Emmi Itäranta was born in Tampere, Finland. She has graduated her Master’s degree in both drama and creative writing, and has worked as a columnist, theatre critic, dramaturge, scenarist and press officer. Her first novel Memory of Water pictures a fictional post-climate-change world where fresh water is the biggest deficiency. Author talks about the beginning of her writing career and how the idea of the book was born.
How and why did you become a writer? Does text come easily to you or you have to think a lot about how and what to write?
I think I became a writer because I have always been interested in storytelling and always known I wanted to do something with fiction. When I was younger, I considered whether I should do something on television or maybe work in film or theatre – it took me a long time to realise that writing fiction was the thing. Writing prose was going to be something I enjoyed the most. I had already done my first university degree in Finland when I began to write short stories. I didn’t show them to anyone at the beginning, because I thought they were rubbish. In order to complete my first degree, I had to write a long dissertation for the university, but I developed a craving for writing fiction instead of the academic work. This is how I picked it up after a long break. I am a slow writer – I take my time and writing doesn’t come easily at all. I revise, redraft, edit a lot and do it in two languages – Finnish and English. I write in parallel, switch between them, and that makes the process slower. I wouldn’t be the kind of a writer who produces a novel every year, my writing pace is too slow for that. Sometimes I find it to be a bad quality – publishers may not want to work with me because I am not going to be the one who sells a manuscript every year, but it’s the only way I can write. I have tried writing faster and it was awful.
How does criticism affect you?
It’s difficult to say. I have written only one book and I was very lucky that it got mostly positive reviews. There were obviously some negative ones as well, but most of the feedback was positive. So I don’t really know how I would feel if I wrote a book and most of the reviews were very critical. I might take it badly, but I haven’t had that experience yet. I am sure it will come at some point of my career if I keep writing, because it happens to everyone. I do read reviews – I am interested in how people have experienced the book and what they have found in there, so I can’t say that I don’t care about the reviews. I think it is also important to remember that each review is just one person’s opinion: if they didn’t like the book for some reason, it doesn’t mean that everyone else is going to hate it or it is a bad book – it’s just not for them. I have done a lot of creative writing courses, I studied creative writing and I belong to several writing groups, so I am used to getting feedback. It can be negative. I try to listen to what people say, but I try not to take it too personally most of the time. It’s useful to know if they don’t like something because it helps me improve.
Your novel has won several prizes. How have these acknowledgements influenced you?
They are important in the sense that when you are writing, you are sitting alone in your room, especially when you are a first time writer, like I was with this book. Nobody comes to say: “We want you to write a book, we want to publish it.” You are sitting there on your own without certainty that anyone is ever going to publish it or anyone is going to read it. You put a lot of hard work and effort into it, so if someone gives you that kind of an acknowledgement, it’s not something you ever expected to happen. It’s sort of a bonus on top of everything else. Of course it is great to know that someone has enjoyed something that you put so much time and hard work into. It feels good, but at the same time I don’t think you should write because you expect to win an award. If that’s your motivation, then you should probably change profession, because writing has so much uncertainty. I think winning an award can be particularly important for writers who are just starting their careers, because it is very hard to make a living from it. I am sure it is the same in Estonia, probably even more difficult than in Finland. So winning an award gives you some time. You can actually focus on writing full-time for six months or even a year without taking another job. That’s the reason why an award can be really really useful and important for young authors who are unknown and whose books don’t sell many copies. But of course for older authors too. You can write 30 books and still not make a living out of it. I think the most important thing is that awards can support writing. They can buy time writing for people who otherwise wouldn’t have it.
Why did you choose a theme like that for your first novel?
I think I have always been interested in environmental topics to some extent. I had been reading a lot of articles about climate change and global warming, but also about Japanese tea culture, because I was interested in that. One day, a thought came into my mind: what if there was a future world, kind of a post-climate-change world, where some ancient form of tea ceremony was practised. The luxury product at that ceremony was not tea, which used to be a luxury product in the past, but fresh water. And there was one person in the future who was responsible for performing the ceremony and bringing fresh water in a world where there was very little of it. That gave me both the main character and the starting point for the story and that’s how it began to grow.
Characters of your novel are skillfully created and each one of them seems to possess a particular quality – masters of tea carrying traditions, Sanja’s wisdom, Taro’s cruelty. Their names are also interesting and significant. How were the characters born and how is each character connected to its name?
When I was creating the names, I wanted them to reflect the idea that we are in the far future where cultures are blended, and there are many different cultural influences we can recognize that we don’t have in today’s world. One of my ideas was that people, tea masters from Japan, Asia have somehow had to move to a different place because of climate change and some of them have chosen to go to Scandinavia where Finland is today. In the book it is called the Scandinavian Union. I tried combining the names from Japanese, Finnish and Chinese and wanted them to be easy, so that people from many different language areas, from many different cultures would find them easy to follow and not too alien. The character of Noria came to me in an image I already talked about: a world in the future where there is a lack of fresh water and someone who is practising a tea ceremony is also responsible for guarding water resources. That interested me because I thought of a young character who is suddenly given this huge responsibilty for something that is vital for surviving. How does a young person, who is barely an adult, deal with that kind of responsibility? That was really the crucial conflict for that character and once I saw it, I got really interested in who the character would be – where would she come from, where would she go, what kind of choices would she make under pressure. Then I felt I needed a friend for this character. This friend would be such an important part of her life that she would want to help her, protect her and make decisions based on her influence. It was the relationship between those two girls that became an important dynamic in the book. I also wanted them to have different qualities, so they would somehow complement each other. I wanted them to disagree on some things and not be too similar. They would have different skills, but still be friends who respect each other even if they sometimes make different choices.
The situatsions you have created in your book are frightening and thought-provoking. People are more aware of and connected to nature, but they live in fear of the army and have very little fresh water. Every day can be their last. How could your book influence a reader from the 21st century and how could it raise people’s awareness of how overconsuming and not respecting nature can affect our lives and future?
As a writer, I of course hope that someone would read my book and change their way of thinking – try to be more responsible as a consumer, try to think about the consequences of their actions a little bit more and about what kind of mark they leave on the environment. I’d like to think that I could influence people that way, but I’m not sure if that’s the case. I often feel like I’m talking to the people who already agree with me anyway. Sometimes, when people come to me and say that they read my book, really enjoyed it and it made them think more about the environment, I feel that they are people who are already aware of these things, already have an interest in the environment and in taking better care of the planet. They read my book because they are already interested in these topics and it makes them think about it even more. It doesn’t come from the book, it comes from them, so the book just strenghtens it somehow. I’m not sure if I can change anyone’s way of thinking by writing fiction. I believe that the best I can do is to maybe amplify or uncover something they already have in their mind anyway.
What do you think, what could people do to reduce their ecological footprint? What do you do for that?
Personally, I try to change my habits as a consumer. I try to buy sustainably produced clothing and household items. I try to recycle and my electricity comes from renewable resources. At the same time, I’m fully aware that I fly a lot, so my carbon footprint is quite big. I’m sure that I could be a much more responsible consumer if I put more effort into it. It’s a very difficult question because sometimes I read articles from people who are supposed to be specialists and they say things like: “What you do as an individual doesn’t matter, because you can’t change anything, it’s so little it won’t make a difference.” I tend to think, and this is also a thought my characters have, that even if you feel that you can’t change anything on your own, do it anyway. You shouldn’t give up because everyone else gives up. Even if you feel that you’re fighting a losing battle still try to fight it, even a little bit. Personally, I think I can’t tell people to do this and that, but I believe that if people feel that there is something they could change in their everyday life, even if it’s just a small thing, it’s still worth doing. It’s also worth thinking what kind of a world are we leaving behind. It always surprises me if I see people who have children and who don’t care what they are doing to the planet at all. I think that children are the ultimate reason to care about how you treat the world.
Lastly: is there a new book coming?
Yes there is, but it’s not a sequel to this one. It’s not a science fiction story as such, but it’s also not a realistic novel. It’s a kind of mystery story set on an island that is slowly sinking into the sea. It’s different from our reality because the technology is different from what we know. There are some animals, creatures and plants in that world that don’t exist in ours. In some respects, it deals with similar themes as my first novel: like what we are doing to our environment, but some themes are different as well. I should have it finished by the end of this year.