. But after that I think you do have to be very careful with checking the grammar with the native speaker.
Helena Halme: [00:08:02] I also read only in English. I had to give up reading in Swedish and Finnish because when I do I find that that sort of messes with my head if you like. Then I started changing the word order and stuff like that when I’m writing so I have to be very careful that I only read in English.
Helena Halme: [00:08:21] I also if family and friends come over from Finland that tends to set me back a few weeks. It’s a really weird thing.
Helena Halme: [00:08:29] It’s almost like you have to abandon your native land and also you can use your foreignness as a positive. All my books are set in Finland. So from a multicultural point of view I look at England from the outside rather than from the inside which is always always an advantage to have a different point of view.
Helena Halme: [00:08:54] And as I said it’s really important to have a native speaker as your first reader. But, having said all of that, be confident because the only person who can tell that story is you and what your experience is different from anybody else’s then you will bring something different to the table which means your book will stand out.
Helena Halme: [00:09:12] So I think it’s really important to be confident but at the same time be aware that you do need to be a little bit more careful than a native speaker.
Self-Publishing in Finland
Tim Lewis: [00:09:22] I’m going to throw you a bonus question. Let’s say we’ve got somebody who’s listening in Finland and actually want to write in Finnish?
Tim Lewis: [00:09:36] Now you’ve probably been asked this question as I presume you’ve talked in Finland a number of places.
Helena Halme: [00:09:42] I have yes.
Tim Lewis: [00:09:44] Are there any special difficulties with somebody who actually wants to self-publish in a language like Finnish which isn’t necessarily that mainstream and also I don’t think there’s a Finnish Amazon store?
Helena Halme: [00:09:56] Actually there isn’t yet but then there are rumours that because Amazon has actually been recruiting in the Nordic countries. So there is there is definitely going to be an Amazon in the Nordic countries.
Helena Halme: [00:10:08] But every time I ask the question they say well we don’t know we don’t know but you can still publish on Amazon.com in Finland and then you can publish in Finnish which people do.
Helena Halme: [00:10:33] But Finns have always sold paper pulp. It’s been a big export item in Finland we have lots of forests. And one time the Times was made out of Finnish paper. So for Finns paper books are very important.
Helena Halme: [00:10:56] And so there’s very little eBook sales. EBook sales are really really low in Nordic countries and I think that it is growing. That’s the reason Amazon hasn’t been here yet. But it will be soon I am confident of that.
Helena Halme: [00:11:08] But there are ways of self publishing through different companies and I’m trying to think of a name. Bonniers have launched their new service for now I can’t think of it now but you can publish through them.
Helena Halme: [00:11:22] But I would really recommend Amazon.com because it will reach more people than any other service.
Find out about Helena Halme
Tim Lewis: [00:11:28] OK. So how can people find out about Helena Halme and her books?
Helena Halme: [00:11:35] Well I’m on my website which is HelenaHalme.com very easy to remember. I’m also on Facebook with that same name on Twitter on Instagram and on LinkedIn and Pinterest and Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk, any of those you just type in Helena Halme you can see all of my books on there.
Helena Halme: [00:11:54] I have just come out with a boxset actually of the books so far. So that’s novels one to three in the series and that’s now very reasonable price of 3.99.
Tim Lewis: [00:12:07] Oh you are doing a boxset for 3.99?
Helena Halme: [00:12:11] Yeah. It is a very good price. It’s 50 percent cheaper than if you bought all 3 books separately. So that’s out today.
Tim Lewis: [00:12:27] Is that a promotional price of 3.99 or is it going to be permanantly at 3.99?
Helena Halme: [00:12:34] It’s permanently at 3.99, £3.99 that is, $4.99 in dollars. Yes that’s it’s a permanent fixed price. It’s a good holiday read.
Tim Lewis: [00:12:59] O.K so thanks very much for being on the show Helena.
Helena Halme: [00:13:03] Thank you Tim for inviting me, it’s been fun.
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