Mudlum (Made Luiga) is a rising star on the Estonian literary scene. She made her debut in 2014 with the short-story collection Tõsine inimene (A Serious Person). Published the following year was her “burlesque story collection” Ilus Elviira (Pretty Elviira), then the novella collection Linnu silmad (A Bird’s Eyes, 2016) and the essay collection Ümberjutustaja (Reteller, 2017). Last year, Mudlum released the novel Poola poisid (Polish Boys), which has already earned her both this year’s Award for Prose from the Cultural Endowment of Estonia and the European Union Prize for Literature. Her latest novel is also directly tied to the ZA/UM cultural movement’s role-playing video game Disco Elysium, which won a stunning four categories of The Game Awards in 2019, and, in 2020, has been awarded for its narrative in the D.I.C.E. Awards, the Game Developers Choice Awards, the SXSW Gaming Awards, and the British Academy Games Awards. Allow me to welcome you into Mudlum’s world.

The last time we chatted, it was 2015 and your second book had just been published – Pretty Elviira. Back then, I asked if you saw yourself as a real author, and you replied you didn’t think so yet – I believe you even said you don’t know how to write in the sense that you don’t know what’s right, what’s customary, etc., but you also remarked that you actually see that as an advantage. How do you feel now? Are you a writer? Do you know how to write already?

Questions should provoke, shouldn’t they! It’s hard to pry an honest answer out of myself. I could start way back from square one, asking what a writer is in the first place and whether they’re any kind of a marvel. A relatively honest answer would be that I myself am amazed that people see me as a writer and wonder where it all came from so quickly out of the blue, and why. I suppose I have started developing some very basic artisan skills, but I still know nothing about composition and couldn’t write a thriller or a crime novel. On the whole, my writing comes as it may and after it does, I feel just miserable wondering why it turned out the way it did and if I couldn’t have written something better.

I ultimately titled that long-ago interview “A total outsider from life itself”, and at the time that “outsider’s” perspective did seem quite dominant. Like you weren’t really a part of the inner circle and were distant from the literary public, so to say. But looking at it on paper now, one could even say you’re starting to settle in nicely! You’ve already received two very prestigious awards for Polish Boys, for instance!

True, what can I really say? Does a writer write for the inner circle, for themselves, or for the reader? I suppose it’s a little for all three. The fact that people like me are allowed to settle in must mean the inner ring isn’t hermetic. But the outsider’s position is the only position possible for a writer. A writer is always removed from everything, observing from a distance and committing things to memory. They themselves don’t realize, of course, that they’re recording those things, or that they are specifically on the outside. The author is simultaneously present and removed – that’s the way I see it. Maia, could you maybe explain that inner ring to me a little? What do you think it is, exactly? Cultural leaders? People who are born to be writers, just as one is born into nobility? Or is it something else entirely?

You’re right – the inner ring isn’t hermetic. There’s no single one and I suppose you could even say it’s an illusion, for the most part; a mirage. Nevertheless, your debut in literature came later than usual – you did publish a little on the ZA/UM blog earlier, but your first writing in print came only in a cultural periodical in 2012 and with your first book in 2014. Why was that?

Now, we’re really getting into it. What does “later than usual” mean? Some of my poems were published in Pioneer[1]. Isn’t that good enough? All my life, I’ve had to listen to people say that I’m too old for something; that I’ve missed my chances – it started when I was about 22. Too late! Too late! Writing isn’t really the sort of career you can pick fresh after graduating from high school. I can give you a myriad of examples of authors who started God knows how late – later than me, in any case! I was 43 when I randomly started writing again. That didn’t make me much of a fossil. I’m actually glad it didn’t happen earlier. For some reason, I feel like it’s an Eastern European thing – choose your path and stay on it, don’t leap over the ditch.

            But here’s how it went: I had a kid at a young age, then I worked all kinds of jobs to keep bread on the table, then I had another kid, I casually stuffed two useless college degrees into my assets column, but the things that wanted to happen all happened without my personal involvement. ZA/UM was formed – I played no part in its creation. They let me take a peek at whatever they were doing and start writing myself after a while. The first piece I wrote for them was titled “Mudlum and work”, which was a result of some promise I once made in a comment saying, okay, I’ll tell you what it’s like to work.

Right for your guns, huh! What I meant was not that you started writing books too late, but rather it seems like sometimes, people start writing too early! I suppose that’s a sign of a small literary market like Estonia’s no doubt is – getting published is a cinch. On the one hand, it’s great because everyone has the opportunity to be published and it’s democratic, but on the other hand…

Of course I went right for my guns – that topic really gets under my skin. I enrolled in university at the age of 24 and the first thing they asked in my interview was: isn’t it just a little bit late for you? You finished high school such a long time ago. Your 25th birthday was already like your life’s funeral. At 30, you were too old for any position. Those were simply the times. In reality, I feel like I’m finally doing the right thing right now. Not necessarily by writing books, that is. I wasn’t purposeful or determined about becoming a writer – it grew out of blogging, and I can also blame the editor of a cultural magazine who first started publishing my writing and later agreed to edit my book. I don’t believe I’d have had the sense and fury to publish a book without that person’s support. Maybe I’d have instead wanted to sit in the editorial office of some magazine, planning what would go to print and editing the submissions. I want to be inside of the writing. I realized that during my time at ZA/UM, when I ultimately ended up handling a very large part of the organizational work.

            It hasn’t always been so easy to publish, of course. But I don’t think you necessarily have to start with the publications meant for young authors and then move forward at full throttle.

Polish Boys is somewhat of a strange book and there appear to be (at least) two quite dissimilar keys to reading it. What’s more, one of them may only be accessible to readers previously familiar with Estonian culture, as the multidisciplinary ZA/UM movement is only fixed as a phenomenon in our cultural memory. Who are those Polish boys to you?

ZA/UM as a phenomenon in cultural memory – I don’t think so. Most Estonians haven’t even heard of it. That’s also why I kept a very low profile when the book was published – I didn’t directly tie the work to ZA/UM, because, when writing it, I was imagining all kinds of different cultural groups and movements both in Estonia and elsewhere – they always run off of idealism and ultimately crumble into internal disputes and conformism.

            They are my characters. It’s true that I copied them off of real prototypes, but they’re still unique characters in the book and are not biographical. I started working on Polish Boys in 2015 and finished it in 2018, which was when the ZA/UM video game studio slowly started shifting to London. I had no idea they were doing so well and I certainly supported them, but I’ve actually fallen completely outside of that group of friends. I wasn’t in the know about what they were doing, exactly. In February, I also finally got around to playing through Disco Elysium and discovered a ton of inside details which no one apart from a tiny inner circle can know or point out. There’s even a character with the same name as one in my novel. To be completely honest, I reckon the game’s sizeable international fandom would be happy to crack open Polish Boys, too. For there are common denominators between the book and the game. I unobtrusively observed, noticed things, and wrote a novel in which I tried to generalize my observations. Still, it’s the very same struggle between ideas and failures in both.

            How on earth could I have known that the book would be published the same year as the EU Prize for Literature was announced? Both awards have come as a great surprise, as I don’t see Polish Boys as my best work. Maybe because the writing process was so tough and agonizing.

ZA/UM’s video game is truly a great example of how something strange and successful can emerge from the blending of borders and genres; how a kind of “out of the box” way of thinking can bear unexpected results. Something similar applies to your writing as well – you’ve always bound the everyday with the (loftily) literary; real life and fiction, etc. I’d ask instead, then – what do you see as your best work?

Yes, I’m also amazed by ZA/UM’s conceptual framework – one which is so familiar to me – receiving such amazing global recognition. And they deserve it – Disco Elysium is an incredible game. Authors usually regard the latest thing they’ve done as their best. Something that’s currently slated for publication. Writing is a path, and nothing can come before the time is right or in any other way than it does. Every book adds something new and deepens old topics.

Why Poland? Why not Czechia or Slovakia, for instance? Is Polish culture dear to you in some way?

The Polish names are purely incidental and I can’t even remember the actual inspiration anymore. I believe it was in 2013 that I wrote a short story titled “The Fair Madam Ada Nosek and Her Boarder Sulisław Zawisza” for the ZA/UM blog. It was also published in my book A Serious Person. At some point, I started to reckon that I could maybe continue in that same vein, primarily because the story’s feedback was pretty much like, well, what do you know – you can write about more than “just your own life”. It was a little deliberate, too, trying to see if you could trick people with silly little details like foreign-sounding names. I guess I got my comeuppance in the end, because I had a hell of a hard time placing the whole novel in Poland with some degree of credibility.

It seems like – and you can correct me if I’m wrong, of course! – you’re an author who takes criticism to heart. Or maybe it’s more exact to say that to me, you seem quick to find that critique fails to understand you, which gives the impression that you’re often bothered by literary reviews even when others find them to be rather positive. At the same time, you yourself have also written critique. How does knowing the ins and outs of reviews affect you as an author receiving her own?

I took it to heart with my first books. I have, of course, occasionally raised an eyebrow when a reviewer comes up with a particularly peculiar train of thought. Having written and read so much literary critique myself, I unfortunately already know that it’s unlikely any author is totally satisfied by any. It’s exhausting to work on both fronts. On the one hand, you know the way an author feels expecting feedback, but on the other, as a critic, you’re only really able to scrutinize a few individual aspects of the book. The review format is somehow outdated. It’s good for an entirely different purpose; it’s meant to achieve a systematic overview or coherence. I truly am a maniac about reading every book review that’s published – I just like to. And yes, some are boring, some are negative, some are paeans, and some are practical, talking more about trends in the literary scene than the given work when consuming them en masse that way. At the same time, you as an author are a person just like anyone else and are just waiting for someone to say something new; something compelling. And oftentimes they do, but the author’s bond to their work is still too close; they haven’t unraveled themselves from their writing. When I read a review of one of my old works five years later, for example, I can see that they were correct. Or maybe not correct, but I at least accept their angles of approach.

What makes you write? Why do some people write and others don’t? There are authors who have said very dramatically that it’s only worth writing when you’re left with no other choice! And then there are authors who write like it was any other day job – one they’ve just stumbled into and have found they’re good at, working from nine to five with a lunch break and then relaxing. How is it for you?

It’s both ways. Some things did just happen at first. The lines started coming from who-knows-where. Then I started to write, and after that I even started getting paid money for it. It almost does give the impression that it’s work, doesn’t it? You can’t write a novel by just sitting and waiting for the right mood to come – you’ve got to do a little manual labor, too, which definitely isn’t always pleasant and can sometimes even be downright unbearable. I am literally afraid of new projects: once I start something, I can’t leave it alone until it’s finished, and even then it takes about a year or so until the work releases you and you can feel indifferent about it.

What is different about people who read compared with those who are far removed from literature?

More worlds, more reality, more beauty. It really is hard to think of anything better than a good book. A good book, even if my memory of it turns hazy a while later, leaves me with a cloud of emotions, something like a powerful aroma, and at just the right moment, it can all reactivate in my mind, creating connections and weaving a neural web between the heads of readers and writers all around the world – one too huge to grasp.

Do you associate reading with empathy? I’ve certainly given that a lot of thought lately. Though perhaps it’s mainly children who need it – experiencing others’ worlds and perspectives, living others’ lives by reading… Perhaps we as adults should know how to do that instinctively.

That’s too complex of a topic to break down here. Reading is an escapist activity, of course. It entails closing yourself off from real life; it can even easily mean closing yourself off from feelings. You can find other worlds everywhere – just turn on your TV or laptop. Practically everyone wants to offer you some reality that’s different from you lying in bed, covered in cookie crumbs. People have said that my writing is empathetic. I’m extremely doubtful of whether that empathy has also been actualized in practice. My problem in general is that I can never find clear answers to anything. I constantly see the possibility to make arguments both for and against every single issue – the world simply isn’t so simple! Right now, I could probably write fifteen pages as a response, but maybe another time.

Maia Tammjärv is a culture journalist and literary critic who works as the cultural and research editor of the newspaper Müürileht. She enjoys British comedy and country music, is perpetually surprised, and consumes more coffee than most.

[1] A Soviet Estonian youth magazine, similar versions of which were published throughout the USSR. (Editor)