Naomi Novik, author of the best-selling “Temeraire” series (an alternate English Regency with a dragon-based air force, from Del Rey: Ballantine) offers a stand-alone fantasy.
Uprooted is so different from your “Temeraire” series. What inspired you?
The initial inspiration was procrastination. I was working on Blood of Tyrants, “Temeraire” No. 8. I wrote the line, “Our dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes,” which is the first line of Uprooted. I’m supposed to be writing one kind of dragon, and I thought about a totally different kind.
The narrator is first person, so she didn’t have a name for a long time. I’m a discovery kind of writer; I plan later. If I plan things out too far in advance I can lose the electricity. At one point, somebody called her a short version of [the Polish name] Agnieszka, and I realized this story was set in the fairy-tale Poland of my childhood: a very specific place that even though it never really existed, [it] existed for me, because as a child my mother would read me these fairy tales [to keep] me connected to her own roots.
What are those fairy tales like?
One of my favorite [childhood] stories was called Agnieszka Piece of the Sky, or Scrap of Heaven. I am, with my mother’s help, translating it into English. I’ve done a children’s version for my daughter, but I’m trying to do a more [adult version for publication]. The original fairy tales are not meant for children or [come] from a time when people didn’t assume children needed to be written down to.
Another book my mother read to me, called Living Water, is also part of the inspiration. There are all these wonderful elements, especially the forest. Across not just Polish fairy and folk tales but Polish life, the forest is central. I wanted to write this story about this wood that should be a place of nourishment, and the evil is that that connection has been broken. This becomes the story of how someone repairs those roots.
Tolkien was also something my mother read to me, so [he] feels like a part of my roots as well, even though it is from a completely different culture. Writing this book feels like a reconciliation of these heritages.
Why is Uprooted a descendant story of the famous Baba Jaga instead of a retelling?
For me Baba Jaga is a force of nature, and when I think of Baba Jaga I think of my grandmother. I want at some point to write her story, but this story was about my daughter and my mother. I believe in books having roots deeper than what you see. This book succeeds because it does have roots.
Is working with fairy-tale source material similar to the process of writing fanfiction?
All work is in dialog with other work. “Temeraire” has a very clear family tree: [Anne McCaffrey’s long-running fantasy series] Pern, [Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander], Jane Austen, and the history of the Napoleonic wars and of colonialism. You have these four parents…but not the characters from any one of them. The line for me [between fanfiction and original fiction] is when I realize I can’t tell the story I want to tell with the characters from the original.
What’s next for you?
I’ve got four ideas that are jockeying, and we’ll see which comes out on top. I have got maybe another 30 books in me—I want to write only really good ones.
Anything else you want to tell librarians?
It was really exciting for me that librarians got on board with this book because libraries are where I found that English-language set of my roots. I was this voracious reader, and my mom did not have her own tradition of books in English so I found my own.
Created by a group of librarians, LibraryReads offers a monthly list of ten current titles culled from nominations made by librarians nationwide as their favorites. See the May 2015 list at ow.ly/Nd4dF and contact libraryreads.org/for-library-staff/ to make your own nomination.