Katherine Arden’s Fairy Tale Inspiration

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We can’t wait for Katherine Arden’s debut novel, The Bear and the Nightingale! This book follows Vasya, a young girl whose family honors old Russian traditions. But when her mother dies and her father remarries, her stepmother keeps the family from honoring the old household spirits. Now danger is creeping ever closer to the family and Vasya must protect them. We caught up with the author to learn more about her love for Russian fairy tales!
 
My mother gave me a book of Russian fairy tales when I was small. It had a green cloth cover. On it was a picture of a man and a woman, looking down through sunlight at a city full of spires. The picture was somehow both stylized and dynamic, brightly colored yet not childish. The fairy tales inside had a similar quality — crisp and predictable, except when they weren’t; sweet, but with loss, horror and passion in their depths. I fell in love with these fairy tales.
 
This love affair never quite ended — as one can tell from my first novel, The Bear and the Nightingale — although as I grew, Pushkin and Lermontov and Bulgakov replaced the green-cloth book in my affections. 
 
Despite all my reading, I knew nothing of the real Russia. I had vague notions of kerchiefed old women dispensing wisdom, of smoke and snow, churches like fistfuls of magic flames. I thought wistfully of Behemoth the talking cat and Satan with a foreign accent. 
 
When I finished high school, stocky, cheerful and blindingly innocent, I decided, with a child’s logic, that I loved tales set in Russia and therefore I would go to Russia. After a year, I told myself, I would surely come home touched with that louche glamor of cold nights and candy-colored palaces, of long, dark history. Something of the atmosphere of my fairy tales would have rubbed off on me.
 
Now I’m supposed to say: “But the reality was quite different.”
 
It was and it wasn’t. 
 
I came cringing out of Sheremetyevo Airport nearly a decade ago, and I found a boy with green eyes waiting for me. I knew he’d be waiting. I was supposed to stay with his parents. We’d been emailing for weeks. But I didn’t know he would have green eyes. Or that smile.
 
“Are you Katya?” he asked.
 
Not Katherine. Katya. Katherine was another girl: a sturdy teenager with earnest enthusiasms, standing terrified in a country not hers. 
 
But Katya was anybody. Katya was, dare I say it, an exciting stranger. I could be anything I wanted, I realized. Brave. Beautiful. The girl in the fairy tale. 
 
Renamed, clutching courage in both fists, I got into the tiny, broken-down Lada and started on an adventure.
 
That year, I learned to like caviar with butter on my bread, (though I mostly ate cheese and ham and curds and kasha). Old ladies (kerchiefed or not) harangued me for my own good, and it was a measure of the Russian I learned that I began to understand the harangues. There were nights of smoke and snow like diamonds.
 
It was also a year of grime and tears, fright and homesickness. A friend was stabbed in a taxi. I saw a body lying bloody in the street, hit by a car. I went to a friend’s daughter’s funeral. I tripped over my new language, and fell more times than I could count. 
 
Moscow did not make me into a wise and glamorous creature. There are no magic spells, and life is not a fairy tale.
 
And yet. We went on long walks, that boy and I. We saw Red Square in the sun and in the snow. We went to a statue graveyard where a hundred Stalins lay in strange, mirrored ruin. We slept on trains, we nearly burned down a house. I loved that green-eyed boy with the swift, transient love of stories: joyful, intent, fragile. 
 
I learned that life is powerfully unmagical — except when it is, and then the magic overwhelms. I learned that I was weak in far too many ways, often silly, careless, apt to skip class to go on long walks. 
 
But in inches and fits and tears and starts and shocks, I grew. I never quite became Katya the exciting stranger, but I was Katya the someone — frightened but brave, not wise perhaps, but wiser.
 
After nine months in Moscow, winter finally ended, and the city exploded into spring the way sunlight hits water. Blindingly.
 
 Wearing a skirt, with sunshine on my pale face, I went to the ballet. Don Quixote I think. I watched, I laughed, I went home humming. On the ride home, an old man came up to me in the subway car. “Pardon me,” he said. “I don’t mean to offend you. But when I saw you, I thought you looked just like Cinderella. I wanted you to know.”
 
He spoke Russian. One legacy of that year was that I understood him.
 
Another was that I heard and I started to laugh. 
 
Because life is not a fairy tale.
 
Except sometimes it is. 
 
— Katherine Arden
 
Beautiful! Get lost in a fairy tale by pre-ordering your copy of The Bear and the Nightingale here: Amazon | B&N | Kobo | iBooks | IndieBound
 
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