Katherine Arden reinvents Russian fairytales in 'Winternight' trilogy
Katherine Arden has had a lot of jobs. In Hawaii, she picked macadamia nuts on a farm, guided horse trips and wrote grants. In France, she spent a year teaching English. She then came back to Hawaii and got a job doing real estate marketing. Through it all, she kept writing, but she was ready to give it up. Her plan was to get her real estate license, work for a year and then finally go to grad school. If all worked as planned, she would get a job with the United Nations as an interpreter.
That plan did not work out.
“The same week I got a real estate license for the state of Hawaii, I also sold my book. I was in real estate licensing class, and I was running out to take phone calls from editors. It was quite surreal,” Arden said. “That was the end of my real estate career.”
The book Arden referred to is The Bear and the Nightingale, the first in her Winternight trilogy. Published in 2017, the novel is a coming-of-age story set in medieval Russia about a girl with magical powers named Vasilisa Petrovna, or Vasya. Throughout the trilogy, Vasya must deal with familial obligations, societal expectations, a complicated relationship (with a frost demon, no less) and enemies magical and mortal, including an angry mob that tries to burn her as a witch, a delusional, evil priest and an equally evil demon. It sounds like a lot — especially to Westerners unfamiliar with Russian folklore and history — but Arden’s detailed prose, methodical pacing and a wealth of explanatory notes at the end make following Vasya’s journey across Russia a thrilling read.
Arden spent time in Russia after high school and again in college, where she majored in French and Russian. During her time working on a farm in Hawaii, she toyed with writing a book based on the Russian fairytales she grew up reading. After meeting a real-life Vasilisa, a 5-year-old Russian girl who lived on the farm next door, Arden knew she had to start writing.
“She had this incredible presence, incredible charm, just so much self-possession,” Arden said. “I met her and I was like, wow, this kid could be in a book.”
Arden had two goals for the series: She wanted to riff on one main fairytale (Vasilisa the Beautiful, but references to others, including Morozko, the frost king, make appearances) and she wanted to set the book in historical Russia, in this case the 14th century. She knew where she wanted the story to start and where she wanted it to end. The rest was trial and error.
“It was very much what felt right in the moment and then adjusting later,” Arden said. “I definitely wanted to portray a coming of age of a young woman. I always felt like fantasy coming-of-age stories, especially for girls, could be a bit lacking, in part because they always stopped when they ride off with the prince and leave home. What I wanted her to do was ride off, but then come back to her people and to her country and take responsibility for things bigger than herself and not be a princess.”
Vasilisa’s story concluded with last year’s The Girl in the Tower, and Arden is already looking ahead to her next books. She is also the author of the middle-grade series Small Spaces. She plans to write two more books for that series and then write a standalone novel for adults.
It’s impossible not to draw parallels between Arden and Vasilisa. Both took the route less expected, traveling far from home on journeys of self-discovery. For Arden, that road took her back to Vermont — she attended college there — where she lives with her partner.
“It's definitely a bit dangerous to say a character reflects you, but certainly the state of mind of Vasilisa was at least, in part, reflective of where I was at the time,” she said. “That was in some ways the arc of my 20s when I wrote the book, which was from restlessness to full on flight to finding a new equilibrium and a maturity.”
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