My guest this week is Helena Halme, a writer of romantic Nordic mysteries. She lives in the United Kingdom, but is originally from Finland. Before she became a novelist and ALLi’s official Nordic ambassador, Helena played a small, but important, part in Cold War history as a translator for the BBC.
In addition to her Nordic mysteries, Helena writes nonfiction on how to turn your life into fiction and how to write in a language that’s not your own.
We talk about Helena’s adventures at the BBC, her recent work, and her role as ALLi’s Nordic ambassador. Oh, and we’ll also learn her favorite ABBA song.
Every week I interview a member of ALLi to talk about their writing and what inspires them, and why they are inspiring to other authors.
A few highlights from our interview:
On Theme of Displacement in Her Books
All of my books really are about displacement. And there’s an awful lot of displacement at the moment. … In my books, people return home, and the difficulties they face when they find themselves in a country that they don’t know.
On Writing in Another Language
As a writer who’s writing in the language is not their own, they can see things completely differently. So you can actually bring a unique perspective to your writing. And everybody, every writer wants to have a unique way to describe the human condition. And that’s exactly what you can do as a writer who writes another language.
If you haven’t already, we invite you to join our organization and become a self-publishing ally. You can do that at http://allianceindependentauthors.org.
Listen to My Interview with Helena Halme
Don’t Miss an #AskALLi Broadcast
Subscribe to our Ask ALLi podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Player.FM, Overcast, Pocket Casts, or Spotify.On Inspirational Indie Authors, @howard_lovy talks to @helenahalme, who writes Nordic mysteries. She is also an expert in how to write #translations. Click To Tweet
About the Host
Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 30 years, and has spent the last six years amplifying the voices of independent publishers and authors. He works with authors as a book editor to prepare their work to be published. Howard is also a freelance writer specializing in Jewish issues whose work appears regularly in Publishers Weekly, the Jewish Daily Forward, and Longreads. Find Howard at howardlovy.com, LinkedIn and Twitter.
Read the Transcript
Howard Lovy: I’m Howard Lovy, and you’re listening to Inspirational Indie Authors. Every week I feature a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors to find out what inspires them and how they are an inspiration to other authors. My guest this week is Helena Halme, who is ALLi’s official Nordic ambassador. She lives in the UK, but is originally from Finland. Before she became a writer of Nordic romantic mysteries, she also played a small but important part of Cold War history as a translator for the BBC. We’ll get to that story in a minute.
Helena Halme: Hello, I’m Helena Halme, I write Nordic fiction. It’s a combination of Nordic romance and Nordic noir and I’m also working for ALLi, I’m the Nordic Ambassador for ALLi, and I also write some nonfiction, about what to, how to turn your life into fiction and also how to write in another language which is not your mother tongue.
Howard Lovy: When Helena first began writing she did it in her mother tongue of Finnish. But as an immigrant to the United Kingdom, she soon found that English was the best way to describe the world around her.
Helena Halme: I have always been a writer, but I moved to the UK from Finland when I met my husband who was in the Royal Navy at the time, and I met him at the British Embassy in Helsinki. And I started really writing at school in Finland, but I didn’t really take it seriously. It was just something I found easy. But when I moved to the UK, having to write in a third language, I started a diary. And I’ve always been writing a diary, but now I don’t have time for it anymore. But so I started writing a diary and I started writing it in Finnish.
But then a few months into living in the UK, I just couldn’t describe what was happening to me in Finnish, I started writing it, I turned it over very much like Doris Lessing in the Golden Notebook, she turns to book over and starts writing, you know, from the other end, and I did that in English. And so that sort of English writing took over. And then I went to work for the BBC monitoring where I listened, but I was really a translator and a journalist, I listened to broadcast in in Finnish and Swedish and translated and picked up new stories out of that and translated those into English. And then I, you know, listen to Radio Moscow, so I was a bit of a spy station.
Howard Lovy: So she was translating from Radio Moscow for the BBC during the Cold War. Well, that was another story I wanted to hear.
Helena Halme: I was there when Chernobyl broke. So what was first thought was a Swedish, it came out of a Swedish radio station, the Swedes reported that they’d seen increased levels of radiation, and they thought that one of the two nuclear power stations had a leak or an accident or something. And then they, about an hour or two later, they reported that there was nothing wrong with the nuclear power stations, and that, in fact, the radiation was coming from the east. So then in the Finnish radio news bulletin, the next one, the Finns had actually noticed this too, and it’s also coming from the side of us.
And so I was the first person who found out about Chernobyl in the Western world, really, because the Americans didn’t know at this stage. And, in fact, in the recent series, TV series, they refer to this, they actually in the script, they’re referred to the fact that the Swedish radio reported that they had some radiation and that’s how it was spoken to the Americans and to the Western world. So I was happy, I was that person.
Howard Lovy: Helena loved her job at the BBC. But she decided to leave it to raise a family. But in her writing today, she thinks back to her experiences at the BBC.
Helena Halme: Which is still a regret, because I wish I’d stayed because it was a wonderful place to work. And I’m still in contact with the people who work there and my previous colleagues. So yeah, it was a lovely, lovely, very, very strange place, because there were people from all over the world from East Africa, from, you know, everywhere, everywhere. So it was a really, really lovely place. Of course, lots of Eastern Europeans were there who, you know, in those days, because the Soviet Union was still very strong and had a stronghold in all these European countries, so those people couldn’t go home. And I always remember thinking how awful it must have been to flee home and, and not be able to return.
All of my books really are about displacement and about how that affects us. And there’s an awful lot of displacement at the moment, people are moving countries quite a lot. And things, political things happen. I don’t want to go into it, but political things happen, which means that their status is suddenly not as secure as they thought it was. So this is sort of, this is actually something that I really write about all the time. In my books, people return home or, or they move countries and the difficulties they face when they are finding themselves in a country that they don’t know
Howard Lovy: Helena took a 15-year detour as an accountant before returning to writing, which she calls books with elements of romance and elements of the war. But don’t expect something graphic like a Jo Nesbo book.
Helena Halme: No, no, no, no, no, no couldn’t be, I couldn’t bear that. I’ve tried, I can’t bear to write something like that. I always get into describing how other people feel about them, you know, how they died. So no, but there are some deaths in my books and and there is some darkness. But I think when you come from a Nordic countries, it’s very difficult to write terribly a happy story. I think it’s just in us. We can’t justwrite sweet romance, it just, that doesn’t happen. But they are love stories, all my books have love stories.
Howard Lovy: Her fiction became so popular that many people asked her how she did it. So Helena began writing nonfiction on how to turn your life into a book, how to take a kernel of truth about you or your experiences, and make it into a story.
Helena Halme: The one lesson I would say is that the story has to have a start, a middle and an end. And quite often people think that they know their lives. But actually you have to research your life and have a look at what the plot is, before you start writing. So that’s what my biggest advice would be, that treat it as a story rather than your own life. And therefore you get a little bit of distance, you can look at it in a different way from not getting too involved in it and actually making it a story that will engage people and keep people entertained, which is what really, you do as a writer, you want to entertain people. If you bore people, forget it. Sad, but true.
Howard Lovy: Also stemming in part from her BBC experience as a translator, Helena wrote a book about how to write in another language. Her advice: make sure you talk to native speakers to make sure you understand culture and nuance. But don’t forget that your job as a writer is to bring a unique perspective to everything you observe. So it’s okay to still think of yourself as an outsider.
Helena Halme: From that book is really check, recheck and recheck and also use anybody and everybody you know who are native speakers to correct your work. But you can do it, you can absolutely do it with work and with help, you can do it. And it is the most gratifying thing because also, as a writer who’s writing in the language is not their own, they can see things completely differently. So you can actually bring a unique perspective to your writing. And everybody, every writer wants to have a unique way to describe the human condition. And that’s exactly what you can do as a writer who writes another language. You have distance, and at the same time, you can bring another aspect to it.
Howard Lovy: In addition to writing, Helena helps other indie authors in the Nordic countries, where she is an official ambassador for the Alliance of Independent Authors. I asked her what being an ALLi Ambassador means.
Helena Halme: It’s a good question. Well, I really try to bring the knowledge about ALLi to Nordic members or to people in in the Nordic countries who want to be independent authors, and who want to find out more about ALLi. Now in the Nordic countries, we don’t have Amazon. So digital reading hasn’t really taken off in the same way as it has in the countries where Amazon is operating.
Howard Lovy: Helena’s advice for indie authors includes, of course, writing every day, but also take some time to think about who’s going to buy your book, and how you are going to establish your relationship with your potential readers.
Helena Halme: I would say that for new writers that the most important thing is to keep writing, I think that if you get into the habit of writing every day, even if you just write a few hundred words every day, but get into the habit of writing every day. And then once you have something resembling a manuscript, then you sit back and then perhaps you start thinking about “How am I going to publish this? Am I going to go for an agent? Or am I going to publish it myself?”
And if you are thinking about publishing, doing indie publishing, I would think that the best thing to do while you sort of wait for that to be edited and corrected is to start building a mailing list. And that mailing list through your website and think about writing a little short story to give away and prepare, if you’d like a list of people that you know that you can send that book to straight away when it’s out because as much as, as wonderful it is to write things and to publish them, you still need to sell them. So you need to think a little bit about how that book is going to be received, what the genre is and how you’re going to sell it and who are you going to sell it first. So I think writing is the most important thing. But at the same time you do thave to think about your audience and your readers as well. What kind of readers you’re going to target.
Howard Lovy: And yes, Helena also dances to ABBA songs when nobody’s watching. She has a favorite song. But in England, the song might be forever tainted by their former prime minister attempting to dance to it.
Helena Halme: Oh, it’s awful because it’s the same as Theresa May you know, our failed MP, if you say, it’ll come back to her, by the way. I love the Dancing Queen, but it’s, oh, it’s so embarrassing because, I don’t know if you saw over there, but she made a real fool of herself trying to dance to it. But anyway, that’s my favorite. What can I do?