Interview: Maria Turtschaninoff
by Huriyah Quadri
Maria Turtschaninoff is a Finnish fantasy author who grew up writing fairy tales and officially debuted as an author in 2007 with her novel, De Ännu Inte Valda. Turtschaninoff’s The Red Abbey Chronicles was acquired by Pushkin Press and has been translated to English by Annie Prime. Maresi, the first novel in the series, won Finlandia Junior 2014. The final instalment in the translated series, Maresi Red Mantle, was published in June 2019 and is available to buy at Pushkin Press. Both Maresi and Maresi Red Mantle have been nominated for the Nordic Council’s Literary Prize.
You can find Turtschaninoff on her website, and on Twitter and Instagram @turtschaninoff.
Huriyah Quadri (HQ): Thank you for your time today, Maria. Can you tell our readers a little bit about The Red Abbey Chronicles?
Maria Turtschaninoff (MT): The Red Abbey Chronicles is a fantasy series about women, power, knowledge and what true courage is. The first is set in an Abbey on an island where only women and girls are allowed, the second tells the story of how and why the Abbey came to be founded and the third follows the protagonist of the first book, Maresi, as she leaves the Abbey and returns to her home in order to found a school and spread the knowledge gained at the Abbey.
HQ: The books are introduced as scriptures consisting of accounts written by the Sisters of the Red Abbey. Why did you decide to tell the story in this style?
MT: I am very bad at deciding anything! It’s the story that decides for me. Maresi started telling me about her day in the Red Abbey in some writing exercises I did, and I wanted to use her voice in the story, so I let her chronicle it. The women in Naondel have suffered a great loss of agency, and I wanted to give them back the power over their own stories. That’s why they write them down. For the third book, I knew from the start that I wanted Maresi to write letters back to the Abbey as she left it – I wanted to keep her own voice, and I felt that if she wrote letters to different people, I could show completely new sides of her.
The women in Naondel have suffered a great loss of agency, and I wanted to give them back the power over their own stories.
HQ: Maresi is only thirteen years old in the first novel. How did you go about getting into the mind of such a young character?
MT: Originally, she was even younger. But after a first draft, I realized that both her voice and the events in the story required her to be a bit older. I go into the minds of all my characters in the same way, regardless of their age: I try to listen as hard as I can to what they have to tell me.
HQ: The worldbuilding is exquisite in this series; it feels very real, and I loved getting to see Rovas in Red Mantle. Where did you draw your inspiration from, and what hurdles did you face?
MT: When creating Rovas, I encountered trouble with my worldbuilding for the first time. Normally, that part comes the easiest to me, but this time the world didn’t feel real; it remained a flat backdrop, and when the world wasn’t working, neither were the characters. They remained one-dimensional, since they couldn’t interact with or be shaped by the world they were supposed to inhabit. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong! It wasn’t until I realized I had been searching too far for inspiration – that I could look for it closer to home – that the world started to take proper shape, and so did the characters. Rovas is modelled on old Nordic countries, specifically the region of Ostrobothnia where part of my family has lived for over 400 years.
HQ: What would you say is the trick to getting worldbuilding right?
MT: Well, part of it is finding what is right for the particular story you’re trying to tell, as I said above. The rest is paying close attention to detail. I use all my senses when I describe the world: smell, sight, touch, hearing, taste. And for me, it’s very important to have an emotional connection to the world in some way. If I believe it’s real, so will the readers.
It’s very important to have an emotional connection to the world in some way.
HQ: Can you tell us a bit about the mythology of the Mother, Maiden, and Crone? What’s the background story and where did the idea come from?
MT: As I created the Red Abbey for the first book, I knew the women and girls had to worship something – it’s an abbey, after all – but in this fantasy world, our religions don’t exist. So I looked further back in history, to what humans believed in before the three monotheistic religions became dominant, and found goddess-worshipping cultures. I researched them, stole the best bits and made my own concoction.
HQ: What was most important to you about the process of having your work translated into English?
MT: Having a great translator! Annie Prime has come to my books by her own volition; she read and loved them before she was even commissioned to translate them. I think that very much shows in her work. Her translations are fantastic.
HQ: The series tackles some disturbing topics. Naondel, the prequel to Maresi, is particularly intense, with multiple points of view depicting the horrors the women experienced. As someone who is writing for young readers, where do you draw the line when it comes to writing about certain dark topics?
MT: I am hesitant about drawing any sharp lines, as you can probably tell from my work. Some of the topics I deal with are very, very dark. But what I normally do is I don’t describe violence in detail; I leave a lot unsaid. That means that to an adult reader, the books can seem much darker and violent than they do to younger readers: we fill in all the gaps because we have the experience to do so, while younger readers take in less, as they have less knowledge and fewer reference points. And also, as I was writing the book, I occasionally questioned how violent it was getting. But all the research I did on, for instance, harems through history revealed stories much, much worse than what I was writing. I can never be as dark as reality is. Kids are confronted with much worse things in the news than in my books.
We fill in all the gaps because we have the experience to do so.
HQ: Is this the end of The Red Abbey Chronicles, or do you have plans on adding more to the series in the future? Will we see Maresi again?
MT: The Red Abbey is set in a world in which I have already published two other novels, Arra and Anaché, which so far are only published in Swedish and Finnish. For me, all the books are connected just as much as The Red Abbey Chronicles. There are even references to them in Maresi Red Mantle. I am by no means done with this world, and there are many, many stories clamouring to be told. I think I am done with Maresi’s tale, but there are other characters from Maresi Red Mantle whose stories I’d like to continue with, and maybe we will see glimpses of Maresi through them.
HQ: Do you have any advice for non-English-speaking writers who would like to have their work translated?
MT: Get yourself a great agent! Without my agent Elina Ahlbäck, I’d never have found my fantastic UK publisher, Pushkin Press. She’s worked hard at selling my books abroad, so far to 22 countries.
HQ: Are you currently working on any stories or projects?
HQ: Well, I’m very excited to see what you have in store. We wish you all the best, and thank you once again for your time!
Reviews of The Red Abbey Chronicles:
‘Hands down the best fantasy I have read in a long time.’ – Cora Tea Party Princess.
‘The richness of the world here is to die for. The first person narration moves through so many different perspectives, yet it actually works perfectly.’ – Emily May.
‘This series is great and you should read it.’ – Biblibio.