Mishka Zakharin's humorous fantasy novel, Natalya's Tale, is about a young woman who finds herself approaching thirty, and, as so many people do, she discovers she is unhappy with the course of her existence—but with no idea how to go about changing her lot in life. Both a prostitute and a cannibal, she has grown tired of turning tricks and eating babies and is somehow, mystically, transported into the Otherworld, a sort of shadow Earth to our own. With the guidance of a butterfly named Katara, Natalya travels through this strange, new world in search to find greater meaning in her life; at first wandering somewhat aimlessly, but then she meets a variety of interesting characters—most notably Lars Landuc… with whom she falls madly and passionately in love! When he is called away but fails to return for their appointed rendezvous, Natalya, with ardent determination, sets out to find him—and therein becomes enmeshed in a nefarious, demonic plot that could spell doom for the Otherworld itself
Zakharin has written a lot of poetry, and, for a variety of reasons he got tired of doing that, so he had to rechannel his writing tendencies on something else. He had ideas for novels before, including a couple that seemed to be going well, but then he got distracted or bored or just wandered away and never came back to them. Natalya’s Tale actually started out with a short story (now the prologue) in 2008, and with that he had the idea to write a collection of interconnected stories, united not by an overall plot, but by characters who overlapped from one story into the next. The character of Natalya came along—incidentally, nothing to do with a potential novel—in 2011, and it was in 2012 he began essentially (randomly) putting it together… that it has a plot is perhaps due to his reading various books about the Arthurian legends; he somewhat mirrored the structure of those, and instead of a short story collection masquerading as a novel, he had a frame story that actually was a novel.
Interview with Mishka Zakharin
Was Natalya Yvain based on a real person? How did you come up with a prostitute/cannibal protagonist?
Natalya originally appeared in several poems—so, at least physically, she is reflective of someone real… but once the novel started, she was her own person and I no longer associated her with her “mundane doppelganger.” Many years ago a friend commented that she always pictured me as the protagonist of my stories; recalling such recently made me wonder if Natalya (personality-wise) was perhaps me as I’d be if I were a woman…? (Such seemed best worked out in therapy, however, so I stopped wondering.) As for the prostitute/cannibal combo, I don’t think it was a conscious decision; I just started writing, and that’s where it went. But I decided to stick with it because, when you think about what’s popular in books and TV or movies now, it sort of makes sense… Vampires, werewolves, and zombies all seek sustenance from human flesh and blood, and mass murderers and crime drama always seem to draw a good audience… throw in prostitution for the “sex element,” and—BAM!—cannibalistic prostitute! I think it’s a trend that could really catch on. (No actual babies were eaten in the writing of this novel…)
Could you tell us something about the “greater meaning” that she finds in the Otherworld?
No. You’ll have to read the novel. Although I’ll say this much: It would be a pretty crappy book if in the end she just returned to her old whoring, baby-eating ways—but that doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll find her happy ending in the manner she supposes as she is pursuing her quest...
How would describe the transition from writing poetry to fiction? Do you experiment a lot to find the right tone and style?
My poetry was actually born of prose. A lot of readers have said, though they don’t typically like poetry, they like mine—no doubt because it reads more like fiction… just with funny line breaks. So, other than toning down my punctuation a bit (as I have a tendency to get carried away with my ellipses—and dashes…), it wasn’t much of a transition. Also, I’ve written prose (both fiction and “journalish ramblings”) all along, it’s just that for a many years the primary focus ended up being poetry. Personally, I think my background in poetry can at times be helpful in my fiction, adding a sort of magical realism to the tone—though too much, rather than adding to the ambient, probably detracts from the substance of the narrative.
The names of your characters sound pretty silly. How did you come up with them?
I sort of collect names, I guess. Whenever I read or hear one that strikes me, I jot it down—or even non-names, just words that I use as names… like Churlish Grunge, the ogre-mage in Natalya’s Tale. Sometimes the name itself establishes the character, and sometimes (though less likely) I have a character that needs a name and I check my “collection” for one that works. In the case of Natalya, her last name—Yvain—is the name of an Arthurian knight in the story ‘Yvain and the Lion’ (which is also why, in my story, one of Natalya’s companions is a lion).
What kind of weird creatures do we expect to find in Natalya’s Tale?
Well, apparently there just aren’t enough weird creatures in the bestiary of fantastical/mythological beasts… or I just enjoy making new ones! There’s a double-decker goat, and a bunny of death, and a were-cow, and assorted demons—and (my favorite) a rhinorangudile! There are some old standards as well… ogres, gnomes, trolls, and the like.
How would you describe the relationship between Natalya and her butterfly guide (Katara)?
I suppose they themselves might say they were “BFFs”? (My initial inclination is to say they’re like sisters—but Natalya and Katara get along much better than most examples of sisterly camaraderie I’ve witnessed. Butanyhoo…) I think they ended up being a pretty good team; Natalya had a lot of good raw material in need of honing—and Katara guided her through that, being supportive when needed but backing off to let Natalya lead when warranted. And, although we see the start of Katara’s story in the prologue, she is elusive about the details of her own tale in the Otherworld prior to meeting Natalya… but clearly she has already made her journey (or is she still on it?), and in doing so has become an apt advisor to Natalya.
What helped you to keep writing when you got stuck?
Knowing that just staring at a blank page wasn’t going to get me anywhere. Sometimes, rather than typing, I would hit a slow spot and switch to hand-writing—which somehow made if feel more integral, like I was more in touch (literally) with what I was writing… and then I would just ramble—just brainstorming on paper—until I figured out my way forward. And part of it, too, was to see how it all turned out; I mean, I knew where it was going to end up—but, as they say, it’s the journey… though I had the skeleton down, I wanted to see how it all got fleshed out, and the only way to do that was to keep writing.
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