Interviews have always been my favorite thing to do as a book blogger. I love writing and research, but connecting with authors first-hand and hearing the mechanics and reasoning behind their storytelling magic is always fascinating.
Today, we welcome Yaroslav Barsukov to the Asylum to discuss his latest novella, Tower of Mud and Straw, a story that blends science-fiction, fantasy, and even the atmosphere of the gothic genre.
Check out the rest of the tour for more about both the author and his work.
After leaving his ball and chain at the workplace, Yaroslav Barsukov goes on to write stories that deal with things he himself, thankfully, doesn’t have to deal with.
He’s a software engineer and a connoisseur of strong alcoholic beverages—but also, surprisingly, a member of SFWA and Codex (how did that happen?). His stories have appeared in Galaxy’s Edge, Nature: Futures, and StarShipSofa, among others.
At some point in his life, he’s left one former empire only to settle in another. And here’s his SFWA Profile.
Welcome to the Asylum, Yaroslav. It’s a pleasure to have you here. This is the part Timy usually invites our guests to sit and relax, but I prefer to have them squirming at our macabre collection of suspicious-looking jars strategically displayed in the sitting room. I’m joking…Well, partly. Do feel free to sit down, uh, just mind any stray blade hidden here or there. As an introduction, would you care to ask the main character of Tower of Mud and Straw to introduce you and your book?
Yare: Thank you! Feels great to be here—and hey, an introduction’s a wonderful idea. Shea, your time to shine.
Shea Ashcroft: We’re like twin brothers, me and him.
Yare: No, we’re not.
Shea Ashcroft: Please don’t interrupt, will you? We’re both machines for dreams and regrets.
Yare: And the book?
Shea Ashcroft: It’s about a tower built of those regrets. The largest defensive structure in history, propped up with devices brought by refugees from another world. It’s about longing to return to a place in my past that keeps pulling me back. Or wait—should I say “me” or should I say “us”?
Yare: I don’t know, Shea. I don’t know. Maybe it’s us.
Onto important matters, shall we? Your author bio reveals that you’re “a connoisseur of strong alcoholic beverages”. Before we talk further, pick your favorite poison from our liquor cabinets (and remember to read the tiny labels. Some of these are actual poison. For scientific purposes).
Must be Ararat. A wonderful, velvet-smooth cognac… ugh, sorry, brandy. Only the French are allowed to say “cognac,” and Ararat is Armenian. We do say “коньяк” in Russian though, mainly because we’re less concerned with copyright laws—did you know we’ve got our own Soviet Wizard of Oz? It’s called The Wizard of the Emerald City. In it, a pioneer girl joins forces with a metal statue and a mummy of Lenin… Just kidding. The narrative actually follows Baum’s book.
I like your version well enough :p Tower of Mud and Straw is your longer-format debut, so to speak, but you’re well-versed in short fiction, and you’ve even worked as a narrator for PodCastle. How have all those experiences culminated into you writing and publishing Tower of Mud and Straw?
All those experiences—even the narration gig, although that one’s pretty tangential—they help you gain confidence in your voice. Real voice, writing voice—the brain doesn’t discriminate. In the final analysis, this is what makes your story shine: not the dialogue, not the plot, not the language, but the amount of confidence your prose exudes.
The novella itself felt like a culmination of years’ worth of internal work I didn’t realize I’d been doing. Looking back on my short fiction now, the themes were there, germinating. The sister popped up in the last story I wrote before Tower, “Where Lilacs Do Not Bloom” (published in Grantville Gazette). A character named Lena appeared in two stories—both unpublished—and in both cases her theme was that of a failed relationship. By the way, for a long time, I’d been afraid to write about another Lena—I honestly thought the name had been cursed for me, that the story wouldn’t sell if I opened the door for Lena again. Turns out, all I had to do was double down! As you know, there are two Lenas in the novella.
“The Blue Room, Said the Wishmaker” was about craving something wholly superfluous and developing myopia for the things in front of you.
Funnily enough, “The Road to Babel,” my very first published piece (and my second written professionally) featured a woman from a technologically advanced race who falls in love with the main character; much like the Tower’s Lena, she had a hidden agenda.
What main themes did you craft into the story and were there any parts that were more difficult to develop?
As already mentioned, two themes had been prominent in my work even before Tower: failed relationships and grasping for a gilded thing. The novella’s title alludes to the latter, of course.
But what I really wanted to explore was how past relationships shape the future ones. Are we always looking for something we lost? Do we learn to search for the same things in others, again and again? Having two love stories would’ve been boring, that’s why you have Lena the sister and Lena the lover (in my correspondence with my editor, the wonderful B. Morris Allen, they were code-named Lena I and Lena II; these emails make for an interesting reading—maybe we should publish them someday). Even though one relationship is sexual and the other platonic, there are clear parallels—love is love, and both women are strong, in certain ways stronger than Shea himself. And they have a clearer, purer vision. They don’t suffer from myopia.
One reviewer has described Shea as having “a gross, weird fetish for his dead sister.” I was reading that review (a very eloquent one, by the way) and caught myself thinking—damn, I’ve missed some wonderful promotional opportunities! All kidding aside—and I realize I’m hurting the sales by saying this—there’s no fetish. I think Game of Thrones has irrevocably corrupted the public consciousness, teaching us to look for incest at every turn.
What was difficult was to weave Lena the sister into the narrative without distracting from Shea’s struggles and without spoiling the third act. It’s a novella, after all, albeit one that is ridiculously close in length to a novel (37.000 words, whereas a novel is defined by SFWA as 40.000 words or more), so you don’t have the time for Martinesque ten-page road picnics.
Being a lazy hack, I first came up with Shea having dreams of the dead Lena—but Morris, God bless him, shot me down. “They seem awfully prophetic.” Hmm, I said. What if Shea writes letters to his sister? At least we suspect they’re letters, and then at the end of the second act, when Shea and Aidan are aboard the airship, Aidan catches a glimpse of Shea’s writing and goes, “Who’s X?”, to which he responds, “My dead sister. We used to write each other letters when we were kids.” “And what, you still do?” “Helps me keep focus.” Aidan comments on how weird that is; Shea goes, “Says a guy with a mechanical hand.”
I think we both can agree this approach would’ve been too convoluted. So in the end, I settled on imaginary conversations. They underline the poignancy of certain moments, and they read almost like free verse. This creates a powerful sense of longing, a pull that serves as a heartbeat for the whole story.
But yes, it’s the third iteration of the idea.
Often, when writing our reviews, we bloggers tend to categorize a book into a genre or more. I realized that doing that with Tower was more challenging than usual because of all the elements that seem to borrow from a few genres, creating a very interesting mash I loved. What genre(s) would you say best fits Tower?
I think you’ve managed to get as close to the truth as is physically possible. A Gaslamp Science Fantasy. And perhaps this guess is correct. There are some strands of magic realism DNA in how the supernatural is approached in an everyday, almost workmanlike manner. There are some hints of Lovecraftian horror in the end. All in all, the genre-specific elements are mostly there for stylistic purposes, to create atmosphere. Could I have done without the airships? Sure. Would it have been that cool? Nay!
Oh, I agree. Airships make everything cooler. Because there’s such an interesting blend of elements that seem to come from all these different genres, this story quickly becomes an entertaining experience, packing a lot in its short length. How would you pitch Tower, in Twitter’s so-coveted “tag” format?
I’m no Kyle MacLachlan, but I’ll give it a try.
Fall from grace.
Tragedy in the past.
Refugees from another world.
Confronting the past.
Origin of species.
Definitely many of my favorite elements of the book!
Throughout the story, Tower shifts seamlessly between third-person narration and a kind of epistolary narrative that focuses on the aforementioned intimate “letters” Shea imaginarily writes to his sister. Was there any specific reason you chose to flow between these distinct styles, and what freedoms or challenges did you face during these shifts?
Dialogue comes easy to me. It comes easy to everyone—we practice writing it twelve hours a day when we speak. Descriptions and imagery are more calculated in nature, more precise; they require some planning. Dialogue flows straight: you hear it, and then you write it down. If you’re weird like me, you may even act it out to see if it works.
Epistolary form is the same. Writing it feels liberating. I’ve already compared it to free verse; same as in poetry, you don’t need to explain all the metaphors or go in-depth on events a character mentions. The key thing here is the feeling.
Tower captured my attention right off the bat because it has such an intense atmospheric storytelling quality, which only develops the further you go into the story. I loved the way you painted the environment, and how you played with memory. Loved your metaphors, melding scenes from the very first page with others further ahead. It made this novella full of “ahhh” moments for me. How do you carve such vivid images and analogies with your narration and is there a process in creating these characters who feel so intimate?
First of all, thank you so much for your kind words!
When writing—or painting, or making movies—the only real option is to follow your own sensibilities. I’ve got to admit I often skim through descriptions. All those darkened halls and worn steps and rusty iron gates—none of it, for me, paints a picture. I need something to engage me, toss my imagination a bone, and that’s where metaphors come in.
Describing one thing by referring to another not only forces the brain to work—as an added bonus, it provides a glimpse into the character’s inner state. If you write “molten sun dripped along the tower’s edge, a black furnace,” this suggests a different frame of mind than when you say “tree branches played with sunlight, sending golden bunnies on wild romps.” Imagery begins to paint the scene and the narrator’s feelings. Every description, every brick, every leaf brings you closer to the protagonist.
And then you don’t need excessive descriptions anymore. You can write that the tower is so-and-so high, has so-and-so many embrasures. It won’t paint the picture. But if you say it was “a stretch of an evening sky pasted onto midday,” you’ve got everything right there. Your tower is dark and ominous, but it promises something you couldn’t find in daylight.
The approach has its challenges. Descriptions you can tailor at will, adding details, subtracting them. With metaphors, in most cases you have only one shot—stacking them makes the text dense.
I found that there was an interesting link between your characters, Shea, Aidan, Lena, Brielle, even Andre from your short story The Blue Room, Said the Wishmaker. Even though they’re all on such distinct journeys, all these characters meet and seem to be united by being people down-on-their-luck in some way but with growing ambitions, whatever their nature. What is it about these types of protagonists, that have almost a sorrowful quality to them and are also someone we can really root for, that appeals to you when writing them?
It all comes from within, I’m afraid. All my characters and all my stories do. “Your Grief Is Important To Us” emerged during the time my wife and I were going through the IVF. A year later, “Memory Is a Rumor” was a rumination on raising children. Both “The Blue Room” and Tower were prompted by my own futile attempts to build a successful career as a software engineer. Shea’s journey, Andre’s, Brielle’s—they’re all permutations. I guess I’ve been trying to tell myself the truth, that there are things in life more important than another badge or another pat on the back.
And Aidan—come on, he’s an émigré, same as me. It’s me in those stories, or rather shards of me, as if I were looking into mirror fragments.
Lastly, any future projects you’re working on currently that readers can look forward to?
I’ve got an outline for a sequel to Tower (it took me by surprise that many reviewers have perceived the ending as something final; I did write it to be able to stand on its own, but even though—without spoiling anything—some characters are dead by the end of the book, the fate of at least three remains open). I’ll need to see how this one performs. Another thing I’m working on currently is a novel tentatively titled “The Mandolin Teacher.” It’s about an alternate-reality, 19th-century Russia, a mammoth railway bridge leading to a different world, an injured man who’s forced to work as a music teacher, his quest to get his dexterity back, and his unexpected role in the larger, sinister events leading back to the death of the previous emperor.
Thank you for having me, and thanks for the great questions! Made me go deep inside myself 🙂
Very curious about that and I’m already looking forward to diving into it when you’re finished! Thanks for visiting the Asylum and don’t forget to feed the pit beast before you leave 🙂
If you’d like to get in contact with Yaroslav Barsukov, you can find him on social media: