I imagine that authors dread the question “Where do you get your ideas?” as much as I dread the question “What’s your favorite book?” Inspiration is as personal as trying to identify a favorite story. In fact, I suspect that answer to both questions is similar. Where do you get your ideas? Everywhere. What’s your favorite book? Most of them. That said, Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen has turned the question of where writers get their ideas into a sinister tale of vampiric writers and the creatures that haunt them in in The Rabbit Back Literature Society. This edition was translated by Lola M. Rogers.
Ella Malina is a substitute teacher in Rabbit Back, Finland, a town with a stunning literary reputation. It’s the home of Laura White, an internationally celebrated children’s author. White is also the head of the Rabbit Back Literature Society, a group of nine writers she mentored as children. The writers have gone on to success in most genres. They are reclusive; White doesn’t give interviews. But there’s a chance that someone will become the tenth member of the society. Being invited to join is an almost certain guarantee of literary success. Decades have gone by, however, since anyone has joined the society. It’s the long shot of all long shots that Ella is invited to join after White reads Ella’s story in the local paper.
The Rabbit Back Literature Society has no straight plot lines, it seems. Just when I thought I was figuring out where it was taking me, the plot would take a sharp left turn into something new—usually something sinister. The beginning of the book made me think the book was about a woman, Ella, losing her father to Alzheimer’s. Then Ella was invited into the society. Then White disappears and Ella’s literary hopes disappear.
The book settles down (a bit) after the first half, after Ella decides to return to what she does best: literary research. She uses the Society’s Game against the members to get information about their earliest days and find out about the missing tenth member that no one talks about. The Game is essentially interrogation. The challenger asks the challenged a question. The challenger is allowed to hurt and drug the challenged to get the whole truth out of them. Then the roles are reversed.
It doesn’t take long for Ella—and us readers—to work out that the Game is the source of quite a lot of the Society member’s work. Through interrogation about the most intimate and sensitive topics, the writers glean feelings and memories that they will put into their next projects. Under White’s tutelage, the writers have become permanent outsiders. It seems they can only observe. While at the local grocery store, Ella runs into one of the writers, who tells her:
But if you want to find characters for a book, this is a good place to do it, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. I found bits of a serial killer’s mother, half a hero’s lover, and three whole peripheral characters today. A nice haul. (n.p.*)
When I read these lines, I was strongly reminded of all the fearful jokes I’ve seen about writers. “Be careful! Or you’ll end up in my novel!”
I found the writers’ isolation and methods very interesting, but the supernatural elements that are hinted at throughout the book only really come into play near the end of the book. I’m still not sure how I feel about how Jääskeläinen ultimately used them other than that I wanted more Finnish folklore. This sounds like I think this novel has missteps, but that’s not quite true. The Rabbit Back Literature Society works and I enjoyed it. It just didn’t go in the direction I wanted; that’s hardly the book’s fault.
* 2015 kindle edition by Pushkin Press.