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Vera Nazarian immigrated to the USA from the former USSR as a kid, sold her first story at the age of 17, and since then has published numerous works in anthologies and magazines, and has been translated into eight languages.
She is a two-time Nebula Award Nominee, an award-wining artist, member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and the author of critically acclaimed novels Dreams of the Compass Rose, Lords of Rainbow, humorous parodies Mansfield Park and Mummies and more, in her Supernatural Jane Austen Series, and most recently, Cobweb Bride.
After many years in Los Angeles, Vera lives in a small town in Vermont, and uses her Armenian sense of humor and her Russian sense of suffering to bake conflicted pirozhki and make art.
Vera Nazarian, as a writer, builds worlds much as CS Lewis, Tolkien and LeGuin have done. Cobweb Bride and Cobweb Empire are so well-drawn that I can see them play like a movie in my head. These stories are a new take on the Persephone myth, with a European flair and not a small dose of wit. I feel very fortunate to be able to pick Vera’s brain today. Trust me, there are many more questions I’d like her to answer, but I’m not going to ruin the books for you!
Jess: The first thing we see is the map. Did you make it yourself?
First of all, Jess, thanks so much for the fun interview questions, and it’s a pleasure to be here! Yes, the map is my own artwork, and there are two versions of it, slightly different, in books one and two, which you can see here on the Cobweb Bride official website, side-by-side.
In addition to being a writer, I am also an award-wining artist. I work in oil on canvas, pen and pencil, colored pencil, and a variety of other physical world media including sculpture, dollmaking and other crafts. I also do software graphic design, including most of my own book covers. Also, I self-illustrate the interior of many of my books, including the Supernatural Jane Austen Series. (Interior pen and ink, sample illo #1, illo #2, illo #3, illo#4.)
Some of my oil-on-canvas artwork can be seen here:
Jess: You made the covers? *faints* They’re gorgeous. Are you always such a visual thinker?
I think it comes with the territory of being an artist, which you can understand, being an artist yourself. Unless I see the scene and the characters I am creating, I don’t feel grounded in the material I am writing, so I tend to write with flourishes and verbal color, in order to paint the images before your mind’s eye. Things and people visually come alive before they start to live and breathe.
Jess: That’s true, although I’m a dabbler compared to you. I see my characters and frequently their mannerisms tell me who they are. And your characters have a very European feel. Why did you decide to invent an alternate Renaissance-era country instead of using an existing one?
Believe it or not, the answer to this question requires for me to enter major spoiler territory for the whole Cobweb Bride trilogy. The Realm and the Domain and all the lesser kingdoms they contain are tied very closely to the heart of the story. So I am going to suggest that the readers ask me this question again, after they’ve read all three of the books. Yes, I know, sneaky and tantalizing as this may be, it’s all I can say!
Jess: LOL! Well, I like being kept on my toes. The body of your published work seems quite variegated; you don’t stick to one genre (except that I notice you like to meld a pair of genres together, such as fairy tale and dystopia in this case, and romance, parody and the paranormal in others). Has this affected your choice of publishing method?
I tend to write literature of the fantastic, or what I call wonder fiction. This includes speculative fiction, fantasy, fairy tales, science fiction, alternate historical milieus, and anything that piques the imagination. For the most part this means that I write what I want as long as it serves the story that begs to be told. Usually I like to wrap our ordinary world and our normal mundane reality into magic, wonder and metaphor. That can mean supernatural elements and whole other worlds created from scratch, mythical, legendary, and mind-blowing.
In my first novel Dreams of the Compass Rose, in the arabesque vein of The One Thousand and One Nights, I created an ancient world with its own unique mythology. In my novel Lords of Rainbow, I created a world without color. In my Supernatural Jane Austen Series I’ve blended history, wit, humor, and satire with outrageous supernatural elements. Because so many things I write are cross-genre and hard to place in a usual marketing category, I find that they really lend themselves to self-publishing. For the same reason, much of my traditionally published work is less of a “weird genre blend” and more clearly categorized as fantasy or science fiction or other delineated genre.
Jess: You were first published over twenty years ago. How has the industry changed, in your estimation?
Oh, yes, the difference is immense. Back when I made my first sale as a high school kid some time in 1984—it was a fantasy short story to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s second volume of the anthology Sword and Sorceress, and the book itself came out in 1985—back in those days there was the traditional marketplace, and self-publishing carried a huge stigma of “lesser quality.” If you were a “real” writer, you wrote and submitted your work to magazines, anthologies, and major publishers or collegiate small presses and literary houses, to be published in tangible paper print, hardcover trade paperback, or mass-market paperback. And that was it.
Now, fast-forward to 2013, and ebooks have arrived, everyone is either a hybrid author (both traditionally and self-published) such as myself, or an Indie (self published or independent). The meanings of these terms are very much in flux even now, and almost no one is strictly one thing or the other, because of the advent of digital publishing and the rise of Amazon. Indeed, Amazon single-handedly changed the face of publishing by levelling the playing field for all writers and providing a publishing platform that allows authors to bypass the third party middleman gatekeeper (agent, publisher) and release their work directly to the readers. This resulted in a kind of new Golden Age of Publishing in general, and specifically, the Golden Age of Self Publishing. In many ways this also resulted in a glut of material being published, both good and bad, from trashy to sublime. But the exciting thing is, now the good, truly original stuff is no longer languishing for decades on author laptops but is out there and can be found, if you take the time to look for it!
Image courtesy of khunaspix at freedigitalphoto.net
Jess: It’s certainly a fascinating time in which to write. How do you come up with names?
I think names are hugely important. As a speaker of many languages (Russian and Armenian native speaker, plus studied English, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese and German), I have a deep and profound awareness and respect for roots of words and their origins, and also for the sound and cadence of each name as it is uttered in its native language. I sound names out, dip into my own well of experience with world literature and cultural history, and come up with names that sound right for characters to whom they belong, and properly reflect the time period. In the Cobweb Bride books, the names are a combination of Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian) and some German.
Jess: What intrigues you about this myth? In the original, Persephone’s the daughter of Zeus, abducted by his brother (her uncle) Hades, who wants her for his bride and takes her by force. After some scrapping within the family (none of whose members act very maturely), Hades offers Persephone some power and she is ‘overjoyed’ to accept her place as his wife. You don’t draw from this arc, but from the Demeter arc. The original myth exists in order to logically explain the existence of winter. You’ve turned that on its side and Death now is on strike, so nothing expires, including plants. Eventually, if Death doesn’t get his way, every living thing on Earth is going to starve and end up undead. So, how did your story evolve away from the original myth?
Without getting into more unavoidable spoilers here, let me just answer this one also with a “wait and see!” Because, believe it or not, this is the original myth, just very intricately presented and cleverly disguised in a Renaissance metaphor. It has been also mixed together with the trope of death taking a holiday.
Jess: Of course, as a fairy tale (dark and geared at adults as it may be), this is still a morality tale. Funny, how the living are now less vulnerable to permanent harm than are the undead. Wonderful irony. How did you come up with this idea in connection with the goddess Persephone?
The idea of death stopping has been done before, in fiction and the media, but here I wanted to explore it from the somewhat new angle of it being a curse instead of a blessing. Also, to take it all the way to its logical conclusion—if death stops, or rather, if the entire life process itself is set to “pause,” what exactly does it mean to all living things? Plants, insects, microbes, animals, and human beings? Indeed, the pause button has been pushed on evolution and all physical processes of life, including decay, the dissolution of living cells during the process of cooking, aging and growth of plants and living matter, and also, believe it or not… cell level reproduction. That’s why there can be no more new live food added to the food supply, because no new life can be created. And that’s a scary thought for the world indeed.
How does all this fit with Persephone? Why, it’s at the core of her divine function. Persephone is Life and Death. She is Spring emerging out of Winter, the source of new life. And without creating any more spoilers, she is what makes the sequence of life and death happen. Just think about it.
Public Domain. Peter_Paul_Rubens_-_L’enlèvement_de_Proserpine.jpg
Jess: You have a huge cast of characters. Who appeared in your head first (other than Percy, obviously)?
The weird thing about historical epic fantasy such as this is that characters emerge when needed, organically growing one out of the other, from the time period, and out of the need for plot movement and the growth of story.
Some characters came to me earlier than others. First there was Death himself, grim, foreboding and beautiful. I think I saw Percy and Claere next, then their male romantic counterparts, Duke Hoarfrost, and then others, all falling in place like dominoes.
I added more new characters in book two, Cobweb Empire, and there will even be a few new ones in book three, Cobweb Forest. But they are an ensemble team, all working together, unlike other more streamlined types of stories. It was suggested that I should have a list of characters and a name pronunciation key included in every volume of this book, and I am glad to provide it.
Jess: Percy’s mother lashes out at her in her grief. Would you care to expound on that or is it giving too much away?
It is an important question, but some of it is very much a psychological exploration of the story resolution, so I cannot give too much away, except invite you to consider the relationship between the goddesses Demeter and Persephone, and watch for some parallels. Niobea and Percy have things to work out.
Jess: The Infanta and Vlau’s connection is extremely complex and interesting. I like them a lot. How did you develop these characters?
I have two major romantic couples in the story, Percy and Beltain and then Claere and Vlau. To me they represent two kinds of love—the more conventional kind that has a basis in joy and the crazy kind that grew out of pain. Their relationships are light and dark, and they serve to contrast each other.
I love Claere and Vlau. In their case, the idea of death stopping has given me the unique opportunity of exploring the ultimate redemption scenario. It is the relationship between a murderer (who thought his act of murder was justified) and his innocent victim—after the fact, a true impossibility of course, except under these oddball imaginary circumstances. Furthermore, I wanted to have the relationship evolve from utter hate and hurt between two people to perfect love and devotion, in the widest swing of the pendulum possible. In some ways, this kind of road to redemption and character evolution is the most rewarding thing possible to write—intense, painful, and passionate on every level. It’s an angst-and-emo passion feast without being artificially sentimental. And I am so glad I can present this intense character journey to the reader.
Jess: There’s something Shakespearean about Nathan and Amaryllis. They remind me of the Fools from the tragedies, who seem to have an innate wisdom that others miss, and yet the truth is delivered in a playful tone that doesn’t offend the noble audience. And yet, I detect a hint of the Russian sense of humour in them as well. Was this what you hoped would come across?
Thank you for mentioning Shakespeare and my characters in the same sentence. I think you have the right idea here, because not only are Amaryllis and Nathan a kind of comic relief, but they also represent the social mores of the upper class nobility of the time—foppish, frivolous, cruel, selfish, and yet steeped in Renaissance ideas and ideals, in the excitement of scientific invention, art, and learning, and yet, on some level very bored with their privileged existence. The notion of ennui serves to allow them to exercise their wit and powers of observation, to go on an “adventure,” and on some level to compete with each other in order to prove social and personal dominance. Their running commentary on all things is a kind of “wisdom track” and reality check.
On, and I do want to say that, if anything, it’s my Armenian sense of humor coming through here, because Armenians are the eternal jokesters and optimists. Meanwhile, Russians tend not to have a sense of humor at all, but instead have great big emotional hearts, and tend to wallow in melancholy. As I say in my author bio, I combine my Armenian sense of humor and my Russian sense of suffering. So, on the one hand you get grim Lord Death, and on the other, you get smart-mouthing hilarious Catrine.
Jess: Various members of the nobility seem to possess either a lack of moral compass or a woeful inability to wield their power (or comport themselves) well. In fact, there aren’t many nobles in this story that are worthy of respect. Earthy, grounded peasants –for the most part- provide better leadership. Does absolute power corrupt absolutely?
Good point. I think absolute power tends to make people forget to make the effort in life that’s necessary to see its value. They no longer recognize that life does not come easy, and to appreciate the little things. And when people such as the aristocrats have nothing much to do that is not done for them, bad things tend to happen, as they start to take advantage of others, push all boundaries, and forget their humanity and their responsibility. Less privileged people such as Percy or the other girls, who live more difficult, “true” lives, also tend to maintain their sense of balance, their moral compass and a better understanding of good and bad, and their sense of responsibility to both themselves and others.
La Belle Dame de Merci, Sir Frank Dicksee, 1902
Jess: Not to give too much away, but there’s a positively scorching kiss in this book and for a minute, I honestly thought the characters were going to get carried away (and half hoped they would). Will there be more romance in the third book, Cobweb Forest?
Hah! Oh yes, I had entirely too much fun writing the hot scenes in Cobweb Empire! Yes, there will be more romance in book three, I promise! But to say any more would be spoilers. Besides, there are other couples and their romance we have not explored yet… So, stay tuned!
Jess: When can we look forward to that one coming out?
Cobweb Forest, the conclusion of the trilogy is coming on December 25, 2013, Christmas Day!
If you want to be notified as soon as it’s out, be sure to subscribe to the Cobweb Bride mailing list.
Jess: Wow! You’ve released these books pretty close together. Cobweb Bride was released in July, 2013, and taken as a unit these are epic-length reads. Did you draft all three novels prior to publishing Cobweb Bride?
Believe it or not, I actually wrote them all for the most part this year. Yes, it’s crazy, I know. The first half of Cobweb Bride was written about three years ago (with a death in the family, and so death was on my mind), then set aside as Real Life really interfered and some other difficult life events happened to me that resulted in the loss of my home to foreclosure, loss of income, various illnesses, and culminated in a move from California to Vermont.
I completed the second half of Cobweb Bride in a couple of months, by the end of January of this year, then wrote the entirety of Cobweb Empire in the next few months and released it in September, and now am finishing up Cobweb Forest, scheduled for December. So, all of this is happening very quickly…. Because I’ve got to pay the rent and the cats need cat food.
Jess: LOLOL! We’d better feed those cats! You could make a good story about what happens if you don’t. What’s next after this trilogy is complete?
Glad you asked! After Cobweb Bride is done in December, I switch gears completely, and will be working on a much more contemporary, fast paced, futuristic YA dystopia series, tentatively titled The Atlantis Grail.
Books one, two, and three of the series will be called Qualify (for the Atlantis Grail), Compete (for the Atlantis Grail), and Win (the Atlantis Grail). I hope to start writing Qualify as early as in January 2014, and release it by spring.
This series will be in the vein of Divergent and The Hunger Games, and it will be an exciting departure from my old fashioned historical fantasy.
Jess: Thanks so much for visiting with me today. It’s truly been a pleasure!
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Please connect with Vera Nazarian on her website. My review of Cobweb Bride and Cobweb Empire will appear today on http://firstpagetothelast.com. Please check it out!