The Finnish journalist and writer Meri Valkama will attend the International Book Festival held at Millenáris Park in Budapest at the end of September. Valkamas first novel “Yours, Margot” has been a huge success in Finland. The novel is about a Finnish family who moves to the DDR in 1983 due to the fathers work as a foreign correspondent.
You will attend the International Book Festival in Budapest on the 30th of September, have you ever been to Hungary before?
I have been to Hungary once when I was interrailing, but that was over 20 years ago and it was only a short few days stay. Budapest was very charming. I remember that we visited a statue park with statues from the socialist era. It was an impressive place.
Your first novel “Yours, Margot” has been very popular and successful, what has it been like to suddenly become a well known author?
It has been quite bewildering. It has been a year since the publication of Yours, Margot and during this year there have been very few opportunities to take a breath and to think of what all of this has been like. The basics of my own life haven’t changed at all but professionally there have been big changes.
Something that has been especially joyful for me has been that the book's success has made it possible for me to continue writing prose. A large part of Yours, Margot had to be written while I was working. I had to sell my apartment and with that finance the last writing year of the book. It was in a sense a big personal risk, and I didn’t know if it would be worth it. Now I know it was. At the moment I am writing my new novel with a two year grant.
Where did the idea for the book come from and what has the writing process for the book been like?
The idea was born in the fall of 2011 when I studied at the Critical Academies (Kriittinen korkeakoulu) writing school. Already at the start of my studies I decided that I wanted to work on a novel. Back then I thought I would finish the manuscript in the two years time the studies lasted, but in the end it took ten years to finish.
The subject of the novel is multifaceted and demanded a lot of thinking, research, digesting, interviews, writing and rewriting. Already in the writing phase I called the book a puzzle novel, because there were many pieces that had to work together. I wrote intensely on the book for the two years I was studying but after that everyday life took over, which included two small children and a dayjob. Margot then became a side project.
When I was a child I lived in the DDR for four years due to my father's work. After the abolishment of DDR, for years I had thoughts of the country and the system. During the existence of DDR Finland had warm relationships with both Germanies and we had a lot of student and cultural exchanges with DDR, which was seen as a model country of socialism. After Germany was reunited that image fundamentally changed and suddenly even all the good in DDR were seen as bad, even criminal. This stayed with me and as an adult I realised I wanted to process this somehow in a literary form.
What kind of background work did you do for the book?
I read different kinds of DDR related books, I watched all possible TV-shows, movies and listened to music from the DDR era, I went to museums and read research on the subject. I interviewed countless people and I even studied for a year on a scholarship from the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat at the Freie Universität in Berlin, where I focused only on DDR-studies. I saw it as my responsibility to try to understand the subject as thoroughly as possible.
The book is based mostly in DDR and you also lived there as a child. What memories and images does DDR awaken in you and what would you wish people would know and understand of DDR?
I wish people would understand that people lived in that country and system a similar day to day life as in any other place. Daily life is daily life everywhere. It is not true that the Stasi persecution would have stigmatized every person's every moment, which seems to be something people think these days. I don’t mean that the Stasi didn’t affect many people's lives or that the lack of travel freedom didn’t affect people, just that people had in their lives also other things, even good things. This has been forbidden to talk about after the fall of DDR and this has been the experience for many east germans. Unemployment, being in debt, poverty and hunger weren't a part of daily life in DDR, but these things are a part of capitalistic societies. But still we speak of capitalistic societies with admiration and the socialist societies with despise. I don’t like such a black and white way of looking at things. The DDR had good and bad sides such as Germany today has good and bad sides. No society or individual human is solely one or the other.
What themes or subjects interest you at the moment that you might be already writing about or wish to write about in the future?
At the moment I am writing my second novel, and in the center of it lies the question if humanity is inevitably doomed to repeat its history. The subject is at the moment especially topical due to the situation in Ukraine and Russia, and also the rest of Europe, and it feels important to be able to work on this subject in the form of prose.
What thoughts and expectations do you have for your visit to Budapest?
I think it is wonderful to come to Budapest! I love literature events and it is very inspiring and lovely to get to meet other authors and hear their conversations about writing. It will be fascinating to see how the city has changed during these 20 years since my last visit. I am glad and grateful to have received the invite to the event.
Who: Meri Valkama
Profession: Journalist and author
Studies: Writing school at the Critical Academy and scholarship at the Freie Universität in Berlin during 2015-16.
Hobbies: yoga and being outside and exercising with her dogs.