Monday, August 10, 2009

Interview - Ekaterina Sedia

Photo by Tait Chirenje

Ekaterina Sedia was born and raised in Moscow, Russia and who is currently living in New Jersey, USA. She wrote numerous short stories published in magazines such as Analog, Baen’s Universe, Fantasy Magazine, Clarkesworld and Dark Wisdom. Ekaterina Sedia also published three novels, “According to Crow” in 2005, “The Secret History of Moscow” in 2007 and “The Alchemy of Stone” in 2008, with a fourth, “The House of Discarded Dreams”, scheduled to be released in 2010. She also edited the anthology “Paper Cities” released in 2008.

Mihai (Dark Wolf): First of all, thank you very much for the opportunity of this interview.
I grew up with the wonderful Russian fairy tales and later on I read and enjoyed many Russian writers. Being born in Russia may I ask if any of these works triggered your desire to become a writer?
Ekaterina Sedia: Not as such. I mean, I never wanted to become a writer – it was never a career aspiration. I started writing late in life, and it was because of the specific books I wanted to write and specific things I wanted to say rather than a generalized desire to be a writer. However, what I write is definitely influenced by Russian folklore and literature.

Mihai (Dark Wolf): You wrote and published your works in English, but did you start to write while living in Moscow or after your move to the United States? Did you try to publish any of your works in Russian as well?
Ekaterina Sedia: I started writing well in my thirties, and in English. I don't write in Russian – I find it more difficult to write well in Russian than in English. My agent has been working on selling foreign rights to my books, so I hope one day something will get translated into Russian. However, I won't be the one translating – it's a skill I do not possess.

Mihai (Dark Wolf): Someone told me once that in order to perfect a learned language it is necessary to think in that language. How does this work for an author who writes in her second language?
Ekaterina Sedia: Well, of course you have to think in the language you write in – otherwise, you would have to translate every sentence before writing it down and that sounds like way too much work. English is my second language, but the one I've been speaking almost exclusively for the past fifteen or so years. So it is my main language, and I'm quite comfortable with it.

M(DW): From your experience and since you also wrote an article in 2005 for Reflection’s Edge, “Making Neologisms Work in Speculative Fiction” do you think that an author who writes in a second language can enrich that language? Do you think that the speculative fiction can reach new boundaries through language?
ES: Enrich – certainly. Language very much predicates the way we write about certain things because of what it makes available to us (in Russian, for example, there are many synonyms for 'ennui', which are sadly lacking in English). It is definitely helpful to at least be familiar with more than one language to have some insight into how linguistics is shaped by experience and vice versa. As for new boundaries – I suppose that it is possible to think about alien planets and fantasy worlds while considering how their linguistic profiles could be shaped by the environments. There is of course an interesting possibility of life forms whose experiences are so different from ours as if to make translation/understanding/contact impossible due to the absence of any meaningful experiential and linguistic equivalencies.

M(DW): In your novel “The Secret History of Moscow” there are present many Russian myths and legends. Introducing them to the speculative fiction can enrich the genre? How about other worldwide folklore elements?
ES: I think most fantasy relies on folklore somehow. On one hand, I think it's probably worthwhile to explore myths other than the overly familiar Celtic/Western European ones; on the other hand, I'm apprehensive about fantasy writers plundering world mythologies for the shiny bits. Overall I think folkloric exploration should not be done apart from the culture that gave rise to it, and would require a bit of work on part of the writers as well as readers.

M(DW): The action of “The Secret History of Moscow” is taking place in your birthplace and in “The Alchemy of Stone” relates to your botany teachings. Are these autobiographical aspects of your works? Are there other such autobiographical elements present in your works?
ES: Of course. I don't think it is possible to entirely escape one's experience – all books are autobiographical in some sense, even if it's something as vague as what we choose to write about.

M(DW): “The Secret History of Moscow” also deals with the Russian Post-Communist era. Is this also a description of the modern Russia?
ES: I haven't lived in Russia in a long time, so my memories of it are very much confined to the early nineties – which is incidentally when TSHoM takes place. I wish I could remember who it was who said that immigrant writers are looking through twin funhouse mirrors of nostalgia and faulty memory (or something like that – paraphrasing here), but it seems very accurate to me. Distortions are unavoidable, but it doesn't mean this perspective is not valid. For an accurate picture of modern Russia, however, one should probably read modern Russian writers who live there.

M(DW): Your first published novel, “According to Crow”, is difficult to find at the moment. Can you describe it in a few words please?
ES: It's a coming of age story, and more of sword and sorcery (without the sorcery) genre. It's very loosely based on the Biblical story of Judith – rather, it's a sequel to what happened after Holofernes' head was cut off. Incidentally, it will be reviewed at Guys' Lit Wire first week of August, and I will be selling some of my copies. So if you want to snag a signed cheap copy, keep an eye on them for the announcement.

M(DW): Would this novel see a re-print in the future? Would you like to bring it to a wider audience?
ES: There's no talk of reprint. And even though I would of course love for more people to read it, I had moved on. I think my later books are better (not that Crow is a bad book, mind you) and I'm more focused on my next book than my first.

M(DW): “The Alchemy of Stone” has a very unusual, but powerful character, Mattie the automaton. Why an automaton as main character? What sources of inspiration lie behind the creation of your character, Mattie?
ES: An automaton seemed like a good idea for this book. First, the idea of gender: we tend to assign gender to machines, but what really makes a constructed entity male or female? Then, there's this idea of machines as being more perfect than humans often present in SF. Which is of course silly – machines always break. Always. Biological systems can repair themselves, but not manmade ones. So it was interesting for me to play with a character who has this massive limitation. And of course there was some thinking about personhood etc, but that was rather secondary.

M(DW): One of the ideas that attracted me the most at “The Alchemy of Stone” is the Soul Smoker. Where did you come up with this idea? Are there religious aspects involved in the creation of the Soul Smoker?
ES: Urban legends/folklore again. In Scotland and England there were people called 'sin-eaters' who could (via magic) take on themselves the sins of a deceased person, thus allowing them to go to Heaven. As you would imagine, they were generally feared and often shunned. Also, in many medieval cities executioners were required to live outside of the city walls. So the soul-smoker emerged as a combination of the two, a person who could consume souls, be they of dead people (thus functioning as an exorcist) or alive (executioner). Both sin-eaters and executioners were pariahs, and Soul Smoker is no exception – and in his case there's a good reason to avoid him.

M(DW): “The Secret History of Moscow”, the anthology “Paper Cities” and your future novel “The House of Discarded Dreams” have a common element, urban legends. Do you have a passion for urban legends? Do you plan to use other urban legends in the future?
ES: Well, urban legends are folklore – except it's not yet old enough to become venerated and respectable. Urban legends represent folklore as it is being created, and we participate in it in ways we cannot participate in the mainstream culture (for example, we can consume Hollywood films but we cannot make our own art using them because of the stupid copyright laws.) Urban legends belong to everyone, and it's the purest, most fascinating distillation of nay culture. And of course I will always be using them in my work. For example, I have a Victorian YA novel in the works, where alchemy and magic are used as the urban legends of Western Europe in early industrial and pre-industrial times.

M(DW): Your works are not limited by a single genre. Would you like to explore other genres as well in your writings? Which one in particular?
ES: Well, I write fantasy, science fiction, and horror. I think that's enough for now, although I might some day produce a realist work. Who knows?

M(DW): You edited an anthology “Paper Cities”. Did your experience as a writer, and especially as a short fiction writer, influence your work on this anthology?
ES: I think the editorial work is helpful to a writer – just thinking about what makes someone else's story good or bad can change how one approaches one's own writing. But I think being a reader is more important – basically, selecting stories one likes and making sure they fit together.

M(DW): I’ve read that you work on a new anthology, “Russian Winters”. How does the work on this anthology progress? What is the common element of this collection of stories?
ES: This anthology was cancelled last year because of the economic issues. However, I will be doing another one next year – it is called RUNNING WITH THE PACK, and it's urban fantasy focusing on werewolves.

M(DW): With your experience as an editor and with such a prolific career as a short story writer there is a chance in the future to collect your stories in a personal anthology?
ES: At some point, probably. Right now I think it would be a little bit premature – short story collections are notoriously hard to sell, and one needs a strong fanbase to pull that off.

M(DW): I’ve noticed on your works a common element (not necessarily include in the work), the crows. Your first novel is named “According to Crow”, “The Secret History of Moscow” and the second edition of “The Alchemy of Stone” feature crows on the cover art, your website has crows around it. Is there a reason for these presences? Is the crow a personal talisman?
ES: I like crows and jackdaws. As for the Alchemy new cover, that crow is completely coincidental – it's not a commissioned piece of art, just something my publisher licensed.
M(DW): What future projects do you have?
ES: Running with the Pack will also be coming out then. My agent is currently shopping a couple of novels, so we'll see what happens there. I am currently writing some short stories as well. Finally, The House of Discarded Dreams is my next novel, expected next year.

Thank you very much for your time and answers. It has been an honor and a pleasure.


Memory said...

What a fascinating interview. It really piqued my interested in Sedia's work.

ediFanoB said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ediFanoB said...

Sorry, needed to delete my first try.

I read The Secret History of Moscow and The Alchemy Stone.
And I liked The Alchemy Stone much more than The Secret History of Moscow.
So I read the interview with great interest. Excellent interview! A lot of things I didn't know before. Now I look forward to read The House of Discarded Dreams.

Carl V. Anderson said...

Marvelous interview! I picked The Alchemy of Stone off my bookshelf this weekend and devoured it. I enjoyed it so much and am certainly looking forward to her new novel.

Mihai A. said...

Thank you all very much!

Memory, I highly recommend Ekaterina Sedia's works.

Michael, I am waiting for her new novel too.

Carl, "The Alchemy of Stone" is a very good novel indeed.