Author Spotlight: Rebecca Podos talks The Wise and the Wicked
I'm so excited to share that Rebecca Podos is on today's blog! Rebecca's debut novel, THE MYSTERY OF HOLLOW PLACES, was a Junior Library Guild Selection and a B&N Best YA Book of 2016. Her second book, LIKE WATER, won the 2018 Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ Children's and Young Adult.
As a graduate of the Writing, Literature and Publishing Program at Emerson College, Rebecca's fiction has been published in journals like Glimmer Train, Paper Darts, and Smokelong Quarterly. By day, she works as a YA and MG agent at the Rees Literary Agency in Boston.
THE WISE AND THE WICKED, her third novel, is available today (!!!) from Balzer + Bray. Check out the synopsis below!
Rebecca Podos, Lambda Literary Award–winning author of Like Water, returns with a lush, dark, and unforgettable story of the power of the past to shape our futures—and the courage it takes to change them.
Ruby Chernyavsky has been told the stories since she was a child: The women in her family, once possessed of great magical abilities to remake lives and stave off death itself, were forced to flee their Russian home for America in order to escape the fearful men who sought to destroy them.
Such has it always been, Ruby’s been told, for powerful women.
Today, these stories seem no more real to Ruby than folktales, except for the smallest bit of power left in their blood: when each of them comes of age, she will have a vision of who she will be when she dies—a destiny as inescapable as it is inevitable.
Ruby is no exception, and neither is her mother, although she ran from her fate years ago, abandoning Ruby and her sisters. It’s a fool’s errand, because they all know the truth: there is no escaping one’s Time.
Until Ruby’s great-aunt Polina passes away, and, for the first time, a Chernyavsky’s death does not match her vision. Suddenly, things Ruby never thought she’d be allowed to hope for—life, love, time—seem possible.
But as she and her cousin Cece begin to dig into the family’s history to find out whether they, too, can change their fates, they learn that nothing comes without a cost. Especially not hope.
And now, here's my chat with Rebecca!
Hi, Rebecca! Welcome and congrats on The Wise and the Wicked. Can you tell us a little about the story and what inspired it?
THE WISE AND THE WICKED is a contemporary Russian folktale about choice and destiny, and all that lies between the two. It follows Ruby Chernyavsky, born into a line of women who, according to family lore, were once possessed of powerful magic, including the ability to defy death itself. But, after being forced to flee their homeland by greedy men who sought to destroy them, they gave up their magic to keep themselves safe. Generations later, the only scrap of power that remains to them is this: Once a Chernyavsky comes of age, she has a vision of who she will be when she dies. Ruby has been raised to believe these visions cannot be fought or altered, until great-aunt dies, and her premonition proves untrue. Suddenly, Ruby must decide how far she’s willing to go to change her own fate, who she truly wants to be, and who she cannot stand becoming.
As for what inspired it, this sounds vague and sort of pretentious, but I wanted to tell a story about stories. There are many different forms of storytelling found in TWATW—fairy tales and folk tales, family legends, song lyrics and podcasts. All are devices we use to sort out and engage with the world, and our place inside of it. I wanted to write a character who’s been told stories about herself and the person she’s destined to become, and who’s grown up believing them. And then, suddenly, she has to parse out the places where story and truth tangle together, vine-like, in order to make a path forward for herself.
Plus I really wanted to write a book with Baba Yaga in it..
Ruby’s story tackles the notion of destiny. What’s your advice for writers looking to infuse theme into their character arcs?
I love books that tackle Fate and Love and Death and Good and Evil; all notions so grand, they need a capital letter. But I think the most important thing in the face of these huge ideas is to keep your characters human…even when they’re not. By which I mean, their journey and the way that they tangle with themes so much bigger than themselves, still has to feel deeply personal, especially in YA or MG. They must have personal griefs, and day-to-day struggles and joys, and smaller-scale stakes. Otherwise, the character is just a game piece going through the plot.
What’s your favorite thing about writing magical realism, and what’s the biggest challenge that comes with it?
I don’t think of this book as magic realism in the traditional sense, as it relates to Latin American literature, but I’m definitely writing a world where the supernatural is present in an otherwise normal, small-town setting. And the challenge of braiding together magic and the real world was fascinating, but also incredibly intimidating. My agent, Eric Smith, recently talked about the struggle to not have your contemporary characters spend the first half of the book just freaking out because magic exists (which might be relatable, but not very fun to read.)
I sort of circumnavigated this problem by arming the characters with family stories and cultural lore, these tales passed down through generations about the fantastical feats of their ancestors. Every people has their folktales; in Judaism, for instance, we have the Golem of Prague (spoiler alert for book 4!) and in Russian culture, there’s the story of Baba Yaga, which plays a prominent role in THE WISE AND THE WICKED. So for me, it was less about adding fantasy to the world, and more about finding and watering the seeds of magic already planted within Ruby’s culture, and in her family history. And that was pretty fun.
I'm a firm believer in the idea that every story teaches the writer something new, so what did writing The Wise and the Wicked teach you?
I can’t remember who this was, but a well-known writer recently said on Twitter that your editor is not your creative writing teacher; you’re not trying to impress them to get a good grade in class. Yes, you want to send them your best work, but at the end of the day, they’re your partner in realizing your story. And wow, did I need a partner on THE WISE AND THE WICKED!
I’ve always been super guarded with my first draft, afraid to show them to anybody who might think less of me, including my agent and editor, until they were as perfect as I could make them. I don’t even really have beta readers. And it worked out okay for my first two books, both contemporaries, which required relatively light (although extremely valuable) edits. But I really was trying to figure out how to write fantasy for the first time, how to pace the ordinary and extraordinary, and put more emphasis on plot while developing my characters. And the resulting first draft was...yeah, it was a mess. But I held my breath and sent it along to Jordan, my amazing editor at B+B. He did so much work to make this book everything I wanted it to be, literally up until the day before it went to print. So TWATW really taught me the value of letting go, and trusting my partners in this business not to judge me or be disappointed in me, but to have faith in me and my story.
What are you reading, or otherwise currently infatuated with?
Unshockingly, I’ve been reading a lot off queer SFF lately, both for THE WISE AND THE WICKED and for my next book, a Jewish contemporary fantasy. Recent favorites include SAWKILL GIRLS by Claire Legrand and WILDER GIRLS by Rory Power, two queer horror stories about monsters and girls and monstrous girls (Rory’s book is out in July, and folks, get ready.) Also, NEVER-CONTENTED THINGS by Sarah Porter, which has the interplay between the fantastical and the real that I love so much. There are fairies and alternate worlds and all kinds of lush, creepy magic, but it’s also about the kind of very human hunger that stems from deprivation; not just from financial security, but from parental affection, and unconditional love, and autonomy over one’s own body and life and identity. So good, and also, so queer!
And finally, what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned (so far) in your publishing career?
The most important less that I’ve learned (and am still trying to learn!) is that there is no one metric for success in publishing. It’s very easy to focus on everyone else, and everything you still haven’t accomplished, and all the ways you aren’t measuring up. But in those moments, I think it’s important not to look around, but to look backward at how far you’ve come, and every achievement that you’ve forgotten about in the rush to meet the next goal. Whether you’re still drafting your first book, or your fifth; whether you have an agent or an editor or are still querying or on-sub; whether your debut was an instant bestseller or meant everything to the folks who found it and needed it. We all have struggles, and insecurities, and fears. And it’s really hard to quite all of that noise and congratulate yourself for every accomplishment, big and small, but also so, so necessary in order to keep going, and keep creating.
Many thanks go out to Rebecca for taking the time to tell us more about The Wise and the Wicked! Be to sure to add this wonderfully lush, queer, Russian-inspired fantasy to your Goodreads list, or (better yet!) order your copy (WRITE) NOW from retail sites like Amazon, and Barnes & Noble, or request it at your library, or local independent bookstore!
And, as always,