THEO PANAYIDES meets a Cyprus-based writer who grew up seeing things other people don’t, and now uses writing to face her demons
It was the author’s bio that caught my eye. The email came from Austin Macauley – a British publisher with headquarters in London, New York and Sharjah – and concerned Nonsomnia, “a book of short stories of [sic] Cypriot writer Maria Raven”. So far, so familiar. Scrolling down to learn more about the author, however, I came across this: “Maria Raven is a Cypriot writer born in Russia. She had a difficult childhood, having medical and psychological treatment since the age of eight. Her parents insisted [that] their child take pills for seeing things that did not exist. Her dog was her only friend… She hopes that what she writes about will help her win her war with Darkness”.
‘What she writes about’ is horror, of course, Nonsomnia dealing in the kinds of subjects you’d expect to crop up in the exorcism of childhood demons: “Urban legends, zombie children, museum horrors and dark family secrets,” to quote the bio again. Not that the young woman sitting in the lobby of the St Raphael in Limassol a few days later seems especially demonic. Maria Raven is tall and slim, long-necked and willowy, with green eyes, pale skin and a fringe of jet-black hair, cut short. She laughs a lot, and poses for photos with the poise of the model she briefly was, as a university student in St Petersburg. She’s very pleasant, and we have a good chat – yet I don’t even know her real surname, ‘Raven’ being a nom de plume taken from her favourite poem, by Edgar Allan Poe.
Other aspects of her life are equally mysterious. The neutral hotel venue was her choice; she prefers not to meet at her home, or even close by. She works part-time, but prefers not to talk about it. Her private life is also out of bounds – “I will share, but later, if you don’t mind,” she explains, adding that she’s going through “a difficult period of my life now” – though we do establish that she used to be married, and is now divorced. She may (or may not) have kids, she evades with a laugh. Her book includes an introductory thank-you to “my genius dog, who literally saved my life!” – I assume it’s the same childhood friend mentioned in her bio – but she coyly declines to give the dog’s name. (It’s not like he’s ever going to read it, I point out.) She’s not quite as young as she looks – she’ll be 42 in a few months – nor has her life been as carefree as her happy demeanour suggests, though she’s happy to laugh about that as well.
“I mean, if I start talking now to someone sitting here,” she says at one point, indicating the empty chair next to us, “you will be surprised, or terrified?”
Somewhat freaked out, I admit.
“You will be freaked out,” she nods. “So I’d better not.” She gives it a beat, studying my wary expression. “I’m joking!”
She can joke, but it wasn’t a laughing matter. “If you tried to find a word for me as a child,” says Maria when I bring up the ‘difficult childhood’ mentioned in her bio, “it would be ‘strange’. People thought I was a strange girl. Because” – she laughs – “I saw things which other people didn’t see.”
By ‘things’, of course, she means spirits, spooks, dead people. Again and again, mostly around the age of eight or nine – though the last time she saw an apparition she was 22, in the Metro in St Petersburg – Maria would be sleeping in her room, next to her little brother, and suddenly feel freezing cold. “It was very cold, I woke up,” she recalls – and, upon waking, saw people (often the same youngish man) sitting by her bed. “Normal people,” she makes clear, “not like from horror movie. People – I mean, human-like creatures”. At the time, she didn’t even know the word ‘ghost’, claims Maria. There were no horror movies in the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s; all she’d ever read were fairytales. “I understood they were not from our world,” she says of the figures, who later began to appear in the daytime as well. “But I saw them. I talked to them, you know?”
What did they want?
“Just to talk.”
“Just to talk,” she repeats. “They knew they were dead. So it’s not like this movie – Sixth Sense with Bruce Willis, [where] they didn’t know. No, they knew. My ‘friends’,” she smiles, putting the word in quotation marks, “they knew. And they wanted to talk.”
Not that she ever had long conversations – or perhaps she did, it’s hard to say. Maria’s memory is rather fragmented on the subject, to the extent that she suspects her parents of having given her pills “to block my memory somehow” (she does remember sessions with a doctor, and being taken to see a specialist). The parents – both engineers, working in a factory in St Petersburg – were understandably distressed by their daughter’s talk of seeing visions, and shut her down when she tried to talk about it; “But I had an aunt,” adds Maria unexpectedly, “and she saw them too”. The aunt, a devout spinster, was “the only adult who understood me as a child” – though they only met a handful of times before she passed away, and her parents forbade any further contact after Maria also saw what the aunt was seeing (“creatures”, rather than people) and fainted from terror.
“I can tell you one story, if you want, from my childhood,” she says calmly, as if the stories she’s already told me weren’t enough. “I had a best friend, we studied together, she was my classmate. We were nine, I think – yes, nine – and once I went to her house, just for tea, and her granny offered me some pie or cake, I don’t remember. And I said thank you, and I was eating. And my friend was in the bedroom or somewhere, and she came to the kitchen and said, ‘What are you doing?’. I said, ‘I am eating a cake’. And she asked, ‘Where did you get it from?’. I said, ‘Your granny gave it to me’ – and she said, ‘My granny died a week ago!’.” Maria laughs ruefully: “After that, her mum went to my mum and asked that I never, ever come closer than one metre to her daughter again… [So] I lost my best friend, and we were not in contact anymore. Finally, my parents moved me to another school.”
What can you say to a story like that – or indeed all the other tales she tells of childhood visitations? The obvious response, at least from a modern perspective, is that she must’ve imagined it all – and Maria does admit that “children do these things, you know, they imagine things”. Even the most unequivocal sighting, the best friend’s granny who was solid enough to cut her a piece of cake, might’ve been all in her mind; young Maria may have heard vaguely of the old lady dying (it’s hard to believe she knew nothing; after all, “I knew the whole family”) and, as an imaginative nine-year-old, have channelled that half-knowledge into a story. The operative word here is ‘story’ – a point that also crops up when I ask if the kids at school ever made fun of her for her alleged psychic gifts.
“No,” she replies in her slightly fractured English. “I wasn’t popular girl – but I wasn’t, like, outcast. I was normal girl. I studied very well, I was best in my class, and I always had a good sense of humour, so my jokes were popular. I always told everyone funny stories – and, starting from the age of 15, I started to tell them horror stories, and I became very popular. My classmates, they liked them and they asked for more. Vampires were in fashion, zombies were in fashion, ghosts were in fashion in beginning-of-90s Russia.”
Writing stories is something she’s been doing since her mid-teens, precisely to rid herself of the fear brought on by her ghostly ‘friends’. (One of the stories in Nonsomnia, ‘The Paintings of Hans’, includes a character based on her auntie.) That said, it was never a crippling fear, even at the height of her troubles. “I was happy!” she insists. “I was happy child. But I was afraid of darkness, and I was afraid to go to sleep”. She firmly rejects my suggestion that the ghosts may have been reflections of real-life trauma: “No, no, no, my childhood was absolutely happy. I was very happy child, because I had everything – friends, school, fun time, loving parents… Maybe it was the flat,” she muses – and the ‘visits’ did indeed tail off after they moved to another flat.
Life went on, more or less as normal. The Soviet Union collapsed (a momentous event which appears to have had little impact on Maria’s life), she went to university and did two degrees, Russian followed by Child Psychology, graduated at a time – the late 90s – when Russia was in chaos, with no jobs and the economy in freefall. That was “a difficult time in St Petersburg, dangerous time, and I was very happy to move to Cyprus”, which she did in the early 00s. The move seems to have been occasioned by the marriage she’d rather not talk about – but the marriage is over now and “I love this country, it’s my second motherland”. She speaks Greek, has Cypriot as well as Russian friends (indeed, mostly Cypriot), loves the sun and the sea – and of course she writes, she writes all the time now.
In the last few months especially, “I feel the constant need to write,” she enthuses. Maria seems to be quite a solitary person anyway (“I’m very, very happy alone”) and now she barely goes out at all, instead “all my free time I write. I write, write, write”. She’s finished a children’s fairytale called Through the Mist, and is barrelling through a second collection of short stories (not necessarily horror; one is a sci-fi yarn about artificial intelligence). She’s planning a cyberpunk novel, fielding an offer to translate the current book into Spanish, and hoping to write about Lofou, her favourite village. The spur to all this creativity has been the recent publication of Nonsomnia – so recent, in fact, that she only received complimentary copies a few days before our interview.
The book has a rather unusual history. It came out in Russian two years ago, under the title We Are 16 (it contains 16 short stories) – but the book “was stolen,” she says, meaning the copyright wasn’t protected and Maria didn’t make any money, so she had it translated into English (omitting the poems which initially accompanied the stories) and looked around for a publisher. She sent it to a half-dozen companies in English-language markets and received a single positive reply from Austin Macauley, who she says have been very helpful. (They’ve also been surprisingly hands-off, changing nothing beyond a few typos; even the author bio that caught my eye was clearly written by Maria herself – hence the shaky grammar – rather than the publishers.)
Was she hopeful, given how notoriously hard it is for aspiring authors to find a home for their work?
“I was absolutely sure!” she replies triumphantly. “I knew it!” Maria is into Tarot cards and Chinese astrology (she’s a Dragon; her star sign is Libra) and has a Russian friend who runs a website and YouTube channel called Conceptual.Fashion, also based on astrology. “You will find a publisher,” declared this friend, even telling her in which month she’d receive the reply – a reminder that Maria Raven isn’t just a ‘normal girl’ unaccountably assailed by magical forces, but a believer in magic herself. Tell me honestly, I say, after her account of her childhood: Do you believe ghosts are real? “Oh yes. I believe yes. Well, not ‘ghosts’, I wouldn’t use this word – but there is something, absolutely.”
The raven isn’t just her favourite poem, it’s her favourite animal. She has pictures of ravens at home, she admits, and collects raven knick-knacks. (Looking back, I can see why she might prefer to meet in a hotel lobby.) Maria is so poised and convivial – yet I actually wouldn’t be surprised if she started talking to an invisible someone in the empty chair next to us; there’s a dreamy, ethereal side to her too. She may indeed be a “strange girl”, as was said of her childhood self – yet she’s also “a strong person”, as she tells me again and again.
“I was never depressed, I never had depression. And when I say I’m strong, I mean it. Nothing can break me, and nothing can take the ground from under my feet!” Her book isn’t dedicated just to her “genius dog” but also to her parents, her Swiss boyfriend (another aspect of her life she’d rather not talk about), and the friends who supported her: “You know I had difficult times,” she reminds them. Maybe so – but things are better now, Maria a happy divorcee and newly-published author. “I feel free, and I feel inspired, and I feel years and tons of pages in front of me, kilometres of pages,” she gushes, sitting in the lobby of the St Raphael. “I will write, I know it. And I’m absolutely sure I will get what I want”. Take that, demons!