Five Daughters of the Moon: An Interview with Leena Likitalo

I first met Leena Likitalo in Finland several years ago. I was impressed by her talent and her clear vision about her career. Fast-forward to today, and Likitalo has her first book out in English: The Five Daughters of the Moon. It’s a lush and luminous debut, energetic and sure-footed. You can find more information here. The book has already made Barnes & Noble’s best-of-the-month list, among other accolades.

Below find an exclusive interview with the author–about Finland, her writing, underwater rugby, shooting stuff with arrows, and much more. – Jeff

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Leena Likitalo hails from Finland, the land of thousands of lakes and at least as many untold tales. She’s the author of the Waning Moon Duology, including The Five Daughters of the Moon and The Sisters of the Crescent Empress (Tor.com Publishing). A Writers of the Future winner and Clarion San Diego graduate, her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Galaxy’s Edge, and Weird Tales.

How does your Finnish background influence your writing and what did you grow up reading?

My Finnish background has definitely affected the way my prose flows. Finnish words are fiercely independent and extremely phonetic by nature. Each word knows who’s doing what, when, and in which manner. This is achieved by suffixing bits and pieces at the end of each word. When I write in English, I know how the finished story should sound, but I may have to spend hours and hours with a dictionary, looking for the words that make the sentences sing. This sometimes leads to rather odd compositions that may not be entirely grammatically correct, but somehow still make sense. At least to me.

I grew up reading fairy tales, lots and lots of them, and that probably twisted something permanently in my brain. Have a look at the works of  Zachris Topelius and Hans Christian Andersen for some really stunning stories! During my early teens, I veered toward darker paths and read pretty much everything that Stephen King had ever written. Thanks to various school projects, I got introduced to Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy – and much to everyone’s surprise found them very much to my liking. My father lured me into sampling science fiction and fantasy when I was sixteen – I learned English by reading the works of Tolkien, Robert Jordan, and Vernor Vinge!

When did you first know you wanted to be a writer and when did you first feel like a writer, so to speak?

I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. I wrote my first stories before I learned to read. Naturally complications arose from that because not so surprisingly, no one else understood my brilliant system…I remember sitting before a typewriter at the tender age of nine, very determined to write a novel about wild horses. Unfortunately, I couldn’t figure out how to use the darn thing (who knew that centering a title could be so very challenging), and that was it for time being.

When did I feel like a writer? That day came when I sold my first short story, Watcher, to Ann VanderMeer, the editor of  Weird Tales at the time.

You, to me, seem driven in the best possible way. You’ve succeeded through talent and very hard work. What do you feel has been essential to persevering and your success?

In Finland, we have this word sisu which is so integral to our very existence that it’s engraved deep into our minds and bodies. Sisu means persistence through impossible odds with the firm belief in mind that, if you keep on trying hard enough, regardless of how many times you fail on the way, in the end you just might succeed. Just might.

I was brought up to believe that through practice and persistence I could achieve anything I wanted in my life. And so I knew that if I just kept on writing, day after day, story after story, gradually I was bound to master my craft. I saw the hundreds of rejections that both my short and longer fiction garnered as a validation of my progress toward my goals.

And one by one, I have indeed achieved my writerly dreams: winning in Writers of the Future, participating in Clarion San Diego, selling a short story to Clarkesworld, and eventually signing a two-book deal with Tor.com Publishing.

You ride horses and shoot arrows at targets. You’re competitive at  underwater rugby. How did you get into sports and do you find it helps in the writing? In what ways?

My underwater rugby team is called Najadit—the water spirits—and I love playing this rather intensive sport with my friends. Alas, I haven’t been to the pools of late due to old injuries re-surfacing. But one day, when I’m fit again, I shall make my return with a splash!

Now then, exercise, believe it or not, it’s actually an important part of my super-optimized writing process. I tend to write in 30 minute bursts, putting words after one another so fast that I start hearing voices and seeing visions, then disappear from this world altogether. Such intensity takes its toll, though, and after each session, I need to do something entirely different – mainly, clean the house or do sports. Yes, the latter is definitely more fun than laundry, which explains why I spend quite a lot of time exercising.

Hiking, bicycling, riding horses out in the nature, they all have a very meditative effect on me. Often, when there’s a particular plot point I need to solve or a description I want to nail before my next burst, it comes to me during these outings. And when it comes to extreme sports, I’m a bit of a junkie for new experiences. Give me a horse and a bow and an arrow, and I shall do my very best to hit the target or at least fail spectacularly while trying!

What do you want readers to take away from your books?

I like to describe my writing as a gateway drug for people who may not have read any fantasy before; it’s easy to approach, but leaves you craving for more. My books are for cloudy days, to be read while wrapped in a fluffy blanket, with a hot cup of cocoa by one’s side and a cat purring at one’s feet. I want to take my readers out for an adventure and truly make them laugh and cry with my characters. With my Waning Moon Duology, I wish to leave my readers with a haunting feeling of days past that will linger with them for weeks afterwards.

What are you working on now?

I’ve recently finished the edits of The Sisters of the Crescent Empress, the second book of my Waning Moon Duology. It’s due to come out this November already! While I do intend to write more stories set in the Waning Moon world, at the moment I’m working on side project. In my deeply feministic, philosophical piece, a child god shelters a group of pregnant women who—to return the favor—attempt to teach the god the difference between right and wrong. What could possibly go wrong there?

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