25th Trillium Award

On Writing, with Urve Tamberg

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Photo Credit: Dancing Cat Books

Urve Tamberg is an author from Oakville and is releasing her first book for young adults, The Darkest Corner of the World (Dancing Cat Books). Urve will be launching The Darkest Corner of the World in Toronto at Tartu College on Saturday, September 29th, 2012. You can check out further details at the Open Book: Toronto Events page. You can also visit Urve's website here. In today's On Writing interview, Urve talks about The Darkest Corner of the World and the inspirations behind the novel.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, The Darkest Corner of the World.

Urve Tamberg:

In 1941 Estonia, fifteen-year-old Madli is struggling to survive and keep her family together against all odds. Like many others, she hopes the Soviet occupation is temporary but when the neighbours and thousands of others are deported, she knows their lives are in peril.

Every day brings new dangers and unimaginable decisions. Soon, the German Army invades Estonia. Friends and family find themselves divided as they try to choose which dictator they'd rather live under: Hitler or Stalin. Madli is horrified by either choice, but how long can she remain neutral?


What made you want to write this story for a young adult audience, from a teenage girl's perspective, rather than for a mature audience from an adult perspective?


The simple answer is I wrote the book that I wanted to read as a teen. When I grew up, Estonia was part of the USSR and the only information available in English was a two paragraph entry in the encyclopedia. I've heard so many amazing stories, both tragic and miraculous, and I wanted to write about them for my children.

One of the issues facing Estonians, though I don't think it's unique to us, is how to keep our culture vibrant and ensure young people grow up with an understanding of their roots. Literature is one of those ways.

In a broader context, I'm intrigued by the similarities between some of the concepts in dystopian literature and the reality of living under communism in the twentieth century. Teens may not realize that events they perceive as dystopian actually happened in the twentieth century. It might be a great way to start a discussion.

Let me give you an example.

In The Hunger Games, Panem is a post-apocalyptic nation where the countries of North America once existed. The Capitol exercises political control over the rest of the nation.

For most of the 20th century, the Soviet Union was controlled by a centralized bureaucracy based in Moscow. The USSR was comprised of fifteen nations including the former republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania which had been forcibly occupied by the Soviets.

The people of the USSR were rarely allowed to travel to the West, and if they did, members of their family were held back as insurance so that the person would return. If they didn't return, their family faced arrest, torture and deportation.

There are many more examples and I hope talking about these real-life scenarios might pique their interest in history. I think teens like good historical fiction that makes them wonder "What would I have done?" I like to challenge my characters with morally complex decisions at a vulnerable time in their lives to see which path they choose.


You are the daughter of Estonian immigrants. How did your childhood experiences enable you to write this story?


When I went to school, history was taught as a series of dates and treaties and wars and battles, none of which interested me in the least. Now I realize I'm interested in how people felt and the every-day dilemmas they faced.

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. I was inspired by little-known true stories of stubbornness, ingenuity and bravery. Because Estonia was a tiny country locked behind the Iron Curtain for almost fifty years, many of its stories have never been told. In the last twenty years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, people have finally dared to talk about their experiences. When I was growing up, my parents didn't speak much about the war, but once in a while something big would slip out. For example, I was an adult when my father told me about two brothers I never knew he had. Both were in their twenties when they were deported to Siberia. I still don't know the reason. There are so many stories still buried in memories because people don't think that their personal tales are important. But they are.

I also understand the Estonian character. They are very stubborn, independent people, and it's a testament to their attitude that the country, culture and people even exist today given the hundreds of years of occupation. And they have a wicked sense of black humour.


What was the most challenging aspect of writing The Darkest Corner of the World, your first novel?


Since this is my first novel, there are three things that were challenging for me. I call them the three Rs: researching, rewriting and relevancy.

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.

E.B. White said, "The best writing is rewriting." 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. I joined a critique group, SCBWI, CANSCAIP, and started going to courses and conferences. I love that I'm always learning something new and that writers are so generous about sharing their experiences.

And finally, relevancy. How could I make this story appeal to teens? I knew the story had to draw them in on an emotional level and decided to included romance and betrayal. Also, Madli likes all the same things today's teens do. Boys, summer vacation, parties, movies from America and traveling.


What inspired you to begin writing this novel when you did?


Estonia was forgotten for decades after the Soviet occupation in 1944. But since its independence in 1991, more material becomes available every year, and I had access to this material.

Also, people who had lived through World War II, including my parents, were reaching the end of their life, and there wasn't much time left to gather their memories.

And finally, I wanted my kids to read my books while they were still teenagers. The more I found out about the history, the more I wanted my children to understand the bravery, generosity and stubbornness of their grandparents.


What was the best book that you read this summer, and why will it stay with you?


I loved Property by Valerie Martin. It's about the wife of a slave owner whose husband is having an affair with one of the slaves. At the end of the novel, you wonder who is actually the enslaved one.


What are you working on now?


My new novel, also for teens, is a mystery set in the collapsing Soviet Union in 1990. I traveled through the Soviet Union at that time, and I'm fascinated with contrast of Western freedom and Soviet constraints. For me, setting is a big part of my stories, and that time period in Estonia is fraught with conflict.

Urve Tamberg grew up in Toronto as the daughter of Estonian immigrant parents. With a B.Sc. (Physical Therapy) and a M.B.A., her management career spanned both the public and private sectors of health care. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, traveling, spending time with family and, of course, reading. Urve lives in Oakville, Ontario. The Darkest Corner of the World is her first novel.

For more information about The Darkest Corner of the World please visit the Dancing Cat Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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