With The Winter of the Witch, bestselling author Katherine Arden has crafted an utterly fantastic, truly satisfying end to her Winternight trilogy. Fans who have fallen in love with the fantasy series’ stalwart, magically gifted heroine Vasilisa Petrovna will be thrilled to return to Arden’s fairy-tale vision of medieval Russia, where the wonder of the setting is undercut by danger at every turn. We talked to Arden about completing her first trilogy, the roots of her love for Russian folktales and culture, and why she can’t stick to an outline.
You are about to complete your first published trilogy. How do you feel?
I’m feeling a lot of relief and excitement. I started the Winternight trilogy in 2011, and I knew how I wanted the first book to begin, and I knew how I wanted the last book to end, but I wasn’t totally sure what was going to happen in the middle. I didn’t know anything about writing trilogies, and I am not the best at outlining, so I had to get it right mostly by trial and error. There were times, honestly, when I was sure I wouldn’t get it right, and I had to just power through that feeling.
As a writer, the fact that all three books make sense, follow an overarching plot arc for the trilogy, have individual arcs for each book and resolve the three major intertwining conflicts of the story, is just amazing to me and I am proud of myself for pulling it off. No one wants to disappoint their readers, and, especially for the final book, I knew I had to stick the landing. The Winter of the Witch does so, I believe, and that is satisfying.
I am also so very excited for readers to be able to read the end of the story. The three novels of the trilogy are set back-to-back, so really they form one giant narrative, and I feel like you have to read all three books to get a sense of the whole design, and I am excited for fans of the series to be able to experience that.
Many of us are very unfamiliar with Russian folklore. Could you go into some detail about how and why you chose to set your books in Russia and heavily root them in its fairy tale history?
I was a Russian major in college and studied abroad in Moscow when I was 19, and again when I was 22. I had always loved books based on fairy tales, and when I decided to try my hand at a novel, writing a book based on a Russian fairy tale seemed sensible. I based the books in historical Russia because I wanted to add a sense of realism that history can give. I wanted my books to be clearly set in Russia, not a Russia-coded fantasy land. That was part of the reason I chose the Middle Ages, a time before the Tsars, before onion domes, and samovars and troikas, and all the clichés that we associate with Russia. I wanted to approach the subject from an unusual angle that might make people reconsider their Russian stereotypes. Also, the Middle Ages in Muscovy are not well documented, and it was easier, in that setting, to create a sense of possibility, that history and myth could coexist.
Other than the ones directly referenced, are there any fairy tales that you think we should read to gain some context?
The ones directly referenced in the text are the fairy tales King Frost (Morozko), The Snow-Maiden and Marya Morevna. There are also indirect references to Vasilisa the Wise, Vasilisa the Beautiful, Ivan and the Firebird, Koschei the Deathless, Finist the Falcon, and Ivanushka and Alyonushka. There might be more that I’m not recalling; all three books are full of fairy-tale easter eggs, for people who are into that sort of thing. I’d recommend reading an anthology of Russian fairy tales—it is absolutely worth it.
Vasya cannot seem to catch a break. She even starts this book with burns and a broken rib! Why do you hurt her so?
I’m not sure people would read 400 pages about Vasya just frolicking happily in the woods with her magic horse, although perhaps I’m wrong.
The magic in Vasya’s Russia is very mystical, like tugging on the strings of the forces of nature, with a few notable exceptions like Kasyan and Vasya’s ice knives. Did you decide on a specific system of magic, or did you intend for the nature of magic in your books to be more loosely interpreted?
I wanted magic to be about how people view reality. The more plastic your view of reality, the more plastic reality becomes. But the downside is if you go too far in that direction, you have no sense of what is real at all and start to go insane. So it’s not a system so much as a trick of viewing the world. And it felt very real to me. I think a lot of what we are able to do in life depends on our starting view of reality.
Any plans to return to Vasya and company in the future? What about a different story also set in Russia?
Not currently. I would love to do a fairy tale collection at some point, either in translation or original, but I don’t think that will happen anytime soon. I am sure I will revisit Russia in future novels, even if they are not about Vasilisa.
What are you reading? Have there been any specific books that helped inspire this trilogy?
Right now I’m reading The Kingdom of Copper, which is out soon, and I am really enjoying the second installment in Daevabad trilogy. I love the fairy tale retellings of Robin McKinley, and those really inspired me. Also Pushkin, Bulgakov, Gogol, Lermontov—the great Russian writers who mix realism, Russian folklore and fantasy. Another writer who inspired me is Dorothy Dunnett, whose historical fiction is both richly textured and incredibly intricately plotted.
Your recent middle-grade novel Small Spaces was a significant departure from your trilogy, but it was still playing with some of the same eerie themes. What did you enjoy about writing a novel for children?
It was a break. It was a chance to use a different voice, to set a book in the present day, to not have to do extensive research, to set myself a technical challenge (being scary but not gory) and to just have fun with writing. Your imagination is like a little kid: force it to do the same thing all the time and it gets stale and resentful. Every author, I think, really benefits from changing it up and I certainly did. It’s also great talking to young readers. Kids experience books in a more immediate way than adults, and it is so fun to see someone taking in your work in that way.
How do you write your books? What does your process look like?
Sit down with a notebook and pen and see what happens. I wish I could be more systematic, but part of my process is letting the process surprise me. I do a lot of research concurrent with writing, and the research informs the writing. I might scribble an outline halfway through, but then I don’t stick to it. Not for lack of trying, it just never seems to work.
If you could tell a reader to remember one thing while reading The Winter of the Witch, what would it be?
That no one is wholly good or wholly evil and we are all human.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Winter of the Witch.
Author photo © Deverie Crystal Photography.