Kaisa Saarinen Interview
In times of crisis, we seek solidarity in community. Sometimes this brings out the best in humanity—mutual aid, care networks, coalitions. But catastrophes can also reveal our ugly side. Scarcity presents a breeding ground for hatred, fascism, and violence.
This is the backdrop of Kaisa Saarinen’s debut novel, Weather Underwater (Bellows Press). Equal parts political thriller, eco-disaster sci-fi, and neo-gothic romance, Saarinen’s tale of two young lovers wrenched apart only to find themselves rejoined by fate explores the awful potential of love. Told in lyrical, non-linear episodes, Weather Underwater brims with sensuality and is populated with complex, conflicted characters. Saarinen has penned a futurist tragedy of the highest order, one that subverts well-worn apocalyptic tropes into something fresh, sharp, and surprising.
I corresponded with Saarinen via email. We discussed the fluidity of genre, the relationship between art and politics, trans-lingualism, and more.
How did you come to writing fiction? Where did it all begin?
I’ve had an urge to tell stories and play with words since I was very young. Maybe it’s because I was weird and struggled to express myself the way other kids did, or maybe I simply thought it was fun. I still remember the first story I typed on a computer when I was about 6. It was about a bunch of animals who banded together to protect their forest from a zoo developer, and it ended in tragedy. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as accomplished as I did when I finished writing that story, even though it was five pages long at most.
Set in a world of ecological disaster and fascist regimes, Weather Underwater feels extremely prescient. Where did the initial seed for the book spring from and how did the project evolve as you developed the story?
The seed for Weather Underwater was a short story I wrote in Finnish when I was 16, or more accurately an image that formed the basis of that story. The image became a lasting obsession, although the framing changed dramatically in the process of novelisation (and growing up).
That early iteration was about two teenage girls evacuating from a city that’s about to be swallowed by the sea. They’ve grown up in a care home, hating it together, and they share an intense bond. When they reach their destination, an inland city, they decide to evade the official evacuee registration system. So they try to build a new life on the street, only relying on each other, but of course it’s a struggle. One of the girls is afflicted by an intense homesickness, a dreadful mix of nostalgia and longing for a future that cannot exist. She’s so overwhelmed she ends up walking into the sea and drowning herself. A few months later, the other girl wakes up alone in the comfort of a social housing complex and wonders if she’s ever going to feel whole again. (I can’t deny I have a thing for sad endings.)
I started working on a new novel manuscript some eight years later and realised halfway through that I’d written something similar before. When I reread the short story, the amount of overlap surprised me—I ended up translating and incorporating a few sections into the novel. However, the pieces are thematically very different. The short story had more of a focus on these adolescent girls’ desire to be free from the suffocating rules imposed on them by the institutions of adult society (which of course felt more personal to me as a 16-year-old). More importantly, the flooding was presented as an inevitable, amoral force of God or nature.
By the time I started writing Weather Underwater, I felt it was impossible to depict the flooding in an apolitical way. I was interested in the social consequences—who would be blamed for it? How might this play out on an interpersonal level? Of course this thematic shift mirrored my observations and anxieties about the politics of climate change. It wasn’t my intention to write a ‘political novel’, but I should probably contextualise this by saying that I think all writing is political; most of it just doesn’t make its ideological positions explicit, which is understandable from a stylistic perspective. Because I chose to situate my characters in an explicitly politicised scenario, I couldn’t help bringing those elements to the foreground, but it was important to me that the novel doesn’t read like a manifesto. That’s also why I decided to tell the story from a close POV of different characters, all of whom have a very limited understanding of what’s going on.
I think Weather Underwater goes beyond simply being a political novel, though politics play an essential role in the narrative. You mentioned keeping a tight focus on the characters. At the center of the book we have Mia and Lily, who in many ways are diametric opposites nevertheless drawn to one another. You render them with such depth and complexity. Lily, for instance, aligns herself with the neo-fascist Ebbtide party and commits brutal acts of violence, yet she's still written sympathetically, and her motivations are equally as fleshed out as Mia’s, who works with an underground resistance movement (their story reminds me of Genet’s Funeral Rites). As a reader, what do you think makes for a compelling character, and as a writer, how do you approach constructing a rich inner psyche for your characters?
I’m incredibly honoured by the mention of Funeral Rites, as it’s one of my favourite novels (and Genet one of the writers and dramatists I admire the most)! What I find particularly inspiring about it is the masterful exploration of contradictions as a source of not only hatred and violence, but also vitality and beauty.
Conventional models of dramaturgy dictate that character development should be expressed through the construction and eventual denouement of conflicts, which I agree can be an effective tool for storytelling (and I do want to tell interesting stories). However, both in writing and in life, I’m more compelled by the contradictions that are irreconcilable.
I believe that even if people do have certain relatively fixed traits, they are simultaneously afflicted by inconsistency, indecisiveness and the inability to act according to their best knowledge. Moreover, I don’t necessarily see human reality in dialectic terms—I don’t feel confident that there is an underlying teleology or dao or such, and subsequently, it seems plausible to me that the reconciliation of many contradictions is impossible and perhaps even undesirable. These beliefs inevitably influence my approach to characters.
I define them primarily through their actions and their relationships (and conflicts) with other characters; their ‘sense of self’ is mostly the outcome of these interactions. I don’t have a consistent method for working out plot decisions, but I usually think of a few different scenarios and then decide, or try out, which makes the most sense for the characters in light of their accumulated identities, trying to achieve some sense of psychological plausibility. At the same time, I don’t think of my characters as fully knowable or resolvable, which reflects my views on (social) reality. They are always in flux, but most clearly defined through each other.
I wanted to ask you about genre, as I found you deftly mixed several in the book. There are elements of science fiction, political thriller, bildungsroman—though at its core I think Weather Underwater is a love story. Is genre something you’re conscious of when you write or is it more a consequence of the narrative itself?
Most of the writers I admire also experimented with a variety of genres and forms, including stage plays or screenplays—Genet, Angela Carter, Shuuji Terayama, Marguerite Duras, and so on. I’m drawn to artists who keep finding new ways to investigate whatever questions or themes they’re obsessive about, and genre is one of the main mechanisms for such experimentation. In my own writing, I very consciously aspire to be as genre-fluid as possible. To an extent, this is also inspired by my desire to reject the divide between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ writing, and between different forms of art more generally. I think everything should be more fluid.
When I started writing Weather Underwater, I didn’t know which genres I wanted to borrow from, beyond that it would have elements of political thriller. As the storyline expanded, I found opportunities to utilise various conventions. It was one of the most interesting parts for the writing process, although I also found it very challenging. Especially when dabbling in genres I’m not that familiar with, it’s not easy to use genre as a tool instead of being overpowered by it.
I’m a pretty visual person, and the starting point for my stories and poems is often an image. The stylistic grammar of genre helps me figure out how to construct that image. I also think the use of genre elements can add new meaning to the text—it metonymously supercharges a piece by connecting it with a more expansive reservoir of other works, although that also comes with the danger of redundancy. Instead of playing them straight, I would like to mix up genres in a way that makes them bleed into each other, creating a hybrid language of sorts.
Weather Underwater juxtaposes moments of real tenderness with scenes of shocking violence. I was often caught off guard, perhaps lulled into a blissful state by the more lyrical sections before being confronted with unexpected bloodshed. But you're not always explicit—violence is frequently implied rather than shown. How do you maintain a balance between beauty and brutality?
It’s true that although violence is a constant presence in the book, it often looms in the background, only occasionally bursting through to the characters’ direct sensory field. The themes are overall quite heavy, but I tried to weigh the narrative by modulating its intensity. I’m less interested in violence itself than its aftershocks, so I tend to amplify it when it directly affects my central characters, and depict it more matter-of-factly when the distance from the narrative point of view is greater.
This might sound a bit flippant, but I do believe in violence as a powerful narrative device, and it’s important to handle it carefully. Without contrast, there is no intensity—in fiction, constant blunt-force bludgeoning loses its aesthetic and dramatic effectiveness very quickly, so lighter moments are necessary for preserving the shock value of brutality. I’m interested in pushing both my characters and my narratives to the occasional breaking point, but if you stay on the edge for too long it stops being scary, and that’s not what I want.
I also like blending these modes, introducing elements of more lyrical or “beautiful” writing in scenes of brutality and vice versa, which feels emotionally truthful to me—experiences of joy and horror, pain and pleasure, and whatever else is analogous to light and shadow, are often interspersed in strange ways.
I know you’re originally from Finland but now live in the UK, so I was curious how your background plays into your creative pursuits. Certainly, there's a lot of diversity in Weather Underwater, which is reflected in the subsequent tensions between immigrants and other marginalized groups coming into conflict with xenophobic reactionaries who want to keep their population “pure.” Does living between different cultures bleed into your writing? Likewise, how does being bilingual inform your work?
I grew up in a small agricultural town, best known for being Finland’s largest producer of chicken eggs. I hated living there and had a burning desire to leave as soon as possible, for the same reasons all weird kids want to leave their small towns and suburbs. I left home early to attend high school in the city, and then left the country to go to university in Glasgow. Even though I spent my adolescence looking for exit routes, there are a lot of things I appreciate about Finland, especially the relatively high level of equality. I’m not from a wealthy or academic family, but it didn’t seem to matter that much growing up; education is completely free of charge, and students are supported with fairly generous grants. The longer I spend outside Finland, the more keenly I’m aware that I only got this far because I had so much structural support.
Since moving to the UK, the single biggest cultural difference that continues to fascinate and infuriate me is the high level of inequality and the way it’s reflected and reproduced by the culture of class. It seems that education, as well as arts and even the most minimal daily necessities like housing and food, have only become more inaccessible to many people since I first moved here a few years ago. It makes me angry and sad and it definitely informs my writing, particularly in Weather Underwater, which in many ways is me processing the absurd hostility of the British socio-economic system, both towards its own people and towards immigrants (including those from countries it used to colonise). I don’t believe in utopias, but I do believe it’s not hard to do better than this. That’s not to say I hate everything about this country, otherwise I wouldn’t stay here; I love my friends and hate the government.
On a less polemical note, I’ve always loved learning languages—as a kid, I used to get textbooks from the library and spend hours poring over foreign syllabaries and vocabularies. This interest was probably connected to both my escapist urges and a general obsession with words and writing. I love thinking about the lineage of words, whether they are rooted in Latin or Greek or Shang dynasty oracle bone script. I’m also endlessly fascinated by the translation of literature and poetry, which seems like a near-miraculous process of creative transformation.
Many of my poems are also multilingual, because the medium seems ideal for that kind of experimentation. However, I tend to stick to one language when telling stories. Even so, I think the fact I’m mostly writing prose in my second language definitely informs, or maybe more accurately misinforms, my work—even after years of studying and communicating mainly in English, I’m sure there are sentence structures and word choices that a native speaker wouldn’t use. My foreignness is even more pronounced when I’m reading my work out loud, as my accent remains stubbornly Finnish. It’s not really something I feel insecure about, because I’m not a purist. I think writing and speaking in a second or even third or fourth language can open up interesting possibilities, because you approach and access the grammar and the words in a way that is not available to a native speaker, even if the end result is not always ‘correct’.
Weather Underwater reflects many of the issues that plague humanity today—climate change, right-wing nationalism, demonization of the poor. What role do you feel the artist plays in resisting these forces? How can writers practice social/political activism, whether it’s on or off the page?
This might sound strange coming from a writer who’s outspoken about their political commitments and frequently lets them spill onto the page, but I believe art has very little capacity to change the world. I do think art can become a catalyst for discussion and occasionally even action, but it only possesses an indirect and socially contingent power to manipulate our attentions and emotions. Any real resistance must happen outside the covers of a book; it’s counterproductive for both artists and audiences to believe that creating or engaging with art is politically meaningful in itself. That’s why it frustrates me that a tendency to think of art in moralistic and didactic terms has become more pervasive, both on social media and in art institutions.
Somewhat ironically, the obsession with the moral purpose of art appears to be largely driven by the accumulating moral failures in other areas of society. Art is being promoted as a medicine for austerity, a means to cultivate a sense of community and well-being, but on its own it’s about as useful as slapping a band-aid on an amputation wound. Artists do have a duty to act morally and struggle for a just society, insofar as they are human beings, but the channels for activism are mostly the same as they are for everyone else—most importantly, organising in your local community and workplace to push back against the expansion of sociopathic capitalism, now serviced by major political parties of all colours and stripes. The creative process should not be subjugated to the service of ‘societal betterment’, not only because it breeds boring art but also because it simply doesn’t work. While there is a rich tradition of propagandistic art on both the left and the right, and it’s a genre I find very interesting (I love listening to Finnish agitprop ballads from the 70s), I believe that shifts in material conditions are far more important than propaganda in explaining the rise of powerful movements on either side.
I can seek solace in art precisely because it’s relatively inconsequential. Aside from being something I simply enjoy, writing allows me to examine the impossible contradictions and to channel the frustrations I can’t ever resolve in more pragmatic ways. While writing Weather Underwater, I did worry that I’m failing the people around me by not creating a work that would function to give them more hope, and the thought still occurs to me at times. The catharsis of fictional wish-fulfilment can be incredibly thrilling (I saw ‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline’ last Friday and it moved me to tears), and I think there is definitely space for more “hopecore” works on the left. But fundamentally, I don’t think it’s the duty of the artist to create propaganda. Moreover, consuming too much fiction that deludes us into feeling as though we’ve overcome a problem that remains insurmountable in reality might not be good for us (studying Brecht in high school might have made me a killjoy for life). But the larger point I’m trying to make is that it probably doesn’t matter much whether Weather Underwater is helpful or harmful—I just hope people find something in it that sticks to them. And if it does inspire someone to engage more critically with politics, I hope they can channel that into activism in the non-fiction genre.
Kaisa Saarinen is a former farmgirl in London. Her first collection of poetry and short fiction, Voideuse, was published by Feral Dove in May 2022. Her debut novel, Weather Underwater, will be published by Bellows Press in May 2023.
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