Kjell Westö (b. 1961, Helsinki) is one of Finland’s foremost authors. He is best known for his epic novels set in Helsinki, but he has also written short stories, poetry, essays and newspaper columns.
He made his literary debut as a poet in 1986. Three years later his first volume of prose, Utslag och andra noveller (Rasch and Other Stories), was published. It was a critical success and was nominated for the prestigious Finlandia Prize. Westö’s earliest works provided glimpses of his future strengths, particularly an assured command of dialogue, setting and mood.
Kjell Westö’s first novel, Drakarna över Helsingfors (Kites over Helsinki, 1996), made a huge impact on Swedish- and Finnish-speaking audiences in Finland. His next novels, Vådan av att vara Skrake (The Peril of Being a Skrake, 2000) and Lang (Lang, 2002), were nominated for the Finlandia Prize as well as the Nordic Council Literature Prize, and Lang was translated into thirteen languages. His fourth novel, Där vi en gång gått (Where We Once Walked, 2006), secured Kjell Westö’s status as an author for all of Finland and won him the Finlandia Prize. Both its Swedish and Finnish editions were commercial successes in Finland and the novel was also Westö´s breakthrough in Sweden. A stage adaptation was performed at Helsinki City Theatre, and the story was made into a film and TV series.
In his depictions of different eras, Kjell Westö portrays fragile, vulnerable individuals and the impact the big historical events have on them. This practice continues in his fifth novel, Gå inte ensam ut i natten (Do Not Go Alone Into the Night, 2009), and his sixth, Hägring 38 (Mirage 38, 2013). Like Westö’s previous works, Hägring 38 is a Helsinki novel, a portrait of an era and of a social class. It was nominated for the Finlandia Prize and Sweden’s August Prize, and was awarded the 2014 Nordic Council Literature Prize and the Swedish Radio Novel Prize. That same year Westö received two more awards from Sweden – the Aniara Prize and The Nine Society’s Grand Prize – for his entire literary oeuvre.
Today, Kjell Westö’s works have been translated into over 20 languages, and he is a seven-time recipient of awards from the Society of Swedish Literature in Finland. Den svavelgula himlen (The Sulphur-Yellow Sky), his seventh novel, was published in the autumn 2017 in Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian and Danish, with French, German and Dutch translation rights also sold.
In September 2017 the stage version of Hägring 38, adapted by Mikaela Hasan and Michael Baran and directed by Mikaela Hasan, had its Finnish-language premiere at the Finnish National Theatre in Helsinki.
Westö has said that the essence of his writing is a never-ending interest in the enigma of being human and an irrepressible desire to find out why we are the way we are and why we do the things we do. He prefers to explore the past as well as the present, portraying different types of people with contrasting viewpoints and circumstances. On one occasion he explained his reason for writing thus: “Because strangers turn up in my head uninvited and start speaking and doing things, and they want to get out.”
Westö studied journalism at the Swedish School of Social Science in Helsinki, and began his career as a journalist at Hufvudstadsbladet, Finland’s largest Swedish-language newspaper, and the leftist magazine Ny Tid. He is divorced with two adult sons. A self-confessed language nerd , he speaks five languages and is able to read a few more. His favourite hobby is music, and he plays guitar in two cover bands: WHAT? and Nyrok Dolls. In his younger days, Westö was an avid fisherman – something he had in common with the favourite actor of his youth, Paul Newman. Newman sometimes included a line in his biography saying that he was “generally considered to be the worst fisherman on the East Coast of the United States”. Similarly, Kjell Westö’s presence in a fishing boat is a surefire guarantee that nothing will bite.