How to write a novel in two languages – a writing interview with Emmi Itäranta

A couple of months ago I met fellow Finn and writer Emmi Itäranta at an Urban Writers’ retreat in London. Emmi told me about her latest book The Memory of Water (Teemestarin kirja), which she’d written in Finnish and English. As someone writing and working in both English and Swedish it made me curious and I wanted to find out a bit more about Emmmi’s working process, so I did what came naturally and sent her a couple of questions.

Without further ado, here are Emmi’s answers.

1. How did you come up with the idea for The Memory of Water?

I was interested in Zen Buddhism and the Japanese Way of Tea (chado). At the same time, I was reading a lot about climate change and its effect on the availability of fresh water. One day I came up with the image of a young girl preparing tea in an old, ritualistic manner in a future world where drinking water had become a scarce and expensive resource. This image contained the essence of the story: the main character, the imaginary world, the fight for survival. I wrote down a few fragments which then began to grow into a novel.

2. Could you talk a bit about the writing process, how did you start working on the book, did you do any research?

Five years ago, I was doing an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Kent. I had to submit work for class, so I wrote maybe three pages which later became the opening of Memory of Water. At the time I thought I was writing a short story, but my teacher Patricia Debney said, “This is a novel.” It took me a long time to believe that!

I love world-building and it was important for me to make the imaginary future setting credible and consistent, so I did quite a lot of research. The main focus was on the impacts of global warming, and I spent a lot of time thinking about the consequences of such things as sea level rise, water shortages and absence of fossil fuels. What crops would survive in a very dry climate? What would technology be like if there was no oil? How would winters be in Lapland if snow no longer existed? And most importantly, how would a military regime use access to fresh water, something absolutely essential to all life, to control people?

I also researched Asian tea cultures, particularly Japanese and Chinese practices associated with tea-drinking. The tea ceremony portrayed in the book is fictional and combines influences from several cultures, because I wanted to emphasise the fact that the world of Memory of Water is different from our reality.

3. Why did you choose to write it in two different languages? What was it like?

I had to write in English initially, because I was submitting the early chapters as coursework for my university degree in the UK. However, I soon discovered that it was quite useful to get feedback from my Finnish writing group, so I ended up writing each chapter in parallel in English and Finnish. It’s a slow process, but I find that the result is better, more polished, than when I’m only writing in one language. It’s a way of forcing myself to be very thorough and it helps me put some distance between myself and the text.

4. What was it like trying to get the book published?

The book was rejected by a dozen or so agents in the UK and several publishers in Finland before it got a publishing contract through winning a sci-fi and fantasy writing contest organised by the Finnish publishing house Teos. I finished the first full draft in August 2010, and got the phone call about the win in July 2011. In hindsight, it was a relatively quick process — after all, it can take years to find a publisher — but at the time it seemed to take forever. Eleven months is a long time to have doubts about your work and wonder if anyone will ever like it enough to take the risk of investing in it.

5. What did you think when you got a publisher and heard it was going to be published in English as well?


It was a dream come true. I had worked on Memory of Water very hard for years and lived with the uncertainty of not knowing if the effort would be worth it. I had hopes, like any writer has, but I never expected to win the contest, and I never expected to get a two-book deal with a major international publisher. It all still feels somewhat unreal. There is some pressure that comes with it, of course, but the best antidote to that is to keep focussed on writing the next book. I’m lucky because my job is to plunge into another world and forget about other things while I’m there!

6. What advice would you give to someone trying to break through as a writer/speculative fiction writer?

Write every day. Read a lot. Find at least one reader whose opinion you can trust. Listen to feedback and learn from it what you can, but never lose sight of what you are trying to do. Get to know the craft of writing. Be patient. The only good reason to write is because you love it; any external rewards are so uncertain that your motivation will probably not last if it’s based on them. Don’t give up, unless you know you’d rather do something else with your life — then it’s perfectly okay to give up!

The Memory of Water is out in Finnish and will be published in the UK, US and Australia in 2014 by HarperCollins Voyager.

The photo of Emmi was taken by Heini Lehväslaiho.