Katherine Arden may not have any comic books under her belt but she’s certainly got a few novels that are built to withstand the chills of this time of year. Her spooky middle-grade Small Spaces takes us through the fall while the Winternight Trilogy braves the Russian winters. With the third book in the trilogy coming out in the new year, we got to sit down and talk with her about it. What better way to welcome the cold winter months than with an interview with a writer who has braved colder and written warmer.
In case our readers are unfamiliar, why don’t you introduce yourself and your work?
Katherine Arden: My name is Katherine Arden and I’m the author of a series of books called the ‘Winternight Trilogy.’ The first one is called The Bear and the Nightingale, and it came out in January of 2017. The second one is called The Girl in the Tower, it came out in December of the same year. The third one is not yet out; it’s called The Winter of the Witch and will be out this January. . .2019.
That’s a pretty fast turnaround.
KA: Actually, it seems like it is but the books were acquired back in 2014 and so the lag between the acquisition and publication gave me time to write the second book. I can’t take credit.
It must be good for your fans then.
KA: They’re happy. I mean, nobody wants to wait ever in life but at the same time, people I think they say they hate it, but they love to hate the waiting. People get online and they argue and they invent fascinating theories and. . . it’s good to wait when it’s not a decade, you know. There’s a balance—
I feel like there’s a very specific book series you might be leaning towards what you’re talking about this.
KA: A couple. A couple. No names to be named.
That’s fair. So, tell us a little bit about the series. It’s set in Russia, right?
KA: Yup. It’s set in Russia during in the middle ages. It’s a cross between actual historical events and Slavic folklore and fairy tales. It follows a main character, Vasilisa Petrovna, the daughter of a minor aristocrat in 14th century Russia from birth all through to her like 19th, 20th birthday. It follows her adventures in and around what will become Russia. And each book is based on one main fairy tale with like influences from other fairy tales, all Russian fairy tales.
Would you classify the book as more fantasy, historical, fiction or straight up fairy tale?
KA: It’s sort of fantasy, definitely. Fairy tale’s also an accurate description, a few literary fantasies as well, those common descriptors I’ve heard.
When you read it, it has the cadence of a fairy tale, especially when you get into this actually fairy telling
KA: I wanted it to seem like it was more folklore than like fantasy I made up. So I looked for that sort of folklore, oral history tone.
Did you do research while you were in Russia or here or. . .
KA: Well, I have a degree in Russian from Middlebury College. I lived in Moscow for a year between 18-19. And then another 8 months when I was 22. And I had like a background in Russian, and then when writing I did a lot of extra research about the time period and, you know, the folklore that I fill gaps in my knowledge, add those writing. But I had a Russian studies background before that.
Has it always been a kind of interest of yours?
KA: I had a book of Russian fairy tales when was a kid. I love Russian history. I had the chance to live in Moscow for a year when I was 18 and it really cemented my love of like everything Russian. I also always loved books based on fairy tales. When I was looking around for a book topic, I was like, “Oh, a fairy tale book. Russian fairy tale. Let’s go.”
What inspired you to start your writing career? Is this your first series?Continued below
KA: It’s my first series. When I finished college, I’ve been in Moscow for almost 2 years and before that in Vermont for almost 3. I was so tired being cold. I looked around and I’m like, where is it not cold. I moved to Hawaii for… not cold there. I got a job at a farm in Hawaii, I lived in a tent on a beach. I did a lot of like picking of macadamia nuts, I swam a lot and I meant to be an interpreter. I had a degree in Russian and French also. I was kind of like waiting like decide if I really want to do that. When I was in Hawaii, I had an idea for a book.
There was a kid, a Russian girl who lived in a farm next to us, her name was Vasilisa; she was 5 years old, she was a great kid. And she was kind of like the final inspiration that drove me to writing this little girl. For a while it was a side project, but I realized I just loved it and with writing, I love picking things up and putting them down. I was like, “Oh, I can do this for a while.” So I finished the first one, and the rest is history. I sold it as a three book series, so I was like “gotta write three books now.” Then I just wanted to keep going, and so here I am now—
You got one other book out, Small Spaces.
KA: So, Small Spaces is a middle-grade novel. It’s a middle grade horror novel set in Vermont in the present day. I wrote it a little bit on a whim. I was in-between rounds of edits for The Girl in the Tower, my second adult book and had some free time, I have an idea for. . .It’s, like, a scary book where a bus breaks down and these kids get lost in this like sort of other world. And I wrote it and it turned out better than I thought and I was able to sell it!
Do you plan or working on any more stories in that vein?
KA: Yeah. It’s part of a 4-book series. I want to do a seasonal scary books. This one’s fall. It’s supposed to be set up in the Fall in Vermont. The next one is called Dead Voices, and it will be set in the winter in Vermont. And then I want to do a spring and summer book as well.
Also in Vermont?
KA: It’s where I live now. So. . .
Learn from where you are.
Beyond that. Is that the next book series that you’re planning on working on solely or are you going to be working on another project at the same time?
KA: Definitely some exciting things are coming from Random House as well in the adult side. It’s probably not yet time to announce what’s going on but like there are more books coming from the adult side as well.
Do you have any hints as to genre or the tone that you’re allowed to announce?
KA: I don’t think so honestly. I think we’re going to get there eventually, but I think fans of the ‘Winternight Trilogy’ won’t be disappointed.
Now that the 3rd book is about to come out, is it a little bittersweet now that it is wrapping up?
KA: It’s a little sad to be like, oh “I wrote the end.” But also I was already excited for new things. I’ve been doing Winternight books for 5 years at that point and I was ready to try a new topic, new time period, new everything and I’m excited for people to know the end I’ve been building towards and then wanting to get there and I got there and now folks will know what I was doing this whole time. That’s a good feeling.
I have one more about The Girl in the Tower. So, as the interstitial book when you were writing it, were there any challenges you felt of getting that middle part of the story really down?
KA: There were so many challenges. The biggest one was that, when we sold the book, one condition of the sale is that I would take the second half of the book, cut it out and re-write the first half as a complete story. It’s like 80,000 words, right? So I cut the last half out, threw it away and then the re-written first half became the book. Then I’m thinking, wow great. I’ll use the second half of the first book that have like this 80,000 word like head start on the second book. That’s perfect. I spent 6 months trying my damnedest to write that book. At the end of it, I was like, “yeah, no, I can’t do it.” I told my editor and she’s like, that’s why I had it cut out in the first place. I’m like. . . Man, they always know best. She’s very, very smart.Continued below
What’s your editor’s name?
KA: Jennifer Hershey, and she’s amazing. She’s brilliant and always right. So, I wrote the second book from scratch. I started over essentially and wrote the next book in a few months. My second try worked. And I feel like in some ways it’s like having tried and failed for a while just gave me — I’ve gone down all the wrong paths, so I was like, oh, I know where I’m going. And. . .it’s a balancing act because you have to like start a new story, end a new story, but also continue the story on both ends. So, it’s a structural challenge. I feel like it did work in the end, after I’d done everything wrong, it eventually worked.
Do you feel grew your characters through that process, like you would put part of that experience just of re-writing into them?
KA: I mean it’s funny because like all the things you delete; the ghosts are still there like hanging over you, all of the things you learned about your characters don’t go away just because you haven’t left those scenes in. So I think the characters did grow in the trial and error phase a lot and I got better as a writer, too. So, it’s more like, make mistakes and grow as a writer. And so I think it helped in the long run going through this like very challenging phase.
Also, I think it made my editor and I trust each other a lot. Like I trust her judgement and she trusts my work ethic, my desire to get it right. And so it was a good trial by fire for us like as a team in this publishing house but yeah I think there’s a role in not giving up and like trying over and over until you get it right is a little bit undervalued in book writing; it’s very important.
Not so much hitting your head up against the wall and more so like digging the tunnel.
KA: Dig the tunnel. Also, I mean, maybe it does for some folks like there’s no muse that like drops out of the sky like, “Here is this book. Write it for me.” No, you got to like try, and then screw up and delete and go back try again and like make a new plan, have it be a bad plan, and you can still make a good book out of it.
So, what do you think fans will be expecting from the final book. What do you hope they get out of it?
KA: I think they’re expecting mayhem. I sincerely hope so because I like laid the seeds for mayhem and mayhem does ensue, so I hope they’re expecting it. Not everyone lives, so get ready. There’s that too. I guess the biggest thing I want to get out of it, the goal of this series has been to grow my main character to adulthood. To full adulthood from initially seeing her as a little kid, and I think I got there. That was clearly wanted to show like a heroine’s journey. So that happens.
The Winter of the Witch comes out January 8, 2019 from Del Rey Publishing.