Have you ever wondered if your book will ever get published? If there is any point in continuing? Or if all the hard work is going to be worth the long journey around the learning curve?
Urve Tamberg is my guest today and she knows all about that curve. Now I don’t want to say she has made it around the bend because of the possible negative connotations, but she has walked the walk to get her family’s story out. Indeed, it is the story of a whole country, small though Estonia is, that Urve brings to light in The Darkest Corner of the World. I am proud to welcome Urve today for her story, her magnetic personality, and her example to writers everywhere that the goal is worth the work. Please consider leaving comments for both Urve and myself and by all means check out The Darkest Corner of the World.
Elaine Cougler: Urve, you’re from Toronto, Ontario but your parents immigrated here from Estonia. First of all, where is Estonia and when did they leave? Finally, how does that all tie into The Darkest Corner of the World?
Urve Tamberg: Winston Churchill said that “history is written by the victors.” For most of the twentieth century, the Soviet Union was the “winner.” They illegally annexed the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania during the second World War, and for five decades the Iron Curtain limited communication between the West and the Eastern Bloc countries. Letters were censored, and people on both sides of the ocean were afraid to tell their stories. When I was growing up, there were no books about Estonia.
Estonia is bordered by Latvia, Russia, and the Baltic Sea. It’s located in a very strategic corner of the world and for hundreds of years was part of the Hanseatic league for trade and merchants. Due to its location and small size, it’s been a target for occupation. The Germans, the Swedes, and the Russians have ruled the country at various times in its history. In 1939, Estonia was illegally annexed to the Soviet Union as a result of a secret clause in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. During the war Estonia was occupied by Nazi Germany in 1941, then reoccupied by the Soviet Union in 1944. Estonia regained independence in 1991 after the collapse of the USSR and joined the European Union in 2004.
After Estonia regained independence in 1991, stories slowly started to filter out, but even now there is very little written in English, much less written for a younger audience.
Another reason that Estonia’s stories have not been told is because of its tiny population. There are about 1.5 million Estonians in the world. Much of the literature to date has been written in Estonian, so fluency in the language has been a necessity.
Both of my parents fled Estonia in 1944 when the Soviets returned. They lived in Sweden for a period of time, and then eventually made their way to Canada in the early 1950s where they met.
I heard stories about Estonia both from my parents, and at my weekly night class at Estonian school. As my parents aged, and I connected with relatives in Estonia, I became more interested in the country’s history. I wanted to capture those stories, and share them with my children, and others who may not know about the turbulent, and fascinating history of this small country.
EC: I had the feeling when I was reading this book that much of it came from personal experience, not your own but your mother’s or grandmother’s. Or is Madli mostly a fictional character?
UT: The story is personal, but the characters are fictitious though I’ve tried to portray Estonian characteristics such as dark humour, sarcasm, and sheer stubbornness in the characters.
The setting on Hiiumaa Island takes place on my mother’s farm. When I was growing up, I thought Hiiumaa was a sleepy place where nothing interesting happened, but during the second World War, the front passed through my mother’s farm twice. Once in 1941 when the German Army drove the Soviets out of Estonia, and once in 1944 when the Soviets returned to occupy it.
I read Estonian, and thus was able to read the life histories of people who had survived this terrifying experience. From these sources, I was able to pull out details of everyday life.
EC: When did you decide to write and how did you start? Short stories, essays, or did you start with this book?
UT: I started writing a few years ago when I enrolled in a local writing course run by Brian Henry. My first published article was for the Facts and Arguments page in the Globe and Mail, and it was such a thrill to know that people were actually reading my words. I published a couple of short stories in anthologies, and then decided to write a novel which took me over five years to complete, and to get published.
EC: For other writers, what would you say is the single most helpful advice you received along the road to publication?
UT: Find your writing tribe. Like any profession, it’s important to connect with your peers. Join associations, whether it’s SCBWI and CANSCAIP for children’s writers, or other groups for mystery writers, or romance writers, or sci-fi writers. Learn the craft of writing. We learn science, piano, and other skills. Good writing is a skill that can be learned through courses, workshops, and reading books about writing.
EC: Do you have other projects in the works?
UT: My current work-in-progress is a sequel to The Darkest Corner of the World. It sheds light on another little-known story of World War II. In 1944, thousands of Estonians (along with Latvians, and Lithuanians) tried to escape from their country as the Soviets occupied the Baltics. Hundreds of people did not survive the hazardous journey across the stormy Baltic Sea in the fall of 1944. My mother was amongst those who braved the Baltic Sea in a tiny boat. She left Estonia with only an apple in the pocket of her coat.
The working title is The Curtain Closes. In 1944, an Estonian girl (Madli) must choose between freedom and her family when the Soviet Army occupies Estonia, and the Iron Curtain shuts over the Baltics.
EC: Without giving away your ending, could you tell me if there will be resolution for all of the characters in a sequel?
UT: Based on the enthusiastic response from readers (both young and old), there seems to be an appetite for these little-known stories, so yes, I am researching a sequel.
EC: What would you say has been the most important part of this book for you, both as a writer, and also as a person?
UT: I have been really touched and overwhelmed by the support of the Estonian community. There is such interest for the novel from both the younger and older generations. I`ve been invited to speak at book clubs, and love talking to the women about the background for the novel, and hearing about their thoughts and experiences. But the best thing so far has been hearing about school book reports, and presentations done by Estonian teenagers. They’re so proud of their heritage, and I`m so proud of them for bringing this story to their Canadian classmates. One girl did a presentation to her class, and as part of the presentation she took a suitcase, and filled it with items that Madli would have taken into the forest with her. What a great idea!
This support has really motivated me to start researching a companion or sequel to The Darkest Corner of the World, and I`m looking forward to more adventures with these characters.
EC: I have found in writing my own stories based on my childhood that the hardest thing is getting my memories out of the way to let a new and more interesting story blossom. Have you experienced this or does the fact that this is your heritage and not your personal story make a difference?
When I set out to write the novel, I had a goal of making it interesting and accessible to all teenagers, and thus, the story came first. I approached the novel more as a psychological thriller, rather than a war novel.
I gave myself permission to use my first novel as a learning experience and spent years learning about the craft of writing. It was very tempting to rush the process, but it took about four or five years from conception to publication, and countless rewrites.
As someone with no background in history, I had to research everything from the dates of major events to bathrooms, shoes, and bathing suit styles. Accuracy was very important because I felt that I had to honour the events and people of Estonia during that time period. My ability to read Estonian gave me access to a richness of work that wouldn’t be available to anyone who didn’t speak the language (needless to say, there aren’t many of us). I spend months reading life histories, and textbooks in both Estonian and English.
Elaine, thanks so much for this opportunity!!
Blurb about The Darkest Corner of the World
Who can you turn to for help, when your only choice is between two evils?
In 1941, Estonia is under the iron rule of the Soviet Union. Fifteen-year-old Madli is struggling to understand why she can’t raise her country’s flag, why soldiers are waiting at every corner, and why her father was taken away in the middle of the night. Her annual vacation to Hiiumaa Island for the Midsummer celebration is the one thing she has to look forward to.
But in the midst of the celebrations, the Nazis invade the Soviet Union, and are on a path that will take them through Estonia. When Madli hears about a band of forest-dwelling freedom fighters determined to overthrow the Soviets at any cost, she is forced to decide whether she’d rather live under the evil regime she knows, or help another evil regime in hopes her father will be freed and her nation’s story heard.
The Darkest Corner of the World is available at Chapters-Indigo and independent book stores, as well as on-line at Chapters.ca and Amazon.ca. In the USA, it’s available through Amazon.com.
Facebook: Urve Tamberg – Author