Greg Frost provided us with this great interview with one of this year’s workshop instructors, Anna Kashina. Enjoy her responses to several great questions related to fantasy writing.
You’re a fantasy writer. What draws you to the genre?
I think the biggest appeal of fantasy for me is the idea that everything is possible. I enjoy strong character-driven stories, and there is no better way to challenge your characters than to put them into situations that far exceed the constraints of what can realistically occur in our world. The way they act in such situations opens up new dimensions in human nature and drives these characters to take on the lives of their own. I really enjoy putting this all into play and then – literally – watch the story unravel in front of my eyes.
Another appeal of fantasy for me is purely visual. I love creating unusual and exotic worlds – or submerging into them when I read. There is just something extra special about it, when you let go of the boundaries and see these new open dimensions of the realities we could never see otherwise.
You’ve worked a fair bit with Russian folk-tale material and fairy tales. What appeals to you about folk- and fairy tales?
Folklore represents centuries of wisdom and imagination mixed together for a whole nation. These stories are told over centuries, perfected into the form that encompasses people’s beliefs and is accessible enough for many to enjoy. Only the best stories survive this scrutiny and become timeless. So, from a writer’s standpoint, by drawing on the folklore elements you can really draw on all this wealth and create stories unlike anything else, both in their magic and in their appeal.
I enjoyed folklore for as long as I remember myself. I have always been fascinated by both the common and the different in the folk tales when they come from different cultures. And, I feel fortunate when I come upon the tales that blend these cultures into something truly unique. Russia is a country which is half-East, half-West, and its folklore reflects this blend to the full.
When you began the Majat Code books, how much of the world did you know? How much did you feel you had to know in order to begin?
I conceived the idea of the Majat Code world as a blend of East and West – perhaps drawing on my Russian origin. So, from the start I knew that all these different elements need to be present in the books — starting with the Majat warriors themselves, who bring the Eastern martial arts fighting style into the Western European-like setting.
While I started playing with the characters and situations right from the start, before writing any of what I considered to be “final” text (i.e., a full first draft), I realized right away that some groundbreaking work needed to be done first. So, I had to stop so that I could draw a map with names, for people in the story to refer to when they talk. I also sketched some of the key historical events that shaped the kingdom the way it was, and defined the major cultures populating different regions – down to the unique aspects of their languages and customs. And, importantly, I defined deities and curses, which tend to shape our speech whether or not we realize it.
It seems ironic to think that very little of this work ever ended up on the pages of the book, but I felt this level of detail was essential to lend authenticity to the story. In the workshop I will be teaching at PWC, I plan to show some of the ways these details are drawn on in different books to generate authenticity without making them overwhelming.
Unquestionably world-building is critical for both SF and fantasy authors. But what would you say any writer should know about worldbuilding?
Two things. First, you should know your world inside and out, whether this world is real, partially real, or fully imagined. Second, you should show the reader only the absolute bare minimum of what you know, and avoid the temptation of going into any excessive details. This is often a hard balance to strike, but it is essential for good storytelling.
I think it would be easy to go down the rabbit hole of research and never come out. How do you keep the research from consuming you?
My trick is to put the story first. I always start by thinking up a story and characters I cannot wait to write about. So, when I do my research, I always cannot wait to come back to it. As a result, research, while often extensive, always feel secondary to the book itself and it becomes easier to limit. Others could think of it as keeping my eyes on the goal – which is, in this case, to create a compelling book, not to increase my overall knowledge.
In terms of the process, once I lay down the basics – like the maps and some of the language essentials — I try to write down as much of the story as I can, in outlines or actual scenes. At that point, I usually leave gaps when I realize that I need to do more research in that area. I then come back to fill these gaps and “comb” the rest of the story to fit.
There are points in this process where I still have to stop writing and go back to research, but if the story is good it always beckons me to come back. And, if I don’t feel this beckoning, I go back and rethink the story, to make it compelling enough to drive me.
Of course, this works well in fantasy – since in the end I, as the author, set all the rules – but it may not work as well, say, in historical fiction, which has to be absolutely true to the facts. So, I can only speak from the fantasy author perspective.
What would you say are you most passionate about in your fiction?
The characters. Each of my books has to have at least one character so compelling that I simply cannot bear to part with him/her for any considerable amount of time. When this happens, writing a book feels like being in love – even better, since the object of your love is always with you and you are the one who gets to decide what happens to him/ her. With luck, all the other characters and the entire story blend in so seamlessly around this character that at times it feels more real to me than my everyday life – or very nearly so.
In the Majat Code series, a character like this emerged unexpectedly in book 1 and drove the entire series for me and, as I heard, for many of my fans. It made working on the series one of the most enjoyable experiences in my life.
What can someone considering your workshop at PWC expect to take away from it?
My workshop will focus on the genres of speculative fiction, and on the worldbuilding essential for authors writing in these genres. These topics are interconnected, since worldbuilding in speculative fiction has certain unique aspects that are also genre-specific and thus effective worldbuiling is at least as important as the story in writing a good book.
I expect that the workshop participants will acquire the necessary foundation on setting up a story in their chosen genre, and will learn how to approach their worldbuilding without getting overwhelmed themselves, or overwhelming their readers. We will talk about rules and conventions in these genres, as well as about breaking them when needed. I hope it would be both useful and fun – I really look forward to it.
Finally, if readers want to investigate your work, where would you recommend they begin?
With the Majat Code series, of course! Incidentally, the third and concluding book in the series, “Assassin Queen” is being released in the US on June 7, only 3 days before the conference, which means those who don’t like to wait for a year to read the next book can now get all the story at once.
Those more interested in folklore can also look up my stand-alone novel, “Mistress of the Solstice”, set in the world of Russian fairy tales.