Interview with Noémi Szécsi, author of The Finno-Ugrian Vampire
Noémi Szécsi is one of the most exciting voices of contemporary Hungarian literature, author of four novels. In 2009 Noémi was awarded the European Union Prize for Literature for her second novel.
The Finno-Ugrian Vampire is Noémi first novel translated into English by Peter Sherwood and it stole our hearts with its first pages. It tells a story of Jerne, a reluctant vampire, who prefers to write children’s books than suck blood.
The novel was selected for the prestigious European Literature Night which took place in May at the British Library. Rosie Goldsmith, the wonderful chair and the presiding spirit of the European Literature Night, hailed Noémi as ‘Hungary’s very own Stephanie Meyer’.
Watch an interview with Noémi during 2012 European Literature Night.
The central character in the book, Jerne, doesn’t want to be a vampire. Why did you want to tell the story of a vampire?
Because I realized that a simple coming-of-age story wouldn’t do, the novel didn’t work with a depressed young adult. I was looking for a twist, and then I saw a BBC documentary on Hungarian music, where the presenter was talking about vampires. We, Hungarians do not have vampires in our folklore, but we have Béla Lugosi, and we have a past and present which could be described with bloody metaphors. So that’s the way I found out about a Hungarian vampire dynasty in 2000 during my Finnish scholarship in Helsinki.
Have you got your favourite vampire books?
No, they bore me exceedingly. The only one I read with interest was Bram Stoker’s classical Dracula, as I needed the material for writing my novel. Anyway I am an avid reader of 19th century fiction by Jane Austen, George Eliot, Wilkie Collins, Zola, Flaubert etc. But I always like a good non-fiction book on the subject, like Maria Janion’s The Vampire.
How did you come up with the title?
I cannot recall the moment, but it was written in a Finno-Ugrian language (Hungarian) in a country where an other Finno-Ugrian language is spoken (Finland) and the main idea of the text was that in Finno-Ugrian languages you don’t have to define the grammatical gender of a pronoun, so Jerne could be a man or a woman as well.
Jerne is an aspiring author of children’s books. At some stage she says: ‘If I were to produce any piece of writing that attracted a vast reading public and copies were to fly off the shelves, well, I would be profoundly ashamed of myself.’ Could you tell us a bit about Jerne’s dream to become a writer?
I guess I was trying to laugh at my own ambition of being a writer, so in a way that part of the book is particularly sardonic. But Jerne is serious, she has a fantasy world populated by the animal heroes of children’s fiction. If you are raised by a bloodthirsty 235-year-old female vampire, you need a shelter in your life. She doesn’t want money, prizes or fame, her only wish is to be published and to be read by those people who will like her tales… Well, that is a sweet dream, isn’t it?
What was the most challenging aspect when you were writing The Finno-Ugrian Vampire?
Every aspect was challenging, because it was my very first piece of writing. I didn’t know how to construct a novel, so I tried to follow my intuition. I was sitting in my room in a Helsinki university dormitory and I rewrote the manuscript several times by hand, because I didn’t have my computer with me. Well, that was particularly challenging.
Jerne’s grandmother is one of the most unforgettable characters in the book. How did you come up with her?
Well, I won’t say that she is just like my grandmother, although one of my grannies is a headstrong and independent lady with Amazonian qualities. But Jerne’s grandmother is a kind of role model, a perfect woman who lives a perfect, but inhuman life. Jerne wants something else, for when you are young, you are always convinced your life will be different from your parents’. It can be done, but we all have our compromises.
The big question in the novel is the issue of one’s destiny. Could you tell us a bit more about this aspect of the book?
For me this novel is not about destiny, but about the end of childhood and start of adulthood. When you are ready to kill off the built-in parent, you are not paralyzed by external expectations anymore, and you are ready to live your own life – as a vampire, or as a writer, whatever. And only then comes destiny…
You have written four books and your second novel won the European Union Prize for Literature in 2009. Have you got any advice for aspiring writers?
At first I thought it was enough to have a good idea and to write better and better over time. Well, in the meanwhile I realized it wasn’t. Networking and self-promotion is almost as important, you have to know the right people and to be at the right time at the right place.
But I still prefer writing…
Could you tell us what are you working on at the moment?
I am writing a novel from the point of view of a deaf boy. It is going to be called ‘Mindreader’, because although he is taught to lip-read and sign, his communication with the world is based on anticipation, and he believes he has developed the skill of mindreading. It is a coming-of-age story like The Finno-Ugrian Vampire, but completely different.
Read Peter Sherwood’s reflections on translating The Finno-Ugrian Vampire.
Buy the book on Amazon.