Saturday, June 3, 2023

Q&A with Kris Spisak




Kris Spisak is the author of the new novel The Baba Yaga Mask. Her other books include The Novel Editing Workshop


Q: What inspired you to write The Baba Yaga Mask, and how did you create your characters Larissa and Ira?


A: For as long as I can remember, I sought out the Ukrainian history stories I heard around my grandparents’ dinner table. Yet they never showed themselves beyond the homes of family and friends.


Until recent events, the strength of Ukrainian pride, as well as its folk art, folk dance, and folktale traditions, were not something that the world really knew. So what was a writer to do but to write it herself?


Concerning Larissa and Ira, something that I’ve always emphatically believed is that no matter what messages come from the media and mouths around us, women can be strong in countless ways.


Larissa and Ira are sisters, yet they are often opposites who clash. They don’t always see each other’s strengths for what they are. They don’t always see their own possibilities amid their hectic lives.


Yet, together with their grandmother, Vira, I wanted them to demonstrate this profound truth. Meticulously organized moms can be powerhouses; women who follow nothing but their gut can have the brave answers others don’t see; women who disregard the roles they are supposed to play can be world-changers.


There is no one definition of a strong woman. There are many. It’s an idea for us all to respect and remember.


Twist my Ukrainian heritage with this concept of women’s strength and The Baba Yaga Mask was born.

Q: On your website, you write, “When I signed my publishing deal, I never imagined that my dual-timeline story, with chapters shifting between the present day and 1941 Ukraine (just outside of Lviv) would be so timely.” Can you say more about how your novel connects to Ukraine's situation today?


A: Just over 80 years ago, Ukraine faced a different invasion by foreign forces that challenged its existence, its history, and its cultural truth. Brothers, fathers, and husband went to fight. Sisters, mothers, and wives had to choose how they would enable their families to survive. These words could have been written about World War II, or they could have been written about 2022.


When my publisher first showed me the book cover design for The Baba Yaga Mask, I thought the colors of the Ukrainian flag would be my special secret—something the world may not see but that I would hold dear.


But now the world knows the colors of the Ukrainian flag. They know where Ukraine is on a map. And do I have a story for you to expand your knowledge of the past and the present dramatically.


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: Baba Yaga is an Eastern European folktale witch that has always fascinated me because she can be a terror or a wish-granter, depending on the story and depending on what she feels the hero or heroine deserves. She’s a force that has no problem tearing the world apart if that’s what is needed to make it a better place.


When I thought of my character Vira, who my readers see as a teen in 1941 Ukraine and as a grandmother (baba) in the present-day, I adored this concept of a woman who loved the folktales of her childhood and embraced the idea that being absolutely terror is sometimes what the world needs.


The moment this idea struck, I knew Vira inside and out, as a girl and as an old woman. And as she hides behind this mask, a literal mask as well as a figurative one, my plot—and my book title—came to life.


Q: How did you research the novel, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: I dove into library databases and worked with academics across the United States and Europe, because while my story is fiction, historical and cultural truths are important. Different Ukrainian regions and different Ukrainian families may have different experiences, but I needed to understand as much as possible to honor my goals.


I had known about the murders and targeting of the Ukrainian intelligencia—the educated, the artists, and the community leadership, among many others—yet I didn’t realize the depth of the Ukrainian underground movement during World War II. I didn’t know of how Lviv was a center for this movement or how the Lonsky prison there once held political prisoners.


The whispers and remembrances of so many tales I had been told as a child began to come together as I examined the historical record and the greater world story.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have two answers to that question—one fiction and one nonfiction—but since the nonfiction has a publication date set, I’ll speak to that one here.


I wasn’t done with the folktale witch Baba Yaga, and apparently she wasn’t done with me. I’ve been surprised how many people hadn’t heard of this fascinating and complex Eastern European character, especially as she seems to pop up in modern culture frequently, from comics to movies to video games to books and more.


Beyond her fascinating tales, the present day can learn so much from her history, her naturalism, her feminism, and her questionable morality. Modern life sometimes feels torn between hope and horror. What better time to discuss Baba Yaga?


Becoming Baba Yaga: The Eastern European Witch Colliding with Modernity is coming from Red Wheel / Weiser Books in the fall of 2024. I’m thrilled to further introduce this old witch to the world.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Everything I have published, whether it is fiction or nonfiction, centers on the idea that well-written words and well-told stories can change the world. Maybe it’s a tale from your family’s past; maybe it’s an old story that’s always been a favorite; maybe it’s an email you want to write to your boss pitching something important to you.


My first three books, Get a Grip on Your Grammar, The Novel Editing Workbook, and The Family Story Workbook, all speak to the power of communications and storytelling—empowering the reader in their own writing, whether a professional communication, that book they’ve always wanted to write, or that family story they always wanted to preserve.


The Baba Yaga Mask turns to fiction, yet its drive comes from the same place. And I have many more books planned in a similar vein, more book club fiction, more nonfiction, more language and storytelling secrets to share via Instagram and my “On Words and Onwards” newsletter, and we’ll see what else comes next.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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