Although she isn’t the protagonist, the central figure of Finnish author Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen’s Rabbit Back Literature Society is clearly Laura White, the famous, mysterious children’s book author who has dominated the cultural life of the small town of Rabbit Back for decades. Perhaps the cult of personality White engenders is not so strange, but the rules of The Game played by the Literature Society might strike some as extreme. As the novel’s newest Society member, teacher and aspiring writer Ella Amanda Milana discovers, The Game permits her to ambush any other member and force him or her to tell her the truth about something vital in his or her life; she may even employ pain or sodium pentothal to extract a more complete confession. That truth then serves as a source for the ambusher’s literary output.
Naturally, I wondered if Laura is in any way inspired by Tove Jansson, the creator of Finland’s beloved Moomin tales. Jääskeläinen admitted that yes, “there is something about her that reminds people about Tove Jansson,” but that elements of Laura’s character were also based on himself and other people he knows.
“If you are a writer, you want to affect people’s minds, leave some traces,” he says. “We are all like Laura White. We all want to leave something behind. Laura…hopes to find herself in [the] works” of the children she encouraged to become authors, the members of the society referred to in the title. “When Laura does something cruel or loving, she hopes that these kids become her mirrors….There are some athletes, they are worshipped and everything seems to revolve around them. Well, I think if Tove Jansson lived in a small town, it would be like that….We [all] want to be seen. I don’t think that’s so strange.”
Jääskeläinen really does believe “to some extent” that authors must be ruthless about using other people’s lives as primary fuel for their work. “We are magpies. If I see someone doing something interesting, I have to put myself in his or her shoes,” he says. “Writing is about learning to see the world through strange points of view. Writers steal from other people, but not without price. We cannot steal anything with out becoming that person.”
Dreams also play an important role both in Rabbit Back Literature Society and in Jääskeläinen’s creative process as a whole. “In every story I’ve ever written, something has been mined from my dreams,” he explains. The novel begins with a strange incident in which Ella encounters a library copy of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment with an altered plot, concluding with Sonya shooting Raskolnikov. “[T]hese books…changing by themselves, they’re straight from my dreams. My dreams are dear to me. Maybe some people don’t appreciate their dreams, but for me my dreams are very important; they tell me what is going on in my end. I like to use dreams as a narrative element. Dreams and reality are two sides of the same coin.”
There is yet a third source for stories that Jääskeläinen explores in the novel: other authors’ ideas. Even if those ideas aren’t purloined or adapted directly, it’s tough to avoid the influence of others’ work. “When I’m writing something (and that’s almost always), I have great difficulty in reading anything slightly like what I’m writing. I was reading [Haruki Murakami’s] Kafka on the Shore, and…[now] it’s very difficult for me to write about talking cats [in an upcoming story], because Murakami’s talking cats are haunting me.” While writing this novel, Jääskeläinen came across Jonathan Carroll’s Land of Laughs, which is also a literary fantasy about the peculiar influence an author has over a small town. “I read the back cover, and I was really scared when writing the last pages,” Jääskeläinen admits. Fortunately, Carroll’s plot wasn’t similar. “Just a couple of days ago, I thought about writing songs,” he muses. “It must be impossible to write a song no one has heard before. But in novels, we have more room.”
Although the book concerns Ella’s relentless quest for the truth about Laura White, the other members of the Society, and the literary inspiration for their work, the nature of the answers she receives may not be entirely clear to the reader.
“Many people have found [that ambiguity] a little bit difficult,” Jääskeläinen says. “People have different thoughts about how literature should work. People have been angry, they feel that I have let them down. I am a fan of David Lynch’s movies. He doesn’t have answers for everything. I have always written a little bit peculiar; that’s just the way I write. It’s maybe how I find life to be.”
Amy Goldschlager is an editor, proofreader and book/audiobook reviewer who lives in New York City. She has worked for several major publishers, and has also contributed to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Locus, ComicMix and AudioFile magazine.