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PEN World Voices: David Almond and Sofi Oksanen in Conversation with Rakesh Satyal

By Emma Garman

“The act of writing is an act of exploration, an act of discovery…and that’s what growing up is,” mused British children's author David Almond on Friday, when he appeared with Finnish-Estonian novelist Sofi Oksanen at CUNY’s Elebash Recital Hall.

During the hour-long conversation, moderated by Rakesh Satyal (author of the novel Blue Boy), topics ranged from the freedoms and challenges of writing about children, writerly techniques and inspirations, media-fueled moral panics about young people’s lives, the significance of fictional characters’ relationship with the natural world, and the necessity of writing from an outsider’s perspective.

Satyal kicked off by posing an all-important question: how did the authors choose what kind of books to write, what was their path to success? Almond explained that after submitting a collection of short stories to his “long-suffering agent,” he was looking forward to a brief spell of downtime. But suddenly, he was spectacularly inspired by a sentence that dropped into his head from nowhere—as if, he joked, the universe was saying “Here, son, you’ve been working really hard, have this.” That sentence turned into his bestselling first novel, Skellig.

“I always wanted to be a writer,” said Oksanen, “but my favorite authors had all published their first novels by the age of 27.” So, at 24, she thought she’d better get cracking, and reached her goal with time to spare: Stalinin lehmät ("Stalin's Cows"), a novel about bulimia and Estonia under communism, came out when she was 26. Her motivation was to get older people to pick up a book because of its historical themes and learn about eating disorders, and vice versa for the younger generation. The ploy worked: “I’ve got readers of 15 and of 70.”

Her latest novel and the first to be translated into English, Purge, was originally inspired, she revealed, by a story that she heard as a child in Estonia. A young girl, a relative, was raped during WWII and stopped speaking forever: “She never married, and she never spoke again.” As a result, Oksanen became interested in writing about trauma reactions—which she discovered are the same across eras and cultures—as well as about Estonia’s tumultuous past.

Both authors have found, though, that whatever your intentions, you never know exactly what’s going to happen in fiction while you’re writing it. “Some characters turn out to be more present,” said Oksanen, “and there’s really no rational impulse for that.”

“When you’re in the process of doing it,” declared Almond, “you just do it because the sensation is right.”

Published May 2, 2010   Copyright 2010 Emma Garman

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