The Interview: Naomi Novik on Spinning Silver
Naomi Novik discusses prejudice, sisterhood and weaving new magic in her latest fairy tale-inspired novel, Spinning Silver.
‘The real story isn’t half as pretty as the one you’ve heard’.
So begins Naomi Novik’s latest fairy tale re-imagining, Spinning Silver. Taking Rumpelstiltskin as her starting point, Spinning Silver weaves a tantalisingly dark new story from the spirit of the original tale. It brings together three women - Miryem, Wanda and Irina - each caught between the claws of a pernicious ruling class, the looming presence of the enchanted and ill-fated Staryk forest and the risk of an ever-unforgiving winter. A wildly enjoyable fantasy epic, it’s also an intricately layered novel that asks important questions about prejudice and scapegoating, value and worth, appearance and substance. It’s a story that looks behind the magic mirror to examine the price the magic demands and if the cost is worth the gamble.
As Novik explains, her starting point in approaching fairy tale is finding a dialogue with the original story. "It’s more about conversation", she explains, "I chose Rumpelstiltskin, in this case, because I had something to say to it. With some stories that conversation might be 'let me tell this back to you differently' because that is, I think, the storyteller’s impulse that creates fairy tales in the first place. Fairy tales are not set in stone, or they shouldn’t be set in stone, they are meant to be re-told. But sometimes it’s also an impulse to argue and I think that’s probably evident in Spinning Silver; I wasn’t just re-telling Rumpelstiltskin, I was yelling at Rumpelstiltskin, and I think that creates a certain kind of energy."
In choosing to address this particular tale, Novik also found a draw in being able to pull-apart and challenge deep-rooted assumptions inherent (and often unacknowledged) in traditional folklore. "There are things your reader knows that you don’t have to tell them”, she explains. “I clearly go into this story assuming that my reader has heard or read Rumpelstiltskin and if they haven’t it’s relatively easy to find, so there isn’t a high barrier for readers. It’s a rich foundation but it also lets you access a reader’s childhood - particularly because it’s a story most readers will have heard in childhood. It lets you talk directly to what’s in a reader’s head already, which I think is what a writer is always doing."
In Novik’s hands, Spinning Silver also becomes a route to peel back the golden outer layers of the Rumpelstiltskin story, to reveal the dark heart of stigmatisation and anti-Semitism embedded in the original tale. In Novik’s version, she strips away the over-laid image of the woman weaving straw into gold and replaces it with a much more starkly painted picture of ostracism and prejudice. In Novik’s world nothing comes for free and all magic has a price – both for individuals and the world at large. In Spinning Silver, Novik’s gold-caster is Miryem, a Jewish money-lender’s daughter who finds the ‘winter blown into my heart’ when her family are left destitute. Unlike those around her, Miryem sees the fairy tale for what it is: a cloak for people to justify injustice and avoid paying what is rightfully owed.
"Rumpelstiltskin has anti-Semitic tropes within it", Novik says, "and that experience of others not paying their debts that Miryem has, I felt was an effective way of articulating something that was sinister but also commonplace. I wanted to capture the sense that in your everyday life you’re constantly on guard and you’re constantly suspicious of the people in your community and you feel yourself disliked by them; that sense of a kind of everyday oppression. And I wanted to explore the idea that you might feel oppressed by a fairy tale that’s being told in the market square, that you might both see and imagine hostility around you all the time. I also felt that was connected to the stories of my own father’s family; Lithuanian Jews who both experienced profound anti-Semitism and everyday anti-Semitism and also saw anti-Semitism out there in the wider world. I wanted to bring together all three of those levels which, I think, capture the complicated nature of that experience."
Rumpelstiltskin is a story that’s overtly rooted in a material, monetary world and in Spinning Silver, Novik explores the way those themes resonate for a modern reader. As she says, "this is a fairy tale about capital" and as such, it’s a story that has a particular contemporary relevance, tapping into the very real concerns of Western societies’ increasingly isolationist stance in the face of a perceived threat from those who are seen to not belong.
"This is something that’s very fraught right now", Novik says. "This is a story about money and hoarding that comes back to the roots of anti-Semitism and a strand of ant-Semitism that starts when Jews are not allowed to make money or own property or land but they are allowed to lend money and become a source of credit. It’s a system makes the economy work but at the same time becomes a way for rulers to displace hostility. That makes this an important fairy tale for right now because it’s a story of oppression, not just anti-Semitism; it’s about telling people, ‘you’re not poor because of your rulers, you’re poor because of that group over there’. I think that’s something we all have a sense of at the moment and it’s why it’s a story that’s speaking to me now."
It’s an idea that goes hand-in-hand in this novel with wider questions of value, not just material value but ideas of how an individual’s worth – in particular a woman’s worth - is weighed and measured by society. It’s a theme that runs through the relationship between the novel’s central three characters and the ways in which each of them have to learn to appreciate their own and each other’s strength and overcome their own prejudice.
"Spinning Silver started life as a short story entirely in Miryem’s point of view", Novik explains. "She meets Wanda and Irina and one of the things that interested me when I was writing that short story is the fact that she’s wrong about them, but I knew there wasn’t some way to correct those misimpressions. I knew before I finished the story that I wanted to write a novel version and when I went to go into the novel, I knew the place that I was starting was actually with Wanda. I wanted to show the reader that Miryem is wrong about Wanda and explore how that becomes part of Miryem’s journey - the formation of her sisterhood with Wanda and Irina.
"I liked the idea of showing that whereas in Uprooted - where Agnieszka and Kasia have a sisterhood - Miryem doesn’t have sisters; she’s very alone, as are Wanda and Irina too. In a way they have to build their own families, they have to build their own community and support network. They’re not completely alone or without resources but they all need to recognise what they have and build on that to get somewhere."
Spinning Silver is also a novel which catches at and expands the tradition of fairy tale power lying in women’s ability to tell their own story – to spin a tale.
"That’s connected to working with fairy tales, that sense that there’s an older story and you’re telling someone anew. There’s also the sense of the movement of hands, particularly coming from times when women’s hands were almost never idle. Even now I have many friends who knit and crochet and spin, in fact. Women’s hands are always busy; traditionally they have to keep busy. But working with your hands leaves your voice free to speak.
"I think as a writer, it’s important to put in things you know not everyone will see, as a craftsman in general in fact. That’s part of the power of telling stories honestly and working with stories that go down deep for you and your reader, you access part of the reader’s imagination without knowing it."
Novik explains that telling a story honestly is something that is vital to the way she crafts characters and relationships that feel authentic even within a fantastical landscape. "People are messy and people build relationships messily", she says, "and no relationship, even within the most loving, safe, familiar relationship - like Miryem and her parents who love each other dearly - there’s still anger, complications and disagreement and that’s part of what makes characters feel real. There isn’t a safe place, something you can completely rely on, and you can’t always predict what people are going to do and that’s part of the magic of interacting with other people."
It’s a feature of Novik’s storytelling that, unlike other legends that create their characters in isolation from their families and communities, her characters have to learn to navigate a route through these relationships. Her characters face not only external enemies but also the home threats of domestic violence, neglect, hardship and parental weakness and have to find a way to secure a future not just for themselves but for those who depend on them.
"There are a lot of orphans in fairy tale", Novik says, "and I think it’s interesting to see that it’s possible to tell a story like this without killing off the parents because most of us have to tell our stories with our parents still around us. Mothers, especially, are often invisible in fiction and I resist that idea by wanting to tell stories where the mother is there. There’s this terrible trope that appears routinely in fiction where the woman’s job is to say, ‘no, don’t do the brave thing’. I want to see mothers who see that their children have to do the brave thing and want them to do the brave thing. I always felt that my own mother valued my courage, not just my safety, and that’s an incredibly empowering thing to have as a child."
Changing family dynamics is just one of the ways in which Novik’s storytelling plays with and adapts the fairy tale model. Part of the enchantment of Spinning Silver is the way the story expands outwards, moving from family to community to a wider world and showing the network of connections that go into binding them together. It’s something that she sees as essential to the craft of storytelling and a means of offering a different model of magic and heroism for women that goes beyond the neat, ‘Happily Ever After’, ending.
"I love epic fantasy, I grew up on fairy tales but I also grew up on Tolkien. The thing that I like in epic fantasy is that sense of a greater stage; the knowledge that your actions can change the world and the implicit sense that you are allowed to change the world and that you have the power to do so. That’s a story that has not been routinely told to girls. In the epic fantasy narrative, even when there’s a female protagonist, they’re often kick-ass fighters - and don’t get me wrong, there are amazing stories of women picking up the sword - but a lot of women don’t want to pick up the sword.
"I started writing Uprooted after my daughter was born and I remember going to her pre-school and they explained that children’s vision of the world grows gradually and it starts with just themselves - they are the only thing in the world that is real, it’s just them - and then gradually they realise they have a family and that’s the level on which the traditional fairy tale exists. But then as they grow up the wider world becomes real to them - or at least you hope it becomes real to them - and that’s the journey I wanted to go through in story. So in both Uprooted and Spinning Silver you start with just the person, who is in a tough situation and is thinking largely about themselves or their family, and then their concerns grow and their power grows to match it."At each step you are being asked - and I think this is something in Spinning Silver that is true - to recognise that real magic is when you are challenged to grow beyond yourself and you manage it. That’s when you’re actually doing something magical, achieving something that can’t be effectively described in some kind of step-by-step fashion; you can’t tell someone how to create themselves. There is a special kind of magic there. It’s the magic of the journey."
Naomi Novik's Recommended Reading:You don’t need to recommend Ursula Le Guin but I would recommend anyone who hasn’t yet discovered her to start there. Also Robin McKinley and Patricia McIllup has been doing wonderful things. I think Rina Roster has published a book I’ve just started and I immediately loved because one of her characters’ point of view is told in poetry which is working really beautifully. Katherine Arden has spent a lot of time in Russia and her books have a wonderful rich flavour of Russian culture and folklore, so somebody who enjoyed Spinning Silver and Uprooted would enjoy those I think. Anything Norah [N.K.] Jemisin writes is brilliant and I’m really looking forward to Zen Cho’s new book too.
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