“I don’t think I’ve ever had a creative idea in Finnish”: An interview with @Ppallo — Tobias Ryan

Though always friendly and forthcoming on Twitter, where he can be found posting farcical scenarios, eccentric titbits and poignant asides, I found Ppallo far more difficult to pin down for an interview than I had anticipated. Indeed, when we spoke over Zoom, him in a darkened room, wearing a dressing gown and sipping at what I assumed to be grain alcohol, he hardly seemed delighted to be talking to me. He was, nonetheless, very generous with his time and gentlemanly to a fault; his manners unimpeachable, if not always his manner.

Thank you for agreeing to the interview, Ppallo! It’s nice to put a face to the name. Where are you joining me from today?

Thank you for having me! That’s something I feel very comfortable divulging, I’m in Helsinki, Finland. Unsurprisingly as I am, despite some cruel rumours, very much a Finn. Anyway, yeah, nice to be talking to you!

Perhaps that’s a topic we can come back to later … But let’s not beat around the bush. Regarding your tweets, which sit somewhere between shitposting and very short, micro stories: to what extent do you consider them literary?

That’s a good question. I probably feel differently about different tweets. Some of them are just updates and more for friends, but certainly some of them are more fantastical. I don’t know that I would call it “writing” publicly, for fear of how that might sound, but I definitely think of it as a creative platform. I work an interesting enough job, but not one that is super creative. Twitter is somewhere I get to be creative and also play with language, which is something I’ve always enjoyed.

Your job is another topic I would like to come back to, if that’s alright?

With pleasure, absolutely, that’s something we can briefly discuss.

As playing with language has always been something you’ve enjoyed, I’m curious what kind of writing you did prior to having the account?

I would write some short stories, never to any sort of public acclaim or even public availability, but I did write short stories. And, as a younger man, I would often mimic somebody else’s style, try to write in the way someone else wrote. I think that splits opinion as to whether it’s a good way to write or not, but it was something I did just for my own pleasure. I wrote as a personal exercise.

‘Sidecar’ @Ppallo

Did you have aspirations to become a writer?

No, not necessarily. I think I found it a little far-fetched. There’s a definite creative freedom in writing in the language that I feel comfortable in, and I feel is my own, but is not actually my mother tongue. It gives you a distance that allows you to see irony in things. I have often joked that I find it much more comfortable to say I “love” something in English. If I said it in Finnish, I would find that like a commitment. That to me is like a legal document; I take it very seriously!

So when you’re when you’re composing your tweets it’s automatically in English? There’s no translation process?

No. I don’t think I’ve ever had a creative idea in Finnish.

There’s a technical aspect to it too. I have a more creative vocabulary in English than I do in Finnish. And the kind of character that often is the focus of my tweets, a sort of a mid-Atlantic, middle class, buffoonish but very comfortable-in-life gentleman is not, to me, a very Finnish character. It comes mostly from British, and partly American, comedy, comedies of manners, and just through observation.

Oh, so you lived in –?

Yeah, I lived in England for much of my early childhood. It’s where I learned to read and probably developed my first sense of culture.

So there are some grounds to question your nationality, in fact.

Look, I would be happy to show you my passport. Well not literally, I don’t have it on me. Also my passport has lapsed during the pandemic, so it wouldn’t be up to date. That’s actually something I recommend people check. If they haven’t traveled for a while due to the global situation, it is always good to have an up to date passport. Unfortunately currently I don’t.

In any case, I think my grasp of language has always been relatively good; my understanding of language and what might sound funny, I always had an ear for that.

The account is very distinctive in terms of references. There is a strong voice. Is that something you’ve consciously developed or is it a natural consequence of your circumstances, or of writing in English?

There’s a hint of my reality in it, but that’s quite separate from the final product. I’ve always had an interest in what the British might call the “middle class”, and Americans the “upper-middle class”: the idea of a large family get together with a vast array of characters and everyone having some sort of connection to each other. I think one of the reasons you see so much of that in comedy is that you never have to address these characters’ material comfort and that makes everything that happens to them funny. There’s a safety net that makes it very comfortable. And it lessens any worries of punching down.

It’s a rich world for neurosis.

Exactly. And on Twitter especially a lot of people have a very raw, hard-hitting – though often steeped in irony – jokes about the actual difficulties of life. I feel like that market is well served. A lot of those things, to me, as someone living in Finland, as I am, are quite distant. That’s not my everyday life, so I would feel fake talking about them. Whereas if I talk about Eton, for example, even if it’s fake, I’m not worried about it. Excuse me –

[at this point, Ppallo muted his microphone to receive a phone call lasting several minutes.]

Welcome back … Can I ask about your influences? Do they come from Twitter? From literature?

There are definitely literary influences. I read some P.G. Wodehouse as a young man and there are influences from actual comedies of manners from the late 19th century. But I think a lot of the tone comes from sitcoms, especially British sitcoms. Jeeves and Wooster, of course. Also the pacing of them is somewhat sketch comedic. There’s a very short amount of text to be able to relay a premise to the reader, and that’s something I’ve always found funny: if this and this interacted or this kind of position were in this kind of situation, wouldn’t that be funny.

One of the beauties of Twitter is that it’s an editor in itself. It’s so tight. It demands you cleave off everything that isn’t necessary to get your idea across.

‘Cooking with Sex’ @Ppallo

Can you talk us through the process of a Ppallo tweet?

Most of them don’t have that much pre-thought in them. Almost all of them start with an idea and very often it’s wordplay. For example, there’s one tweet about a book called Cooking with Sex. I was thinking about “Cool Britannia”, that sort of time, space and the mental picture that came to me was of a chef with a bald head in a black leather jackets on a morning chat show promoting a book called Cooking with Sex. All I really had was Cooking with Sex, and I built the tweet from there.

I’m not an extremely well read person, but I have specific cultural knowledge from the late 90s to the 2000s; magazine and middle brow culture that allows me to reference quite specific things from both sides of the Atlantic.

It’s remarkable for a Finn …

I find the tone of that remark, frankly, leading. Do I have a passing interest in cultural ephemera from the 90s and aughts? Sure I suppose so, but the depth of my knowledge of politics and culture, both popular and otherwise, in the Anglo-American sphere is purely a product of reading, you know, Parade magazine and stuff. Hello!, British Esquire, CNN: widely available sources such as those. I will not apologise for having a veracious appetite for learning. Even if it is about the intricacies of “Cool Britannia”, or whatever. Anyway, yeah, I think that remark is unfair.

My apologies. Let’s talk about Finland then. I have to admit I don’t have much of a concept of Finnish stereotypes. Is there anything in your tweets you would identify as a Finnish influence?

That’s an interesting question, do give me a moment as I get a glass of water.

[Ppallo muted his microphone and turned off his camera. From this point on, we began to experience connectivity issues.]

Do forgive me; hydration is key. I would say that in certain tweets there’s an appreciation for the natural world and for being able to do simple things, particularly the idea that not being able to do simple things results in a feeling of emasculation or separation from society. That I think is rather Finnish. And also probably holding the view that being nude is okay. I have no qualms about that.

To go back to your process, do you keep notebooks or is it all done directly in Twitter?

I do it all on Twitter, but I do have some drafts. They’ll be quite rather strange in drafts because it will be, for example, a proper sentence and then just two words to remind me where I was going with it. It will be, you know: “Nicholas never liked the ice skates his father gave him” and “pink hair + 2012”. That’s supposed to lead me somehow to where I was going to go.

Is it something that’s constantly bubbling away in the back of your mind, or do you sit down and think, “OK, I need to concentrate on finishing this”?

It depends. Sometimes I’ll be under actual life pressure – and actually I think that’s one of the better times to tweet because you just tweet something and then it’s out there.

Do you feel pressure to tweet often or to tweet certain kinds of things?

No. I genuinely feel that it’s a very forgiving platform. There’s also a sense of easy community on Twitter, of being able to throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks. But I’m not trying to like chase metrics or anything like that.

‘Bullfrog Landlord’ @Ppallo

In your bio it states “All business, all the time”, what can you tell us about the man behind the AVI?

I am employed in a professional field, in a rather junior workaday position. I enjoy my work, but I do not expect it ever to make the papers or be of any particular note.

[the connection was lost]

There you are! Yes, as I was saying, I hope I’m not being too vague, I’m simply a humble working man, who – I don’t feel the need to speak too much about myself. You probably will have noticed –

To get back to Twitter then, how do you feel about the transitory nature of only putting stuff out in tweets?

I think that’s part of the beauty of it.

I also think that one of the great things about Twitter is when out of this huge barrage of content something becomes a thing that people remember. There are years-old tweets that get retweeted from time to time, and the reaction is “Oh yeah, that was so great!” and that’s fantastic. It’s a bit like panning for gold. The idea that something can stick is rather lovely.

Is this something you’ll continue to do for as long as you have ideas, or do you have any intention of writing short stories or longer forms?

I don’t have any active plans. Life may surprise you, but I don’t have any plans.

Before we finish, you mentioned at the start of the interview the “cruel rumours” that have been levelled at you. It would be remiss of me not to ask what you make of the implication that you’re involved with the CIA. Why do you feel that accusations of agency affiliation have followed you throughout your time online?

First and foremost, these insinuations about [air quotes] “Agency” ties – jokes. However, as I’m sure most would agree, there is often an uncomfortable kernel of truth to banter and japes. And well I suppose the kernel, if you will, of truth in this instance is that people feel as though my perspective, the level of insight I offer, perhaps my stance on certain issues, is suspect. They seem to find them curious or even unbelievable stances for a youngish man from Finland to hold. But I know nothing that one can’t learn from reading the papers. There’s a war on journalism going on. People question the reporting of institutions such as The Guardian, The New York Times, the late great Al-Hiwar, and others. So that’s something I think we should all be vigilant towards. Yeah, so with that being said, I have no ties to any Intelligence agencies. Honestly, my ties to intelligence of any kind are questionable! A bit of levity. I have to go, thanks for having me, Tobias!

[Ppallo left the call.]

You can find Ppallo on Twitter @Ppallo. He is not CIA.