This article was written by Keith Rice and originally appeared on Unbound Worlds.
We caught up with Katherine Arden at New York Comic Con for a quick chat about how it feels to finish up the Winternight Trilogy, Russian fairy tales, and cupcakes.
Unbound Worlds: The Winter of the Witch arrives January 8th — what can you tell us about it?
Katherine Arden: Well, it’s the third book in the Winternight Trilogy; it ends the story of Vasilisa Petrovna and her colleagues and relations. It takes place in medieval Russia and, as far as specific plot points, not everyone lives. But it does what I hoped this series would do and it brings Vasilisa from childhood to adulthood. Fully, I think. And that was the most important thing I wanted out of the series, to show the coming of age of this young woman in medieval Russia, and it did. And it was a huge amount of work, and I spent two weeks in a basement to finish it eating only cupcakes. And there were many somewhat angsty calls to my editor in the realm of, like, “It’s not working, it’s not working.” Then it did work and I finished it, and I am so excited to present it to you guys in January.
UW: How does it feel to finish up the trilogy?
KA: I have mixed feelings. It was huge focus of my life for five years, so letting it go is bittersweet, but I’m also excited to do a non-medieval Russia book. Very excited. And just to have it be over, and to have everyone be able to know what I was planning on doing from start to finish.
UW: Did you intend it as a trilogy when you started?
KA: I did, although the trilogy that I wrote bears no resemblance to the trilogy that I thought I was going to write however many years ago. Seven now, I think. No resemblance whatsoever. It has the same start point that I intended and the same endpoint. But, the points in between are stranger than I could’ve imagined. I always meant to have it as a trilogy from day one. And I did, so that was good. One point for planner. The only point for planning really.
UW: So what peaked your interest in Russia and Russian folklore? You have your degree in Russian, correct?
KA: Yeah, in Russian from Middlebury College. I spent a year in Moscow when I was 19, and I went back to Moscow my junior year of college. I’d always loved books based on folklore. I was a huge Robin McKinley fan growing up, and I always loved Russian fairy tales. When I was a kid I had a book of them, illustrated. And then when I was in Russia, one way I learned to speak Russian and to read it was to read fairy tales to myself. And so, I have this kind of background of fairy tales when I started casting about for a book idea. And I was like, oh, I love fairy tale books, I love Russian fairy tales. So a book based on Russian fairy tales just made sense. And then the rest kind of just grew in the telling.
UW: Setting the Winternight trilogy in medieval Russia was an interesting choice. What led you to that?
KA: Well, at first it was going to be a more fantasy-type setting influenced by Russia. But then it didn’t feel focused and real enough. So, the historical setting, I thought, would ground the fantasy elements, and make them more resonant than just having a sort of abstract fantasy world. I also felt that the medieval Russian setting is not very common in literature, and it would be interesting to show Russia before all the things that we think of as Russian existed. There was no troika or samovars, no tsars, empire, Communism — all those things hadn’t happened yet. I wanted to show the Russia that I’d experienced, free of stereotypes that we have in the West. Part of it was that, was bringing it into a place that was realistic but not weighted with preconceptions.
UW: Can you recommend any books on Russian Folklore and mythology for anyone who’s interested in looking into what underpins your trilogy?
KA: Absolutely. If you want the master tome, it’d be a book of fairy tales by Alexander Afanasyev. In translation, obviously — they’re written in Russian, but get them translated. It’s a tome of dozens of Russian fairy tales. I would also try Pushkin’s Fairy Tales by A.S. Pushkin. They were written by him, they’re not folklore in the old tradition. But they draw upon oral traditions and they’re very beautiful. I would say Pushkin and Afanasyev are two great go-to’s for Russian Folklore 101. I would also put in the illustrations of Ivan Bilibin, which are incredible sketchings of Russian folklore, like three different fairy tales.
UW: Any new projects under way you can tell us about?
KA: I’m actually working on something and I’m really excited about. But, I can’t say anything specific right now. There will be news soon, though.
Editor’s note: Want to start at the beginning of The Winternight Trilogy? Grab a copy of The Bear and the Nightingale! If you’re looking for something for a younger audience, be sure to check out Katherine’s new release, Small Spaces — a creepy ghost story for middle grade readers.
Cover detail from The Winter of the Witch, courtesy of Penguin Random House
Kirsty Logan, writes about the rich folklore that inspired her new novel, The Gracekeepers.
Growing up in Scotland was a huge influence on me when I was writing The Gracekeepers, which brings together the Scottish traditions of the sea and of the ceilidh (a social gathering with music and wild dancing) to tell the story of a circus boat in a flooded world. Scotland has a strong and vivid tradition of folklore, and much of it is based around the sea. Perhaps not surprising, as no point in Scotland is more than 66 miles from the coast! I’ve always loved the Scottish tales of selkies, kelpies and fairies – though my favourite as a child was ‘Kate Crackernuts’, which tells of a resourceful girl who gets her prince not by being beautiful and demure, but clever and bold. As well as the traditional tales, my parents told me the classic European fairytales: ‘Snow White’, ‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Thumbelina’. I spent many happy hours poring over my mum’s old book of fairytales, with its white linen cover, gold embossing and beautiful illustrations. I spent my childhood immersed in folktales, and now I’m an adult I love them more than ever.
When I was 20 and studying English Literature, I discovered the work of Angela Carter and Marina Warner – and then I learned to love fairytales in a whole new way. Gone were the pretty children’s stories, to be replaced by the tales in their original, bloody, beautiful, violent glory. Some fairytales – though by no means all of them! – have happy endings, but they’re hard-won.
Fairytales and folktales (and their modern retellings) have had a huge influence on my writing. The way that contemporary writers have used the traditional structures to explore identity, feminism, gender and queer issues is constantly inspiring to me, and it’s something I seek to do in my own stories too. Folklore and fairytales are the well of inspiration I keep returning to – the darker and more beautiful, the better. And although I’m not so bothered about winning a prince, I still want to be as clever and bold as Kate Crackernuts.
In my reading I’ve discovered that almost every culture in the world has a version of the ‘woman from the sea’ story. They may be called mermaids, selkies, silkies, sirens, finfolk, nixies, or water spirits. They’re especially common in places like Scotland, Ireland and Scandinavia: Northern places with a strong history of folklore and a culture very much rooted in the sea. I keep coming back to selkie stories for what it says about the modern power struggle between men and women, which – despite all the progress of women’s rights over the generations – still remains unequal. Although it’s an ancient tale, it’s as relevant to us in the modern world as ever.
The version below is adapted from the dozens of selkie variations I’ve read over the years. If you’re interested in exploring the legend further, the classic texts are David Thomson’s The People of the Sea and Duncan Williamson’s Tales of the Seal People, though almost any book of Scottish mythology will have a selkie story.
There was once a handsome young fisherman who could not find himself a wife. The island girls were pretty enough, but he felt something missing. Every day he took out his boat and set his lobster pots, and every night he sat alone in his cottage and watched the peat fire rise and fall.
One evening he heard soft laughter over the dunes. His footsteps silent on the sand, he crept closer. In the moonlight he saw a trio of women, all silvery hair and long limbs, dancing on the damp sand. One woman in particular captivated him. Her eyes were black as the night sea and her hair gleamed like starlight. He felt quite bewitched.
As he watched, the woman stepped over to the rocks, where sat a pile of greyish skins. They slid the skins up over their own pale limbs – and when the fisherman blinked, the women were gone, and three seals slid into the water.
The next night, the fisherman was waiting. When the women began their laughing dance, he crept to the rocks and snatched up one of the skins. He ran and hid it in a wooden box under his bed. When he returned, two of the women had disappeared, but the black-eyed selkie woman was still searching for her skin. She begged the fisherman to let her go home. But desire made him selfish. He promised that if she became his wife, he would love her and care for her and make her happy each day of her life. ‘You may love me,’ she replied, ‘but I can never be happy here.’
They married and had seven fine children. The fisherman loved his wife, and she grew fond of him. But every night she slid from her marriage bed to stand on the shore, gazing out at the water and mourning her lost home. The fisherman lay sleepless in the empty bed, the stolen skin beneath him.
One day their youngest son was exploring the house, and found the sealskin under the bed. He brought it to his mother and asked her, what was this strange thing, so soft and smelling of the sea? The boy knew nothing of his mother’s history; he was simply curious. The selkie kissed her children goodbye, slid on her true skin, and went home.
When the fisherman came back to the cottage, his children were fast asleep and stew bubbled on the fire – but his wife was gone. Fear shivered through him and he threw open the wooden box. It was empty, and with it his heart emptied too.
In time he learned to live a good life with his home and his children. But sometimes, late at night, he slid from his bed to gaze out at the water and mourn his lost love.
Women from the sea are often portrayed as sad and ultimately benevolent creatures – but not all of them! I’ve always been fascinated by mermaids – perhaps it’s the influence of the fabulous and terrifying Ursula in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, which I was obsessed with as a child. In Scottish folklore, mermaids are often proud and vengeful. To me, this is much more interesting than the virtuous and self-sacrificing creature from the Hans Christian Anderson story. This version is adapted from a tale in Judy Hamilton’s Scottish Myths and Legends.
The Mermaid’s Revenge
There was a grand house, and inside it lived a wealthy couple, and outside it was a large black rock. The rock was worn to gleaming by the generations of mermaids who slid up on it to sing every night. The last mermaid was as vengeful as she was beautiful, and every night as the moon rose, she’d slide up onto the rock and sing her lonely song. Though the sound was eerie, the couple grew to enjoy it as a lullaby. But that changed when they had a child.
The baby slept fine during the day, but as soon as the mermaid began to sing, the child opened its tiny pink mouth and cried loud enough to wake the whole island. All night the mermaid sang, and all night the baby wailed. Finally, the desperate father braved the dark and walked out along the shore to the mermaid’s rock. He asked her, as politely as he could, to stop. The proud mermaid liked that not one bit. She turned her back and sang louder. Each time she was asked to stay quiet, she sang louder still.
The child’s mother grew desperate and delirious from lack of sleep. One morning she gathered a pack of men and ordered them to smash the shining rock. They worked all day with pickaxes and hammers until there was nothing left but a pile of jagged black stones.
That night, the mermaid’s fury was wild enough to sink ships. She opened her mouth – but instead of song, she shrieked a throatful of wild curses, prophesying the end of the family. Unseen in the nursery, the force of the sound began to rock the sleeping baby’s cradle to and fro, to and fro, hard enough to shake the house. When the last note of the mermaid’s terrible curse had died, the mother rushed upstairs – only to find the cradle upturned, and her child dead beneath it. Away swam the mermaid, her song made true.
When I first read the folktale of ‘The People of the Sea’, I couldn’t believe how similar it was to the basis of the world of The Gracekeepers. I’d already written the book by this point, so it couldn’t have been a direct influence, but the connection was undeniable. I put it down to some ingrained folk memory – or perhaps I heard the story as a small child, and although my conscious mind forgot it, the tiny beating heart of the tale stayed there inside me until I needed it.
This version is adapted from two variations of the legend in George W. MacPherson’s Celtic Sea Stories.
The People of the Sea
Down in the deep green sea, where all was silence and the world was lit murky, there lived the sea people. They were a strong and ancient people, who lived in elegant marble cities – but they were not happy. The changing tides were slowly destroying their homes, and their numbers were dwindling. Each time they launched an attack above the waves, trying to win some land to make a new home, they were beaten. The people of the land were too strong.
But the sea-king was wise. He gathered his people together and explained that they must try a new approach. ‘You will go ashore and join with the people of the land. You will adopt their customs and culture. But your heart will always belong to the sea.’
And so the people of the sea clambered ashore and became the people of the land. Being tall, slim and golden-haired, they married easily. They were excellent fisherfolk, strong swimmers, and sang beautiful lullabies of loss.
Not all the sea-people settled to their new way of life. They did not like the meat and bread, the sounds of the language, or the height of dizzying sky. Back they slipped into the sea.
But they had been away for too long to pick up their old lives. They could not be sea-people or land-people. So the sea-king said, ‘I will make you people of both’. Although they could live in land or sea, they could stay in neither place for too long. Every seven years, they had to change: sea to land, or land to sea. Some of their children loved the sea, and grew into great navigators or sailors; some loved the land, and became great sculptors or farmers. And what happened to the people who chose to stay under the sea? Well, perhaps they live there still.
Read more about The Gracekeepers here.
Editors get very passionate about books they work on – the Editor’s Desk series is his or her place to write in-depth about what makes a certain title special. Get the real inside-scoop on how books are shaped by the people who know them best.
Karen Joy Fowler and I have been together since 1990, when her agent sent me the manuscript of what was to become KJ’s first novel. That agent had discriminating taste and kept a small list. She also very quietly took the measure of the editors she met. I had known her for years and saw very little in the way of submissions. She placed her clients well and the marriages tended to last. So when the manuscript arrived, I was both curious and interested.
Nabokov is famously on record as saying “you will know great fiction when the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end as you read.” It’s been my good fortune to have that happen many times though not having it happen is more the norm. With Karen Fowler’s Sarah Canary, it happened immediately and continued to the last page. Her agent had taken my measure over the years and now she hit a home run. That novel—quirky, subversive, funny and, yes, sad, was a literary success. Of the many glowing reviews, the one I still treasure came in as a prepublication comment. I should preface this by saying that in my wayward youth, I had gone to graduate school, reading politics and philosophy and, as a teaching assistant, handling the introductory comparative politics course. I loved the teaching and hated the grad school but I soldiered on until the day came when I realized I would never fit into the white, male- dominated world of academia. And I also realized that poetry and fiction mattered more to me than statistical analyses and grantsmanship. The revelation—not quite as dramatic as Paul on the road to Damascus but still undeniable—was made real when I found myself immersed in the poetry, memoirs, and short fictions of W. S. Merwin. I did not personally know Merwin, but from his work I sensed KJ’s novel would strike a chord and I sent him a bound galley. The result was all an editor could hope for. This U.S. Poet Lauriat and winner of just about every major literary prize had this to say: “An enchanted and enchanting narrative . . . a work with the suggestive authority and the evanescent power of myth. Her storytelling gifts are exhilarating.”
KJ now has six novels to her credit, the most recent—We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves—a best seller on both sides of the Atlantic, earned her the PEN/Faulkner Award and made her a finalist for the Man Booker in the first year that prize was opened to Americans. Just this past week the Knopf publicist for Judy Blume’s new adult novel told us that as her tour began, all she wanted to talk about was WAACBO and she urged her audiences to read it. But then, from the beginning it was clear to me that KJ was a writer’s writer and her fans are legion—from Michael Chabon to Ann Packer, from Kaled Hosseini to Ursula Le Guin.
If you have yet to read KJ, a good place to begin would be Black Glass: fifteen gemlike tales that showcase the extraordinary talents of this prizewinning writer. I published it in 1998 and its reception far outpaced what publishers expect from short story collections. Nationally (and very favorably) reviewed, it went on become a Ballantine Reader’s Circle paperback, with Ballantine simultaneously promoting all of her backlist. But that was seventeen years ago. The stories have worn well, and Putnam believed, following on the success of WAACBO, there was a new audience, a new generation to reach out to with this collection. But publishing short stories is still hard, and publishing a collection that has already had one incarnation can be a publicist’s nightmare. I’m happy to report that KJ’s terrific publicist (Katie Grinch) came through. At the end of May, Esquire magazine presented its summer reading list and Black Glass was one of their ten fiction selections. Not bad for a republished story collection! And KJ is set to revisit the Diane Rehm show this summer. She is also still touring, largely now to college campuses—several having made WAACBO the freshman read for the incoming class.
In Black Glass, KJ lets her wit and vision roam freely, turning accepted norms inside out and fairy tales upside down—forcing us to reconsider our unquestioned verities and proving yet again that she is among our most subversive writers. By turns tender and funny, these stories are also dark and acerbic—the unexpected sting that jolts us out of our comfort zone. A master of the sly feint and cunning conceit, Fowler toys with figures from myth, history, and pop culture, upsetting all our expectations. So here is Carrie Nation loose again in the land, breaking up topless bars and radicalizing women as she preaches clean living to men more intent on babes and booze. And here is Mrs. Gulliver, her patience with her long-voyaging Lemuel worn thin: money is short and the kids can’t even remember what their dad looks like. And what of Tonto, the ever faithful companion, now turning forty without so much as a birthday phone call from that masked man? Playing with time, chance, and reality, Black Glass is, as Kirkus said, filled with “ferociously imaginative stories in an accomplished and risk-taking work from one of our most interesting writers.”
The New York Times Book Review: “There is much that is fantastical about Black Glass, but also much that is rooted in a solid emotional reality; in fine-edged and discerning prose, Fowler manages to re-create both life’s extraordinary and its ordinary magic.”
San Francisco Chronicle: “[An] astonishing voice . . . at once lyric and ironic, satiric and nostalgic. Fowler can tell tales that engage and enchant.”
The Washington Post: “’Black Glass,’ Fowler’s longest story, is one of those marvels that defeat criticism. It’s a piece of bravura virtuosity, which Fowler also manages to make extremely funny. You reread the story, intent on discovering how she did it, and end up losing yourself again to wonder and enjoyment.”
The Boston Globe: “Arresting . . . each piece puts us on notice in its own way that an intriguing intelligence is at work.”
So, is this multitalented woman a monster? Well, no. No, no, and no again. KJ emerged from the politics that was Berkley in the sixties and she never lost her commitment to fair play and justice. She is a warm and generous woman with a brilliant mind. If you want to know more about her, read her prefatory essay in this new edition of Black Glass. Oh, and one more thing: She wasn’t an English major and did an MA in southeast Asian history. Plus she does not have an MFA in writing. Thank heaven there are still writers who do not follow that cookie cutter path.
Read more about Black Glass here.