For as long as I can remember, Russian fairy and folk tales have been my favorites. They were filled with such magical and fearful characters like Baba Yaga with her hut on chicken legs, the firebird, Vasilisa, Koschei the Deathless, and Nightingale the Robber. The tales are always rich and strange and imaginative. And I am constantly looking for retellings or tales based in Russian folklore. When I came upon a copy of Anya and the Dragon by Sofia Pasternack in my local bookshop, I took it down and began reading. It did not take me long to not only get lost within this tale but to fall in love with the character of Anya in Kievan Rus. Ever since I finished reading (and re-reading) my copy, I found myself lingering in the world that Sofia Pasternack created. It felt familiar and original at the same time. I marveled at her ability to weave a tale of such great magic and fantasy but also dealt with topics like anti-Semitism in a way that did not feel forced but was an integral part of the story.
I was very excited when I got the opportunity to speak with Sofia about her debut novel.
One of the questions that I enjoy asking authors is: What were your first bookish memories as a child?
One of my most vivid memories is of sitting at my desk in school, reading a book on my lap. I thought I was being super slick and that my teacher didn’t notice. But then she goes, “Sofiya!” and I looked up, deer-in-the-headlights, and she goes, “Put your hands in the air.” So I did. And she goes, “Now stand up.” Wuh oh. I stand up, and my book falls off my lap and hits the floor. Busted! She was actually one of my favorite teachers, partially because she didn’t take crap from anyone, including me!
What were the books that most shaped you? Who were the authors that impacted you and made you want to become a writer?
I ate up every single one of Bruce Coville’s books as a kid. As an adult, if I have a fragmented memory of a story, I can 99% of the time trace it back to a Bruce Coville book. His books were this wonderful kind of fantasy that made me believe that magic could, at any moment, happen to me. And that was a great way to spark my imagination.
Anya and the Dragon is very much rooted in the fairy tale tradition. How did you first come in contact with fairy tales? What were the ones you loved?
I was a really avid reader as a kid, and I chewed through just about any book I got my hands on, and books of fairy tales were absolutely included in that. I was that kid who would pipe up to a bunch of adults like, “Did you know that in the original Cinderella, her stepsisters cut their own feet apart?” and then skip off merrily. I loved them all as a kid, the weirder the better. I don’t know if this counts as a fairy tale, but the tale of Marya Morevna was one I really liked as a kid. Prince Ivan meets Queen Marya, who is a kick-butt warrioress, and they get married. But he screws up a bunch of stuff and she gets kidnapped by Koschei the Deathless, and then Ivan has to fix things (even though he’s kind of useless). And I would read this as a kid and think to myself, “I bet Marya could handle Koschei by herself. I wonder what that story would be like?”
When you began to write Anya and the Dragon, how much did folklore and fairy tales shape your novel?
ANYA AND THE DRAGON is a loose retelling of one of my favorite fairy tales, but as it went along, it accumulated a lot of other bits of folklore. The dragon and Sigurd the Varangian are both transplants from Scandinavia (Norway and Iceland, respectively). A domovoi and rusalka are Russian folkloric creatures, but an ibbur is all Jewish. Ivan’s version of Baba Yaga is a Siberian retelling of the Baba Yaga mythology. I wanted to approximate the feeling of a fairy tale, as well. The magic of a fairy tale is different than the magic of a fantasy book. It’s a little more subtle and pervasive, and I hope I was able to get that feeling through to the reader.
I’m curious on your thoughts about why fairy tales have not only lasted but continue to have such a hold on the imagination of readers and writers alike?
Storytelling is as apart of being a human being as bipedalism or having thumbs. Humans will never stop telling stories; or, if we do, it will be because we are no longer humans. Fairy tales started out not as entertainment, but as instructive tales for children and adults alike. Forests have been dangerous places for a long time, so it’s no coincidence that forests in fairy tales are often full of dangerous creatures. The lessons taught aren’t just about scary forests and wolves and goblins, though; they teach things that are almost universal for any human out there, whether they lived by a forest, in a desert, on the edge of a tundra, or on a tropical island. In a recent study in the Philippines, researchers found that towns with more skilled storytellers had a higher level of empathy among the general population of that specific town. Why? Because a majority of their stories—about 70% of them—reinforced and encouraged social behaviors like sharing, taking care of the less fortunate, and so on. Fairy tales have lasted because they teach things that people will always resonate with: be kind even in the face of cruelty; it’s what’s on the inside that counts; those who persevere will win the day; and don’t eat someone’s house. They make us better people, and deep down, we all realize that.
When it came to writing your debut novel, what did you find the most difficult and what did you love the most about writing your book?
I really love writing historical fantasy because having limitations on what I can do provides an extra challenge that I find invigorating. But it also presents a problem, because sometimes I’d write something in, and then realize it was anachronistic. Then came the truly hard part: trying to figure out whether to do some historical handwaving, or whether to just keep it. I opted for historical accuracy as much as I could, but in some cases, it was too much trouble to change it.
How did the character of Anya come to you?
She started out as an adult, but she would never act like an adult. Despite my best efforts, she wanted to be much younger. So I aged her down and down and down until she got to be twelve. I didn’t want this to be a bat mitzvah story, after all. But then it kind of turned into one anyway, and I made her eleven. There’s no bat mitzvah in the book, but she thinks a lot about hers, which is upcoming. A friend of mine who read the book said that when she read some of Anya’s dialogue or thoughts, she could hear my voice saying those things. So I guess Anya is a little like me. Mostly, we’re both very stubborn and don’t know when to quit.
Anti-Semitism plays a strong role in this novel, how hard was it for you to sensitively balance that issue of discrimination with the fantasy elements of your story?
I was afraid to include such a blatant example of anti-Semitism at first. When I first wrote it in, it was never stated, but savvy readers would be able to figure it out. Then at some point—I can’t remember when—I made it very obvious. It was only obvious at the very end, and my editor suggested we add a hint of it at the beginning. It was hard to write, especially lately. It feels too close to home. But it’s still a reality, and no amount of fantasy or magic is going to erase hatred in people’s hearts. That end scene at the river took me a lot of tries to get right.
Who are the contemporary authors of fairy tales that you draw inspiration from? Did you get an image or was she inspired by someone in folklore?
The Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden was a good inspiring trio of books. I loved the character Vasya in those books, even though I think she and Anya are very different from one another. They’re both young girls who are doing their best for their loved ones, against all odds.
Who are your favorite authors and why?
If I tried to list all my favorite authors, we’d be here forever. So I’ll keep the list down to two. Naomi Novik writes the kind of books that make me so angry because I know I’ll never write anything as good. When I finished SPINNING SILVER, I shut the book and just yelled at the wall for a good five minutes. Adam Gidwitz is another author I really love. I got through THE INQUISITOR’S TALE in a matter of hours and cried at the end, and both of my kids love his UNICORN RESCUE SOCIETY series (they have not cried, to my knowledge).