I recently spoke with Maija Haavisto, also known as ~diamondie, a long-time dA member whose extensive track record of writing includes journalism, textbooks, novels, poetry, short fiction on subjects as diverse as technology, medicine, food, science-fiction, and many other things besides. Maija has recently succeeded in getting her novel Marian ilmestyskirja, or Maria's Book of Revelations published. Let's hear what she has to say about the novel, the writer's life, and the emerging genre of "cripfic."
First, give us a bit of background. Who is Maija?
I am a 27-year-old Finn who moved to Amsterdam last year. When I was five I decided I was going to be an author. Ive been writing for a living since the age of 16 and have had a few textbooks published (a medical textbook and a book about Twitter), but publishing a novel was always my number #1 dream.
Getting seriously ill at the age of 16 threatened to crush my dream, but thanks to my own research I was able to find proper treatments for my progressive CFS/ME and managed to bounce back. My own disability is mostly invisible, but I have been very, very close to becoming a wheelchair user and even a nursing home patient.
What is CFS/ME?
Chronic fatigue syndrome or more appropriately myalgic encephalomyelitis, it's an infectious neurological illness. It's the very last thing you want to get if you ever want to feel like a human being. In Finland the illness is considered not to exist and in many countries it's seen as psychiatric, despite WHO classification as a neurological illness since 1969.
Making a living at writing seems to be a daunting goal for many, yet here you are doing exactly that. Any thoughts on "living the life?"
There are millions of people writing for a living - mostly journalists. The Internet has made things a lot easier too, with all kinds of "content mills". If you're half-decent and write several hours a day, chances are you can make a living as a writer even without any credentials or special talent. I made a living with writing since I was 16, it's only recently I've been doing it with writing books (and since I write in Finnish I couldn't do that without grants).
Tell us about Marian ilmestyskirja. How did you come to write it? What was your goal with the story?
It was my 6th novel manuscript with the first draft written during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) 2009. My fifth one (which was very close to publication based on some lengthy non-form rejections I got) featured two minor characters with disabilities, but somehow I felt I wasnt doing disabled people justice by just sidelining them.
I want to write fiction which features disabled characters as normal people, not mythical superhumans who exist to inspire the able-bodied, who have other goals besides "to walk again some day". Disability can cause a lot of suffering, but it's not all doom and gloom, being disabled in itself is not a tragedy.
The actual story line was inspired by the Bible of all things (I'm not and have never been religious in any way). Not many people seem to have picked it up despite the title, though.
Maria's experiences with disability were mostly inspired by my friends, especially a good friend who uses a wheelchair. Maybe 5% of it is my own experience (so I find it very puzzling when people call my work autobiographical!).
Do you feel that you would have written the novel without NaNoWriMo, or was the 30-day crucible important?
Well, I had written five novels before it. The quickest two both only took two months including editing. But the deadline definitely helps to finish the first draft quicker, especially since I'm now always buried with different projects. I try to leave November as empty of work as possible and often even freeze meals in advance.
Can you tell us a bit about getting Marian ilmestyskirja published? How did the process work? How long did it take? What surprised you (or frustrated you) about it?
There are some 30 fiction publishers in Finland, but no literary agents. Manuscripts are submitted straight to publishers, usually on paper. A few publishers only take a sample and a query.
I finished the manuscript in April last year. It was sent off to the major publishers first and smaller ones a bit later. In May I emailed it to the several small publishers and to my surprise, two already showed interest the next day. Many companies take much longer to respond. In fact I got a very late rejection last week!
The company I eventually ended up with was one of the very few publishers who only wanted a sample. After they had requested the full manuscript I didnt hear anything for weeks. I had pretty much given up, but when I followed up, they told me they wanted to publish it. (The contract wasnt signed until October, though.)
It sounds like an interesting book. Any possibility for an English version?
Yes, as soon as I find an international publisher! It is utopistic, but I'm sure there must be someone with a personal interest and passion for this subject, and with the Internet if there's just one person on Earth, I might find them. Of course I wouldn't mind a publisher in any language, whether Swedish or Swahili.
What kind of promotional work do you have planned (aside from this interview)?
Lots! I have a website and blog dedicated to the book, including an info page in English, and I will be making a book trailer. I have sent dozens of PDF review copies, which have already resulted in ten reviews in Finnish book blogs. Of course print copies will also be sent, as soon as they exist. I will have flyers printed out, both black-and-white brochures and colored business-card-sized ones.
I've contacted my journalist contacts and it looks like that may lead to something. I've been in talks with a Finnish café run by several people I know about organizing a contest. I will also hold some contests online on my blog. My dad has been in contact with several Finnish libraries.
Hundreds of press releases will be sent. I have been/will be in contact with various disability related magazines in Finland, which has already resulted in a lot of interest and a paid blogging gig. I have asked many friends with disability or writing blogs in English to post about my search for an international publisher.
I have also been promoting on Twitter, LinkedIn and a Finnish social media site I'm part of.
You mentioned that you wrote a textbook about Twitter. Can you talk about that?
I was asked to do that by my publisher and I immediately got excited, as I'm very big on Twitter, but in Finland it has grown very slowly. It was a guidebook to Twitter not just how to use it but also why. It was my first properly published book in late 2009 and got me some nice gigs as a Twitter trainer for major media companies. It sold out in 2010 and a new edition was supposed to be published, but for reasons outside of my control never happened.
On your novel's web site (English version), you mention creating the genre "cripfic," which focuses on stories about and around disabled characters. Why do you feel that fiction about the disabled should be its own genre, instead of simply writing about disabled characters in an established genre?
Well, cripfic doesn't exclude other genres. You could write cripfic erotica, chicklit or fantasy (bipolar elves or amputee unicorns, anyone?) and I've written several sci-fi cripfics. I just want to highlight the fact that it is possible to write about disability, even in an entertaining fashion. And while I love writing short sci-fi pieces, in novels general fiction (sometimes with a hint of slipstream) is just more my thing.
Sure I could write novels where the disability isn't central to the story. But as long as the disabled don't really have a voice in fiction, I'll focus on the subject a bit more. If there are thousands of books about elves (I really don't hate elves or fantasy, it's just a good comparison!), sure disabled people deserve a few about them, too?
I'm a sci-fi/fantasy nut, so naturally I'm interested in your cripfic sci-fi efforts. Can you provide a brief synopsis?
Timeless, the sci-fi story of mine that will be published in a few days, was originally written for an accessibility-themed sci-fi contest. I was very excited, of course, but alas, there was only one winner and that wasn't me. It's about a couple of which one is blind and one is a wheelchair user, in a future where disabilities can be "cured" but not everyone chooses to and which has also abolished time.
I'd rather not reveal more since the rest are still unpublished, unfinished, or in the planning stage.
What makes "cripfic" unique? What other stories or novels have you written, or are you now writing, in the genre?
Cripfic lets able-bodied people experience things they have never thought about, but that are everyday reality to millions. Anyone can become disabled at any time. It doesn't take a horrid car accident I lost my health in a matter of one day to my illness. And of course the disabled can better identify with them.
I just finished my second cripfic novel Makuuhaavoja (Bedsores), which is about a bedbound man who mostly lives in his imagination. Besides his own life, the lives of people around him seem to be stalled, as well. It's not a political novel though, like Marian ilmestyskirja is. I'm shocked I can actually write something that subtle and non-controversial!
I'm planning my next novel to finish my cripfic "trilogy". Titled Häpeämätön (Shameless), it's about an able-bodied man who starts dating a disabled artist. That one looks like it's going to be very political and controversial.
I've also written a few cripfic short stories, including one that is going to be published in the Breath & Shadow magazine in a few days. Some sci-fi stories I've written feature themes related to disability. My poems also feature related themes in the past more about the experience of chronic illness, these days more sociopolitical. (Now if I'd just get something finished.)
You have a wide variety of writing experience, from contributing to magazines on everything from computers to interior decorating, to medical textbooks, to novels. How important is it for a writer to diversify?
I think I may have overdone the diversification myself. I never thought I'd be a tech, music or interior design journalist, it just happened. Food and medicine as subjects support each other, as do food writing and being a photographer, but not sure about the rest.
On the other hand, in translation, which I do on the side, it has been very helpful. For example, I got one job because I had both done medical translations and translated subtitles for a movie! Writing poetry has helped with the copywriting part of my translation jobs, and the copywriting/marketing stuff has helped me promote my work.
Of course all experience helps me with writing fiction. Medicine is great for inspiring sci-fi, obviously. Marian ilmestyskirja's Maria is a painter and videographer, both of which I've been doing; her boyfriend is a dreamy Internet marketer. In my new novel the characters include a journalist and a health nut chef.
You're plainly writing what you know, but what kind of research went into this particular novel?
I didn't need too much research for Marian ilmestyskirja, certainly much less than for some of my previous novels, which have required reading dozens of books (research for my second novel in 1999, about a girl with cancer, was likely the spark that spurred my passion into medicine, by the way).
Most things I already knew from my own experience, my friends' experience or my previous medical research. Wheelchairs were one thing I had to study in detail. Like in what kinds of terrains you can or can't use them, how long do the batteries in electronic wheelchairs last etc.
I also had to research one medical procedure, some things about feminism for the main character's mother, the illnesses some minor characters have and also, "how some things feel" the main character experiences many very powerful things that I haven't experienced. The Internet has certainly made this easier, as people blog all kinds of experiences that you could never find in textbooks.
I also read a few novels on the topic of otherness/being an outsider, including Camus' The Stranger, but they all were from a very different perspective.
How did you become involved with writing nonfiction (textbooks, articles)? What interests you in a given project before you start?
I wanted to become a journalist since I was very young. I knew I might not be able to make my living writing books (yet now I am doing that, ha). I got my first job writing for a computer magazine in 2000. Upon querying I was told I was already on their list of potential writers (based on my website) and a job offer upfront. Imagine my shock, I was just 16!
Accidentally I ended up writing for interior design magazines and a music magazine that I still (at least technically) write for. I did want to become a translator, but didn't know where to start. In 2008 I saw a job post looking for Finnish localization experts and got the gig based on my computer magazine experience (I kicked ass at it and soon found myself working for one of the largest translation agencies in the world).
I never thought I'd write a medical textbook, it was supposed to be just a brochure. I was offered to write a book on Twitter and I said yes, I was asked to write an interesting cookbook and couldn't refuse. Yeah, it may sound crazy, but that's how it is! I'm not the luckiest person alive (nor am I amazingly talented). Of course some has really been amazing luck, but a lot of hard work and sheer stubbornness has been involved too.
It seems like a large part of writing success is willingness to keep your door and your mind open. Have there been any projects that you haven't been willing to consider, or wouldn't?
I have to decline tons of job offers and applying for job posts I would likely get, though almost entirely in the field of translation, because I simply don't have the time (and I've been offered a few projects outside of my expertise). One paid blogging offer I declined because I felt it wasn't really my thing.
I've also declined one book project: can't reveal the specifics but it was a textbook for continuing education, more or less related to two of my specialties. I could have done it. It would have looked great in my résumé, but it would have been a massive amount of work not leading to either a lot of money or a lot of personal gratification. Not every job has to pay well but then it had better be enjoyable, at least.
Smaller projects I don't usually decline even if it's not really my cup of tea, if I just have the time and know I can do it. For example, I ended up interviewing Anthrax, a band I don't like at all, because the original interviewer had to cancel.
Of course I would decline any morally questionable projects. Not likely someone would invite me to write Butchering for Dummies, but in the field of translation similar things might happen. Naturally I would decline anything that wouldn't agree with my world view.
You self-published a novel before this one. Can you tell us about that? How did you go about publishing it? Was it successful? Is self-publishing something that you would consider again?
I wrote The Atlas Moth in Finnish in 2002 and for personal reasons buried it for six years. In 2008 I dug it up, re-edited it and self-published it first in Finnish, then in English via Lulu (which sucks, by the way). It was edited/proofread by obenson and the cover was designed by Shurakai-Zero who designed the cover for my self-published textbook, too.
Can you elaborate a little on your experience with Lulu? I've run across several people who swear by it.
Well, the website has a terrible UI which changes all the time. That's enough to make me hate it. The royalties you get are very small (in Finland you typically get 20%!) unless you price your book very high. I used to get a decent amount of money from my medical textbook, like $5 per unit, and then Lulu suddenly raised its prices. If I hadn't raised my price, I would have got like 20 cents per book sold (and I still couldn't raise the price enough to make nearly as much as I used to).
Ironically enough, I can't order my own book from Lulu and sell it in real life, because of the high postage I wouldn't make any money. If I order it from Amazon and sell it I can actually make some money, but a tiny amount. It's ridiculous.
It was not a success by any means. I have to admit I probably did not have my heart fully in it and did not market it as much as I could have. I am not sure why, as three of my good (yet honest) friends liked it a lot, one even recommended it to several of his friends. It's just a very difficult novel, apparently not interesting for many.
I found out the hard way that if you self-publish a novel, it doesnt mean your friends will buy it! At least in my case, more than 95% didnt. However, some not-so-close-at-all friends have been surprisingly interested in my self-published projects.
The English version of my medical textbook was also self-published in 2008. Despite heavy promotion it took ages to really gain momentum. I only really started to get reviews last year, and that's when the sales really picked up, besides the speeches I gave at two medical conferences.
Your passion for human rights seems to inform your work very heavily. Is it important for writers to serve a purpose with their writing?
I wouldn't speak for other people. I don't want to preach nor do I think I am a better author (or person) than someone who just writes to entertain or even just to make money. But it's more like why not? If something I write changes the way even just one person thinks about something, I have succeeded.
Some people don't really have a voice in this society or are more or less outcasts. Besides the disabled they include e.g. the elderly, the homeless, the overweight, sexual minorities besides gays (e.g. transgender people, genderqueers, polyamorists etc). I would like to see more of them in fiction!
It sounds like you know what you want to do and work toward it. Is marketability a consideration for you when you consider a story or a novel?
Heh, if it was, I wouldn't be writing cripfic! And you can't really predict the market. My previous novel manuscript was written about quite a hip topic: life extension (several documents/movies about it were released at the time when I finished the book). Yet one rejection I got said we liked this book, our reader jury did too, but our marketing department thought it would be too difficult to sell."
I understand that your experience with deviantART has had its ups and downs. Taking everything into account, would you say that the site has helped you as a writer? How so (or how not)?
Thats a good question. At least it motivated me to write more, since I participated in quite a few contests, often with success (I won a critique contest, a haiku contest and placed second in at least three larger contests). Of course I got plenty of critiques too, which I cant for certain say helped, but probably.
DA connected me to some people I still keep in touch with and who have helped with my writing career, like the aforementioned trusty helpers; self-published DA author alienhead whose writing I have immense respect for; and anubis46 who designed the amazing cover artwork for Marian ilmestyskirja.
Your personal web site is in English, as are your short stories posted there, yet your novel is in Finnish. What drives your decision to write in one language or the other?
Opportunism, mostly. :-P I write poetry and short stories in English, as that's where my audience is except when there is a very interesting writing contest in Finnish.
As for my novels, I still don't feel I am 100% fluent in English. But I also like not having to mess around with agents, and that I can somehow reach my audience better, even if that audience is small (five million people in Finland) and I don't even live there any more.
Recommend some reading to us. What has grabbed your attention in the past few months?
I read Nasim Marie Jafry's amazing cripfic novel The State of Me, which is a true classic except that no one has ever heard of it (even though it was published by HarperCollins)!
I'm afraid I haven't had much time to read fiction recently, as I have been swamped by a massive pile of non-fiction source material. As far as non-fiction goes, I'd recommend Carl Elliot's brilliant White Coat, Black Hat: Adventures on the Dark Side of Medicine.
What projects are you working on now?
I'm about a third of the way through writing a medical textbook about poorly understood chronic illnesses, which I even got a grant for. I really wish this book was published in English too, because the subject is extremely important.
I'm trying to get more active with poetry and short fiction again. I've been telling myself I have to finish my book trailer first (I've almost started...). I have a few unfinished short stories, lots of unfinished poetry and poem ideas and I'm already planning my next novel.
I have a food-related book (partly a cookbook) coming out next year, but I haven't really started writing it yet, currently in the phase of wasting shameful amounts of food on inventing recipes that often don't quite turn out.
Aside from your web site, where else can we keep up with you?
I'm active on Twitter, and I also blog in Finnish.
And when she says "active," she means it. Many thanks to Maija for the gift of her time and insight. As always, if you know of any dA writers who have achieved publication and have interesting things to say about their experiences (or if you are one yourself), please feel free to let me know.
Past articles in the Deviants in Print series:
E. Kristin Anderson