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An Interview with Yaroslav Barsukov

Today, I’m chatting with Yaroslav Barsukov, whose book, Tower of Mud and Straw, I reviewed last October, which has just been announced on the Nebula Award shortlist!

DV: Tell us a little about yourself and your writing background.

Yaroslav Barsukov: I’m a Russian living in Vienna, writing in English 🙂 It’s like an answer to a riddle the Sphinx never posed to Oedipus: who talks Russian in the morning, German in the afternoon, and English at night?

Prior to Tower, I published some short fiction (here’s a list: https://www.barsukov.com/published-works). Many of these stories share themes with the novel: they’re about failed relationships and coming to terms with loss, real or imagined.

DV: What was the inspiration for your novel?

YB: First, the huge Nazi-era anti-aircraft towers of Vienna. You have to see them to believe they really exist: mammoth bolts of concrete, half-screwed into the ground by some giant, looming over baroque gardens where Mozart might’ve walked his dog.

Second, spending seven years of my life in the USSR and hearing all about the Cold War. After all, the tower of the novel is nothing more than a piece of lethal technology, and in that sense no different from our world’s nuclear weapons.

On the human level, it’s a story about how our past relationships shape the future ones, about wanting to get back to a certain place in your past. It’s driven by my own desire to return to my Avalon, of course, which I’ll never be able to do.

DV: Your characters are fully formed, with hopes, wishes, and backstories. And while many authors have main characters with those traits, your secondary characters share that depth. Did you use any tips or tricks to develop them so fully?

YB: My editor, B. Morris Allen, once gave me the following advice regarding characters: make them want something. Remember the Joker from The Dark Knight? “Nobody panics when things go according to plan, even if the plan is horrifying.” People get invested in characters with a goal; they get doubly invested when that goal is hard to achieve.

This is why villains sometimes appear more charismatic than the protagonists: it’s often their plan that sets the story in motion (and it’s a difficult plan, too, obviously, or the book would end on chapter 1), whereas the protagonist’s role may be just to stop the antagonist. Which immediately becomes less interesting! You get drawn into the evil scheme, and on a certain level, you want to see it come together.

This interest, like any kind of empathy in human beings, is based on mirror neurons. The brain reads about something, the brain models it, the brain’s owner gets invested.

In Tower, even the folks on the narrative periphery don’t just have goals, they’re driven: Patrick is terrified of losing his position and wants his adversary dead, the duke strives to prevent a war and shake off the leash the queen has placed on him.

Another thing I’m not afraid of is letting my secondary characters drive the plot. It’s Brielle’s mistake [mild spoilers for Tower’s Part I] that kick-starts the story. It’s her fear of admitting that mistake that keeps the story going. It’s Lena’s belief in an old legend that leads to the ending.

DV: What rituals or routines do you have around your writing process?

YB: I recall an interview with Philip Glass in which he said that at some point in his life, he’d decided to only let inspiration come to him at a certain time of day; I think it was between 10 am and 12 pm.

I have something like that, too, only out of necessity: I write mainly after my kiddo goes to sleep, which would be dangerously close to midnight. Sometimes I would have a glass of wine or some brandy or rum before venturing into the writing world.

Music helps keep the muse from gliding away. Instrumental stuff—art rock, contemporary jazz, or Classical/Baroque. Often a certain piece comes to define the mood of the story for me, providing me with a shortcut from the day-job world into the imagined universe.

DV: What are you working on next?

YB: With Tower shortlisted for the Nebulas, I’m writing a sequel!

I’ve outlined the second book almost a year ago, together with the first. Tower’s finale had been designed so that the novella could stand on its own, but also so that a continuation would feel absolutely organic. There will be next to no new elements, just further development and exploration of the existing ones. In a way, I’m sad people didn’t get to read both parts back-to-back.

BTW, just as Tower was eligible for the Nebulas, it’s also eligible for the Hugos, the Locus Awards, and the World Fantasy Awards!

Thanks, Yaroslav! I’ll be cheering for you for upcoming awards!


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