Sunday, January 16, 2011

Talking with Sarwat Chadda part 2 -So This Baba Yaga Chick...

Me and Sarwat Chadda at NCTE
Check out Billi on the cover of Dark Goddess - all that badass red in her outfit

All righty - my veggie breakfast taco from Berryhill and my two cups of coffee are percolating in my belly. It's raining outside but I'm in my cozy little office (pictures soon, I promise) typing away for the rest of the day. Have I mentioned the four !! bookshelves I have now? It's heaven. And on "date night at home" last night (this is what you get when your wife just blew your entertainment budget on new Haunted t shirts for giveaways at events), we not only ate massive amounts of pizza from Brother's (the best the Houston 'burbs have to offer) but also watched "Island City" (quirky and really good!) and two eps of season one of Dexter. (quirky, disturbing but oddly addictive)

That said, it's time for my interview with Sarwat Chadda. As I mentioned yesterday, S and I share a rabid adoration for Russian fairy tales and folklore figures, particularly the dreadful and terrifying witch Baba Yaga, who as most of you know, plays a crucial role in both the Dreaming Anastasia series as well as Sarwat's new Billi San Greal book, Dark Goddess. So we sat down - S in London and me in the Houston 'burbs - to have a little chat about this. Enjoy!

Joy: Why Russian folklore? What draws you to it?

Sarwat: Years ago I read a series of books by Peter Morwood, the first called Prince Ivan. They took old Russian fairy tales and wrote them as staright prose adventures. I was a huge fantasy fan at that point but getting bored with the usual ‘elves and dragons’ north European settings that seemed to dominate the genre.
Russia is mysterious and old. I love the architecture, the mix of East and West, the size of it and the vast, romantic range of it. Deep forests, wide empty steppes, the ice lands of Siberia. It feels the myths of the past still lie just below the surface. It’s a land of extremes and that makes it the perfect setting for supernatural adventure.

Joy : As you know, I use Baba Yaga extensively in the Dreaming Anastasia series. One of my favorite things about this witch is that she is unpredictable. She might kill you; she might help you, depending on her mood. And either way, you won’t leave her forest unchanged. How about you? Why Baba Yaga? And why did you choose to include her in Dark Goddess?

Sarwat: Baba Yaga is wise, generous to those that deserve it but a harsh judge. I wanted her to be someone who deserved awe, the closet thing you could get to a living divinity, but one who’s lost patience for mankind. She’s seen civilizations rise and fall and hoped mankind would get better, wiser. He’s been given his chance and frankly, he blew it. Baba Yaga symbolises the judgement above humanity. We treat the planet and its resources as those it’s ours, forgetting we share it with many others. Baba Yaga is inhuman, she represents those species other than mankind. And the question is, have any of those other species prospered under mankind’s rule? I think not. I neede someone ancient, wise and with nature’s cruelty and generosity. That could only be Baba Yaga.

Joy: So when you began your research into Russian mythology/folklore, any interesting generalities that stood out to you?
Sarwat: My interest in Russia began over twenty years ago. I’ve stored little tit-bits of information throughout. For me the biggest impression of Russia is the rule religion plays there, especially now. After the subjugation of the Soviet ere, the churches of Moscow dominate the city, they are everywhere. They are bright and shining and golden.
Then you’ve the dark underbelly. Everyone knows about the Russian Mafia and I find that contrast, a world of extreme violence with the deep religious dedication, a perfect match for the world of my books.

Joy: Billi is a fascinating and definitely badass heroine. But then again, so is Baba Yaga. Strengths and weaknesses? (I'd definitely love to see a cross-over where we pair Billi with my character, Anne. No bad guys would survive that mash up!)

Sarwat: Billi’s biggest strength is her determination. She will never give up. Her other strength is her doubt. She is not some blind follower who just does what she’s told. She realises her responsibility, as a warrior and as someone capable and duty-bound to take life, but weighs up each action carefully.
Baba Yaga deals with the same sort of judgement. She’s striving for balance in a world seriously out of whack. Billi’s encounter with Baba Yaga is all about Baba Yaga recognising their similarities and tempting her to join her. Billi understands Baba Yaga’s cause, even though she can’t agree with it. There is great mutual respect, even between enemies.
Billi’s weakness is her sense of loneliness. She wants to belong and will make mistakes because of that. She had no love during her upbringing so lacks that central understanding of what it is to be loved. That means she can be cold and heartless. Her treatment of Vasilisa, a young girl, is a case in point.

Joy: In Haunted, I will be introducing another Russian folkloric creature – the rusalka, which is basically a mermaid only really malevolent and tragic. No Disney-ized Ariel, that’s for sure. I see that in Dark Goddess you introduce the Bogatyrs and the Polenitzy. Tell us about them.

Sarwat: A lot of the old Russian fairy tales deal with the Bogatyrs, a group of Christian knights. I thought they’d make a perfect match for the Templars, their cause is the same. However I wanted them to be a dark, corrupted version, a sort fo what might happen to the Templars if they’re not careful.
The Polenitsy are another thing entirely. Russian legends mention a group of Amazons, called the Polenitsy. Dark Goddess is very much inspired by Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarrisa Pinkola Smith and Angela Carter’s Company of Wolves. Both deal with female mythology and have been very influential in Billi’s creation.
I wanted Baba Yaga’s followers to be a homage to these two writers, an all-female tribe of powerful werewolves, the last of their kind. Then I discovered that the original legends about the Amazons came from Southern Russia and burial sites had been found with tall, armour clad women buried within. So the legends turned out to be true and in an instant I had the sisterhood who have followed Baba Yaga throughout history.
They are another counterpart to the Templars. Billi’s surrounded by men so it was exciting to present her with an equally powerful, equally dedicated, female order. The sisters she never had.

Joy: Of course, we both use Anastasia Romanov in a fantasy/alternate history capacity. Tell us about this great -grandson of Anastasia in Dark Goddess. Very intriguing!

Sarwat: How could I not include Anastasia? Most of the fun I have in writing is mixing up legends, history and myths to create Billi’s world. It was inevitable that, if I was going to set the book in Russia, the Romanovs would be a part of it. Tsarevich Ivan Alexeivich Romanov is the great-grand son of the princess. In my version of history she was rescued by the Bogatyrs. Since then her descendents have been leaders of the Bogatyr knights.
I’m also somewhat tired by the rebel bad-boy cliché. Ivan’s bad, mad and exceedingly dangerous to know. But he’s rich, elegant, cultured and royalty. That mix of nobility and lethality makes him a unique character, and someone who can match Billi.

Joy: And finally, in Dark Goddess you also introduce the character of Koschei the Deathless, whom I allude to in HAUNTED and use extensively in Again and Again, the third in my trilogy. (May 2012) Tell us about Koschei (or Koschey as you spell it) and what fascinates you about to him.

Sarwat: Dark Goddess includes Koshchey, Prince Ivan, Vasilisa and Baba Yaga. These four are the biggest characters in Russian fairy tales. I wanted them to remain iconic, so if you’re familiar with Russian tales, you’ll recognise them, but give them each a modern twist.
Koshchey is the current leader of the Bogatyrs. He’s called the Undying because he’s the ultimate warrior. He’s fought everywhere, and come out of it alive. Afghanistan, Chechnya, the Balkans, Africa. He’s served with the Spetnaz, the USSR’s own special forces, and then he worked for the KGB. He’s one scary fellow.

Thank you, Sarwat, for some very fascinating answers.
For those of you in the Houston area, Sarwat Chadda and Rachel Hawkins will be visiting and signing at Blue Willow Bookshop on Friday night 3/4. I know I'll be there! (and the next day, you can follow up by joining me at Borders in The Woodlands!)
Until then, start reading Dark Goddess, it releases in the United States on 1/25.

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