Sophia Jansson – ‘Sometimes your tone of voice just needs to be that little bit sharp’

When Puffin’s publicity lady enthusiastically drags us into the authors’ yurt at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, where we’re interviewing Sophia Jansson, we get further in than I dared expect. Because I know what’s about to happen, and it does. Somehow the trip out is faster than the walking in.

‘I’ve been thrown out of here before’ I say to Sophia by way of explanation as to why we had to beat a hasty retreat from the yurt.

‘Why?’ Sophia wants to know.

‘Press aren’t allowed. I’ve been thrown out of there before. They want to keep it private. Which is understandable.’

‘Ah, OK, but didn’t we meet before at… in London?’

‘Yes, at the Puffin presentation in January.’

‘I remember.’

We sit down in the sun on the deck outside the yurt, somewhere that is almost as forbidden, but I’m past caring. I try to position Sophia so that she has the light in the right place. I’m aware that the battery of my recording equipment is about to die, so jump straight in with my questions.

‘A lot of people say when speaking of Tove that she’s an author’s author. Do you have a theory as to why that is?’

Sophia laughs. ‘No, I don’t. I don’t know what it means. An author’s author?’

‘So many writers love the Moomins and Tove Jansson. Someone suggested she wrote in a way that appeals especially to authors.’

Sophia Jansson

‘Well, I can only speculate, since I don’t actually know what it means, but Tove was, how shall I say it, very particular with her language, very particular with structure, and very particular with her research. She did a lot of research for her books. Her books were never written without a plan. Well, maybe the first one like Moomins and the Great Flood. When you write your first book…’

‘Yes.’

‘But after that. I have actually noticed lots of times that her art training had an enormous influence on how she wrote, and also on how she described certain things; how she structured her writing, almost like her paintings. And above all when you consider Tove’s adult novels and her short stories; they are so very “composed”. There isn’t a single word that’s wrong or a mistake. She was so meticulous; went through everything. It could have something to do with that. But then there are many different kinds of writers, so it’s hard to know…’

‘Perhaps it’s because it’s like a craft?’

‘Yeah, yes sometimes I believe – though maybe not so much from other authors – that people have an image that you “just write a book”. But it is a craft. Tove took great care to make use of her artist’s background. She always wanted it to be of high quality.’

‘Many people ask if Tove’s books really are children’s books. You touched a little on that in your talk here at the EIBF, but are they children’s books? Some are children’s and others not?’

‘Yees, well generally you could say… to begin with they were only for children and then they developed and became more of adults’ books. The amazing thing about them is that they can be read by any age, and you get different things from the books, like that man in the audience said.’

‘Yes, that was interesting.’

Sophia Jansson

‘He mentioned Moominpappa at Sea and Moominvalley in November. My children have read them now, but they found totally different things in the books. It might not, they didn’t get the philosophy of the novels, even if they read the latest books. What’s it called..?’

(At this point in the conversation Meg Rosoff comes up to ask if Sophia wants to walk over to the restaurant where they are having dinner together. They decide to meet in the hotel lobby, and Meg apologises for not having managed to wangle an invitation for me. I explain I had been invited, but that I had other plans. Meg claims to be looking for her 10% from me, before walking off to the hotel.)

‘Where was I? Sophia wonders.

‘That the books have developed away from children’s books.’

‘Yes, children can read the later books, but they notice other things in them.’

‘Absolutely. Did Tove ever try them out on children? Would she sit down and read her book to a nearby child, just to see if it worked?’

‘Yes, once written, she would, but not while writing it.’ Sophia laughs. ‘She wouldn’t do that. No. No she wouldn’t let a child edit her book, I suspect. As she said in some interviews, to begin with she wrote for her own pleasure, but even later she mainly wrote for herself. The fact that she didn’t have children of her own can be seen in that they are adult books. Or that they can be read by adults.’

‘Did Tove get on well with children?’

Sophia Jansson

‘She got on very well with children, although possibly not in the traditional way. She didn’t spend time playing… regardless of being called Moominmamma. She was no Moominmamma. She simply behaved towards children as she did towards everyone. She treated children as equals. You know, the child was as interesting as any adult; worth just as much as anyone else. Listening to the child, taking it seriously. I believe children pick up quickly on this, when someone is really interested in them. It wasn’t something she developed on purpose; she truly was interested. But then she wasn’t in the situation where she had five hungry children whose nappies needed changing, or who she had to cook meals for, because she didn’t put herself in that kind of situation. If she had, she may well have fallen short, somehow.’

‘Yes, I can imagine.’ We laugh heartily. ‘So many women seem to recognise themselves in Little My. Why do you think that is?’

With no hesitation whatsoever Sophia replies, ‘because sometimes your tone of voice just needs to be that little bit sharp in order to tell the truth! No one understands you.’ Hahaha. ‘Well, that may count as over-simplifying Little My rather, because she is much more multi-facetted. I get tired of the fact that people kind of just see her as that angry little girl. She is more complex than that, and she is really instrumental to all the other characters.’

‘And you? Do you see yourself as some sort of crown princess, someone who has to do this job? With a kind of royal duty?’

‘No, I don’t think so. I could have chosen not to do it. But my personality is such that I feel a certain responsibility. And as things are today, I also stand to make money from it, so…’ Sophia sounds happy. ‘It shouldn’t be the main thing, but you can’t ignore it, either. But this discussion at my event (about selling the rights to Moomin); I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I were to do it, so I’ll leave that to someone else. I can’t do it; I’m too close. The next generation. I can’t do it. Someone else might be able to, when they are further away from the origins, but I have lived with Tove, as family.’

Sophia Jansson

‘The next generation. Did they know Tove at all?’

‘My children met Tove, but they never had a proper relationship with her. They were so young, and she was tired by then.’

‘Are there other cousins?’

‘Yes, there are other members of the family, but to be honest, very few of them have had much to do with Tove. That generation will be further off, and by then decisions can be based on other things.’

‘You mean like maybe selling out to Disney?’

‘Possibly,’ Sophia sounds unsure.

‘You can’t know.’

“No, there is no knowing what they’ll do.’

‘I’ve been wondering; did Tove ever watch the television cartoon series from the 1990s?’

‘Yes, she did see it, actually, but in those days they still lacked in technique. OK, things weren’t as primitive as in the 1960s, but everything was that much slower, as regards approval and so on. For instance, when Tove saw the first four episodes and the Moomins had mouths, she said “those mouths need to go”. But by then the films were finished.’

At this point Charlotte Square is almost completely deafened by sirens, and we can barely hear ourselves speak. There is a certain inconvenience to conducting an interview on what’s really a traffic roundabout.

‘Do you feel your father received enough recognition for his part in all this?’

Sophia Jansson

‘Oh, erm, yes. No. Yes. I don’t know how important he’d have felt it was for the rest of the world to know about the part he played. That may be what it was. I know how important he was.’

‘Yes.’

‘And he knew how important he was. But I don’t think he cared all that much whether the rest of the world knew he was important. He wasn’t that type, but’ Sophia stops to consider, ‘it’s one of those things. Tove was a genius in every way, and she was fantastic, but she had a group of people around her – and my father was one of them – who made things possible. This is something you can discuss, or not, but my father definitely could. He played a big role on many levels.’

‘Do you feel there is a risk, now that there are new Moomin books for a new generation, that “the brand” will be diluted?’

‘The risk is always there, and it’s really our task to make sure it isn’t diluted. It’s always a question of balance. Thinking of the new books; they can’t be like the original books, but you do get the original illustrations used in a pleasing manner, while updated and with a new background and new colour scheme, still using the same font. It’s a respectful way of using the original to make something new. And we are checking, checking continuously. Yes, its often good, but occasionally it’s not so good.’

‘There are no names in the new books, to indicate who’s behind them. Is it a group?’

‘Well, there is a whole team working, so there is no one who…’

‘Not just one or two?’

‘No, they are a team working on publishing children’s books. This is more boardbooks, and they are put together by a team, so it would be wrong to highlight an individual. I don’t think the publishers allow it. But they’re employed by the publishers, and it’s their job.’

Sophia Jansson

‘The new books; are they Puffin’s idea, or is it simply that Puffin bought the English language rights?’

‘No, no. It’s Puffin’s idea. In actual fact, we were contacted by several publishers who had an interest in re-publishing the existing classics, and of the ones we met with, Puffin clearly had the best pitch. But considering what their goals were, and what they wanted to do… And then they did already have the original Moomin books. So we said that if we let them do this, then we wanted them to re-issue the originals as well. Puffin are revitalising the Moomin books, and it’s great, and I’m really pleased.’

My photographer asks Sophia how well the classics sell, in their re-issued form.

‘They haven’t published all eight yet, they are working on it. Of those there are always some that sell better than others, and some less. Finn Family Moomintroll is one of the definitive titles, which sells more than the rest.’

‘But sales are fairly respectable, anyway? For an old book?’

‘I think so. I’m really bad at figures, though, and can’t say how many.’

Sophia Jansson

‘You’re not disappointed, at least?’

‘No, not at all.’

‘Will the new books be published in other languages?’

‘These ones, yes. I think it’s sixteen countries, this year. Alfabeta will publish them in Sweden.’

‘Is there an increased interest for Moomin now, or does it remain fairly constant?’

‘Right now there is clearly a bigger interest in England, for example.’

‘Yes, I find a lot of people talk about the books.’

‘It comes and goes, but here there is definitely an increase at the moment.’

The photographer wonders if it might have something to do with people in their early twenties, who used to watch the television series in the 1990s; whether it’s a little retro.

Sophia Jansson

‘Absolutely. I believe it’s partly that, and partly that more people now take an interest in things like the environment, a little like Julia said. That it was eco before things were eco.’ In her conversation with Julia Eccleshare they had covered the green aspects of Moomin, including the “outhouse”, more appropriately called a privy.

One version of the origins of Moomin is that it’s art, which happened to be drawn on the walls of the privy, whenever someone had time on their hands, while in there.

Sophia Jansson

I asked Sophia about Tove’s “real” art, the paintings I came across in an old magazine not too long ago. They were fantastic pieces, and I wanted to know if there are any permanent exhibitions where you can see them. But it seems as though there are only occasional paintings in a few galleries and museums in Finland.

In connection with my thoughts on Sophia’s status as some sort of crown princess, I asked what her typical day is like. Sophia doesn’t spend enough days in the office, she reckons, but when she does, her day is like anybody else’s day in an office. She travels a lot, and this last year with the new books coming, she’s travelled far more. Sophia came straight to our meeting in Edinburgh from Asia, but she did say she’s hoping for much less travelling next year.

And with the recorder having finally died, we say goodbye and see Sophia off towards her hotel, and that Puffin dinner.

(Photos by Ian Giles. Translated from Swedish by Ann Giles.)

5 responses to “Sophia Jansson – ‘Sometimes your tone of voice just needs to be that little bit sharp’

  1. Pingback: She was no Moominmamma | Bookwitch

  2. very interesting. I do hope the books won’t get diluted, which certainly happened with Winnie the Pooh, so I hope Disney never gets a look-in…
    The Moomin books are so complex and layered, you can always get something more out of them.
    Great pictures!

  3. Thanks for the great interview!
    I wish I could read them in the original– every time I re-read the ealier books (Comet, Finn Family) there are bits that make me wonder it the translation is really all it could be. Although since I don’t feel this when re-reading the later books (At Sea, November), maybe it is isn’t the translator, but the author….

  4. Charlotte – now might be the time to brush up on your Swedish. Motivation, and all that.

  5. Just stumbled across this interview in January 2012… what a great addition to good memories of the Moomin books. To get to hear the voice of someone close to Tove Jansson, and keeping her memory alive.

    Thanks for publishing this interview.

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