Q: Where did the name “The Midnight Land” come from?
A: I first came across it during an Old Russian Literature class in grad school–sadly, I can’t remember which particular work I was reading at the time, probably the Primary Chronicle. It was used in medieval and classical Russian literature to refer to the north and to Russia. As soon as I heard it, I knew it had to be the title of my next work. I sat down to write a short story–I was writing short stories at the time–and the next thing I knew, I’d churned out a gigantic novel, in between preparing for and taking my Ph.D. comps and then dissertating. Probably my committees would have preferred me to put a little more of that energy into my academic work, but I was in the grip of a sick compulsion.
Q: Why did you split it into two volumes?
A: I wanted to sell it for $.99 on Amazon and the original document was too big, so I split it into multiple volumes, in the spirit of The Lord of the Rings.
Q: How many books do you have planned?
A: I had originally planned three: The Midnight Land, The Breathing Sea, and The Dreaming Land. The title The Breathing Sea was inspired by that same class on Old Russian Lit–there was some reference to “the breathing sea” as another name for the White Sea. “The Dreaming Land” is a reference to a possible meaning of “Siberia,” “sleeping land.” Anyway, I wrote a draft of The Midnight Land, which turned out to be about ten times longer than I had originally planned, and then sat on it for a while. I was getting ready to try and publish it when I was suddenly overcome by inspiration for The Dreaming Land, so I started writing that instead, even though I was writing the series out of order. That turned out to be even longer, nearly as long as War and Peace to put it in perspective, so I’m probably going to split it into three volumes. I still haven’t finished the middle book of the series, but if past history is any indication, it will be at least two volumes too. So I’d say the end result will be at least seven volumes, although the gods alone know what will actually happen. But it will be a loose baggy monster, to say the least.
Q: How “realistic” is the society depicted in The Midnight Land?
A: I borrowed elements of it from Russian history (e.g., succession troubles, the threat of invaders from the East and interference from the West) and folklore (such as wood spirits and house spirits), as well as of course the landscape, which is heavily inspired by Russia and Ukraine, but a lot of it was made up out of the whole cloth. I wanted to write about a matriarchal, matrilineal society in a way that was completely different from any attempts I’d ever encountered before. On the rare occasions when I’ve come across depictions of matrilineal and/or matriarchal societies, they’ve always struck me as totally unrealistic to the point of being an embarrassment to their creators, and when written by men, more about men’s subconscious terror of women than about any actual human beings that ever existed. So I thought I’d try something different, and a Slavic-like society seemed like the perfect place to do so. Archeologists have recently suggested that the Scythian warriors were often female, while we know from the Primary Chronicle that there were matriarchal societies living in the territory of present day Russia/Ukraine (that is, what was medieval Rus’) prior to the Mongol-Tatar invasion, so we know that they existed, but we don’t know much about them other than the disdain that the Kievan chroniclers felt for them. However, we may be able to see their traces in the fact that Russian society has been blessed with a number of strong and clever female rulers, most notably Olga the Wise in the 10th century and Catherine the Great in the 18th century, but there were many others as well, while in the 20th century we have the Soviet “Night Witches” and female partisan fighters, for example. At the same time the concept of motherhood and feminine mercy is incredibly important in Russian culture. So I drew on all of that. I also took inspiration, although I can hardly claim to know enough to draw on it seriously, from the fact that a number of Native American tribes such as the Navajo and the Hopi are traditionally matrilineal, and I can feel the culture I’m creating slowly starting to incorporate more and more Native American elements in the later books. The custom of tying ribbons to prayer trees was something I came across while in Siberia, and it made a huge impression on me, obviously. So all in all it’s a giant hodgepodge, as is appropriate for a Russia-inspired fantasy story.
Q: What are your biggest influences?
A: A huge influence specifically on The Midnight Land is Karolina Pavlova’s novella from the 1840s A Double Life, which unfortunately doesn’t seem to be read much in the West. In the first part of the 19th century the form of the novel wasn’t really fixed in Russia, so you have for example Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin and Gogol’s epic poem in prose Dead Souls. Pavlova combined both and had a short novel using prose for when the heroine was awake and poetry for describing her dreams. The novel also describes a society largely controlled by older women, who ruthlessly sacrifice their daughters to marriage to ne’er-do-wells and shallow, self-satisfied noblemen. The cruelty of older women to younger women is a major theme in Russian culture and literature and you can also see it in, for example, Ostrovsky”s The Storm (which was made into the opera Kat’a Kabanova) and, well, many, many others. I also deliberately evoke Anna Karenina and and Dead Souls and have specific allusions to Pushkin’s “Stone Guest” and Kino’s song “Legend”–I was listening obsessively to Kino when I composed the first draft of The Midnight Land. And I’d say that Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita is always there in the background. As far as western fantasy literature is concerned, I’m a fan of a lot of the obvious names: A Song of Ice and Fire, naturally, which was a huge influence, and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, which were if anything an even bigger influence. I threw some cheeky references their way in the first few chapters, which astute readers will no doubt notice. I also love, love, love Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series. Anyway, if I were to describe my work in terms of other artists’ works, I’d say something like “A collision between Dostoevsky, George R.R. Martin, and Terry Pratchett, with a big dose of Tori Amos thrown in for good measure.” I also really enjoyed some perhaps unexpected books like the Fifty Shades series (believe me, no one was more surprised than I!), so as I write the sequels to TML I’ve been throwing in occasional references to that! Also, one of the very few things I have in common with Ana Steele is a huge appreciation for the music of Snow Patrol (and now also Tired Pony), which has formed the soundtrack for the composition of the later books and is probably secretly influencing them.
Q: What kind of literary techniques do you like to use?
A: I’d say the biggest technique, and pretty much the basis for the entire work, is ostranenie, or “making things strange,” often in conjunction with some kind of vaguely satirical approach. I also make use of skaz, which is something like “oral-type speech that is not the author’s own.” I use a lot of Dostoevsky-style iconic writing, where the writing mirrors the action or the characters’ thoughts, which is why sometimes the text is really dense and sometimes really airy. There’s a lot of dream-like or fairy-tale-esque repetition, including the use of formulas taken from Russian fairy tales, and stream-of-consciousness narration. Going back to my unexpected love of Fifty Shades and other blockbusters such as the Twilight Saga and the Millennium Series (which probably also forms an undercover influence), one thing I’ve noticed about them is their naivety (in the Schillerian sense) and the tremendous energy they have, which causes them to explode right out of what is normally considered “good” literary language and composition. So when TML seemed on its way to imitate that, I let it. I also do a lot of playing around with language, especially gender. E.g., I use the masculine forms “hero” and “heir” when referring to women, but a generic “they” (which is already much more mainstream than it was when I started writing) or “she” instead of “he.” I also sometimes give feminine endings for things that would be masculine in Russian, such as leshaya (wood spirit) and domovaya (house spirit). All of which is to say that the language and technique might be a little…I don’t know what. Something out of the norm, I hope. Jarring, perhaps, but hopefully in a good way.
Q: Why on earth is your Twitter account @Andreyev7? What’s that all about?
A: I originally got onto Twitter to protest cruelty to animals. I wanted something anonymous, since I was going to be protesting powerful universities, and something that was meaningful to me. It’s a reference to Andreyev’s “The Story of the Seven Who Were Hanged” (Рассказ о семи повешенных), which I think is one of the best pieces of art-as-politics out there.
Q: What’s next?
A: More writing! Finishing the series, the gods willing.