By JJ Marsh
Helena Halme grew up in Tampere, central Finland, and moved to the UK via Stockholm and Helsinki at the age of 22. She is a former BBC journalist. She has also worked as a magazine editor and a bookseller and, until recently, ran a Finnish/British cultural association in London.
Since gaining an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, Helena has published four novels, The Englishman, The Navy Wife, Coffee and Vodka, and The Red King of Helsinki. She is working on the final novel in The Englishman trilogy.
Helena lives in North London with her ex-Navy husband and an old stubborn terrier, called Jerry. She loves Nordic Noir and sings along to Abba songs when no one is around.
First things first, I'm in awe of your facility with English, which is your third language, right?
Thank you, that’s very kind of you!
Yes, English is my third language, although in a way it’s now also my first.
In Finland, where I was born, there’s a great tradition of learning as many languages as possible. Finnish is difficult for others to master, so we need a foreign language (or two) to communicate with the outside world.
I was eleven when my family moved to Sweden. I picked up Swedish very quickly at school, but it’s now my third language. Although sometimes, when in a hurry, I can only think of a word in Swedish, so it’s sitting fast inside my brain somewhere.
When I moved to the UK, I worked for the BBC as a journalist and translated news items from Finnish and Swedish into English. Although I began learning English at school in Finland when I was seven, it was the BBC where I really became fluent.
Have you always wanted to write? What drives you to put words to paper?
I wrote a diary when I was younger, and dreamt of a career in journalism or publishing. I was lucky and got a job at the BBC, but it was only ten years ago, when I took an MA in Creative Writing, that I began taking my writing seriously.
I wish I knew what drives me to put words to paper. I just have to. If I don’t, I’m a complete nightmare to be with: ratty, needy and annoying. So, it’s really for the sake of my family, and my husband (The Englishman), that I write. It’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.
Having read and enjoyed four of your books, I appreciate the strong plots and storyline. But I'm curious as to the background. Your writing opens up cultural issues and exposes the reader to subtle differences in expectations and behaviour. Did you set out with that intention, or is that a natural consequence of being a Third Culture Kid?
I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. When I was doing my MA I had inflated ideas about writing The Great Feminist Novel, but instead, stories relating to my own experiences of displacement became the subject matter of my writing. Perhaps that feminist book is still lurking inside me somewhere, but for now I love writing contemporary romance.
The Englishman, Coffee and Vodka and The Navy Wife all seem to borrow from elements of your own life. You obviously have personal stories to tell. Why did you choose fiction over memoir?
The Englishman began life as a series of posts on my blog, which were intended to be autobiographical. But I like telling stories, and at that point had already written two other novels, so the characters just began running the show. I know it sounds strange, but something magical happens when the stories are transcribed from my brain to paper – or screen. The characters just start having a life of their own and I sometimes have absolutely no control over them. Besides, my life isn’t that exciting!
I know you read and review crime novels. Have you ever been tempted to write in a different genre?
I’m no good at crime, but like writing spy stories. I studied political science at university, and am fascinated by 1980s politics. One of my novels, The Red King of Helsinki, is a spy thriller set in Helsinki at the height of the Cold War. I really enjoyed writing this book, and have already started plotting a sequel. So watch this space!
We're chatting on International Women's Day (March 8), so I'm going to ask for some book recommendations. Which book would you give to:
your best friend? My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
your sister? The Nordic Cookbook by Magnus Nilsson (She’s a foodie)
your daughter? Three Wishes by Liane Moriarty (We both love this Australian author)
your mother? The London Train by Tessa Hadley (She lives in Sweden but loves London and I’d like to introduce her to Tessa Hadley’s writing)
your favourite female teacher? What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt (Because the novel is intelligent, subtle and complex, just like my old teacher.)
Which fictional character do you most resemble?
I’ve always felt an affinity with Doris Lessing’s female characters, who are strong, loving, political and utterly feminine. So, I think I resemble Martha Quest from The Children of Violence series, or Anna Wulf from The Golden Notebook, or even Sarah Durham from In Love Again.
Catch up with the vibrant, talented and entertaining Helena here: