Estranged siblings Bellatine and Isaac Yaga couldn’t be more different, both in their personalities and in their mysterious abilities. The restless Isaac embraces his gift for mimicry, while Bellatine lives a quiet life, fiercely resisting the urge to give life to inanimate objects. But when they reunite to collect a family inheritance, they get the shock of their lives: Their great-great-grandmother has left them Thistlefoot, a sentient cottage with chicken legs.
For readers that aren’t familiar with her, can you give a brief synopsis of Baba Yaga and her importance in Slavic folklore?
Baba Yaga is a magical crone, hidden deep in the forests of Eastern Europe. Lost in the woods? Maybe Baba Yaga will help you find your way home. Or . . . maybe she’ll devour you and display your glowing skull on pike. Depends on her mood, which is, to put it politely, finicky. She lives in a hut on chicken legs that never stands still, and she flies through the air in a mortar and pestle. Like any good monster, she is built of opposites: She’s ferocious and motherly, supernatural and one with nature, feminine and beastly, helper and harmer. And I think it’s the fact that she embodies all these elements, all this unpredictability, that makes her one of the most famous figures in Slavic folklore. Who is Baba Yaga? She’s whoever the story needs her to be—just before she kills the story and eats it for supper.
What was it like working with preexisting characters like Baba Yaga and her chicken-footed house? Did it ever become confining, or was it easy to spin your own tale with the parts you had?
Writing from folklore and fairy tales, to me, is actually freeing rather than confining. Instead of wrestling with a blank page and trying to conjure something from nothing, these archetypal figures serve as inspiration and guidance. Companions, of sorts.
A folk tale, a real folk tale, is designed to shape-shift, to adapt to new eras and new contexts. That’s how they survive over centuries, by mutating again and again to remain ever relevant to each new culture that adopts them. Thistlefoot leans into that transformative ability: What if Baba Yaga is no longer a crone in the woods but a young Russian Jewish woman during World War I? Or what if Baba Yaga’s hut weren’t in Russia at all but modern-day America? It becomes a game of experimentation, with endless variants. These tales have already been re-imagined a thousand times, so what’s one more?
What does the folklore in Thistlefoot tell us about the people and places from which it originated?
This is what I adore about folklore: how it functions as a mirror. Specifically, a mirror reflecting a community’s taboos and fears. People would rather do anything than look at the prickly, ugly, awkward parts of life head-on. So rather than the embarrassment of, say, telling your young Scottish daughter not to sleep with hot, mysterious men on the beach, mothers would instead caution them to fear the handsome . . . kelpies . . . yes, that’s right, those sexy . . . horses . . . who would offer maidens a “ride”—before ripping out their organs. It’s supernatural metaphor at its best. Fantastical and exaggerated, while also serving as a metaphorical parallel for real-life issues.
In Thistlefoot, I use the folklore as a window into a violent period of European history—specifically pogroms in the Russian empire, which were systematic, military-sanctioned massacres against the Jewish people. In the center of the novel is the story of a pogrom my own ancestors lived through in 1919. Told plainly, the facts are horrific. Unbearable, really. But filtering it through folklore allowed me to explore this history with softened edges. Folklore lets us look at jagged truths through a sheer curtain, and then, once we’ve grown acclimated, that curtain can be yanked away. This is one of the themes throughout the book, in fact: Memory can be reformed into folk tales to make it not only more bearable, but more permanent. More easily honored and held.
How did you go about creating the magic that each of the Yaga siblings has?
The siblings both have these abilities that are intrinsically linked to who they are and to this generational history they’re discovering. It was important to me that each power held tension in it, and that the powers reflected who the characters are at their cores. Bellatine, who sees her power as a curse, is constantly battling with her ability. It turns her into a control freak, at war with her own body and the world around her. For Isaac, who has this incredible ability to mimic other people, his power is part of his restless nature, his self-hatred and his desperation to be anyone but himself.
It’s funny, even I was conned a little by Isaac—because it wasn’t until a late-stage draft that I even realized Isaac’s abilities were magic. I think it was actually my editor or my agent who was like, “Uh, this isn’t like . . . a normal thing people can do.” Until then, I sort of listened to Isaac when he insisted that he was simply a skillful actor. But of course there was an element of the paranormal to it.
I mean this as a compliment: This book is stuffed full of weird. Was there ever a moment when you were writing that you thought, “OK, I may lose the reader on this bit”?
Ha. No. I mean, of course I feared losing the reader sometimes—drafting is full of insecure moments—but never because of weirdness. Honestly, I sometimes worried it wasn’t weird enough. The images in the book are fantastical, but the structure of the novel is fairly conventional. I love weird fiction. I’m most inspired by surrealism. Slipstream. I’m obsessed with Kelly Link, Sofia Samatar, Karen Russell, Leonora Carrington, Angela Carter. Writers who don’t shy away from operating on emotional logic and dream logic rather than worldly logic. So no, I did not worry it was too weird. In my future books, I intend to get even weirder.
There are so many details about Thistlefoot that I was drawn to: how it walks, what it looks like, what it sounds like. What was important to you to include when describing and creating a living house?
It was a unique challenge to create a being that is part setting, part character, part animal, part vehicle, etc. First off, I wanted it to have real personality, a sort of arrogance, but also be hospitable. It’s a fiercely protective being because it exists to be a haven for this family. Writers like Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer, who wrote such wry, winking shtetl stories, inspired the house’s voice in its first-person chapters. And of course, I had a lot of fun with the visuals. Covering it in velvet curtains and paper lanterns when it becomes a mobile theater. Cultivating a garden of yams and alfalfa in its sod roof.
When you’re working in magical realism, that delicious sense of the uncanny is created by holding unfamiliar magic up against familiar, real-world details. In this case, the magic in Thistlefoot‘s world is that trauma can literally, physically alter a space—like causing a house to sprout legs. But to balance that, and to highlight the significance of that strangeness, it was essential that everything else in the world remained rooted in our own logic system. So I did a lot of research into what actual houses from Russian and Ukrainian shtetls would have looked like, including the materials and carpentry practices that would have been used. Yes, the house is wild and whimsical and cartoony, kicking around on these big chicken legs and laying giant eggs and telling tall tales—but it’s also historically accurate, down to the smallest detail. For example, I originally had Bellatine pulling old nails out of the walls while she refurbished it, but then a carpenter friend told me that back in early 1900s Russia, where the house was built, they wouldn’t have used nails because metal was too expensive. They would have fixed boards together with wooden joinery instead. So I went back in and cut the nails. Wooden joinery only!
As a puppeteer yourself, what’s one misconception of the art form a layperson might have? What do you love most about performing?
Ah, so I actually can’t claim the esteemed title of puppeteer—yet! I did travel with a scrolling panoramic shadow puppetry show to promote my narrative poem The Lumberjack’s Dove, but that was designed by my collaborator, Wooly Mar. I just turned the crank. And I’m only starting to work with hand-held, figurative puppets now for the first time as I prepare for a very elaborate and kooky Thistlefoot book tour. So I’m going to defer to a conversation I had with my friend Shoshana Bass, who is a professional puppeteer.
While I was writing Thistlefoot, Shoshana was adamant that I refer to the puppets in the Yaga siblings” puppet show as being “animated” rather than “manipulated.” She told me that the most common misunderstanding about puppetry is that it’s about controlling something else. We even use “puppet master” as a means of saying someone is manipulative or Machiavellian. In reality, Shoshana explained, the art of puppetry is the opposite. It’s about stepping back to be a support system for this being in your care and allowing it to live. A puppeteer follows the puppet’s lead, not the other way around.
As for performing, I love the opportunity to collaborate with amazing artists and to connect with a live audience. Writing can be isolating as hell, so to switch from Hermit to Traveling Bard, where the book becomes a carriage I ride out into the world . . . that’s what makes all the isolation worth it. I was also raised as a professional child clown (as in, I was a child who was a clown, not a clown for children), so I guess it’s in my blood.
When you think back to writing this book, what sections stand out most in your mind?
First, the folk tale chapters in Thistlefoot’s voice. They were just such a joy to write. I loved existing in the house’s playful, unreliable, teasing voice and getting to tell these compact stories within the greater narrative. They’re my favorite parts of the book, both to read and to have written, and are the excerpts I’m currently working on with Wooly Mar and Shoshana Bass to translate into live puppet shows for my book tour.
And on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, something that stands out is . . . my mortal enemy. A chapter I bitterly named “This Fucking Chapter.” A spiteful bastard of a chapter I wrote and rewrote and re-rewrote at least 12 times, and it got worse each time. I won’t even bother mentioning which one, because it’s honestly a nothing of a chapter. You wouldn’t even notice anything odd about it at this point; it’s sort of a neutral, expositional moment. But oh god. It shaved years off my life. This chapter . . . it laid one eye on me and said, “That one. Let’s kill her. It’ll be fun.”
Anyway, it ultimately turned out just fine.
Would you rather be able to animate the inert or perfectly mimic anyone you met?
Ooh, that’s a good one! Hm. Probably animating the inert, just because it’s the more dramatic of the two. One of my prized possessions is a handmade cotton and silk doll I sewed a few years ago. Her name is My Beautiful Daughters, and she has two heads. My friends all think she’s cursed, but she’s my gal. Might be nice to wake her up for tea and a chat.
Photo of GennaRose Nethercott by Kirk Murphy.