Saturday, 29 June 2013

In Conversation with Sanna Lehtonen

          My conversation today is with Dr. Sanna Lehtonen,
'Odin's Voice' by Susan Price
postdoctoral researcher at Tilburg School of Humanities.

          I was working on a blog once, and wanted to add the cover of one of my books. Being too idle to hunt through my files for the jpeg I wanted, I thought I would search on Google instead - and Google brought me '"I'm Glad I Was Designed": Un/doing Gender and Class in Susan Price's 'Odin Trilogy'" by Sanna Lehtonen.
          I was fairly gobsmacked to find that anyone had bothered to do so much thinking about one of my books, and thought I'd get in touch and say thanks. I was also quite curious about Sanna's work, and she agreed to talk a bit about it.

Dr Sana Lehtonen

          Sue: What drew you to your field of study? I think my readers are used to writers talking about how they write a book but I think your point of view would add something new.

           Sanna: Well, my passion for books, I suppose. Especially books that change your life, take you into unknown worlds and make you think in new ways. I learned to read when I was five and have been reading ferociously ever since. Even though I’ve read all kinds of stuff, my preference has always been for works that have fantastic or surreal elements. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I’ve always been interested in things that can’t quite be explained and I like to read to be surprised or disturbed. Also in terms of gender, which is my main research interest.
          When I was writing my MA thesis on Rowling’s Harry Potter books ten years ago, I read a lot of research that stated that fantasy is often very conventional and conservative as regards gendered representations.

          Sue: I’ve come across that a lot too!

        Sanna: I thought this to be very strange because my childhood favourites included books such as Astrid Lindgren’s Ronia The Robber’s Daughter and Michael Ende’s Momo that involved young girl heroes that were not, to me, conventional at all. My feeling was that it is namely fantasy that can experiment with gender in ways that are not possible in realist literature.
           I had also heard so many times before that fantasy is not serious literature – Finland has a very strong tradition of realist literature and during the recent years some people have actually been worried about the way in which fantasy is now taking over the world of children’s literature publishing. In my research, I’ve wanted to show that fantasy should be taken seriously. I don’t know whether fantasy itself should be “serious” (I don’t like that word) but it can definitely be meaningful and work in subversive ways.

          Sue: It’s a curious idea, isn’t it, that fantasy isn’t serious? By that definition, Utopia isn’t serious, and any speculative fiction that questions and satirises our present society by contrasting it with a fantasy or invented future society (as Pratchett’s Disc-World novels often do) is merely frivolous with no serious intent at all. It’s a very narrow view.
         But how did you become a researcher?

           Sanna: Ending up as a researcher was partly a coincidence. I always thought that if I ever finish a book, it will be fiction. I never dreamed of becoming a researcher of literature – at some point of my life I did dream of becoming of an archeologist but someone told me then that there are no jobs for archeologists. After this, I actually started my studies at the university as a musicologist and that involved a lot of research training. I liked it but was then realizing that there are not too many jobs for musicologists either and switched my major subject into English language and literature, to be able to find a job as a language teacher, if nothing else. And then ended up working as a piano teacher for a while, before I was lured into writing a doctoral dissertation about gender in children’s fantasy literature.

          Sue: Wow! You’re very talented! – But I’m not really surprised to learn how creative and talented you are, because I think the way you closely examine and interprete a book is creation, rather like an actor's interpretation of a role. You often tell the writer something they didn't know about their own book!

           Sanna: That almost makes me sound like a therapist who digs
deep into the subconscious of books... Although I’m not really such a big fan of psychoanalytical readings. I’d like to think that all readers find things in books that their authors have no idea of. Of course I’m trained to dissect texts, so I tend to close read almost habitually.
           Then again, I did some kind of close reading even before I started my studies because I always went back to my favourite books and found that they were different every time I reread them. I remembered the story but I didn’t remember the details and it often felt like there were things there that surely had not been there the previous time. I always found that very exciting. I suppose I just have to examine things to find out how their magic works and then, to my great delight, realize that I can explain parts of their magic but not everything.
           I very much like the idea of interpretation of a book being another kind of creation. Since I’m a musician, I think I’d go for that analogy rather than acting, though. Interpreting a book might be a bit like playing someone else’s composition. The sheet music and instructions are there to guide me but when I play a piece on my piano, the performance will also be about my interpretation of the music. But there are limits to that interpretation and a lot of formal training is involved, as for literary analysis. It’s still fun!

          Sue: I love that analogy! I’m very happy to think of you re-interpreting my books as if they were sheet music.
          Sanna: You’ve written a lot of books and stories that are either retellings or rewritings – how does the process of retelling or rewriting work for you? Are you very conscious about making certain changes to previous texts in your own version, or do you just have the stories in the back of your mind when you start creating your own works?

          Sue: I think it’s a little of both. My book Crack A Story is a collection of retold folk-tales, and every one has a brave, active heroine. Some of them are retold as I found them – more or less – because many folk-tales have courageous female characters who drive the tale. But some of the stories in the collection I deliberately changed to make them about a heroine rather than a hero. The stories worked just as well!
             I’ve retold a lot of folk-tales over the years, and my attitude to retelling them has changed. My first collection The Carpenter and Other Stories I now see as a little stilted. I thought, then, that I had to be ‘true to my sources’ and although I retold the tale in my own words, I told them in rather formal English. I blended versions of tales together, to keep incidents I liked. I’d add an ending from another source, if I liked it better – but I stayed far closer to the tale as I’d found it.
             Then it slowly dawned on me that the source I was being true to was far removed from the original telling. I had found the story in a collection made by a 19th Century vicar, or academic folklorist, and the formal style came from them.
             I think I should have realised this sooner, but once it did dawn on me, I started retelling old stories in a far looser, freer way, which I enjoyed much more.

          But thank you, Sanna, for this talk - I really enjoyed it!

           Biographical information: Sanna Lehtonen is a PhD candidate at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland and  at Macquarie University, Australia, working on her dissertation on invisibility, magic changes in age and girlhood in contemporary British children’s fantasy.

          Ninja Driving Note: I failed to earn a 'good'  for my left-hand reverse last week. I am still merely 'average to good.' Though it was said I'd improved, and the column now has a string of 'Gs' for 'good' on everything else.  I don't know if there's a mark above 'good.'
         This week I'm to do a 'pre-test trial run' - which I confidently expect to fail, so no pressure. Altogether now: 'Only a fool breaks the two-second rule.'

1 comment:

madwippitt said...

Goodness that rings a bell! I too was told the same thing about archaeology when I enquired about it at school - maybe there is some kind of teachers conspiracy?

Like Blot's Lemon laptop ... and that conversation rings a bell too ...

What on earth is a pre-trial run? Surely it's a trial or not, you can't have a pre-trial? aaaarg ...