Exploring the art of prose


Interview: Hanna Pylväinen

Image is the book cover for THE END OF DRUM-TIME by Hanna Pylväinen; title card for the new interview with Courtney Harler.


In celebration of the inaugural Novelette Print Prize, Editor in Chief Courtney Harler corresponded via email with Guest Judge Hanna Pylväinen, author of The End of Drum-Time. In the resulting interview below, they discuss choosing point of view, honoring Indigenous culture, utilizing free indirect speech, (un)romantizing nature, and (un)balancing teaching and writing. We are so grateful for Hanna’s partnership, and we know you will enjoy her perspectives here.  —CRAFT


Courtney Harler: Hanna, I’m so captivated with The End of Drum-Time—I can’t stop listening to the audiobook narrated by Philippe Spall. I most often read two books at once: one I listen to when my eyes are too tired from editing all day, and the other I read (usually as an ebook, though I know I need less screentime) when I just need quiet time with words, no matter how tired my eyes. Right now I’m reading Chain-Gang All-Stars and completing my second listen of your latest novel. Two novels could not be more different—or maybe not? Both deal with insidious colonialism, and explore nonhegemonic modes of spirituality. Just before the holidays, I learned that Santa Claus likely owes his roots to Sámi culture, his dress and magic once indicative of the traditional noaidi/guvhllár, or Sámi “shaman.” Which is to say I am thinking of colonialism again, and its performance of appropriation. How did you navigate this difficult material, knowing that drum-time would, indeed, end?

Hanna Pylväinen: For me this is the most pressing question and I’m so glad you asked it—this is the question that kept me up at night and bothered me on the fells and at my desk over the ten years I wrote Drum-Time. I went through many periods of thinking I should not write it, because there was no way to write it without replicating the violence done by white writers before me to Indigenous communities, and because my voice wasn’t needed; certainly there were, and are, Sámi writers writing about all of this beautifully—Linnea Axelsson’s Aednan, for instance, comes to mind right now especially powerfully. I struggled often with the question of how to meaningfully make my positionality a part of the book without writing a book so consumed by the question of identity it drowned in it and became essentially a different kind of propaganda. I read a great deal of thinking on representation in the arts—I want to highlight here Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda’s introduction to The Racial Imaginary, in which they argue that the question of permission is not the right question—and they advise people to write into the question of their interest. “What is it about whiteness that imprisons you?” they asked. I went through several structures of the book in which I tried to use point of view in various ways—each chapter being reserved for a close third of one particular character, say—and ultimately, interestingly, I landed where I’d begun, which was in omniscience. I’d rejected it early on because it’d felt too authoritative, too Biblical—too white—I didn’t want to be telling people things. But I ended up back there because ultimately it felt the most honest—I am the teller, I am the writer—you should know that. And you should know I’m limited, that this is a narrative, and so I began to look for how I could make omniscience limited, make my own limitations clear—wield omniscience against itself by calling attention to itself. And ultimately I felt okay with that—like I hadn’t lied to anyone, which of course is a funny thing to say about fiction, which is a pack of lies. And yet I am of the persuasion that fiction is a lie that tells the truth, to misquote Picasso, maybe. And it felt like to occupy honestly the space of storyteller, the tradition of telling story in an obvious way, was actually a nod to a Sámi tradition of storytelling. There is a teller to every story.

Once I had settled in that voice, I was happy there—it was the best way to tell the story, as I saw it, about the end of drum-time, a story which my own ancestors were part of (they were some of the poor Finnish farmers, I think, and anyway ended up devout Laestadians), and a story which I had inherited via my own inculcation into the Laestadian church. I was, in fact, an inheritor of something very Sámi, though I’d never known it, so it wasn’t even so much that I was an outsider as I was trying to understand what I’d already been in, what had already been in me without my knowing. And I was trying to tell it in the most honest way I could, which, for me, involved not replicating a violence of only telling it from the point of view of white people, but of doing a lot of work and time and research and labor and again, time, and again, more time—to understand the Sámi worldview, a Sámi-ness generally speaking, that the world and time of the novel was of and in. And this involved—though I think the novel fails in this particular way—experiencing the ways in which drum-time hasn’t ended. I was extremely lucky, I was able to be with the reindeer and with the herders, I was able to learn from them—I cannot emphasize enough their generosity in letting me in, in showing me their pasts and their lives—in the treat of understanding how our own pasts had once intertwined. And to be able to witness how drum-time, which here I’ll generalize as Sámi-ness, is very much alive—so very much has been protected and preserved and goes on, despite-despite-despite. Despite.


CH: Please do correct me if you think I’m wrong, but I think one of the most compelling aspects of the narration in your novel is the liberal use of free indirect speech, wherein the third-person narration takes on the characteristics and concerns of the cast of characters. This approach relies on a deep sense of interiority—we see all the longing, all the shame. Which craft concerns led you to this choice? Did it arise organically, or more deliberately?

HP: Well, one of the main critiques of omniscience is that it’s distancing, especially in comparison to the sense of immediacy or intimacy one can get via a close third or first person. I knew that within omniscience, I wanted to still have real intimacy with characters—one’s  feelings were important to the Sámi I knew, and indeed had been to me via my own church—you really in many ways achieved grace through the state of feeling it, in fact—and so as a writer I think it’s not that surprising that I spend so much time there with my characters, despite the overarching omniscience. And to me it was necessary to be able to manage point of view in such a way that the focalization would be able to narrow its focus and, as much as the camera can go outside characters, sit within them—I would argue that much of the time I use free indirect speech as a kind of segue into a temporary close third (which is always-already omniscience). Certainly I’ve read a lot of omniscience generally speaking—I feel like I was basically raised on it, and I’m not just talking about the King James, though also that—and as a writer now I watch very carefully how the masters of omniscience move their cameras to get us from outside to inside, or, as with free indirect speech, to sit right in between.


CH: Some critics have called The End of Drum-Time “an epic love story,” and that description intrigues me. To be very honest, it’s not like any “love story” I’ve ever read, unless it’s a love letter to a lost culture’s complexity, to a lost way of living harmoniously with the land and its nonhuman creatures. I do see the two main romantic (anti)heroes, young Ivvár and Willa, both beautifully flawed in so many ways, and many other equally sympathetic characters, but I think the reindeer, in all their cheeky glory, steal the show. What I see is an epic tale of western anthropocentrism gone wildly wrong, as it so does. How did you approach writing nonhuman entities—and not just the endearing reindeer, but also the forbidding snow? And ah, the snow, the snow! It seems so…utterly endless?

HP: I think it’s incredibly fair to not call this a love story, or to resist that label—certainly there is a love, and a love story, within it—but I would agree that it’s arguably a love letter to the time of a precolonialization (though by this point in time, colonialization, and the end of drum-time, were already well on their way). I think calling it a love story happens because as humans a love story is so compelling, and that’s okay—a love story is maybe the most uniquely shared story we all know. And certainly if I love anything in the novel I love the reindeer—you know, they are both beautiful and comical in real life. And life-sustaining. And to eat a calf—to accept its deliciousness, its fat—it’s difficult to even write, much less do, when you have met the calf. One of my first experiences in Sápmi was an invitation to go see some calves who were being held in a corral nearby. I said, sure, full of naïve excitement. And when I got there the men jumped the fence and began to kill them in the forehead with nail guns, and they just collapsed in front of me, and were slaughtered. I ended up holding one of the hooves of the calves, and watching them collect the blood in buckets, and I went to pull the skin down off the muscle—it was a necessary but terrible introduction to not romanticizing nature. And the whole time I could not help but think that two of the herders who were there were flirting with each other, or they seemed to be—the woman collecting blood and the man doing the slaughtering. And that’s what stayed with me—the human love happening in the midst of this. So it was necessary to understand the nonhuman—the reindeer, the snow, the extreme cold—to collect the cloudberries—to beat the grass—but I also wanted to never lose the human relationship to these things. It wasn’t nature in this pure form, but humans as inside that nature and shaping that nature and most of all being shaped by that nature.


CH: Hanna, we’ve been so thrilled to partner with you on the 2024 Novelette Print Prize. You’ve been so generous with your time, with this interview just another example of such. We know you teach at Warren Wilson, and given your busy schedule, your own writing time must indeed be very precious to you. How do you balance writing and instructing? What inspires you to write, to keep pursuing your craft as an award-winning novelist?

HP: There is no balance; balance is a total myth. I accept this. Some days I am able to clear the agenda and write. I always want to put writing first but nature shapes me, teaching shapes me—some days I have to do other things first. I am able to keep writing because I love writing, and I keep choosing it—I am happiest when I am writing well. It is easy to pick being happy, if only the world will leave you alone to do it! It feels similar to how, if I go a week without running, my body feels kind of cranky and irritated—it’s my body that wants to run as much as I do. So the writing must happen, something must give. I am always looking for something that can give so that I can write. What can give? The laundry? An email? Many emails? And, not incidentally, I’m a mother—my son is two. This is one the toughest times to be a writer—to be a mother at the same time. You are needed by so much, by your child, by yourself, by your book. So there is no balance at all. There is no only being a writer and I wouldn’t want that anyway.


HANNA PYLVÄINEN is the author of We Sinners, which received the Whiting Award, and The End of Drum-Time, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her work has appeared in Harper’s MagazineThe New York TimesThe New York Times Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, and LitHub. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, a Princeton Arts Fellowship at Princeton University, and a Cullman Fellowship at the New York Public Library. She has taught at the University of Michigan, Princeton University, and Virginia Commonwealth University. Currently, she is on the faculty at the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. She lives in Philadelphia. Find Hanna on Instagram @hannapyl.

COURTNEY HARLER (she/her) is a queer writer, editor, and educator based in Las Vegas, Nevada. She holds an MFA from University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe (2017) and an MA from Eastern Washington University (2013). Courtney is currently editor in chief of CRAFT and editorial director for Discover New Art, and has read and/or written for UNT Press’s Katherine Anne Porter Prize, The Masters Review, Funicular Magazine, Reflex Fiction, and Chicago Literati in recent years. She also hosts the literary podcast PWN’s Debut Review, as well as instructs and edits for Project Write Now. For her creative work, Courtney has been honored by fellowships and/or grants from Key West Literary Seminar, Writing By Writers, Community of Writers, Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, and Nevada Arts Council. Courtney’s work has been published in multiple genres in literary magazines around the world. Find her, and her ecopics, on Instagram @CourtneyHarler.