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Eestikeelsed artiklid



Benedict Chapman

August Künnapu

Helga Nõu

Martin Jõela

Harry Pye

Vilem Künnapu

Alexey Levchuk




Helga Nõu

Helga Nõu in her home at Raua Street
Photo: Fred-Erik Kerner

Your first novel “The Cat Eats Grass” was published in Lund in 1965 and your last, “The Angel and the Idiot” in Tallinn in 2019. How have your style, subject matter and perception of the world changed in 54 years? Who were your role models then and who are you following now?

A young person always thinks that he or she knows everything. I have become more humble, I accept others and their opinions more. While writing, I often feel in opposition, either with the previous generation or the “public opinion”, I want to irritate someone. When I was writing “The Cat Eats Grass” Enn (Helga’s husband, a writer and a doctor – ed.) kept urging me on – it was he who made me write the novel – to write about sex boldly. I wished to be young and brave and seek new ways. I was criticised for that and became more cautious. I actually felt disappointed in readers. A good comparison with painting: if I painted an excellent picture in muted colours, and then added a bright red blotch, people would see only the blotch and nothing else.

I could attend school in Estonia for only two years and therefore did not study literature. Afterwards, Estonian classics seemed boring and old-fashioned, and most of it I still have not read. When I began writing, I set my sights on modern Swedish literature, cannot recall the authors now. However, I wanted to write in Estonian, and sought younger Estonian authors. The first who had a lasting impression on me was Mati Unt and his “Debt”, and then the young cassette-generation. I felt as if I shared something with them. Later I read Tammsaare and have great respect for him. His psychology is timeless. So much literature is being published today, in Estonia and abroad. There is no time to read everything I would like to read. I like single books by different authors, but I cannot name any special influence now.

The action of your last but one novel “Daffodil, the Man-eater” takes place at different times in Pärnu, Tartu, Tallinn, Petrograd, Riga, Oslo, London, Johannesburg, Bulawayo, Cape town, Bombay, Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Sidney, Alaska etc. “The Angel”, on the other hand, focuses on the history of an Estonian farm, although it also tells about those deported to Siberia and a coach trip of Swedish schoolchildren to the Baltic countries. Have you ever thought of writing a novel where the action takes place in one tiny room?

Not really. So far – I have written 10 novels – I have preferred an extensive problem and the relevant information. In that case the subject matter spreads out, sometimes perhaps too much. The protagonist in “Daffodil” is a real-life woman who indeed travelled through all those towns and countries. On the other hand, I could say that a novel begins from a single seed in my head and takes shape at my writing desk in a tiny room. Everything that happens does so through my thoughts, and nothing else. When a limited, but strongly inspiring idea comes to me, then I turn it into a short story (e.g. the current “Fake Horse”).

You have lived partly in Uppsala and partly in Tallinn for 20 years. How does it feel to live again and create in your childhood flat from where your family fled to Sweden 75 years ago? How have two totally different urban environments influenced your manner of writing? Can you start the same book in one home and finish in the other?

It was a bit strange at first, somewhat dream-like, I was not sure whether I had experienced something or not. What I remembered myself or what had been told to me or shown in a picture. Occasionally I was disappointed when my recollections did not match the reality. These two periods still blend together when I think about my childhood. The interim 44 years between fleeing Estonia and the first visit (1944 -1988) was such a long time and the environment so changed that the present day seems largely new. Writing the same book in two homes is not a problem. When I sit down at the computer and open the relevant document, I enter my own “bubble” and am not bothered what goes on around me.

Helga Nõu. Under the Magnolia Tree
(Daughter Laine)

Helga Nõu. Under the Magnolia Tree
(Daughter Laine).
Oil on canvas, 2016

What has been the most difficult and the easiest moment in your life?

I do not really know. As a child I experienced war, bombings and escape, but I don’t remember that those moments were so terrible. Of course I was afraid but children probably have a firm faith in their “guardian angel” so that life seems more like a big adventure.

It was crucial that I was not separated from my parents, they were behind me all the time. On the other hand, in my younger years (aged 15-20) in Sweden I felt alone and unhappy. Everything changed when I met Enn, we got married and I was never alone any more. I perceive this change, although it was not momentary, as the happiest time in my life.

You are a writer as well as a painter. Can you
write and paint in parallel? What is the best time
of day and season for writing and painting?
Please compare these creative fields.

Helga Nõu. I am a Landscape

Helga Nõu. I am a Landscape.
Oil on canvas, 2016

In a sense, writing and painting are the same thing, expressing your secret ideas. Only the technique is different. It is not at all unusual that other creative people, such as actors or musicians, also write or paint. Of course it is possible to do several things, it depends on time and opportunities. I am lucky enough not to have had to earn my bread by either of the creative fields. I was a schoolteacher and yearned for school holidays to let the dammed-up inspiration flow freely. There have naturally been bad periods too, health or other problems, when I have not done anything except the bare minimum. And now, in retirement... I don’t think I can say anything about times of day and seasons, but enforced routines do not encourage creativity. On the other hand, a commission or exhibition (in writing or visual arts) can make you go for several days and nights without getting a bit tired. On the whole, I need a long time to gather my thoughts for writing. In painting, an image or a colour combination could appear in an instant. It’s another matter whether I grasp it or not...

You are known as a children’s writer. You have plenty of experience with your own children and all those you taught at school in Sweden for 40 years. What is the difference between writing for children and writing for adults?

You have to discard your mature and intelligent thoughts from your head and become a child. We all have a child in us, who wants to do something else than expected. To dream or explore what’s between your toes or break wind in the bath and produce the smell of a turnip. In the past, a children’s book had to be instructive, but no longer. And the ending must be a happy one. There will be troublesome times ahead anyway.

In his memoir, “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”, the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami has compared writing a novel with running a marathon, which requires extremely tough mental and physical discipline. Your deeply cultural activities certainly keep you healthy and youthful. Do you have any useful tricks how to kick-start yourself and keep on shape? Do you sit at your desk every day during such a period and not wait for blasts of inspirations? Do you carry out thorough background research for a novel?

Running a marathon is certainly valid for professional writers who must make an effort to produce a book a year. For me, on the other hand, writing a novel is a pleasant activity, fleeing the chores of everyday life – on condition that I have got the novel “running”. What is difficult is the beginning and also the end, which requires managing the loose ends. But everything in between... After I have found my characters and their approximate direction, I sit back comfortably in my “bubble” and allow them to get going. They often behave quite differently than what I had initially planned. I never work out anything precisely, but I might find totally unexpected and fascinating facts on Google about places where my characters find themselves. However, one bottomless source is my own life, the encounters, coincidences, opportunities and thoughts that have occurred and never been used. You just need to change a fact, and you get a subject matter for a new novel. Discipline is of course my weakest point. I’m a dreamer, can’t get up in the morning and do some exercises. I sit at the computer too much and move too little. Luckily Enn drags me out and in Sweden we visit the gym three times a week.

Your books flow smoothly, and you can keep up the suspense. When I put down a book, I usually find that somehow dawn has already arrived. What would you recommend to the readers of Epifanio, who also want to become good writers?

I cannot be bothered with boring books. I thus think it is important to immediately start with an “opening bang”, which arouses the readers’ curiosity and they want to know what happens next. A clever idea is to start with the most exciting scene, and then leave the description unfinished... Plenty of time then to introduce the characters and explain the situation. The reader might otherwise get bored or even fall asleep. I would also like to mention the absurd. A writer depicts a scene, characters and the situation as well as he or she can. He uses all the necessary words, but something seems missing. In such a case I am not afraid to use the absurd, which solves all problems and sends the difficulties packing. It is very simple, like the secret word “sim-sala-bimm”. Try it!

You have mastered the short form as well. A memorable story, for example, is your “A Letter to Three Alexanders in the Police Garden” in the collection “Thirteen Estonian Letters” (LR 1 / 2016), where the plot unravels at three different times in the Police garden in Tallinn city centre. Murakami has described writing a short story as looking after a small flower garden, whereas writing a novel means according to him breaking through a dense and unfathomable thicket. Would you comment on the short piece written for Epifanio.

Helga Nõu. A Blonde

Helga Nõu. A Blonde.
Watercolour on paper, 1999

I do not agree with Murakami when he compares a short story with a small flower garden. I mean it does not apply to my short story. For me, an idea for a short story is like an unexpected and beautiful bloom in the middle of an overgrown garden. I want to bring forth this single bloom and choose a literary short form for this, ending with a punch-line. The current story “The Fake Horse” is actually another version of my autobiographical Police garden story, which tells about an exile Estonian’s disappointment and pain when her descendants lose her language. I don’t want to be an exile Estonian, but I use this word because I know this is how I am regarded. “Exile” immediately determines that I am not “in” or “inside”, i.e. not quite one of the natives. This topic runs through the novel “The Angel and the Idiot”. The short story “The Fake Horse” tells about four generations where I belong in the second. I begin with a classical myth about the beauty contest of languages that I believed. In exile where alien influence were quite aggressive, it was necessary to idealise everything concerning Estonia and the Estonian language. I was an Estonian guide and grew up in a truly national spirit. It is hard to accept that time goes by and in the fourth generation the language disappears. To avoid excessive sentimentality I present the current story as briefly as possible and finish it with an incident when my grandson Herman returns from a football match in Tallinn. I must have been still naïve to expect newly learned Estonian words from him. His reply with obscenities in Russian dealt the hope a lethal blow.

What is the essence of literature?

A writer is alone. He or she works alone and the resulting piece of writing has no excuses. Times may change but the writer could be hanged for his words even after his death. The same applies to a creator of visual arts, even when the colours on the painting fade and the paint itself cracks. Literature and art are considered eternal at best, if the works are not actually moulding or rusting (book clasps) or chewed by mice or end up full of moth holes. In that sense, music, theatre, film and architecture are more flexible, as they depend on others, contributors, who make the work of art visible or audible, maybe bring out and even renew after centuries. Such creative work can therefore keep fresh for longer. How long is longer than eternity?

Editor of Epifanio and painter