Q&A with Katherine Arden author of The Bear and the Nightingale


katherine-arden‘Born in Austin, Texas, Katherine Arden spent her junior year of high school in Rennes, France. Following her acceptance to Middlebury College, she deferred enrollment for a year in order to live and study in Moscow. At Middlebury, she specialized in French and Russian literature. After receiving her BA, Katherine moved to Maui, Hawaii, where she worked every kind of odd job imaginable, from grant writing, to making crepes, to working as a personal tour guide, to guiding horse tours. After a year on the island, she got a contract as a teaching assistant in a high school in Briançon, France. She spent nine months teaching, returned to Maui, stayed for nearly a year, then left again, wandering. Currently she lives in Vermont, but really, you never know.’ – The Bear and the Nightingale.

I was lucky enough to snag an ARC copy of The Bear and the Nightingale from Netgalley, if you read my review you’d notice that I adored the book (a 5-star rating is no joke!). Since I loved her book so much, I was eager for a Q&A session with the mastermind behind the book and yay for me, Katherine agreed! Katherine’s responses reflect the same kind of depth and personality she pours into her work, and she was a pleasure to talk to. So, here’s the Q&A, I hope you all enjoy it and consider adding The Bear and the Nightingale to your TBR lists! P.S. I will be giving away a copy of The Bear and the Nightingale on 14th January, stick around to enter!

1. How would you describe The Bear and the Nightingale to someone who doesn’t know anything about it?

The Bear and the Nightingale is a historical fantasy novel set in medieval Russia. I mixed actual characters and places from history with tropes and characters from Slavic mythology and Russian folklore.

2. Could you tell me a bit about your background and how you came to write a book drawing from Russian folklore?

I am not Russian, nor do I have Russian ancestry, but I have always been fascinated by the country and its culture. I have loved Russian fairy tales since childhood. After I finished high school, I spent a year in Moscow studying at the Pushkin Institute. I also majored in Russian at Middlebury College in Vermont, and studied in Moscow again as part of my degree. After I graduated, I decided to write a novel, and I used my love of Russian fairy tales as jumping-off point for a story.

3. Did you get the chance to explore much of Russia when you lived in Moscow? What were some of your favourite places/things to do?

Oh good lord, where to start? Gorky Park in the winter, when the park becomes an ice rink. VDNX (which is a soviet-era amusement park) when the weather is nice. The Izmailovsky market, because NESTING DOLLS and Old Arbat—touristy but fun. Red Square is beautiful of course, and Tverskaya street. Petersburg is amazing in the summer, and the summerhouses outside—Peterhoff and Tsarskoe Selo—are absolutely splendid.

4. How did your experiences in Russia influence your writing?

Enormously, as one might expect. My book is set in the Middle Ages, when Russia obviously looked very different than it does now. But the weather, the colors, the smells, the turns of phrase, the history I studied, the hikes I took, the snow, all came together as I was writing and all influenced my work. Not to mention the time I spent speaking, listening to, and reading Russian. My time in Russia made an emotional backdrop, almost like a palette for a painter, that I drew on to write my novel.

5. What inspired to become a writer? And do you write on a part-time basis or is a full-time gig?

I write full-time. I wrote a novel in high school, but I put creative writing aside in college and honestly never dreamed I’d be a writer. I thought I’d be a diplomat. But after I graduated from college, I moved to Hawaii to work on a farm. I didn’t mean to stay long, I just meant to have a break before jumping into some sort of career. But while I was there, through sheer boredom, I started writing a book. The rest is history I suppose.

6. I loved Vasya’s personality, she seemed real to me. Did her character come to you fully formed or did you think of specific traits you wanted her to have before you brought her to life?

I am a firm believer in allowing the circumstances of your novel to create your characters. Vasya is how she is, because she needed those traits to get through the plot I put her in. Also, in Vasya’s case, I had some Russian neighbors while I was working on that farm in Hawaii. Their young daughter (also named Vasya) was the most amazing kid—so sweet and brave. She was the starting point for creating my heroine.

7. Do you prefer to plan things and outline your plot or do you rely on being spontaneous with your writing?

I am a terrible outliner. I try, dutifully, but it doesn’t help, and I just end up doing my own thing anyway. I’d like to be good at both outlining and flying by the seat of my pants, because I believe both those methods can be useful. But I’m still working on it. My natural method is just to scribble and see what comes out.

8. What was the most challenging part of writing The Bear and the Nightingale?

Oh, gosh, I knew nothing about writing novels when I started. I remember clearly the first time I had to write dialogue, thinking to myself, but I have no idea what this person should sound like! and panicking a little. I learned technical skills like dialogue and pacing as I wrote, which slowed me up for sure. In general I would say the hardest part of writing a novel is just plowing through it. It’s a huge investment of time and soul, and the first time is especially daunting because you’re not sure you can do it.

9. Was there anything that you had planned on having in The Bear and the Nightingale that you decided to cut out instead?

Ha, The Bear and the Nightingale today is almost exactly half of my original novel. One condition of my book deal was that I cut the book in two. Which I did. Painfully. But the novel is way better now, in consequence. One day maybe I’ll post the lost second half on my website: Vasya, the Lost Years, or something. Just for fun.

10. Is The Bear and the Nightingale based on any previously existing legends or fairy tales?  And are any of the characters in your book based on real, historical figures?

The main fairy tale that is the jumping-off point for The Bear and the Nightingale is the fairy tale called Morozko. Morozko is a Russian fairy-tale character roughly equivalent to Jack Frost. Another fairy tale that inspired me is called The Twelve Months, a fairy tale I first encountered in the form of a Soviet-era cartoon. My novel also contains brief references to the tales of the Firebird, Kaschei the Deathless and the Baba Yaga. Slavic folklore also plays a role in The Bear and the Nightingale in the form of household spirits and mythical forest creatures.

For historical characters, the Grand Prince of Moscow Ivan II (also called Ivan Krasny or Ivan the Fair) really existed, as did his son, Dmitrii. The Metropolitan Aleksei was also a real character, living in this time period. My main character’s brother, Sasha and a monk, Rodion, are also historical characters, a fact that will become more apparent in later books.

11. Why do Russian fairy tales appeal to you? Are they very distinct from the fairytales we grew up with in Western Europe? 

Oddly enough, one reason I love Russian fairy tales is just that: their distinctiveness. I love the vivid tropes and characters unique to Russian fairy tales: the firebird, the immortal sorcerer Kaschei the Deathless. Ivan the Fool, magic horses. All these things have a half-familiar strangeness that I find enchanting.

Another thing that really appeals to me is the role of women in Russian fairy tales. In stories like Vasilisa the Brave, The Frog Princess and Marya Morevna, it is the female character who is the magical one, the clever one, who knows how to save the day. In Vasilisa the Brave, the heroine saves herself from the evil witch with nothing but her wits and the help of a magic doll. In the other two, the main female characters are wiser than the men and it is their wisdom, courage, and advice that ensure a happy ending for all.

I feel like women in Western fairy tales often (but not always) suit some ideal of passivity, and their most important job is to be beautiful and inspire the hero.

12. I liked how there was something interesting happening in every scene in the book, and how the story continuously moved forward. How did you avoid stalls and boring bits?

One thing I think every writer should do is take a theater class. Either acting or playwriting. Because in theater, every scene must include a clear motivation for every character onstage, or you lose dramatic tension. Aimless scenes become VERY obvious onstage. I took a lot of theater classes in college and got very sensitive to characters’ motivations within a scene. I think those skills carried over to novel writing. Because dramatic tension is just as important in novels, but sometimes it’s not so obvious when you’ve lost it.

13. Will there be a sequel? And do you have any other writing projects planned?

The Bear and the Nightingale is the first book of 3. Book 2 is finished, and I am working on Book 3 now. I have a galaxy of writing projects in my head—I’m hoping to be able to write them all someday!

14. Now that your book has been published, is there anything you would change about your writing process for following books?

Eh, I think it’s important not to decide how to write a book, but to wait and see how a book wants to be written. Outlines? Flying blind? Alone in a cabin? In coffee shops? I wrote large chunks of The Bear and the Nightingale in a notebook on a beach; I wrote most of Book 2 in coffee shops. I think it is just important to get up every day, however you feel like doing it, and write. Let the process unfold. Putting expectations on yourself is the surest way to paralysis.

15. What’s your pet peeve when it comes to writing?

In others’ writing? Unoriginality I suppose. I dislike reading a book and thinking, I’ve seen this exact thing ten times before. In my own? I tend to be overly verbose. My editor is very strict about cutting unnecessary words, and I am starting to police that myself in my work.

16. I’ve seen a lot of cover love for The Bear and the Nightingale, it was the first thing that caught my attention and made me read the description. Were you involved in selecting the book cover? What do you like about it?

I had input on the cover direction definitely. My publisher was amazing about listening and accepting my cover feedback. I love how the final cover draws you in. Your focus goes straight to the house at the bottom and you want to find out more about it. At least I think so.

17. What’s your favourite book marketing technique?

Oh heavens, I don’t know. Word of mouth? I think the best is just old school, when you love a book and tell all your friends who then tell their friends…

18. If you could recommend your book to any celebrity, who would you recommend it to and why them?

Any celebrity? Barack Obama. Because he is a serious and thoughtful guy, a wide reader, and he has daughters.

19. What was your favourite book of 2016 and are there any 2017 books you’re looking forward to read?

I enjoyed Paul Kalanathi’s When Breath Becomes Air, Sleeping Giants, by Sylvain Neuvel, and Dark Matter by Blake Crouch. In 2017, I am super excited for Vic James’ debut Gilded Cage and Robyn Bennis’ debut The Guns Above. I’ve read ARC

20. Readers will be happy to know that the story doesn’t end on the last page of this novel.  Can you give us a hint at what’s next?

Well, more adventures for sure. I don’t want to give away the end of The Bear and the Nightingale, but I think I can safely tell you that in Book 2, the story moves out of the forest and into medieval Moscow itself. Politics plays a more prominent role in the second book, and we will also meet more characters from Russian history and fairy tales, some familiar, some less well known!

You can keep up with Katherine on the following platforms:

Twitter | Goodreads | Facebook | Website