Sacha Lamb and Aden Poly­doros, authors of When Angels Left the Old Coun­try and Bone Weaver respec­tive­ly, dis­cuss the inspi­ra­tion behind their nov­els, rep­re­sen­ta­tion in his­tor­i­cal fic­tion , and the fas­ci­nat­ing research they con­duct­ed. When Angels Left the Old Coun­try is an immi­grant-era fairy­tale, in which an angel and a demon who study Tal­mud togeth­er must go to Amer­i­ca in search of a miss­ing girl from their vil­lage. Bone Weaver is a haunt­ing fan­ta­sy fol­low­ing Toma, adopt­ed daugh­ter of the benev­o­lent undead, mak­ing her way across a civ­il war-torn con­ti­nent to save her younger sis­ter as she dis­cov­ers she might pos­sess mag­i­cal pow­ers herself.

Sacha Lamb: What inspired you to write a Slav­ic folk­lore inflect­ed fan­ta­sy novel?

Aden Poly­doros: I’ve always been inter­est­ed in folk­lore, par­tic­u­lar­ly folk­lore from the coun­tries my ances­tors came from. As a teen, that began with Greek mythol­o­gy, but then I lat­er became very inter­est­ed in Jew­ish and Slav­ic folk­lore as I explored my mom’s ances­try. I feel that many of the main­stream Slav­ic-inspired fan­tasies ignore the eth­nic and reli­gious diver­si­ty of Impe­r­i­al Rus­sia. I want­ed to cre­ate a world that acknowl­edged the more untaught side of Russ­ian history.

What made you decide to write Jew­ish his­tor­i­cal fan­ta­sy, and why do you think it is impor­tant to tell these kinds of stories?

SL: I grew up read­ing his­tor­i­cal fic­tion and fan­ta­sy and I love when they over­lap. I got into Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture as an adult, espe­cial­ly the visions of dai­ly life in the depressed, late nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry shtetl that you get from Sholem Ale­ichem and Mendele (S.Y. Abramovitch). Some­times the bound­aries of the nat­ur­al and the super­nat­ur­al are a lit­tle fuzzy in these; some of it is a cri­tique of a super­sti­tious” vil­lage cul­ture, but to me, tak­ing the super­nat­ur­al at face val­ue is real­ly fun. I want­ed to bring all these things togeth­er and write a trib­ute to the his­tor­i­cals and fan­tasies I loved as a kid, but cen­ter­ing it real­ly strong­ly in a folk­loric Ashke­nazi world­view. So this book is a trib­ute to Yid­dish clas­sics, I’m hop­ing it can be a fun intro­duc­tion to how rich and fas­ci­nat­ing that lit­er­a­ture is. Rose and Essie are also a trib­ute to the strong girl-friend­ships I saw in a lot of the his­tor­i­cals I read when I was younger, and a gift for any lit­tle his­to­ry nerd les­bians out there who are still think­ing what if these girls who are so close actu­al­ly kissed?”

AP: You build such a lush world, and do an incred­i­ble job immers­ing the read­er in the his­tor­i­cal set­ting and the pol­i­tics of the ear­ly 1900s. What was the most inter­est­ing or sur­pris­ing fact you learned while research­ing the novel?

SL: It’s some­thing that did­n’t end up mak­ing it into the sto­ry except as back­ground inspi­ra­tion, but in inter­war War­saw, I believe it was, one of the Yid­dish papers report­ed on a police bust that caught a ring of Jew­ish forg­ers. They were mak­ing iden­ti­ty doc­u­ments for immi­grants, but they were also mak­ing them for men who were involved in the local gay cul­ture and did­n’t want it get­ting back to their fam­i­lies. That clip­ping appears in two amaz­ing source­books, A Rain­bow Threadby Noam Sien­na and Bad Rab­bi by Eddy Portnoy.

How did you approach writ­ing Jew­ish char­ac­ters in a fan­ta­sy setting?

AP: Sim­i­lar to the Yu’adir in Alli­son Saft’s A Far Wilder Mag­ic, the Stran­ni­ki in Bone Weaver are cod­ed as Jew­ish. I drew inspi­ra­tion from both the Ashke­nazi and Moun­tain Jew­ish his­to­ry in craft­ing the Stran­niki’s his­to­ry and prac­tices. I did­n’t want to make too many par­al­lels, so while Jew­ish read­ers or those knowl­edge­able about Impe­r­i­al Rus­sia might be able to rec­og­nize the inspi­ra­tion for the group, most read­ers will not. It was also impor­tant for me to deeply con­sid­er how the char­ac­ters appeared on page and how I could sub­vert and explore the stereo­types that Jew­ish-cod­ed char­ac­ters are sad­dled with in fantasy.

SL: What, to you, makes a book set in a fan­ta­sy world a Jew­ish book,” ver­sus just being writ­ten by a Jew­ish author?

AP: This is a fan­tas­tic ques­tion. My goth­ic fan­ta­sy nov­el, The City Beau­ti­ful, is what I would con­sid­er a Jew­ish book”, in that it is deeply ground­ed in both Jew­ish his­to­ry and folk­lore, and the char­ac­ters are Jew­ish. How­ev­er, I would­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly think of Bone Weaver as the same. Is it a Jew­ish book? I would say Bone Weaver is a book that draws from my own knowl­edge and inter­est in the his­to­ry of Jews in the Russ­ian Empire. How­ev­er, I would­n’t call it a Jew­ish book. It has a much stronger foun­da­tion in Slav­ic folk­lore than in Jew­ish history.

What was your favorite scene to write and why?

Peo­ple have always had unique iden­ti­ties made up of com­plex lay­ers of cul­ture and expe­ri­ence, and we can’t think of his­to­ry as sim­pler times” because that flat­tens out the human expe­ri­ences of peo­ple in the past.

SL: It’s so hard to choose, but maybe the scene ear­ly on where Lit­tle Ash and the angel con­front Fishl the gang­ster and Lit­tle Ash pulls his soul out of his eye­ball and eats it. I draft­ed the book from start to fin­ish in order, and that’s the scene where I felt every­thing sort of snap into place for the first time. Like oh, here’s how Ash acts as a demon, he’s a bit creepy and dan­ger­ous but he’s pro­tec­tive of the angel, and the angel is out of its depth, but it will fol­low him any­where, and it’s wor­ried he’s putting him­self in dan­ger even when he’s being his most vicious self. That scene real­ly kicked things off and gave me the heart of how their part­ner­ship would evolve as they con­tin­ue to con­front injus­tice and danger.

One of the things I love about both your books is how your char­ac­ters expe­ri­ence queer­ness and Jew­ish­ness as inter­twined — I’m think­ing of Frankie’s Tal­mu­dic jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for lov­ing oth­er boys, Vanya’s scene where he encour­ages Mikhail to embrace his whole self. Can you talk a bit about how you write these inter­sec­tions of identity?

AP: Hav­ing grown up in a sec­u­lar, inter­faith fam­i­ly, I’ve nev­er con­sid­ered my queer­ness to be at odds with my Jew­ish­ness. My first neg­a­tive asso­ci­a­tions with queer­ness large­ly came from peo­ple out­side my imme­di­ate fam­i­ly, and though I’ve grap­pled with big­otry from some rel­a­tives, it’s come far more often from class­mates, author­i­ty fig­ures, and strangers. I think I tend to approach it first and fore­most from my own per­son­al expe­ri­ence, and then lat­er take into account how a char­ac­ter’s upbring­ing, set­ting, etc. would influ­ence their own feel­ings about their inter­sect­ing identities.

Sim­i­lar­ly, I’d love to know more about your thoughts on cen­ter­ing char­ac­ters with inter­sec­tion­al iden­ti­ties in his­tor­i­cal fan­ta­sy (or just genre fic­tion in gen­er­al), and how that played a role in how you wrote Lit­tle Ash and Uriel?

SL: From the begin­ning the book was planned to cen­ter queer­ness, but as I wrote it I end­ed up bring­ing in themes of dis­abil­i­ty as well. Pro­fes­sion­al­ly I’m an archivist and I also have a mas­ter’s in his­to­ry, and I think it’s real­ly impor­tant for every­one – but for young peo­ple espe­cial­ly – to see pasts that are as diverse as the present. Peo­ple have always had unique iden­ti­ties made up of com­plex lay­ers of cul­ture and expe­ri­ence, and we can’t think of his­to­ry as sim­pler times” because that flat­tens out the human expe­ri­ences of peo­ple in the past. I put char­ac­ters whose iden­ti­ties over­lap with mine into my work because I like to see them, but it’s also about see­ing peo­ple in mul­ti­ple dimensions.

Going back to your ear­li­er ques­tion — what’s the coolest thing you learned in your research for Bone Weaver?

AP: Oh, this is a tough one. I think the coolest thing I dis­cov­ered in my research was prob­a­bly just the idea of the Unclean Force, and the way the super­sti­tion per­me­at­ed through Slav­ic soci­ety. As a con­cept, it is intrigu­ing, and the way the Unclean Force was assigned to strangers and for­eign­ers speaks of the under­ly­ing fears and prej­u­dices of the time. It echoes back to oth­er con­cepts I’ve read about in dif­fer­ent cul­tures, and real­ly high­lights the way that folk­lore and super­sti­tion is linked to soci­etal tensions.

As a fel­low writer, I often pon­der over the mes­sages and themes that run through my nov­els, and try to fig­ure out what each sto­ry is try­ing to say at its heart. Is there any­thing in par­tic­u­lar you hope your nov­el will con­vey, and/​or what do you hope read­ers will take away from it?

SL: This goes back to the ques­tion on inter­sec­tion­al iden­ti­ties, and it relates to your com­ment about rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Jews in fan­ta­sy, too. To me, this is a sto­ry of fig­ur­ing out how to nav­i­gate the world when you get mes­sages about your­self that con­tra­dict how you real­ly feel. All of the char­ac­ters are strug­gling with that. I hope it comes through to the read­er, in a com­fort­ing and reas­sur­ing way, that it’s ok to fol­low your own instincts about who you should be and not be con­strained by oth­er peo­ple’s image of you.

Aden Poly­doros grew up in Illi­nois and Ari­zona, and has a bach­e­lor’s degree in Eng­lish from North­ern Ari­zona Uni­ver­si­ty. When he isn’t writ­ing, he enjoys going to antique fairs and flea mar­kets. He can be found on Twit­ter at @AdenPolydoros.