Käsintehdyssä viivassa on herkkyyttä ja huumoria

The handmade line has sensitivity and humor

Piritta Maavuori interviewed illustrator and writer Marika Maijala.
© Etana Editions, 2019

Sometimes the first draft is the finished piece

Piritta Maavuori: Ruusun matka (Rosie Runs, Etana Editions, 2019), which you wrote and illustrated, is your debut as a writer. The book received the Rudolf Koivu Award 2019, which is given every two years, for the best Finnish illustration. Like Tove Jansson , Maija Karma , Björn Landström and Anne Vasko in the past - and now you! You have been awarded this country's biggest prize for illustration art for the second time, warm congratulations!

Marika Maijala: I'm really happy, taken and surprised by the award, I hadn't expected it at all. Ruusun matka was in great company, there are really beautiful and new kinds of works on the nomination list. It's been ten years since my last award, and it makes me think, this is some kind of a passage for me.

PM: How did Ruusun matka come about? When did you know you wanted to write and illustrate a story yourself?

MM: It all started with a drawing I made in a sketchbook two years ago. I set myself the task of drawing every day. There was no subject, but every evening I sat down at the table to draw. The sketchbook was the biggest I had ever had, and before I had usually drawn quite small pictures. One night ago I drew a picture of dogs galloping on a track in front of a screaming audience. There was something interesting about the image and style, so I started looking into it. Perhaps I couldn't even think of it as a subject for a book, until I dared to show the sketchbook to Jenni Erkintalo and Réka Király of Etana Editions. They got excited about the picture, and other like-minded pictures, and suggested that I make a book out of them. It was really important to get confirmation of a vision that I had kept to myself for a long time.

Writing the text was and was not difficult... The final text of the book is quite close to the first version I made of it: it is very gestureless. I did try to color and expand it, but both in my opinion and the publishing editor Kirsikka Myllyrinne's, the efforts were quite forced, everything essential was already in the first version just like in the illustrations of the book, the best ones were created in one sitting, really quickly. I think that's a very natural way of working for me, and I want to stick to it.

In general, it was very meaningful for me to write and tell the story myself. It's been a big, secret dream of mine for a long time, maybe even bigger than illustrating a book has ever been.

PM: How did the illustration style and format of the book take shape to what they are now?

MM: Perhaps I succeeded in Ruusun matka in what I have been striving for all these years as an illustrator that the picture would be created with the first line, that the sketch would be a finished work in itself. I had really started to question the method of sketching the pictures first and then doing the finished, 'complete' work. It was frustrating when the sketches always felt fresher and more alive than the finished images. What a huge realization when I realized that the image could really be left at that draft stage. And what luck, when Jenni Erkintalo and Réka Király of Etana Editions were of the same opinion!

The format of the book shaped really thanks to the vision of Jenni and Réka of Etana Editions – the original works are large, and I was excited when they suggested that the finished book could also be large! In a smaller size, the images would have lost their power considerably. Jenni was responsible for the graphic design of the book, and she did a huge job, from adjusting the colors of the pictures to designing the cover. The cover is a graphic work of art with finished typography and embossing.


The journey of the rose reminds us of personal freedom

PM: Ruusu's story and pictures are incredibly beautiful and liberating, and the book is suitable for all ages. How did you work and where did you get the subject for your story?

MM: Actually, I had drawn a large part of the pictures before the story was locked... I was just trying to draw what was moving inside me, to understand what story was coming from there. This is perhaps a natural way of working for me, which I have discovered in recent years. Maybe this story is related to a more personal development in my own life. I am the 'nice girl', who got bullied at school and who has always given more weight to others and neglected her own feelings and wishes. I think my survival story needed to be expressed and visible somehow.

Bullying is a topic that touches me deeply, and which is still painful everyday life for many people, children and adults, and maybe I wrote the book with all of them in mind as well. But I wanted to extend my story to animals as well. I think that we live here as creatures, side by side, although the animals are subjugated in so many ways, and I myself also participate in that subjugation.

I had already worked on the book quite far when I realized that Ruusu's character and story also fit the story of my friend Elisa Aaltola's rescue dog Rosie. The friendly dogs Siiri and Iida appearing at the end of the book are also dogs I met in Elisa's pack.

Most of the time when I make pictures and write texts, the background or the trigger is a real situation I have encountered in my own life. It can take an imaginary form, but I feel that the expression gains power if it springs from a real feeling. However, I don't want to open up or explain the story too much, because I think it's important that a wide variety of readers could recognize something from it.

PM: How has your childhood and home environment influenced your works and work?

MM: My relationship with my home region is somewhat contradictory.  Junior high school and the years that followed bring to mind anxiety due to bullying. On the other hand, the home was an important refuge, where I could read, imagine and wander in peace around the forests and fields. Elementary school time at the village school was also fun, we were a group of kids who enjoyed baseball, making plays, and my best friend and I also made our own magazine. I also had many important teachers who encouraged me to write and draw.

My parents always worked a lot, as they were farmers, and my father also had a parallel job as a teacher at an agricultural college for a long time. In the morning he took care of the animals, then went to school to do a day's work and returned for the evening milking. There were hardly any holidays. But I saw that it was important for my parents to be independent, even if it required quite a lot, and perhaps I myself have learned the model of an independent entrepreneur from them.

PM: What would you like to say to children who draw?

MM: I don't have children of my own, but I have drawn a lot with my godchildren and my brother's children. I have also held a few workshops on drawing with children. It's always such a great experience! You don't particularly need to tell them how or what to draw, children's enthusiasm is so immediate, and on the contrary, I've tried to learn that from them as well.


A picture book is an art form of its own

PM: What makes a good children's book illustration?

MM: For me, it doesn't depend on the style at all, I can fall in love with minimalistic or abundant or clumsy or elaborate illustrations. Personally, I like the handmade line the most, somehow it has feeling and sensitivity that doesn't come across in the same way in a digital line. The most important thing is how the illustration works together with the text  how the story is told with both image and text, and what it evokes in the reader. I also like humor in illustrations and I would hope that my own illustrations would convey at least a small amount of humor.

PM: What do you think about the importance of illustrated literature in literature and art?

MM: I think that picture books at their best are art, their very own kind of art, not literature or visual art separately. Sometimes it's frustrating when people talk very dismissively about 'children's books as if the fact that children read books somehow makes them inferior. I think it's rather the opposite.

PM: How did you find Etana Editions as the publisher of your debut work?

MM: I got to know Jenni Erkintalo and Réka Király when we shared the same studio in Helsinki's Punavuori a few years ago. Jenni and Réka had long dreamed of starting their own children's book publishing house, and in fact Etana was founded when we were all still in the same studio. However, the community was divided when Etana Editions moved to its own premises and the rest of us to another studio in Vallila. Friendship and cooperation then continued in the form of books. In our Punavuori's studio, Jenni and Réka also saw my first drafts for my and Juha Virta's Filippa books, and the Piano karkaa book became one of Etana's very first publications. They found my Ruusu book in my sketchbooks before I realized it myself! Etana Editions pays a lot of attention to the graphic design and appearance of the book, so that the books really become works of illustration art, and that is important to me.

PM: What is the happiest moment in an illustrator's work?

MM: Perhaps the happiest moments are when you've been working on something for a long time perhaps a question related to technique, or just a question related to paper or the right tool, and then suddenly the pieces fall into place and you realize how to proceed. Or when you almost accidentally draw the perfect picture, and you don't even realize how it happened.


The desire to convey joy, beauty and emotions to the readers

PM: What is your typical process when it comes to creative illustration work?

MM: The typical process is that for quite a long time I fear and avoid starting work, I come up with substitute activities, and then when I finally sit down to work, that fear disappears and I start to enjoy work. At its best, drawing is quick and smooth, especially when nothing needs to be delivered to the print house yet, for example. As you are finishing the book, fear and anxiety return, and the last few days can be very painful. When the book is in print, I feel relieved and in that lift, I am able to draw with ease good and relaxed pictures again. So this is usually the case when making a book free drawing, on the other hand, is a different, more painless process.

PM: What is your motivation as a writer?

MM: It's hard to explain. There is just some inner compulsion to draw and now also to write. I would do that even if no one published and read these books. Drawing brings me a lot of joy. I also don't think that I specifically write children's books, I write and draw stories for people. I hope that people of all ages will find something in them.

PM: What is your motivation as a book illustrator?

MM: Illustration work comes more often as commissioned work, it is not always purely about expression.

I have to find the work meaningful in order to succeed in it, money alone is not enough motivation. And of course the money you get from illustrating books is also quite small, so the reasons for illustrating are other. I already know how to choose topics and texts that inspire me and feel important, and if I don't feel that way, I can refuse. For example, Essi Kummu's book Häätanssit, which came out last spring, seemed like such an important book.

PM: What can picture books at their best bring to the world?

MM: I think there can never be too much joy in the world. Or beauty. Or emotions at least I've gotten a lot of help from literature and movies to deal with my own emotions and things in my life. If picture books inspire someone to take action, perhaps making pictures themselves or something else that produces good things in the world or even changes the world, I think they have fulfilled their mission.

PM: What does creativity, courage and working together mean to you?

MM: Perhaps the biggest difference between me ten years ago and me today is precisely this. I have learned to work together, largely thanks to Jenni and Réka. For example, Ruusu matka is a successful work precisely because we have done it together, all aspects i9n its making are important. I've always been a bit of a lone wolf, and I always will be, but I've learned to ask for help, ask for advice, and share a little more. Also to take good criticism, sometimes I've actually really missed it. Is that courage? Working together is also really fun at best for example, meetings with Juha Virta or Jenni and Réka often end in hysterical chuckle, which is wonderful.

PM: What kind of books do you think children need?

MM: I often choose a picture book myself – I think I just gave one of my godchildren a book in Spanish just because of the great pictures. Children need as many different books as possible – books written by authors of different ages and from different social and cultural backgrounds, books with different narrators and main characters, and books that leave room for their own questions and thoughts. I'm a stranger to the idea that children's books should have some kind of lesson – but it's good if they raise questions and can serve as a starting point for discussion.

PM: What do you want to tell about your everyday life?

MM: I have a studio in Harakka islans's artists' house. The place is my lifeline, and there I also drew the pictures of Ruusu's journey. A few years ago I started practicing sailing, even though I'm a complete land crab, and before I was mostly afraid of water and got seasick on boats and ships and any moving vehicles. In that sense, it seems mostly absurd that I sailed from Kotka to Helsinki this summer as a sailor in my friend's sailing boat.

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