Yaroslav Barsukov is the Nebula-nominated author of Tower of Mud and Straw, the new genre-defying novella from Metaphorosis books (though with a heavy element of gaslamp fantasy in this humble reviewer’s opinion). Described as ‘a Tower of Babel story with a hero haunted by his fate’, it tells the tale of Shae Ashcroft, a disgraced government minister exiled to the hinterlands to oversee the construction of an ill-fated anti airship tower. Have a gander at my review and go buy yourself a copy, it’s fantastic!
Hi Yaroslav, thanks so much for doing the Q&A! First off how are you, what have you been up to recently and how has the book release been going?
Hi JonBob, and thank you for inviting me! You’ve got a great blog here. The release has been going wonderful so far—with the Nebula nomination, a Kirkus Star, and the reviewer community being kind to me. I loved your review, by the way—very eloquent and, above all, entertaining. To paraphrase Agent Cooper, a damn fine text!
I’ve seen you described in some introductions as a connoisseur of strong alcoholic beverages. I’m partial to a good Negroni myself. What’s your bevvy of choice? Are you any good at mixing cocktails?
No, but I’m adept at consuming them 🙂 I can only mix a Cuba libre. Personal favorites, mojitos and piña coladas, are nuclear physics to me.
This is one thing I miss the most in this quarantine—drinking a blend of Fernet-Branca and Jägermeister in the Viennese cafe that looks like an old Chicago building on the outside and a steampunk ship on the inside.
Deprived of such luxuries, I consume ungodly quantities of rum. That’s what I did while writing Tower! Can it account for the book’s unusual flavor? You be the judge:
One thing I’d like to delve into before moving on to your new book is your reading experience growing up in the Soviet Union. What books were you reading growing up and how has that experience shaped your writing?
Well, I’ve only spent the first seven years of my life in the USSR. I was born right between Brezhnev and Gorbachev, and by the end of 1991 it was Russia already. And even before the dissolution of the Union, the war wasn’t that cold anymore, so I’d been exposed to Western literature.
My papa subscribed to a magazine called Tekhnika Molodezhi (“Technology for the Youth”), and they serialized a lot of American SF/F. Hamilton’s The Star Kings, Le Guin’s Rocannon’s World, Clarke’s 2010. It was like a sip of soda in summer, yet apparently not for everyone. I still, to this day, remember a letter to the editor the magazine published right after The Star Kings:
Perestroika surely does not absolve us of responsibility for a loss of vigilance. Was there any need to open our gates to such a “Trojan horse”? Who recommended this novel to you? Who specifically decided to publish it? Can none of you really see what a corrupting effect this “ideological landmine” may have on the formation of the spiritual world of young people?
Yeah, it was the end of 1988. In 1989, they managed to publish 2010 on the second try—the first attempt had taken place in 1984, the year I was born, and had led to the sacking of the Editor-in-Chief. See, Clarke had dedicated his novel to Sakharov, a famous dissident: a big no-no in the Soviet Union.
Reading Rocannon’s World in Tekhnika Molodezhi resulted in a lifelong infatuation with Le Guin’s prose. But it wasn’t only American literature; Tolstoy’s War and Peace remains a personal favorite; I loved Dumas’ The Three Musketeers—could reread that book endlessly—and I read some Slavic historical fiction. Uleb the Hard Hand, that sort of thing. Feels almost like another life now.
On to the book itself then. For those who haven’t read it, what is Tower of Mud and Straw about? Give us your pitch.
It’s about a disgraced minister who arrives in the province where he must oversee the construction of a mammoth, two thousand foot-tall anti-airship tower. The tower is being built using half-magical technology brought by refugees from another world, and the hero finds out that the construction has profound consequences for both realities.
But at its core, it’s a story about wanting to return to a certain place in your past, and how our erstwhile relationships influence and define those to come.
In my review I described it as an atmospheric blend of gaslamp fantasy and cosmic horror, but I don’t think that quite does it justice. What would your response be if I asked you to define the genre of Tower of Mud and Straw?
Your guess was a good one, though. I don’t think the novella has a genre in the strictest sense of the word. In the interview with Queen’s Book Asylum, I said that the genre-specific elements were there mostly for stylistic purposes—but having thought about it since, that’s not the whole truth. The truth is, in December 2019, I sat down and wrote a detailed outline for the novella in two days. And when you compare this outline to the final product, there have been very few changes. It’s as if this world really exists somewhere, “tulips” and airships and Mimic Tower and all, and I caught a glimpse of it.
One thing I’ve been dying to ask, how on earth did Miltos Yerolemou (aka Game of Thrones’ very own Syrio Forel) come to be the narrator for the audiobook?
A mutual acquaintance introduced us! I’d been a fan of his since his appearance on Thrones, and I had this wild idea of him reading the novella. I’d given him the prologue and asked to consider doing the narration—and a few days later, he got back to me and said he loved the writing. The rest, as they say, is history 🙂
You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that the eponymous tower is inspired by the Nazi-era anti-aircraft towers still dotted around modern Vienna. Does that mean the tower was the first thing to crystallise in your mind when you imagined the story? And if not what process did the story take from conception to the page?
The first thing to crystallize in the waking world, yes. As mentioned in one interview, the novella came out of a dream I had had. But there was no tower, just a feeling and a vague idea; dreams are always like that. When I sat down to write the outline, I immediately thought of the Vienna towers.
If I was forced to highlight one thing I enjoyed most about the book, it’s the way you convey the heavy, repressive atmosphere of the world. Did the legacy of those Nazi-era towers contribute towards the repressive atmosphere of Owenbeg and was that mood something you consciously set out to write?
First of all, thank you so much! And you’re spot on, the Nazi strongholds defined the mood; although, as Kirkus has correctly intuited, the novella’s tower is more of a metaphor for the Cold War’s arms race. Larger-than-life, lethal technology and the pervasive atmosphere of “will-they-or-won’t-they-attack” are lifted straight from the Khrushchev-era US/USSR relations.
From my reading of the book, one of the major themes is coming to terms with loss. Throughout the story Shea comes back to the death of his sister and the grief he’s lived with ever since. Is this a theme you’ve explored in your previous writing? Would you even agree this is a major theme from your perspective?
Without question. Failed relationships and coming to terms with loss are the key themes in my writing. My short story “Your Grief Is Important To Us” (published by the late, great Mike Resnick) is about a recent widower who gets dragged into an interview to find him a perfect match. “Memory Is a Rumor” centers on a family about to lose their son—whether they realize it or not—to a “personality transplant” procedure, and a doctor who tries to talk them out of it. In my very first published story, “The Road to Babel,” the hero is betrayed by the woman he loves—although the fact of the betrayal is somewhat debatable—and pays the price with his hearing and sight.
I subscribe to Sartre’s statement that “hell is other people.” This quote from No Exit is often misinterpreted as meaning “other people suck.” What he’s really saying is that while human relationships can be beautiful and may take you to cloud nine, when they go sour, they go sour big time; and there’s no greater pain in life than the one others cause, directly or otherwise.
What did you find were the easiest and the most challenging things to write in the book? Is there any aspect you’re particularly proud of?
The easiest part for me is always the dialogue. We, each of us, practice writing it twelve hours a day when we speak; it’s built in; everything else we acquire.
The most challenging part was the beginning (the prologue). What we have in the book is the fifth iteration. I know the ending before I start writing, but the beginning is like a chess game. In the first few paragraphs, you need to:
- Hook the reader.
- Introduce the principal character and make the reader care.
- Introduce the setting and, ideally, the speculative elements so that the reader knows what to expect.
How do you do number 3 without resorting to info-dumps? How do you do number 2 without sucker punches (e.g., starting with the penultimate scene and working your way backwards)? How do you do number 1 at all?
I think Tower’s prologue achieves all three, and I’m immensely proud of that 🙂
Finally, can you give us any hints about what you’re working on now, any ideas bubbling away in your head or stories you’d like to write in the future?
Well, now that Tower has been shortlisted for the Nebulas, looks like I’m writing a sequel!
Actually, I’ve outlined the second book almost a year ago, together with the first. It’ll pick up a few hours after Shea’s fall and just keep going. Tower’s finale had been designed so that the book 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.
Thanks again Yaroslav, it was great to have you on the blog!
Thank you for the great questions, and see you on the other side of the dream!
Congratulations to Yaroslav for the well-deserved Nebula nomination! Tower of Mud and Straw is also eligible for the Hugos, the Locus Awards and the World Fantasy Awards in the novella category. If you enjoyed this interview and want more reviews and bookish chat make sure to follow the blog and never miss a post!