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Katherine Arden: It's a great time for female fantasy writers

"Women's stories have been having a moment," says the author of "The Girl in the Tower", which sees a young girl with magical powers flee her hometown to start a new life.

Katherine Arden's new book, "The Girl in the Tower," is an evocative fairy tale for adults set in medieval Russia. The novel is a sequel to Arden's acclaimed debut, "The Bear and the Nightingale" and is the second part of her Winternight trilogy. I spoke to Arden about folklore, her writing process and why female fantasy writers are getting recognised in a way they haven't before.

How did you become a writer?
It was somewhat accidental. I got my diploma in French and Russian in college and I came out hoping to be an interpreter. But I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, so I took six months off to move to Hawaii and work on a coffee farm, randomly.


Katherine Arden.

Del Rey Books

My parents were not entirely thrilled with this life choice. While I was there I got bored working on the farm, so I decided to try my hand at writing just to pass the time. I always loved books based on fairy tales and since for so many years I was doing Russian-related things -- I had a Russian degree, I had lived in Moscow -- I decided to set my books in Russia and base it on a fairy tale. And the rest of the writing process just sort of happened in stops and starts.

For me, the big draw to your books was the inclusion of Russian folklore, something we don't really see in western literature. How did this come about?
I always loved books based on fairy tales. And I had a special love for Russian fairy tales. I read a lot of them as a kid. I read them in Russia when I was learning Russian as well. And setting a book in Russia, especially a fairy tale-based book, seemed like kind of a thing I hadn't seen before. I ended up setting the book in a historical time period, the Middle Ages, to ground the book a bit more. So it would seem like a real place instead of just like a Russian-looking fantasy world.

How much research did you have to do? It seems like this would have to be quite a heavily researched novel.
It was a heavily researched novel. I didn't know very much about the Middle Ages and it's a tough time period to research as there's very few primary sources. So I did a lot of reading of secondary sources, a lot of scholarly books of various kinds. But then I really tried also to let that knowledge lie lightly on the story I was telling. To not get sidetracked.

Does "The Girl in the Tower" work as a standalone?
You could read both "The Bear and the Nightingale" and "The Girl in the Tower" as standalones. They each have a complete plot that starts and stops within the pages of the one book. The major questions are answered in each book. There are no cliffhangers.

That being said, some of the relationships would have less weight if you don't know their backstories. I'm thinking especially of Vasya and Morozko, Vasya and Konstantine, possibly Vasya and her two siblings. The relationships … if they're totally shorn of the concepts that "The Bear and the Nightingale" provided, might not have the same impact.

"The Girl in the Tower" was a huge challenge for me because I had to continue the story from "The Bear and the Nightingale" and leave the novel open for the beginning of the third novel. But also I wanted it to be a book that was satisfying to read for somebody who just walked in and picked it up. I feel as though leaving gigantic dangling plot threads from book to book is not sound storytelling.

What book or author pushed you from reader to writer?
As a kid I loved fantasy. I was a huge Robin McKinley fan. I loved Diana Wynne Jones and I read a lot of Tamora Pierce. Lots of fantasies starring girls. I also love historical fiction. I think when I was starting "The Bear and the Nightingale" I was working my way through the Aubrey-Maturin books, the Patrick O'Brian series. Which have always been favourites of mine ever since.

But which books pushed me over the edge? I think it was like a snowball. It gets bigger and bigger until it takes over. But looking back at my reading history, it really is a combination of fantasy and history, which I think "The Bear and the Nightingale" combines.

Gender plays an important role in the book. In many ways gender holds Vasya back. It betrays and limits her.
Vasya definitely finds herself pushing against constraints, especially gender constraints. But she also makes plenty of mistakes in that fight. She does not come out totally blameless in "The Girl in the Tower."

But one of the things that inspired "The Girl in the Tower" is the actual concept that people in Muscovy called "terem" or seclusion of women. Aristocrats were kept in towers, like actual towers, in a separate part of the house. They stayed there until marriage moved them to their husband's part of the house.

It's very strange because it was only in Muscovy and historically it seems to have been a spontaneous phenomenon. It lasted through to Peter the Great, who ended the practice in the 18th century.

So "The Girl in the Tower" is a thing in Russian history and I sort of asked myself what would Vasilisa do confronted with this lifestyle, this pressure to be that person, to live in a tower and do as she was told.

And I think that's a central conflict of the novel, through that question. So it became very gendered by default because I couldn't have Vasilisa's options explored unless she was dressed as a boy, which she is for most of the book.

Is fantasy "gendered"? Are there enough women fantasy writers?
At one point fantasy was very much a boys club. I think that was true through a large part of the 20th century. Definitely there were women writing fantasy at that time -- Le Guin comes to mind, writing wonderful fantasy -- but not getting the same recognition as the male fantasy writers.

But I think it has changed a lot. Female fantasy writers get recognition in a way they haven't before. I think that women's stories have also been having a moment.

I never really thought about how my trilogy relates to the wider landscape of fantasy. I was too busy focusing on getting it written and trying to tell the best story I could. But I do think that overall women's stories deserve more space and are getting that space, slowly.

I never felt penalised for being a woman or because my heroine was a heroine, I felt as though people were approaching the book on its own merits. It was a good feeling. 

Are there any books or genres you've really enjoyed that we might not expect a fantasy writer to enjoy so much?
I love nonfiction. I enjoy learning things. It's funny because all of my writing in high school and college was academic essays of various kinds. And I do love finding an efficient way to convey information. I think that can be good for a writer of fiction as well -- to try and find the cleanest way to let someone know about something.

I also did a lot of drama classes in college and I will say I think one of the best things a writer can do is get involved in some capacity in theatre.

In a novel you can kind of limp along pretty far without any real narrative sense, but when you have two actors trying to talk, you have to have that tension. I think that reading a bunch of plays and also acting in plays (badly) helped me get to a sense of getting to the point, finding the sense of conflict and being able to run with it.

What are you reading now?
I just finished a book called "The Radium Girls." It's a nonfiction book by Kate Moore about women in the US in the 20th century who were poisoned by painting glowing dials on to watches that had radium in the paint. It was one of the earliest workers rights cases in America where women were being poisoned by radium and fighting for justice in the workplace.

And I'm reading a "City of Brass" by S. A. Chakraborty, which is a really great fantasy novel.

What's next?
The final Winternight book. It's called "The Winter of the Witch" and should be out late 2018. 

You can buy "The Girl in the Tower", published by Del Rey Books, for £8 on Jan. 25. If you're in the US or Australia, you can grab a copy now for $11 or AU$12, respectively.

The Winternight trilogy concludes with The Winter of the Witch, which will be released later this year.

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