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Interview with Olesya Salnikova Gilmore (THE WITCH AND THE TSAR)


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Olesya-Salnikova-Gilmore.jpg?resize=150%Olesya Salnikova Gilmore was born in Moscow, Russia, raised in the U.S., and graduated from Pepperdine University with a BA in English/political science, and from Northwestern School of Law with a JD. She practiced litigation at a large law firm for several years before pursuing her dream of becoming an author. She is most happy writing historical fiction and fantasy inspired by Eastern European folklore. She lives in a wooded, lakeside suburb of Chicago with her husband and daughter. The Witch and the Tsar is her debut novel.

 

 

 

Welcome to the Hive Olesya, and congratulations on the release of your debut novel! How does it feel to know your book is out there on shelves?

Thank you! It really is an incredible, out of body experience to see a book I wrote on the shelves! But I must confess, I still can’t really believe it. One of the most unforgettable memories from release was going into a bookstore I visited as a young girl, seeing my book staring back at me at the very front, and signing those first few copies, with my husband and parents cheering me on! It still brings tears to my eyes, it was so special.  

 

What a very special moment that must have been!

What can readers expect from The Witch and the Tsar?

A different perspective on the notorious Slavic fairy tale personage of Baba Yaga. But she isn’t the old, evil hag we know. She is a half goddess, half human healer, but first and foremost, she is a woman. Readers can also expect a real world, as the novel is set in real-life 16th century Russia, with real though fictionalized historical events and characters. And they can also expect lots of romance and adventure in the vein of some of my favorite adventure novels, by Rafael Sabatini, Baroness Orczy, and Alexander Dumas. 

 

The-Witch-and-the-Tsar-Olesya-Salnikova-There’s a lot to unpack with this novel, so let’s start with the Slavic fairytale root of Baba Yaga. Retellings are very popular right now, with Greek ones cornering the market somewhat with their feminist takes on the masculine hero stories. 

What were your aims for your own retelling?

You said it right there! After reading Madeline Miller’s Circe, I had the idea to tackle a retelling of a witch with a major presence in my life, Baba Yaga.

That would explain the strong Circe vibes I’ve been getting from it!

In the vein of the Greek retellings, my aim was to show a different side of her character that maybe people have not heard about before. This idea is rooted in the fact that many scholars believe the Baba Yaga we know is a version or a descendant of an earth and fertility goddess that ancient Slavs worshipped. I instantly became interested in the concept of how a goddess was turned into a witch – and an old, ugly one at that – seeking to reframe Baba Yaga by imagining what she could have been like if she were a goddess and a human woman both, before the rumors and tales had reduced her to a silly old crone. I wanted to reinvent her as a living, breathing woman, extraordinary yet relatable, multi-dimensional, and most importantly, real. And I would call her simply Yaga.

 

On a similar note to my last question, there is a strong feminist message in a woman having to disguise her wisdom in lies and ritual?

There is certainly that message because that is what women have had to do for centuries. To hide their wisdom, their intellectual curiosity, their ambitions and interests. Or they were not only branded as witches and sorceresses and other evil beings, but put on trial (both in court and in the arena of public opinion) to defend their beliefs, and their lives. It is another reason why I decided to approach Baba Yaga the way I did: to show a woman who has been unfairly judged by the society of her day simply because she is different in not conforming to its social mores and expectations. When Yaga first comes to Moscow, there is that element of disguise; she knows she must look like she’s conforming because that is survival at Tsar Ivan the Terrible’s court. She then must work very hard throughout the novel to become at peace with herself and to fully embrace being a powerful witch and woman, unapologetically and without disguise.

 

It’s a similar theme to that found in Madeline Miller’s Circe, as we’ve discussed, but also in the works of Angela Carter. Outside of the original fairy tale, what were your other influences? 

You just named two of my biggest ones! I love what Madeline Miller did for Circe; in fact, it was after reading her novel that I realized I could retell not only a classic story, a classic character, but the tale of a supposed villainess. I love Angela Carter for her delightful subversiveness and dream-like language, which I try to emulate, as well as the dark fairy tale storytelling tone of Catherynne M. Valente. Another influence was Katherine Arden for paving the way for Slavic folklore retellings and medieval settings. Other influences, as per above, were the classical adventure writers and poets like Aleksander Pushkin, who wrote about huts spinning on chicken legs in the woods. Lastly, I must mention Philippa Gregory, who was the first author to draw me into modern historical fiction centered on women and therefore, retellings in their own right.

 

Ah yes! Now you mention Gregory, your Kremlin certainly has the dark, claustrophobic feel of her Tudor court!

Let’s talk about the importance of the historical setting. What made you choose the sixteenth century?

I wanted to set my novel in a specific historical time period because Yaga felt more real to me this way, if I could envision her living in the real world–our world. Medieval times came quite naturally to my story. I’ve always been obsessed with this time period, starting with my mania for the Tudors of England, the Valois of France, the Ruriks of Russia. And I chose Ivan as my antagonist because he was the first true Russian tsar. He is also a very famous tsar in Russia, arguably as part of the popular culture as Baba Yaga herself. He was an autocratic ruler, was paranoid and constantly felt his power threatened, and was incredibly superstitious. It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility that he would invite a witch and healer like Yaga to his royal court. So, the sixteenth century it was.

 

Your portrayal of Tsar Ivan as he becomes increasingly volatile on his path to becoming Ivan the Terrible – how important was it to you to hold up a mirror to current events through a historical figure? 

When I started the book in the fall of 2018, I wasn’t specifically writing to current events. Rather, I was focused on the time period and my portrayal of Ivan and his rule as I saw them. After all, Russian history is peppered with autocratic rulers who frequently oppressed their people–with a realpolitik way of ruling that some historians believe was a result of centuries of Mongol occupation. Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Ivan’s character and rule has taken on a deeper meaning, and a new kind of relevancy. It is more important than ever to tell these stories from the past and to reveal parts of Russian history the Western world may not know to illuminate the present, to help understand and give context to the tragedy unfolding in the region today, even in some small way.

 

What are your thoughts on the current popularity of mythological retellings and the importance of their evolution? 

These stories are critical because they give folkloric and mythological characters, as well as historical figures, lives and voices they did not previously have. What we know about most women from history is they lived, they gave birth, and they died. Folkloric and mythological characters are similar in that their roles were strictly reduced to idealistic “good” heroine or hag-like “evil” witch, bit players, caricatures.

baba-yaga.jpeg?resize=251%2C175&ssl=1

Ivan Bilibin, Baba Yaga, illustration in 1911 from “The tale of the three tsar’s wonders and of Ivashka, the priest’s son” (A. S. Roslavlev)

Baba Yaga, for example, is frequently portrayed as a figure of ridicule and laughter, not to mention a villainous old woman and cannibal. She is told what to do by the male characters in her own stories, has body parts made of iron, and is even said to take on male characteristics and various deformities. She never has a voice of her own. In Russian fairy tale film adaptations, Baba Yaga is even played by a man.

I believe readers are tired of this simplistic and frankly sexist view of women. We not only wish to give these women their voices, but to humanize them, to make them real and multidimensional, to give them their stories back by finding new perspectives and approaches to them. It is time for their stories to take center stage.

A necessary component of this evolution is for readers to move on from their entrenched notions of what these female characters should be and envision what they could be. There are some readers who have questioned why I chose to portray Baba Yaga the way I have, lamenting the fact that all they wanted was the hag they know from folklore. But isn’t this a reflection of the same notions and beliefs that we have been taught to embrace since we were children? As the tagline for my book says, “Sometimes the true story is cloaked in lies to hide its power.” 

It is important for readers to open themselves up to the possibility that not all is as it seems. And that truth may be more layered, more hidden, and more beautiful than we ever imagined.

 

I whole heartedly agree with you, that’s a fantastic answer!

Let’s talk about magic for a moment. It’s an important ingredient in any fantasy novel, but is usually more ethereal in myths. How have you approached magic in The Witch and the Tsar?

As with everything in the book, I have tried to make the magic real, accessible, and most importantly, the kind that might exist–if one looks hard enough. To do this, I used as its foundation real Slavic pagan and folk magic, ritual, and superstitions, even some that my family has whispered about for years!

 

If you were a witch who possessed magic, what would your affinity be? What kinds of spells would you cast?

I love Yaga’s magic–it is delightfully wild and witchy, steeped as it is in herbs, charms, and blood rituals. But it’s also very real and tangible. Most of all, I love the idea of helping women. I have always joked that if I were a doctor like my sister, I would want to treat women most of all. So, I love how Yaga comes through for the ladies, not only in times of illness, but also in helping with their love lives, their marriages, their heartaches, their babies, and so on. I find these issues to be the most fascinating, and ones where spellcasting would be particularly useful and selfishly good to know–and they come with a dash of gossip and drama as well!

 

One of our favourite questions here on the Fantasy Hive: which fantastical creature would you ride into battle and why?

This is a fantastic question I’ve never heard before! A fire-breathing dragon, or zmey in Russian folklore, would be pretty unbeatable, for who could beat a creature breathing flames? But an alkonost from Slavic mythology would also be cool. The alkonost is a fierce creature with the head of a woman and the body of a bird. They can fly and are known for their beguiling siren-like singing. We would just put everyone in battle under our spell!

   

A wonderful insight into your tactics!

Tell us about a book you love. Any hidden gems?

I love, love Stardust by Neil Gaiman. It is a small book, but is quite literally enchanting. The fairy tale world Gaiman creates is filled with a magic that breathes with life, whimsical and entertaining characters, and a romance that takes your breath away. It is fantastical and gritty and charming all at once. And I love the film adaptation, too!

 

Can you tell us a little something about your current work(s) in progress? Have you any upcoming projects which you can share?

I am thrilled to be working on my second novel with Harper Voyager UK, a historical gothic horror tale in the vein of A Gentleman in Moscow meets The Hacienda, in which two sisters risk all to save each other and their family from their ancestral house bent on bringing back a royal past not only dead, but dangerous to remember in post-revolutionary Moscow.

 

Finally, what is the one thing you hope readers take away from your writing?

Magic–and truth–is found where you least expect it.

  

Thank you so much for joining us today!

Thank you so much for having me!

 

The Witch and the Tsar will be released on the 8th of December 2022.

You can pre-order your copy HERE

 

 

Olesya-Salnikova-Gilmore-FEATURE.jpg?res

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