The Bear and the Nightingale is my favorite book of 2017 so far.
I knew it would be great before I even started reading it. Terry Brooks told me as much. Over the years, Brooks has recommended about ten books to me at varying times, each one resonating so strongly with him that he calls me just to make sure I not only know about the book but that I need to read it as soon as possible. These books have ranged from The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman to The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. He doesn’t recommend often but when he does I pay attention.
It was about a year ago when he called me about The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. “Shawn, do you remember how magical it was reading Novik’s Uprooted?” he asked. “I felt the same way reading The Bear and the Nightingale.”
Brooks had received an early manuscript of the book and I had to wait until July to get my copy at San Diego Comicon. It was worth every bit of the wait. Arden has written a powerful tale of old Russian gods and the One God of Christianity. Of family and jealousy. And of one girl’s life set against the harsh cruelty of winter.
Here is an interview with Arden about The Bear and the Nightingale.
Unbound Worlds: The Bear and the Nightingale is in fine bookstores this week. It’s a magical story of fairy tales and religion, winter and demons. First, tell readers about the book and its main character, Vasilisa?
Katherine Arden: The Bear and the Nightingale is set in Rus’ (Muscovy) during the mid-14th century. It is partially based on historical fact, and partially based on Slavic folklore and mythology. Its main character, a girl named Vasilisa, is the youngest daughter of a minor aristocrat, a boyar and his part-royal wife, who live on a remote estate north of Moscow.
UW: The book feels like a living fairy tale — as if I’m witnessing something very old for the first time. What are the seeds for The Bear and the Nightingale? What inspired it? Are you Russian? If not, how did you bring Rus to life?
KA: Any novel is a distillation of a lifetime’s worth of the author’s experiences, and The Bear and the Nightingale is no different. I loved Russian fairy tales as a child, and I read a lot of them. I lived in Moscow for a year as a nineteen-year-old, and again when I was 22. I have studied Russian, lived in the country, read a lot of Russian literature, watched films, cartoons, etc. I was a Russian major in college. When I first decided to write a novel based on a Russian fairy tale, I already had many years’ worth of experiences with Russia to draw on.
A particular catalyst for Bear was a five-year-old Russian girl I met while I was working on a farm in Hawaii. She lived on the farm next door, and was just such an amazing person — fierce, vivid, joyful. She became the model for my heroine, Vasilisa.
UW: There are numerous lines of conflict in The Bear and the Nightingale but my favorite is the tension between the old gods of Russia and the One God of Christianity. That conflict informs every piece of fiction I write. Why was it important for you to have it in this book?
KA: Well, I studied a concept in college called dvoeveriye or dual belief, which is an important notion in Russian historiography. This is the idea that Orthodox Christianity and Slavic folk beliefs existed side-by-side in the Russian countryside for centuries, with peasants believing equally in God, and in their domovoi, or household guardian. I always wondered if these two kinds of faith could really coexist so long without tension, and then I decided to ask myself the question of what would happen if there was tension. That hypothetical conflict really helped me craft Bear.
UW: The United States is experiencing a cold winter this year, just in time for the release of The Bear and the Nightingale. Did you set out to have winter almost be a character itself in the book? Why is the season important for the overall story?
KA: Russia is a country with such extreme weather — cold, heat, thunderstorms, blizzards — that it is nearly impossible to tell a story set in Russia without the weather intruding and influencing the story — kind of like a character. So the nature of the story I was telling dictated that choice.
Also there is the fact that Frost personified is a character in the novel, and I tried to create a connection between the character of Morozko and the wintry countryside where so much of the book’s action takes place. So I think that helped create the sense that the weather — especially the cold — had force and presence in the book.
UW: What do you hope readers find in The Bear and the Nightingale?
KA: The great thing about books, is no two readers ever read the same story, even if it is the same text. I have no expectations for what readers might get out of Bear — and I believe that each reader will get something different out of the novel, depending on their lives, their personalities, their individual makeup. In writing the book, I tried to tell a good story to please myself, and one of the main pleasures of publishing has been seeing what different readers find in the text.
UW: What’s next? Will you be writing a new novel set in this magical world? Or on to something new? When can we expect it?
KA: There will be two more novels set in the world of The Bear and the Nightingale. Book 2 is really close to finished, and Book 3 is still in the early stages of drafting. I can’t wait to share them both!
I am so pleased to hear about the two sequels. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden is in fine bookstores now!
I highly recommend it.