Publisert 13.12.2023

Creating a safe space for writing – An artist interview with co-writers Nelly Winterhalder and Lois Armas

The international Together Again project brought Norway-based Nelly Winterhalder and Finland-based Lois Armas together to co-write  ‘Holy Monkey’, the third season of the Middle Eastern Bloc podcast.  The writers share their thoughts on collaborative writing and creating a story about reconnection.

My name is Nelly Winterhalder and I’m a playwright, director, and translator. In addition to a master’s degree in playwriting from the Academy of Theatre in Oslo, I have a master’s degree in Italian literary studies and acting education from Munich. I was born in Germany in 1979, lived in Munich, Germany and Genova, Italy before moving permanently to Norway in 2006. Since then, I’ve been working in different artistic collaborations and several languages. In 2019, I established the live-art co-operative Ann Sam Bell ( which works with artists in Norway and Germany. My debut as a playwright in Norway was alt i boks (Everything sorted) at the Norwegian Drama Festival in 2009. Since then, my plays have been shown in Norway, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Finland, Italy, and Nicaragua. Nelly Winterhalder. Photo: Kristin Aafløy Opdan.

I am Lois Armas. I’m a writer, a communications specialist in the arts field, and a creative writing instructor. I spent my childhood in Venezuela, my youth in Spain, and I ended up making a home in Finland almost 12 years ago. I have a Master’s Degree in Social Sciences from the University of Helsinki, prior to which I graduated in history at the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. My first novel, Flora, was just published last May after almost three years of work. Besides writing, I work with communications and press in the arts field. Recently, I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in film-related events that have been incredibly inspiring and enriching for me. Finally, for a few years now I’ve been interested in community-building writing practices, by fostering spaces of togetherness for beginner writers. I’ve organised and facilitated writing groups, for both adults and youngsters. I do this because I believe that writing does not need to exclusively happen in solitude, but we actually need others to encourage us, read our words, write next to us, exchange thoughts and feelings together. Lois Armas. Photo: Heta Heikkala.

Holy Monkey tells the story of Harald (Timo Torikka) and Taimi (Sointu Vuorela), a father and a daughter who reconnect after more than a decade. Where did the idea for this story come from?

Lois: Right at the beginning of the project we were only given one ‘instruction’, which was to develop a story on the topic of ‘post-pandemic (re)connection’. This is quite a broad premise, and I think this was key for Nelly and me to be able to explore freely – we could come up with literally any interpretation.

Very early on, we both felt we wanted two people to come together – two people with a previous bond, as it was precisely this joint past that would allow us to explore several angles: why they’d fallen out of touch, how were their individual lives, what they expected from reuniting, and so on. We would meet weekly and just let our ideas flow, and I think that having this very strong idea of a parent and child reuniting was what allowed us to shape what the story could be. Personally, I’m fascinated with the topic of parenting adult children, or how complex family dynamics can be once children grow up and become adults with agency.

“…we understood that we’d both been thinking about a child and a parent who’d lost contact a while ago. So, we agreed to go ahead with that common idea.” – Nelly

Nelly: Lois and I were looking for a story-frame with two characters. We were looking for both an inner and outer journey that the characters could embark on. So, we started to play around with ten ideas each for the frame of a story for two characters who wanted to reconnect. Sharing our ideas, we understood that we’d both been thinking about a child and a parent who’d lost contact a while ago. So, we agreed to go ahead with that common idea. I remember thinking that I was interested in these voices from different generations, and how much of an advantage it is to have a male and a female voice that are quite easy for listeners to distinguish. I don’t recall how we ended up with a father-daughter relationship, and not a mother-son relationship – do you Lois? Maybe because we’re both daughters ourselves? What was clear, at least, was that I was most interested in working on the father’s voice and Lois on the daughter’s.

Lois: I don’t remember how we zeroed in on father and daughter, but I remember very clearly that we almost simultaneously chose our characters in such a unanimous way. It felt as one more sign of how organically we work together; it really flowed.

Nelly: Then, we both wrote our characters within this frame, and the details of the story were determined by the characters and their differences. In the beginning, when I was developing Harald’s character, I came across a feature article written by a journalist from the US who’d suffered a heart attack and partly lost his memory. I was fascinated by his experiences – and made some of them part of Harald’s story.

“In the bigger picture, I believe that connection, communication, and curiosity are quite the opposite of war. So, it is also the creation of a tiny little piece of peace.” – Nelly

Together Again is a large international collaborative project between multiple Finnish Cultural and Academic Institutes and cultural practitioners around the world. How do you see the meaning of international collaboration in your work?

Nelly: Working in different countries, mostly in Norway and Germany, is a natural part of my work, and I often work with artists with different nationalities. International collaborations can be challenging, and I mean challenging in the best sense in that our different backgrounds create a deeper need for connection, communication, and curiosity, in order to work well together. All of this is the base for creativity, which means that I get a lot of creativity for free as an artist in international collaborations.

“For me, working with Nelly allowed me to expand my curiosity and possibilities as a writer, because we were truly able to connect as if we’d be sitting in the same room, even though we were almost 1,500 kilometres away.” – Lois.

Lois: For me, this was my first time expanding the geographical boundaries of my collaborative work. I was curious in the beginning: How would we connect and establish a bond if we weren’t going to be in the same physical space at all? Of course, I spend a big part of my time (and my work) online, especially since the pandemic, but I hadn’t even contemplated an international collaboration that would stretch beyond the boundaries of work in the strictest sense of the word.

I’m interested in creating, fostering, and using community to create art that feels purposeful and collectively connected. For me, working with Nelly allowed me to expand my curiosity and possibilities as a writer, because we were truly able to connect as if we’d be sitting in the same room, even though we were almost 1,500 kilometres away.

Holy Monkey is a narrative podcast, directed by David Kozma and sound designed by Saku Kämäräinen. Did you take the podcast format and audio elements into consideration, when writing the script for Holy Monkey?

Nelly: I always ‘listen’ to characters in my head when I’m writing plays, so as a starting point, writing Harald’s thoughts and feelings as an audio file wasn’t too different from what I usually write for a stage. But then, of course, I wanted to share the character’s presence as a whole person with the listener, instead of just sharing his thoughts. So, I started to include in Harald’s story his surroundings, his journey on a bus and a train, announcements, and other passengers and their noises. The more I created the surroundings, the more Harald reacted to what was happening around him, and I got to know him a lot better. The audio elements gave vital impulses to push his story forward.

Lois: I actually thought of the audio elements only towards the end of the process, when Nelly brought them up on her side of the story. As I was writing Taimi’s character, I would “hear” her in my head, just the same as I heard the characters in my novel, or in other forms of writing.

But what happened here was that Taimi’s personality influenced the big picture of what I was hearing: she’s this deeply reflective person, whose thoughts truly fill the room, so whenever I’d “listen” to her, I’d hear her voice without interference; just her telling the story to the listener. When I started introducing other voices and, as said, when I first read Harald’s side, I started imagining the background life, so to say, that surrounded Taimi on her journey.

Nelly Winterhalder and Lois Armas attended a panel discussion "Making art with and through communities" as part of the Together Again Festival in September 2023. Photo: Petri Summanen.

During the Together Again Festival’s panel discussion Making art with and through communities, you mentioned  that you had to balance writing a coherent story with creating space for individual artistic expression – could you tell us more about your collaborative writing process?

Nelly: The writing process itself is not an obvious one to share: writing is intimate. It certainly helped that I felt Lois and I connected as humans from the beginning, even though we only met online. We agreed that we wanted to use our common creative power as much as we wanted to emphasize and cherish our individual voices as writers. That’s the reason we decided to develop a common frame – the story of a father and a daughter – in order to give us a space to write our characters almost independently.

After we’d developed the frame together, we wrote each character on our own. In between, we had common deadlines and agreed on a safe space for bad ideas and writing, which allowed us to give each other insight and to discuss and comment on each other’s process with the character.

“I think we made this balance possible by having a lot of conversations… These conversations were really enlightening and meaningful for me, because I could see Nelly’s thought process…”  – Lois.

Lois: This is such a beautiful question, because it makes me reminisce about our work together last spring, and how organic and safe it felt from the very beginning and until the very end. I believe that, for me, getting to read Harald was a step into a new world that I wanted Taimi to be part of, while still keeping her side of the story alive – I think this encapsulates that balance in that I felt compelled to make “my” character fit Harald’s story because I loved what I was reading, while at the same time I was given the freedom to keep writing my side using my own creativity, and I think it was the same for Nelly?

Nelly: For me, following Lois writing Taimi’s voice definitely inspired my process with Harald. I became more aware of creating differences and dynamics in my character, to make the common story more varied. As we neared the end of our individual writing, we created a common document and did a cross-cutting of the two characters’ voices. All in all, it was a very  generous, respectful and enriching shared process, and one for which I am extremely grateful.

Lois: Looking back at our meetings, besides reading each other’s texts and bending our own stories to create a common frame, I think we made this balance possible by having a lot of conversations. In fact, we’d talk and talk about things like how we’d felt our characters had thought at specific points of the story? What were we thinking of adding or taking away? What did we think of their relationship, and why did we see them that way? These conversations were really enlightening and meaningful for me because I could see Nelly’s thought process, I could express my own process aloud to her, and we could steer the story together – and then retreat to our individual writing… until we’d meet again.

Do you have any new projects coming up?

Lois: I’ve started writing my second novel, which is perhaps my most concrete project at present, and that extends well into the near future. At the same time, I’m working on my community-building working project, JA. There’s two of us behind the project – the graphic designer and illustrator Milja Komulainen, and me with the writing background. We’re trying to bring together beginner writers who need the space – in the sense of both meetings and printed publications – for their writing to be put out there. We organise regular writing workshops and we’ll soon be releasing our first anthology whereby we’ll publish eight unpublished but very, very, talented writers, who write in Finnish and English.

Nelly: I have several projects going on, each at different stages in the process. My play “Liv I mor” (“Belly Life”) is currently touring with Unge Viken Theatre in Viken, Norway. In the meantime, I’ve just finished writing “Tankekjør” (“Mind race”), a children’s play for the Norwegian Brageteatret which will premiere in January in Drammen. I’m currently preparing myself for directing my play “Jordbær” (“Strawberries”) which was nominated for the National Ibsen Award in Norway in 2022. I recently translated it into German and it will premiere in February at E-Werk Freiburg and then go on tour at Scharoun Theater Wolfsburg and in Switzerland later in 2024. As always, I’m also fantasising about some new ideas – and one of them is the second season of the Holy Monkey: Harald and Taimi could finally meet, Harald’s wife Linda could mix things up a bit, and maybe Taimi’s mother Amanda could make an unexpected appearance.

“Holy Monkey” is the third season of the Middle Eastern Block podcast, which was commissioned by the Finnish-Norwegian Cultural Institute and  launched at the Together Again Festival in September 2023. The podcast is produced by Post Theatre Collective and reflects on the global pandemic through the eyes of people belonging to cultural and linguistic minorities living outside their birth country. Together Again was made possible thanks to the Art² Grant of the Finnish Cultural Foundation and is supported by the Jenny and Antti Wihuri Foundation.

Listen to the “Holy Monkey” -podcast on YouTube.

Text: Solja Kumpula