I loved this story so much that I’m not sure where to begin. It dug into my heart and made me homesick in a way that’s difficult to articulate—which is good human-to-human stuff but makes for poor interview content. Instead, could you tell me a bit about your take on Baba Yaga, and how you balanced such a vulnerable story around a powerful figure?
Thank you, that’s very kind! Or spasibo, as Baba Yaga would say. She featured prominently in some of the first stories I read as a kid. We had a whole stack of Russian fairy tales: “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” “Tsarevna Lyagushka,” “The Tale of Tsar Saltan.” Baba Yaga always stuck with me because she’s such a complex, contradictory character. She’s a wild, fearsome witch (not to mention a cannibalistic one), but she’s also a wise, maternal Mother Earth-type figure. She’s just as likely to help you on your journey as she is to stuff you in her oven and eat you. She lives outside the boxes of “good guy” and “bad guy,” and that makes her messy and fascinating and unpredictable—and easier to relate to, I think.
In “Baba Yaga and the Seven Hills,” I wanted to see what would happen if I dropped this ancient, powerful force into a modern context that rendered her pretty powerless. I think it’s her ambiguous nature that made her a good character to follow to a place of vulnerability. Because, yes, ultimately, it’s a story about home and the different things home means to us. Is it where you are or who you’re with? Is it familiarity or discovery, stillness or movement? For me, there’s no easy definition. So the story became a collision of places: the country where I was born and the city where I spent most of my twenties. I have a real soft spot for San Francisco. It holds its own contradictions: There were times I knew it was saving my life, other times I swore it would chew me up and spit me out. So for someone like Baba Yaga, it was a worthy adversary.
What are three things that make a space feel like home for you? Have they all been in the same place at once?
I’ve moved around a lot. So far, I’ve hung around the longest in the Bay Area, but I’ve also lived in Moscow, Tucson, New York, Boston, and Chicago, with another move coming up on the horizon. I’m one of those people who has to get the apartment set up immediately or I won’t be able to feel at ease enough to sleep or read or write or go anywhere or get anything done. This last time, I was driving across the country with my partner and our pup, and at rest stops, instead of, you know, resting, I was already scrolling through Craigslist looking for couches and shelves and all that. Probably because I didn’t know a whole lot about where we were going, and the inside of our apartment was something I could control.
Anyway, a sense of local community and culture will always be what makes home home for me. Getting out to the event spaces, finding my local coffee shop and bookstore, talking to people, figuring out the transit system and how to get around without GPS. As for the space specifically? Plants. Books. Art made by friends. They all feel like living things living with me.
What is one secret you know about San Francisco that’s safe to share?
If you race a friend down the Esmerelda Street slides three times in a row and win all three times, the Transiberian Council of Witches will declare you the Momentary King or Queen of San Francisco, a title they have absolutely no authority to issue. (Baba Yaga says the one on the left goes faster.)
Where can we find more of your work?
I have a darker story about misunderstanding, intrusion, and the dangers of getting in too deep in the May/June 2020 issue of Black Static, and a super-short one (that I hope my parents don’t read) coming soon in AE Science Fiction. Anyone who has ever tried to find a decent-sized closet in a city like San Francisco might appreciate my recent flash piece in Pithead Chapel. And there’s more like it over at kristinaten.com.
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