Hanna Pylvainen on her new novel 'The End of Drum-Time'
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
"The End Of Drum-Time" opens with an earthquake that shakes a small town in the Scandinavian tundra in 1851, when a Lutheran minister named Lars Levi, also known as Mad Lasse, is holding forth to his congregation of reindeer herders and their families. Let's ask Hanna Pylvainen, the author of this novel, to bring us there.
HANNA PYLVAINEN: (Reading) The shaking stopped, and the floor stilled, but the children screamed. And their mothers tried to still their screaming, and the men alternately laughed and shouted their fear. Lars Levi was filled mostly with amazement. Hadn't this happened when Christ had died? Hadn't God sent an earthquake to mark the moment of his sacrifice? The force of this realization nearly made Lars Levi fall to his own knees. He looked at his congregants, his parishioners, his reindeer, skittish on the snow, and he saw them multiply before him, 10 upon 10, so that the back of the church was not littered with drunks who stank of their drinking, but instead, each face shone clean and each body's blood coursed with the mysteries and the magics of Christ. He found himself suddenly saying this, some form of this. He was talking without hearing himself speak, speaking without feeling himself think. This was what it was to be a mouthpiece for God - this.
SIMON: Hanna Pylvainen joins us now from Philadelphia. Thanks so much for being with us.
PYLVAINEN: I'm so happy to be here.
SIMON: It's 1851, but I think even today, people would think this is a sign of something, wouldn't they?
PYLVAINEN: Sure. I took this moment from an autobiography of that minister, Lars Levi Laestadius. And while, of course, it's heavily fictionalized, certainly the act of nature is part of what engenders belief. It happens for us today, I think. You know, climate change can feel that way. Is this an act of God...
PYLVAINEN: ...Or an act of man?
SIMON: Tell us about this town of Indigenous Sami people and Finns and Swedes and reindeer herders and Lutherans and even a few Russians.
PYLVAINEN: Sure. It's at the top of the world. So in the armpit of Finland is kota Suvanto (ph), which is, in the original Sami, kota Savon (ph). And kota Savon is a town which is mostly made up of Sami reindeer herders. And in this town you have everyone from every walk of life. But mostly what you have are herders who are stopping there on their way to and from the sea, following the reindeer on their reindeer migrations.
SIMON: There's a relationship that's considered kind of unlikely at the heart of much of the story, Ivvar and Willa. What do they see in each other?
PYLVAINEN: Willa is Lars Levi's daughter. So she's a minister's daughter, and she's always been around the reindeer herders, but they've always been at a distance. And what she knows of them is really the stories, some of her own father's research. And so I think at first, for her, Ivvar holds - he represents mystery. He represents escape from a very small cabin in which she lives with many siblings. And I think, for Ivvar, Willa is also a mystery. He doesn't understand exactly how she sees the world and how she sees him. And in some ways he wants to see himself the way she sees him, with - which is full of this, you know, admiration, even while he's struggling to keep his herd alive.
SIMON: You teach English at Warren Wilson College. You're speaking to us from Philadelphia. How did you learn so much about reindeer herding? And please don't tell me, just go to YouTube or MasterClass.
PYLVAINEN: No, I won't say go to YouTube or MasterClass. I will say you need to go there yourself to the Arctic Circle. I stayed with the same family of Sami reindeer herders. I went six times over the past 10 years. I learned how to beat shoe grass. I learned how to wrestle a reindeer calf to the ground. I learned how to earmark the calves. I went out in minus 40 degrees. And I think that, more than anything - although I did a tremendous amount of research at various fellowships and libraries - more than anything, it was the time with the reindeer herders that made the biggest difference.
SIMON: Why did you want to immerse yourself in this time and place?
PYLVAINEN: Well, my first book, "We Sinners," takes place among a small, Finnish, fundamentalist sect, which is Laestadianism, which is the religion I was raised in. And that religion made its way over the Atlantic Ocean to America. And when I was researching it, it was the first time I realized, oh, this church, which I had always been told was Finnish, was not Finnish, really. And its roots were actually Sami. When I say its roots, what I mean by that, actually, is that the very emotions, the bedrock of the church, of the - its understanding of faith itself was Sami. And its emphasis on feeling over knowing - or almost, rather, I would say feeling as a way of knowing was inherently Sami. For me, it really was a discovery that a religion I had believed in as a child was not actually - I would never now, in some ways, call it a Finnish religion.
SIMON: There is a tough scene in which you describe in great detail the slaughtering of a doe. It's hard to read. There's blood. There's slaughtering bowls.
PYLVAINEN: You know, I think with the slaughtering, what it teaches you and what I learned there, when I would see slaughters myself, is that death is a part of life. The other thing that you learn there is that you are constantly in a state of accepting what happens to you and accepting that you don't control what happens to you. One of the common phrases there is, let the reindeer decide. And it's a very anti-Western idea - right? - where we need our trains to run exactly on time. And I think in many ways, let the reindeer decide means that part of that decision could also be death.
SIMON: What do you think a novel can do to reveal people and worlds to us that are unfamiliar?
PYLVAINEN: For me, that was the - a primary question in writing this novel is, what can literature do to contain more than one way of seeing? And so one of the things I was really thinking about in "The End Of Drum-Time" was how am I going to write and craft a novel in which cultures are in collision with each other and people don't agree about what they see and people don't agree about what they know or what they believe. In some ways it became a craft problem. It became a point-of-view problem. And ultimately, I landed on writing in omniscient, which of course we think of as a God voice. And I did that, in part, because I realized I want to use a God voice to try and write about many people's gods. And one of the other challenges was that I also had to show the limitations in the book of my own God voice to show the boundaries of knowledge and not to act like any God or any knowledge, including my own, was actually omnipotent.
SIMON: Hanna Pylvainen - her novel "The End Of Drum-Time." Thank you so much for being with us.
PYLVAINEN: Thank you. It's been a pleasure to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.