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.
Sacha Lamb (they/them) is the author of When The Angels Left The Old Country, a National Jewish Book Award finalist, Sydney Taylor Award Winner, and Printz Honor book. Their next novel is expected in fall 2024. Sacha can be found online at sachalamb.wordpress.com.
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.