The Gothamites, a book by the most celebrated Estonian children’s author, Eno Raud, is now translated and available in English; the release date is 11 July 2019. The beloved children’s book, The Gothamites, tells the story about people who decide to become stupid. Ironically, the Gothamites start out really smart …
The Hay Festival has announced the selection of authors for the Europa28 anthology; among the 28 women is also the Estonian poet and translator, Maarja Kangro. Kangro has written librettos for Estonian composers, published 13 books and translates from Italian, English, German and other languages. She won the Estonian Children’s …
The annual international literature festival, HeadRead, in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, brings readers and authors together in a cosy atmosphere.
The Tallinn HeadRead literary festival is run by Estonian writers, publishers and translators. This small boutique festival aims to bring readers and authors together in a more cosy atmosphere. When the festival started in 2009, its purpose was to give the readers an idea what the author thinks of their works, life, art, the world.
The same central motif of the writer as a human in a focus is still followed to this day. “We don’t have guests of honour. All authors are expected and cherished. International authors are also most welcome and in 2019 we have authors from Finland, Sweden and Russian,” the organisers behind the festival said.
Events at the 2019 HeadRead festival range from literary breakfasts, guided walks and performances to events for children and the whole family. The Saturday evening event, for example, combines literature and music.
The festival is divided between multiple venues over the Tallinn Old Town. The Writers House (the Estonian Writers’ Union) on Harju street serves as the “central hub”.
This year’s long lineup of international authors shows how far the festival has come. From international visiting authors, this year, the best-known ones are probably Leïla Slimani, Julian Barnes, David Lagercrantz and the Swedish best-selling crime writer, Emelie Schepp. Also, Philip Gross (he has an Estonian ancestry, by the way), who won the T.S. Eliot poetry prize in 2009; Ian Thomson, the author of the Primo Levi bibliography; thriller writer Mick Herron as well as Toon Tellegen and David Patrikarakos.
All events are free, except for the poetry mass at the St Nicholas’ Church and film screenings. See more about the schedule for a coming weekend at HeadRead festival programme.
The question of what can become of a society and completely normal people when the said society goes mad, is valid again even in Estonia – a visit to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam warns us about the horrors that can happen to each one of us.
Estonia has a full generation grown up who have no active memory of the occupation and even less idea of the actual war. Therefore, the question of what can become of a society and completely normal people when the society goes mad, is very valid. History merely stands for numbers – and numbers become easy to dismiss or manipulate. How to recognise when the same ideas come back to haunt us in different colours?
In my younger and more vulnerable years, I saw and was shocked by an old photo of a SS (a paramilitary organisation under Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in Nazi Germany, and later throughout German-occupied Europe during World War II – editor) officer in a newspaper article. The article describing war criminals and the person on the photo reminded me of a person of my acquaintance. A young, handsome face calmly smiling back from a passport-like photo.
This was a moment of realisation that unlike in children’s movies, good and bad are not easily distinctive and don’t often even have a distinct beginning. Evil is not neatly outlined like in James Bond movies. A villain can be a hero of their own story and believe their actions to be for good. History has shown that with right conditions (or conditioning), almost anybody is capable of unspeakable evil and hopefully also good.
In Spain or Italy, I’ve seen people having Lenin’s photo in their living room wall and demonstration on the streets with Soviet flags. These are regular people who believe they are standing up for what is right. They do not recognise the absurdity to claim that they would never pick up swastika while they have no problem lining up under flags and symbols that caused similar sufferings. If humans are capable of such a self-deceit and anybody can become evil, then how can we avoid repeating history?
Throughout time, good literature has been contributing to keeping history alive, hopefully giving us the chance to recognise and avoid making the same mistakes again. A powerful narrative can make history more than a boring paragraph in a textbook. Although only a small slice of history, Anne Frank’s diary is such a story. A personal tale by a young girl writing about her life in hiding for two years during the World War II.
What are the Anne Frank House and her diary?
The Anne Frank House is a building in Amsterdam where Frank, her family and friends – eight Jewish people – were hiding during the Nazi occupation. They lived about two years in a secret annex built behind the bookcase on the top floors of the office building in Amsterdam.
Anne was 13 when her family went into hiding. Right before that, she started keeping a diary in a notebook she got for her birthday. She kept an uncandid record, describing their daily life, quarrels, joys and dreams as well as her personal thought about the people and herself. Following her own wishes, her father, Otto Frank (the only survivor of the group hiding in the secret annex), published her diary.
By today, Anne Frank’s Diary is the most translated Dutch book – into 70 languages, including Estonian – and sold more than 35 million copies. Today, the building of the secret annex and a few others next to it is set up as the Anne Frank House and is open for visitors. I was offered a chance by the Anne Frank Foundation to visit the Anne Frank House during my stay in Amsterdam.
My visit to the Anne Frank House
What would be a better reading material to a trip to Amsterdam than The Diary of a Young Girl but mostly known as The Diary of Anne Frank. With the story and Anne’s descriptions fresh in my mind, I approached the entrance to the house. Connected houses together form a museum and a Holocaust memorial with the secret annex as the culmination of a guided tour.
The secret annex itself has no façade toward the narrow street with a canal. The entrance to the museum is through a few neighbouring buildings. Despite it being February and a not-so-busy season in Amsterdam, I saw people turned away by polite but firm personnel in front of the house. While a small number of tickets should be available through the box office, most are pre-sold online. Even the lucky ones with a ticket have to wait for their time; each ticket has a half an hour time slot to enter.
The good news is, once you are in you are in, they give you a free electronic guide. I get to choose my guide from an astonishing number of languages. Unfortunately, but quite understandably, Estonian is not among the dozen languages available, but English is.
The Nazi occupation
The first part in the house is dedicated to the history of Nazi occupation in the Netherlands. Already two years before Frank’s family went into hiding, numerous restrictions had been made on the Jewish population.
Anne’s list of restrictions to the Jewish population:
“Our freedom was severely restricted by a series of anti-Jewish decrees: Jews were required to wear a yellow star; Jews were required to turn in their bicycles; Jews were forbidden to use street-cars; Jews were forbidden to ride in cars, even their own; Jews were required to do their shopping between 3 and 5 P.M.; Jews were required to frequent only Jewish-owned barbershops and beauty parlours; Jews were forbidden to be out on the streets between 8 P.M. and 6 A.M.; Jews were forbidden to attend theatres, movies or any other forms of entertainment; Jews were forbidden to use swimming pools, tennis courts, hockey fields or any other athletic fields; Jews were forbidden to go rowing; Jews were forbidden to take part in any athletic activity in public; Jews were forbidden to sit in their gardens or those of their friends after 8 P.M.; Jews were forbidden to visit Christians in their homes; Jews were required to attend Jewish schools, etc. You couldn’t do this, and you couldn’t do that, but life went on.”
The next part takes me to the actual offices, warehouse and storage rooms that Anne also mentions in her story. This part is dedicated to the helpers, the people who brought them food and helped keep them secret. Acknowledged also by Anne as heroes in her story, they are the ones who took a risk of being sent to prison or executed themselves for helping fellow human beings. Photos, real names and what became of them.
Anne’s descriptions are set side by side with the photos and their known history, adding faces and the real names to the aliases used by Anne. They are being given the credit they so justly deserve. I looked at the faces, again only humans. Women with curled hair, men with serious faces and wearing a tie. Simple office workers, any one of them could have been my neighbour, parent or (hopefully) me.
The secret annex
Following the other visitors, we reached the bookcase that used to hide the entrance to the secret annex. The original bookcase is still there and protected by a plastic class. I was impressed by the way visitors behaved, I didn’t see anybody trying to sneak a forbidden photo or push past others. It almost felt as if we all tried to behave as if a place that had seen humanity at its worst, deserved our best behaviour.
Following Anne’s father Otto Frank’s wishes, the secret annex is left unfurnished. I moved from room to room, trying to fit the reality over the images that Anne’s descriptions had conjured in my mind. The pictures of movie stars on the wall, the tiny toilet and a tiny room she shared first with her sister and then with Fritz Pfeffer, a Jewish dentist and the later addition to the secret annex.
In a contemporary young adult novel, “The Fault in our Stars”, the protagonist, Hazel Grace, is granted her wish to visit the Anne Frank House. The 16-year-old girl who has lived a large part of her life with the constant inevitability from cancer describes her visit to the secret annex:
“Another staircase led up to the room where the van Pels family had lived, this one steeper than the last and eighteen steps, essentially a glorified ladder. I got to the threshold and looked up and figured I could not do it, but also knew the only way through was up.”
The last room of the secret annex belonged to Peter, Anne’s romantic interest (and the only age-appropriate male she saw in two years). From his room, the ladder is going up. The attic is out of limits, but the hatch is open. This tiny room and the attic where pieces of the sky can be seen through the holes were the rooms where Anne probably spent some of her happiest moments in hiding.
The betrayal of the people in the secret annex
Anne developed from a dramatic teenager into a young woman, into a hopeful young writer. Her journey unfolds through her diary – a person with a keen observation skill, recognising human folly and flaws in society yet sometimes absurdly optimistic. She dreamed of becoming a journalist, a famous writer and making a difference.
“I don’t want to have lived in vain like most people. I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met. I want to go on living even after my death!” she wrote.
Anne’s story talks about the moods in the Dutch society. That 15-year-old tells of her frights during the break-ins into the warehouse that became more and more frequent as the war continued. Each of the events increased the odds of their discovery. She sadly but calmly discusses the increasing antisemitism and expresses her opinion that the Jews were being taken to their deaths in German labour camps. It was a conclusion that even many grownups chose to ignore during that time.
“People can tell you to keep your mouth shut, but that doesn’t stop you from having your own opinion,” she wrote.
As the people in hiding were listening the news about the progress of the war, D-Day (the seaborne operation by the Western allies to liberate Europe from the Nazi-German occupation – editor) got to have a more personal significance. In her last few entries, Anne is optimistic – it’s summer and she hopes the war to be over and go back to school by October.
The last part of the house is heartbreakingly sad as it’s dedicated to the Holocaust. It features interviews with Otto Frank, the helpers and people who met Anne and Margot in the concentration camps. By the last accords of the human madness that we call the World War II, the people in the annex were betrayed, “arrested” and sent to concentration camps with the last train taking Jews out of the Netherlands. To this day, it is unknown who betrayed their location.
Never forget, never repeat
Anne Frank’s story is not only such a book and story that has reached us from the past, but it is probably the best-known personal narrative from that period. And why has the house where she wrote the story become so popular among the visitors? Is it a ghoulish desire for cheap excitement that causes people to line up to see where Anne wrote her story? I would like to think not.
A young person with her hopes, fears and dreams is something we can hope to relate to – a real voice telling her own perspective, straightforward and occasionally naive views of the world and changes around her. A teenager worrying about puberty, agonising over a crush and complaining how grown-ups don’t understand her, are details that make her completely human to us.
Thanks to her diary, we can glimpse at a true history, even if it is just a tiny morsel. It’s a story of a hopeful life that was cut short by madness – it could be a life of a sister, a classmate, a girl next door, myself…
“Although I’m only fourteen, I know quite well what I want, I know who is right and who is wrong. I have my opinions, my own ideas and principles, and although it may sound pretty mad from an adolescent, I feel more of a person than a child, I feel quite independent of anyone.”
– Anne Frank, The Diary of Anne Frank
“We all live with the objective of being happy; our lives are all different and yet the same.”
– Anne Frank
“Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.”
– Anne Frank
Cover: Anne Frank in 1940 (Wikipedia).
The latest addition to the Estonian children’s literature is great news for families raising an Estonian-English bilingual child – Piret Raud has written and illustrated a book for children in the age range of five to six years.
Raud is one of the most beloved and unique Estonian children’s book authors – her publications are known for their unique and surreal ideas and charmingly vivid, high-quality illustrations, drawn by the author herself.
“The Ear” is a tale where the protagonist is not just any old, unwashed hearing instrument – but the ear of Vincent Van Gogh, the painter (in)famous for severing part of his own ear.
What has an ear got to do when suddenly finding itself headless? It goes through an identity crisis, searching for a purpose and its place in the world. The story follows the themes of searching for identity, purpose and acceptance.
A visual treat
The book’s illustrations use vivid colour language with a creative approach to reality. The illustrations have a surrealistic approach that simplifies the details but communicates the essence of what is drawn. While similar to the way children would draw, Raud’s illustrations have elaborateness and preciseness about them, creating a visual treat for parents as well as an encouraging inspiration for kids to apply their own creativity.
Estonian children books’ translations are a rare, happy occasion, but to have a case of the author writing and publishing directly in English and with a foreign publisher is even less common.
The hardcover book is now available to order from Amazon and BookDepository.
Cover: An illustration from “The Ear” by Piret Raud.
The Tartu City of Literature International Residency Programme for English-speaking writers and translators is open for an application for an April-May 2019 residency period; the application deadline is 25 February.
English-speaking writers and translators can apply for a two-month literature residency programme in the second largest town in Estonia, Tartu. The programme is open to all non-Estonian resident writers and translators (translating from Estonian to other languages) from across the world who meet the following criteria:
- Upper intermediate level of spoken English
- At least one published book (fiction or non-fiction), screenplay, theatre script or translation from Estonian into another language by the applicant
- An interest in Estonian culture and literature
- Readiness to participate in the local literary life, including events, meetings, interviews, festivals
- Literary work during the residency
The literature residency programme aims to increase international exchange and communication, contribute to the mobility of writers and translators, offer a creative and inspiring environment, and provide writers an opportunity to introduce their work to the Estonian readers, according to the organisers.
The two-month residency with a scholarship and traveling costs covered is organised by the Estonian Literary Society that is also the main organiser of the Tartu International Literature Festival Prima Vista that takes place from 8-11 May 2019.
The deadline for applications is 25 February 2019. You can find information on how to apply on the programme website.
The cover image is illustrative. Read also: The Tartu Writer in Residency programme helps foreign and Estonian writers meet.
“My Formative Years” is an autobiography of a famous Estonian military commander, Sir Johan Pitka (1872-1944); first published in the 1930s Estonia, it has now been translated into English, and talks about Pitka’s “golden years” of youth.
Pitka is one of the most famous Estonian historical and military figures. He led the Estonian Navy during the First World War and was one of the main characters in organising the Estonian Defence Forces in November 1918 after the German occupation forces started to move out and the threat of the Red Army become clear.
Less known, perhaps, is that Pitka was also a writer and a translator. He translated spiritual and wellness-related texts from English to Estonian and his memoirs in four volumes that talk about the period between the First World War and the end of the Estonian War of Independence, were published in the 1930s, in the pre-occupation Republic of Estonia.
The book looks back at Pitka’s early life and the years as the captain on the wooden barque, Lilly (1896-1900), after earning his master’s license in 1895 and having been appointed captain at the early age of 24. The story starts with him looking and finding a ship to buy, and it is told in details that give a nice overview of the life on the boat and choices he had to face as a young leader.
Developing leadership skills and judgement
With fascinating details from a cockroach-infested ship to the reluctant and occasionally drunk crew, Pitka tells his story and how the choices he made helped him develop as a person and a leader.
Being given a leadership role so early in life forced Pitka to make many important decisions. With the responsibility on deciding the ship provisions and selecting a safe route to cross the ocean on a wooden ship, his tasks had only started. The responsibility came with many hardships – storms, mutiny and sickness. Learning to deal with the political minefield of the crew, harbour masters; lessons that he later realised had been invaluable in his career as they helped him develop leadership skills, judgement and resourcefulness.
Later in his life, Pitka referred to these years as his formative years as well as “the golden years of my youth”. Lilly and Pitka sailed the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and the Baltic Sea. He also crossed the Atlantic Ocean four times and made two voyages to South America.
In the fourth volume of “My Memories”, Pitka talks about his time on Lilly.
“The four short years that flew by when I lived and worked aboard Lilly were the golden years of my youth. My experiences with her were more important than all others I have had, before or since. Such interesting, independent and unconstrained work, requiring initiative and self-reliance to overcome repeated hardships and dangers – and being able to do so – never presented itself to me again. Even after the passage of many years, my memories of sailing aboard Lilly have remained clear and indelible, despite the complicated and very challenging years that followed.”
“My Formative Years” is written in fascinating detail and uses simple language and clear explanations. It would be a good read for people interested in the shipping history and Estonian military figures.
About the translator
The Formative Years was translated by an Canadian-Estonian, Hillar Kalmar, who lives in North Vancouver, BC, and is retired. The source of his fascination with Pitka’s stories is fuelled by his grandfather who was a shipmaster as well.
Cover: Johan Pitka in Estonian Navy uniform.
In 2018, six Estonian novels were translated into English, and now it’s time to look back and count the literary achievements for the past year.
With Estonians celebrating their 100 years of being a free and independent country, a larger emphasis has been given to make Estonian literature available to a wider audience.
According to Estonian Literature Centre, a total of 95 Estonian books were translated from Estonian into another languages, among them 21 into English. While the numbers may seem small, for a nation where each is one in a million it’s impressive achievement. Among the six translated books, three are classics and others are by contemporary authors. As one would expect from jubilee celebrations, all six novels have a recurring historic theme.
“The Misadventures of the New Satan”, by A.H. Tammsaare
God has come to the conclusion that sending people to hell is unfair as it seems that humans are incapable of living a decent life on Earth. If that’s the case, hell will be shut down and the human race written off in an unfortunate mistake. Satan is given the chance to prove human beings are capable of salvation. To ensure the survival of hell, he agrees to live as a human to demonstrate it is possible to live a righteous life.
Following the advice of St Peter, he ends up on earth living as Jürka, a farmer and a tenant on a run-down Estonian farm. His goodwill and best intentions are tested by the machination of his unscrupulous landlord as well as the social and religious hypocrisy.
It’s the last novel by Estonia’s greatest twentieth-century writer, Anton Hansen Tammsaare (1876-1940). The story combines satire on the inequality of rural life and the absurdly strict social attitudes with themes of mythology, folklore and the bible.
“Toomas Nipernaadi”, by August Gailit
August Gailit’s romantic vagabond story. It’s summer and the sky is deep blue (unless it happens to rain), the midnight sun is keeping the nature up until wee hours and the male protagonist, Toomas Nipernaadi, is on a journey. With a long days and brief, fresh nights, the counting of the cuckoo bird echoing back from the vast forests and along the fields, the road reaching for the horizon brings out the longing in one’s heart.
Nipernaadi’s carefree wonderings take him from a village to a village and from a story to a story. Lyrical, not letting himself be disturbed by reality, traditions or truth, his only aim seems to be charming people and telling (and let’s be honest, inventing) stories. While occasionally light-hearted and funny (nothing politically-correct about him, these were different times), the protagonist’s melancholy longing for a beauty, romance and happy endings makes a whole story deeper than just a farce.
Published in 1928, it was also made into a vastly popular movie in 1983 and firmly set in the hearts of readers. A story of short Estonian summer with a dream-like white nights.
“I Loved a German”, by A.H. Tammsaare
It has been a good year for classic literature translations, including two translations from A.H. Tammsaare, one of the best-know Estonian authors. “I Loved a German” is one of his latest works. Estonian own star-crossed lovers, Oskar is an Estonian university student while Erika is a descendant of a once-noble Baltic-German family.
In the newly independent Estonia, people talk about moving forward and leaving the dark past behind. However, it’s not easy to look past the habits formed due to centuries of oppression and prejudice. Going beyond the external obstacles, Tammsaare looked into the human mind. Oskar, a descendant of the people who used to work on the estates of Baltic-Germans, starts doubting the source of his own love. Is Erica a prize to be had in this new world, desired for the past, or does he love her for who she is as a person?
Published in 1935, it has been adapted for theatre as well as movies. The story was written in a diary format and is praised for its psychological realism and considered to give a unique perspective into Baltic-German society at the time.
“Burning Cities”, by Kai Aareleid
Two decades of family history, told from the retrospect of a now-grownup Tiina. After the Second World War, her home town of Tartu, that was destroyed by Nazi invasion, is rebuilt and re-mapped by Soviets. The grownup word is one of distrust, suspicion, worries and heavy drinking. Tiina, in the middle of it all, hears whispers and things grownups say and don’t say and knows many secrets, even if she doesn’t know what she knows.
The times are complicated. In addition to a political instability, there are shortage of food and living space and a surplus of mistrust and hostility. While historic background has its role to play, the story is a child’s perspective and the retrospect storytelling makes it into a melancholy coming-of-age-story.
Translated for the first time into English, “Burning Cities” is an intimate portrayal of life under the Soviet occupation and an absorbing family drama.
“Hanuman’s Travels”, by Andrei Ivanov
A story about the daily lives of two asylum-seekers at a Danish refugee camp and on the road in the late 1990s. The two companions in misfortune, a Russian-Estonian and an Indian, wait to go the promised land, the Danish island of Lolland. Meanwhile, they have to survive among scams, humiliations, lies and big and small disgraces.
“Hanuman’s Travels” was shortlisted for the Russian Booker Prize in 2010, translated into German and French and put on the German stage. It is a picaresque tale of hopes and fears in a setting where thousands of people’s dreams and plans intertwine. Ivanov was inspired to write this novel by his own vicissitudes as a stateless person living in Denmark. Their struggle at times engenders dismissiveness and even intolerance, but also humanity, courage and the wisdom born of experience and resignation.
“Pobeda 1946. The Car Called Victory”, by Ilmar Taska
In Tallinn, in 1946, a young boy is transfixed by the beauty of a luxurious cream-coloured car gliding down the street. It is the Soviet Pobeda, a car called Victory. The sympathetic driver invites the boy for a ride and enquires about his family. Soon after the incident, the boy’s father disappears.
Ilmar Taska’s debut novel captures the distrust and fear among Estonians living under the Soviet occupation after the Second World War during Joseph Stalin’s reign.
A world seen through the eyes of a young boy shows a society where it is difficult to know who is right and who is wrong. People disappearing, informants and the tortured living under the same fears themselves.
“Pobeda 1946: The Car Called Victory” is Ilmar Taska first novel, and it’s based on a prize-winning short story from 2014.
Cover: A screenshot from “Nipernaadi” (1983), the movie based on the novel of the same name by August Gailit.
What is the best way to sell books? The information passed on from person to person seems to be a pretty solid way to get the word around, Edith Soosaar writes.
More translated children’s books to follow up on the first story, Estonian authors translated books.
Since our recent article, people have reached out and told me about other authors and their books and I’m happy to share three more authors and six more books by Estonian writers that are not only translated into English but are also actually available to buy. Some are a few years old while others are up for pre-order.
The Family Tales by Epp Petrone and Piia Maiste
The first listing is not a book but rather an author. Epp Petrone has written, published, translated and published again six children’s books that are all translated and available to order abroad. Four of these books make up “The Family Tales” series. Epp Petrone’s storytelling and Piia Maiste’s illustrations describe the everyday adventures of a family with children. The books are intended as a bedtime reading for little boys and girls alike.
The first book of the series, Marta’s Toes, was written by the author as a gift for her own daughter’s birthday. The story shows a world through the eyes of a small girl growing up next to a big city and the sea.
The second book in the series is Anna’s Teeth. A new family member is bound to change things. Marta becomes a “big sister”. Young human beings have small, everyday adventures – from snail racing to playing with a baby sister.
The third book of the series tells the story through a baby’s perspective. Lena’s Laugh is from the point of view of the newest family member, Lena. A baby who still remembers her time in the belly is learning about her family.
The fourth book, Furry Purry, centers around the family pet, a tabby Furry, and Lena, who can still speak “cat language”. They teach each other about the cat and human worlds.
Coming soon – new translations of Estonian children’s books available to pre-order
Then there is a new book by Piret Raud, The Ear, on the horizon.
It’s a tale where the protagonist is not just any old, unwashed hearing instrument – but the ear of Vincent Van Gogh, the painter (in)famous for severing part of his own ear. What has an ear got to do when suddenly finding itself headless?
Raud is one of the best-selling children authors in Estonia, with an incredibly clever and unique writing style. Her books have been translated into 12 different languages so far – and multiple prints have been popular enough to have been sold out already.
And then there’s an old classic that is due to be available in English. The Gothamites (Kilplased) by Eno Raud is an absolute classic among Estonian children’s books.
When originally wise Gothmites find that with all people coming to ask for an advice they have no time to deal with any of their own problems, they decide to become stupid in the hope of being left alone.
It doesn’t quite work out as intended and the hilarity is ensured. Illustrations by the renowned Estonian animator, Priit Pärn, have brought into the picture the characters that have been a butt of many jokes for the generations of Estonians growing up.
Cover: An illustration by Priit Pärn for The Gothamites by Eno Raud.
Edith Soosaar interviews one of the best known and best-selling fantasy and fiction writers in Estonia, Indrek Hargla – the author of the popular Apothecary Melchior detective novels – who shares thoughts about his writing process, experience in publishing and translating, and becoming a writer.
Indrek Hargla has written novels, novelettes and short stories. He became famous with the Apothecary Melchior stories (historical crime-fiction set in a medieval Tallinn) of which the first two are translated and available in English. Over the years his works have been translated into French, English, German, Hungarian, Latvian and Finnish. His books are available to order from the Book Depository, (yes, this is affiliate link and these are good books).
I would like to know more about your writing process. Do you plan out the story before you start writing or start from the beginning with a vague outline and see where the characters take you?
I use both methods; writing must be an adventure and disciplined craftsmanship at the same time. You should always have certain ideas what you want to write but sometimes you don’t need to stick to original plans, the story and characters come alive and guide you. The genre is important; in crime fiction, the genre dictates the structure, disposition of characters and events. Crime and science fiction readers have certain expectations and writer must fulfill them, play by the rules but be original and innovative.
I do a lot of outlining when I write Melchior novels. Crime fiction always involves “engineering” – you just cannot kill somebody and see what happens and who might be the killer. I must know from the first sentence who did it and why. Then again, outlining and research must be minimal; a writer must not be enslaved to outlining. Usually, when you have written about one-third of any text, it is a right time to read it over and assess what kind of thing it wants to be, where it goes, what is the soul and spirit inside it; what it needs to succeed.
The thing is, you do not know your characters before writing. They develop and start to live on their own, listen to them, argue with them but try to understand them.
You have emphasised in your previous interviews the importance of the writer’s voice. How long did it take for you to get comfortable with your own writer’s voice? What would you recommend for young authors to develop theirs?
About 10-15 years I guess, and I am still not very comfortable with my own voice, but I am getting there.
The most important thing I recommend: do not write your story as you’d think this kind of story is usually written. In your mind, you imagine a certain way of style and choice of words how writing generally goes, and you try to replicate, to mirror this. That is the wrong way, this way you get very average, ordinary, a mediocre blend of a very usual literature – a kind of second-hand derivative stuff.
There is no other way but to meditate, work hard, concentrate really hard. You must write as you write and not how you think it is usually written but not overdo it, not to be too original, postmodern or challenging or too cool. About 70% of excellent writing is standard, common to all good literature – clear storytelling, colourful characters, sharp ideas, eloquent and powerful style. If it is not in you, then it’s not in you. When the real you is a bad writer, you have to face it and try not to write anymore.
How do you discipline yourself through the writing and multiple editing rounds? Do you use the Pomodoro technique (20-minute writing, 10-minute break) or some other time control-technique?
I do not use any specific technique. I just work, contemplate, meditate, plan, research and plan again whenever I can, and this is how it is most of the time. I may sit behind the computer for five hours and not write a single sentence – and then suddenly write three pages in one go. I think four or five pages of quality text per day is enough and one cannot demand more.
How do you decide on the genre for a new book? Have you had a case where you started writing with an idea in your head, but the story didn’t work, and you had to change something really fundamental (like a genre, location etc) to make it work?
No, you cannot change the genre. Novelettes can grow into novellas and novellas into novels, yes – but genres do not change. Maybe sub-genres can – what you originally planned as a steampunk-themed, may turn into more science fantasy, but no more. When you start a crime novel and cannot stick to the rules of the genre you probably end up with a boring mainstream book nobody wants to read.
Once I started a novel and after a while, I felt I am not up to it. I put it aside for a few years and then suddenly realised that the main idea was still there and still good – so I thought why not to write a short story? And I did; I transformed the idea of a novel into a story, or a novelette rather, and I am still satisfied with it. “Raudhammas” (The Iron Tooth – editor) is the name of the novelette; people still remember it and it was broadcasted on national radio.
What do you consider your weakest point/downfall as a writer? What’s your strongest side? What is the hardest part about being a writer? What’s the best part?
Weakest point? Impatience maybe. I am lazy enough to be a writer, but you have to be lazier. You write a sentence or a chapter; you know it’s not perfect, but it is passable, and you think: fine, let it be. There is always a better choice of words, which comes with more meditation and concentration.
The strongest side? A wish not to write ordinary stuff that has been written so many times before. The hardest part is the realisation that writing is not easy. It takes so much from you – time and energy – so basically, you give something away. The best part is this miraculous feeling when you see that suddenly things are falling into right places. You have put some ideas and elements into the story and you do not know why… And then you see it, everything fits like someone has been guiding you.
Do you find it harder to come up with positive or negative characters?
Positive ones, probably. Positive characters tend to be very much the same and ordinary. You need to give them some bad traits, make them from good characters into chaotic good ones, or so.
Being a writer seems to be an ever-learning process. What are the things you feel you still need to master? What is the most useful skill you have learned to help you along with your career? Both as a person writing books as well as helping your books reach the audience?
Ever-learning, yes. As I said, there is always a better choice of words. I have learned not to use common expressions in fiction. I learned there are words that a more loaded, suggestive, thought-provoking and full of possibilities than others and you need to find them. If you cannot write a good dialogue between two characters, then do not write that scene. You must always put interesting and unexpected things into every scene. Do not deliver empty scenes.
It takes much more time to come up with interesting ideas and that’s why I am such a slow writer. But I feel I must not give anything away.
Apothecary Melchior stories
Two of your books from Apothecary Melchior murder mysteries have been translated into English. Did you search for translation–publishing options yourself or was its initiative from the publishing house?
No, I never do that, I do not search for options myself. In fact, I cannot even remember now how the first two books got published in English. French and Finnish translations are much more important to me.
The Melchior series gets better all the time if I’m allowed to say this. The fifth and sixth novel really stands up for me and I am very happy that they are published in French. Jean Pascal Ollivry, my translator, was this wonderful person who once took the initiative to recommend the Melchior series to the French publisher.
It’s not uncommon to add a character flaw or a handicap to the protagonists to make them more humane and balances as humans. In Melchior’s case, you choose to add his health condition. What other options did you consider when first building his character?
I cannot really say I considered any other options. I just came up with the idea when I wrote and inserted it into the story not knowing what I am going to do with it or how important it was going to be, if ever. It just felt like a right or interesting thing at the time.
In later books, I picked it up and started playing around. Writing is like this – you just sit alone, come up with things and hope somebody takes interest in reading it. Melchior’s curse was not a product of careful engineering, just a spark of an idea that I used, in hope it would help make the character more interesting.
How did you come up with the Melchior’s health condition? Did you had a specific condition in mind or is it made up for the story?
It is made up. Mostly. But the reasons behind it and the true essence are not yet revealed so I cannot say anything more.
Do you control the story, do the stories take over as you write or is it a joint effort?
They must take over. They must come alive and guide me, they must tell me what they want. But writing a crime novel is an “engineering” to a large extent. There are certain rules and you must be disciplined to follow them. There have to be suspense and surprise ending in crime fiction; you have to deceive your readers, but you cannot cheat.
There can be a love story in crime novel but it can’t be a romance novel as a whole. You can use an element of horror or thriller, make them organically part of the story, but you must not lose focus and concentrate on a murder mystery. Murder must have the central role and prevail over other storylines. The crime novel is meticulously crafted, constructed and engineered product but it must look effortless.
Publishing home and abroad
Tell us about your very first novel manuscript? How long it took to write, how many rewrite rounds? When you had a manuscript ready how did you go about finding a publisher?
My first novel, “Baiita needus” (The Curse of Baiita – editor), is a very badly written novel. I wrote it quickly, I seem to remember. It was written by an aspirant of literature. I sent it to a local novel competition. Eventually, unfortunately, it got some honourable mentioning there, so one publisher approached me and bought it. I do not want to be remembered for that novel. Estonia is that small that even raw material like this gets published.
Do you participate in the marketing of your books abroad? How? The London Book Fair? Festivals? Books signings?
I do when I am asked. I do not market anything on my own. When I am invited to a festival, I go. I was not invited to the London Book Fair. Mostly, I have been to France for different fairs and festivals.
How is the marketing of books for the international audience different from marketing in Estonia?
Well, nobody knows anything about the Estonian literature abroad, so it must be very tough for a foreign publisher to publish an Estonian novel. I do not think that any Estonian author would ever be sold at airport book stands. You must be an Anglo-American or Scandinavian author to be really promoted in the international market.
Despite being one of the best known, bestselling and widely read Estonian author, you have chosen not to be a member of the Estonian Literature Association. Why?
I left the association before the last elections. Some members from the board were recruited to a certain left-wing, pro-Soviet party, and started intensely to use their membership in literature association to promote left-wing politics under the red flags. Most of the supporters of this party do not even speak the Estonian language. It felt like the association was hijacked by Soviets, so I chose to give up my membership.
I do not think that you can be a member of the board and speak in the name of all association to promulgate ideas that are against the principals that form the core of Estonian statehood.
Who in your opinion is currently the best writer in Estonia and in the world?
I do not know about the world. In Estonia, I could name three – or two, rather – because Rein Põder recently passed away, probably the best novelist of all times in Estonia. The other two are Meelis Friedenthal and Andrus Kivirähk.
In your Q&A session at the Estonian Opinion Festival 2015 at Rahva Raamat’s (Estonian book retailer) garden you said Estonia already had plenty of “looking-out-the window-and-telling-what-you-see” books and Estonian literature could use some more fiction writing. Do you feel the situation has improved since?
Not much. Realism and writing about yourself and every-day life are the main paradigm of Estonian literature. Those who dare to venture away from that mainstream do not write well yet.
Asimov or Adams?
Cover: Indrek Hargla at the Lyon Literature Festival book signing.