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An Interview with Maria Turtschaninoff

Firstly, for those who haven’t yet read your riveting trilogy, The Red Abbey Chronicles, can you briefly sum up what it’s about?

Summing up a trilogy is never easy! But in short, it’s about an abbey for women on a small island where men are forbidden to set foot, it’s about knowledge as power and that the power lies in what you do with the knowledge you have been given. Two of the books star Maresi, a young girl who came to the Abbey fleeing famine, who has a strong connection to the Crone, the third face of the goddess-figure the First Mother. The second book in the trilogy, Naondel, is about the First Sisters who fled imprisonment to found the Abbey hundreds of years before.

Maresi has been described as a feminist fantasy with a setting worthy of Margaret Atwood. What was the inspiration behind the Red Abbey? And what kind of research did you undergo during the writing process?

It all started with a photograph exhibition.

I saw the exhibition many years before I began working on Maresi. It took place in Helsinki, and showcased photographs from Mount Athos, a Greek peninsula with a 1000-year-old monastic community. The pictures were breathtakingly beautiful and the houses of the monasteries represented crumbling splendour. Many of them were perched on top of steep cliffs, like eagles’ nests. I walked around with my notebook, making notes and getting very inspired.

And also, angry.

Because for a thousand years, no woman has been allowed on the island. Even today only male pilgrims are able to set foot on the island. The women get to take a boat ride and view the monasteries from the sea. And I thought “How is it possible that there’s a place today, in Europe, where women aren’t allowed?” This thought was immediately followed by: “And what would happen if I turned it on its head and there was an island, and an Abbey, where only women and girls are allowed? But because it would be set in my fantasy world, there would be a concrete reason why men are not allowed.”

Naondel, the second book, is set mostly in a harem. For this book, I researched harems through the ages, in different parts of the world: old Persia, China, Siam, but also harem-like conditions today. These were some tough reads.

Maresi Red Mantle is set in a place in my fantasy world that in many respects resembles an area of Finland my ancestors stem from. It’s a heavily forested region, with meagre stony soil that it’s hard to eke out a livelihood from. In many ways, I felt that with the last book, I came home and was able to draw on my own personal experiences when it comes to the setting. I still researched many things for the book: Finland during famines, logging in the past, medieval skis etc.

Why did you choose to combine feminism and fantasy in your writing? And why do you think feminist literature is so important within the YA market?

I didn’t! I write stories that demand to be told, and into them I pour things that are important to me – life and death and love. I could never sit down and intentionally write a “feminist book” – it would simply be bad literature. But who I am is bound to show through in my writing, and I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t a feminist. And all I can say about the YA market is that the broader its subject matter, the better.

The Red Abbey Chronicles explores a number of other themes including the power and importance of sisterhood and self-empowerment and strength, whilst being imbued in magic and myth. What do you hope readers take away from your books?

Readers have been clever and deep enough to take away things from my books that I had no idea that were there. I do not want to dictate what anyone should find in my writing – the book belongs to the reader.

Maresi has been compared to the likes of Katniss from The Hunger Games, where do you get your inspiration to write your characters?

I have thought hard about how to answer this question. I can’t say I have actively looked for inspiration for my characters – I listen, and there they are. Maresi appeared in some writing exercises I was doing, and I immediately fell in love with her voice. Then I try to go deep, inhabit the skin of the character I am writing, seeing what they see, feeling what they feel. All of them, good or bad, have a lot of me in them.

Without giving away any spoilers, Maresi Red Mantle is the thrilling third and final book where we see Maresi leave the sanctuary and safety of the Red Abbey and return to her childhood home of Rovas. Did you always envision The Red Abbey Chronicles being a trilogy?

No, not at first! But as I was writing Maresi, especially when I came to the end, I realised that one day I will want to find out what happens to her after she leaves the Abbey. And then the First Sisters, briefly mentioned in Maresi, started whispering their stories in my ear. Eventually I began writing about them, and as I was working on Naondel I knew that I also had to write the third book, Maresi Red Mantle.

Do you think you’ll ever return to this world in your writing career?

Absolutely! I already have two books published in Swedish and Finnish set in this world, but in very different parts of it, telling very different sorts of stories: Arra and Anaché. One is the story of a mute girl who can hear the songs of the world, and the other of a nomad girl who challenges her whole tribe’s gender norms in order to save her people. Fingers crossed that some UK publisher picks these up, too! And this world of mine is full of stories, more than I will ever be able to tell. Each book I have written has left me with characters and story threads I would love to keep exploring. I do not intend to leave this treasure trove anytime soon.

Maresi Red Mantle is structured around a series of letters that Maresi writes to her loved ones at the abbey, why did you choose to write the book like this?

I knew from the start, before I had even written a word, that I wanted to have Maresi write letters back to the Abbey. Part of it is that with every book I’ve written I’ve wanted to try something new, I constantly want to learn and grow as a writer. And I’ve always been fascinated by the epistolary format. Another reason was that as the first book was written as a chronicle Maresi wrote for the Abbey’s archives, she could only show parts of herself in the text. In private letters to friends and teachers in the Abbey she could become a more rounded character, revealing some of her thoughts to some of the recipients, hiding them from others. It enabled me to let Maresi as a character grow, too.

Where and what do you envision Maresi doing in the future?

Maresi’s story is finished, for my part, but I hope readers will let her live on and have more adventures in their imaginations and hearts.

Maresi has been translated across the globe and is due to be made into a movie by Film4, how does that make you feel?

Pretty dang awesome! All kidding aside, the thing that moves me the most is when I meet readers or see them post on social media, and they let me know how much my books have moved them. That I have been able to touch the hearts of people across the globe is mind-bogglingly fantastic and humbling.

What was your favourite part about writing The Red Abbey Chronicles?

Getting to spend my working life writing is my favourite part of everything. I love writing, even when I hate it. Writing is not what I do, it’s who I am.

What else is on the horizon for 2019 for you?

Some well-deserved vacation first and foremost! And then I will continue working on a play that was commissioned by a theatre in Finland, as well as visiting some book fairs, and Edinburgh book fest. When it comes to my writing I am luxuriating in getting to write something completely new, and I’m taking my time writing just for the joy of writing.

What are your favourite children’s/YA books at the moment?

I am eagerly awaiting Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth – in fact, I just pre-ordered a copy!

There’s no denying that the YA book market is largely made up of British and American authors, can you recommend some of your favourite YA translated titles?

I am a huge fan of Cornelia Funke’s Reckless-series! You should also check out Norwegian Siri Pettersen’s The Raven Rings trilogy, and award-winning fantasy trilogy which was recently sold to the US.

And finally, if you could invite any five people – past and present – to a dinner party, who would you invite and why?

I am a firm believer in not meeting my biggest heroes, as I am bound to blurt out something stupid that I will regret for the rest of my life (believe me, it’s already happened). So I would invite the people I’d love to be able to gather once more for a meal: my husband and my son, my parents who have both passed, and my best friend. We’d have slow-roast moose steak with my brilliant wine sauce and home-made rowanberry jelly.

A massive thank you to the wonderful Maria for taking the time to answer all my questions! I cannot recommend The Red Abbey Chronicles enough and you can check out my reviews of the series here. You can find out more about Maria and her books via her website here.


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