Interview with Ava Reid, author of The Wolf and the Woodsman
Please welcome Ava Reid to The Qwillery as part of the 2021 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. The Wolf and the Woodsman is published on June 8, 2021 by Harper Voyager.
Please join The Qwillery in wishing Ava a Happy Book Birthday!
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. What is the first fiction piece you remember writing?
Ava: Definitely fanfiction for the Warriors series by Erin Hunter. Honestly a very auspicious start for my fantasy career—grimdark middle grade about feral cats.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
Ava: A pantser, absolutely. None of my books have ever been outlined. I find that when I outline I inevitably get bored with the project. I’m definitely a thematic writer, so everything kind of coalesces around a concept, and the details shake out as I write.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Ava: Revising. I’m a big picture person and anything that involves getting into the nitty gritty is difficult for me. I’m lucky to have critique partners who treat me very gently when I abandon plot threads halfway through or mix up characters mid-scene!
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing?
Ava: My academic studies, for one. I majored in political science and worked a lot on topics of religion, ethnic nationalism, and state-building—all of which underpin the fantasy genre but are rarely given a lot of actual page time. I’m also very much into the genre-blending speculative work of writers like Kelly Link, Carmen Maria Machado, and Karen Russell. Anything eerie, strange, and a bit mordant.
TQ: Describe The Wolf and the Woodsman using only 5 words.
Ava: Eating things you shouldn’t eat.
TQ: Tell us something about The Wolf and the Woodsman that is not found in the book description.
Ava: It has no actual wolves, but it does have a bear.
TQ: What inspired you to write The Wolf and the Woodsman? What appeals to you about writing fantasy?
Ava: There was one precise moment that I remember which served as the impetus for this book. I was reading about Hungary for a paper I was writing for one of my classes, and I ended up down a Wikipedia rabbit hole about Hungarian history. I stumbled upon a sort of casual, throwaway sentence about how Saint Stephen, the first Christian king of Hungary, had his nephew and heir apparent’s eyes stabbed out for being a pagan.
The image of that, the symbolic resonance and the brutality, was so visceral that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. What sort of zealous devotion would prompt such an act of barbarity? Doing more research, I came to understand that sort of cruelty was necessary to the construction of the state of Hungary as we now know it. I’m hardly the first person to conclude that state-building requires violence; Charles Tilly would agree with me on that one—but it was something I rarely saw directly addressed in fantasy.
The Wolf and the Woodsman drew together a lot of disparate threads of history, politics, and culture, but reading that factoid about Saint Stephen that was the moment when I knew: okay, this is a book I need to write.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for The Wolf and the Woodsman?
Ava: Lots and lots of historical research about medieval Hungary and about early Christianity. I read about Finno-Ugric languages and Magyar tribes. I read Hungarian ballads and folktales. I read about Jewish magic and mysticism and about Jewish history in Hungary. I also read political monographs about state-building, religion, ethnonationalism, and identity, particularly the works of Charles Tilly, Benedict Anderson, and Edward Said.
TQ: Please tell us about the cover for The Wolf and the Woodsman.
Ava: The cover was actually meticulously hand-painted by Russell Cobb, who did a stunning job rendering so many unique details. There are at least three “Easter eggs” from the book hidden inside the design of the cloak—for people who have read it already, try to find them!
When I initially received the design for the cover, the background was green, not blue. I asked my team if they’d be willing to make it blue instead, as blue is a significant color in Judaism. My grandmother is already telling people that she’s responsible for this change, since many, many months ago I asked her what kind of Jewish elements she’d like to see reflected in the cover!
TQ: In The Wolf and the Woodsman who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Ava: The easiest was Gáspár. Even though he’s tormented and has dual loyalties, the core of his character is introspection and compassion. Nándor was much more difficult. Writing villains who are real people and not just avatars for the author’s own opinions is hard. I decided to lean into the glamour and allure that he and his beliefs represent. The concept of a homogeneous, unbroken nation is something that can be very appealing if you don’t think too hard about what it takes to create a country like that.
TQ: Does The Wolf and the Woodsman touch on any social issues?
Ava: It is nearly impossible to write a fantasy book that includes Jews without being political in some way. The fantasy genre relies on the concept of a homogeneous nation state and antisemitism is pretty much one of the foundational blocks of the genre, going back to Tolkien and even further, to medieval myths of blood libel. If you peel back enough layers, most European-set fantasy books are, in some way, tacitly antisemitic.
If you want Jewish people to even exist in your fantasy world, it requires problematizing the notion of a homogeneous nation-state. I wanted to write about a character who doesn’t have the sort of unbending, unconscious patriotism and loyalty to her nation that is usually a given in fantasy books. I wanted to write a character who was typically excluded from narratives, who had to fight for her own inclusion and identity. I was of course inspired by my own cultural heritage, and I think these themes are incredibly resonant in today’s political climate.
TQ: Which question about The Wolf and the Woodsman do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Ava: I wish someone would ask if any of the characters are inspired by real people! In truth, most of them are amalgams of various real historical figures, including Saint Stephen himself, but also Andrew I of Hungary (otherwise known as Andrew the White), Béla I of Hungary, and Vazul of House Árpád. (They’re all fascinating people with bloody histories that I highly recommend reading about!)
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from The Wolf and the Woodsman.
Ava: My favorite non-spoilery quote is “Do not concern yourself with the bear.”
TQ: What's next?
Ava: My next book is another standalone, a horror-fantasy retelling of Grimm’s The Juniper Tree set in Victorian-era Ukraine. A good portion of my family emigrated from Odessa in the early 20th century, so it was fun to research that time period and also repurpose some apocryphal family stories! It has the last three witches in an industrializing city, a gruesome curse, and varenyky with suspicious filling. Look out for it in summer 2022.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery!
The Wolf and the Woodsman
Harper Voyager, June 8, 2021
Hardcover and eBook, 432 pages
Amazon : Barnes and Noble : Bookshop : Books-A-Million : IndieBound
Google Play : iBooks : Kobo
Harper Voyager, June 8, 2021
Hardcover and eBook, 432 pages
In the vein of Naomi Novik’s New York Times bestseller Spinning Silver and Katherine Arden’s national bestseller The Bear and the Nightingale, this unforgettable debut— inspired by Hungarian history and Jewish mythology—follows a young pagan woman with hidden powers and a one-eyed captain of the Woodsmen as they form an unlikely alliance to thwart a tyrant.In her forest-veiled pagan village, Évike is the only woman without power, making her an outcast clearly abandoned by the gods. The villagers blame her corrupted bloodline—her father was a Yehuli man, one of the much-loathed servants of the fanatical king. When soldiers arrive from the Holy Order of Woodsmen to claim a pagan girl for the king’s blood sacrifice, Évike is betrayed by her fellow villagers and surrendered.But when monsters attack the Woodsmen and their captive en route, slaughtering everyone but Évike and the cold, one-eyed captain, they have no choice but to rely on each other. Except he’s no ordinary Woodsman—he’s the disgraced prince, Gáspár Bárány, whose father needs pagan magic to consolidate his power. Gáspár fears that his cruelly zealous brother plans to seize the throne and instigate a violent reign that would damn the pagans and the Yehuli alike. As the son of a reviled foreign queen, Gáspár understands what it’s like to be an outcast, and he and Évike make a tenuous pact to stop his brother.As their mission takes them from the bitter northern tundra to the smog-choked capital, their mutual loathing slowly turns to affection, bound by a shared history of alienation and oppression. However, trust can easily turn to betrayal, and as Évike reconnects with her estranged father and discovers her own hidden magic, she and Gáspár need to decide whose side they’re on, and what they’re willing to give up for a nation that never cared for them at all.
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Ava Reid was born in Manhattan and raised right across the Hudson River in Hoboken, New Jersey, but currently lives in Palo Alto. She has a degree in political science from Barnard College, focusing on religion and ethnonationalism. She has worked for a refugee resettlement organization, for a U.S. senator, and, most recently, for an AI robotics startup. The Wolf and the Woodsman is her first novel.
Website ~ Twitter @asimonereid