They say you should write what you know. Well, in the following email interview about her dark fantasy novel Nightwood (paperback, Kindle), author Elana Gomel says she took that idea to heart and started with her own back yard.
To start, what is Nightwood about, and when and where does it take place?
As I am writing this, I am looking out my window at Nightwood, the somber redwoods or Northern California surrounding our house. But in my imagination, the redwoods are only a portal to the real place: the black forest of fairy tales where monsters marry maidens; where shapeshifting ogres lurk among the thorny trees; and where dragons guard the forbidding Castle with No Windows. Nightwood straddles the boundary between here and now, and the timeless realm of dark legends.
Its plot is simple: a Ukrainian mail-order bride comes to live in NorCal and gradually realizes that her multimillion-dollar mansion is an entryway to another world where fairy tales are real. Her unloved husband is inadvertently drawn into this world, and to redeem herself by saving him, she follows, not realizing that her connection to Nightwood runs deeper and darker than anything she has imagined. She does save him but at a steep price…and here I have to stop, in order not to give away too much. Suffice it to say that Nightwood is both a novel of adventure, with dangerous creatures, strange landscapes, and breathtaking escapes, and a meditation on the nature of love, identity, and history.
Where did you get the idea for the plot of Nightwood? What inspired it?
All my stories come from the same place: my childhood dreams. I was a voracious reader, and the first books I ever read were collections of fairy tales. And at night, I entered the world of these tales. I dreamed of slaying dragons, crossing magical bridges, exploring enchanted cities. Remember: those were not silly Disney movies with their pink princesses but ancient tales, colored in hues of blood, death, and suffering. Nightwood is my tribute to the imagination that transforms fear into wonder. It has a traditional fairy-tale plot: the heroine breaks an interdiction and has to go on a quest to set things right. It is the oldest plot — and to my mind, the best.
So is there a reason why Ally is a Ukrainian mail order bride as opposed to one from some other country?
The reason is simple: I was born in Ukraine. Nightwood is not an autobiographical novel, of course. Though an immigrant, I did not come into the U.S. as a mail-order bride; and Ally’s horrible youth and mysterious parentage have nothing in common with my upbringing. But her immigrant experience reflects my own, as it reflects the experience of innumerable people in our global and unsettled world. The sense of dislocation and loss; memories of the past and hopes for the future; nostalgia and liberation; being at home nowhere and everywhere — immigrants know all of that, no matter where they come from. I started Nightwood before the war in Ukraine; in fact, I would not have believed such a war was possible when I first thought of Ally, a stranger in a strange land. But in a way, the novel is a tribute to the country of my birth, and to the brave people fighting yet another cruel battle in the bloodlands of Eastern Europe.
Similarly, is there a reason why her husband, Carl, is from California and not, say, London or Tokyo or West Orange, New Jersey?
Writing courses tell you to write what you know. It’s not always good advice. I write science fiction and I have never been to another planet. To paraphrase the Victorian writer Rider Haggard, the empire of the imagination has no boundaries. But when it comes to everyday life, it does make sense to draw upon your own experience, I live in California. People like Carl are my neighbors. I actually did live in London, so in another novel, my heroine is from there. But West Orange, NJ is too exotic for me, I’m afraid.
I would define it as dark fantasy, which is becoming a very popular genre today. Dark fantasy is wonder with a sprinkling of horror; or maybe fear mixed with delight. And it draws very heavily on the folklore tradition. It is not for kids but neither were original fairy tales; in fact, when I taught a seminar on fairy tales, my students were shocked when they read the unexpurgated versions of what actually happened to Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella. Fairy tales reflect history; and history is not pretty. But history is what we are. Without understanding the past, we have no future.
Nightwood is your fifth novel after The Cryptids, The Hungry Ones, Black House, and the just released Girl Of Light, and you’ve also written novellas, short stories, and academic publications. But are there any writers who had a big influence on Nightwood but not on anything else you’ve written?
I have been influenced by many writers, from Dickens to contemporary urban fantasists such as China Mieville. But Nightwood stands alone because it bypasses all of my literary influences and goes straight back to the tales of my childhood.
What about non-literary influences; was Nightwood influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Certainly movies. I love horror movies, though not of the slasher variety — I find them boring. But give me darkness, creepy woods or haunted houses, spectacular monsters, and I am hooked. My favorite movie of this kind is Pan’s Labyrinth, and of course, Nightwood is indebted to it: history, fairy tales, nightmarish creatures…
As for video games, I tried to make the novel as visually vivid as possible, so the reader could enter its world and lose themselves in it.
Now, as I just mentioned, you put out another novel last month called Girl Of Light. What is that book about, and when and where does it take place?
Girl Of Light is an expansion of my novella Little Sister, which was published last year by Crystal Lake. It takes place in a fantastic U.S.S.R. during World War II. The world of the novel is a distorted mirror reflection of our own (it can literally be accessed through mirrors). Its heroine is a young girl named Svetlana, who embarks on a perilous odyssey through the war-torn, snowbound, and monster-infested land in order to save her parents. She is accompanied by a mysterious visitor named Andrei. But nothing is as it seems. Her quest leads to the opposite result to what she expected. Svetlana finds out that most of what she has been taught is a lie. She finds out the hidden origin of the monsters that plague her MotherLand. She finds out who Andrei really is. But it is not the story of disillusionment and surrender. No matter what, Svetlana remains faithful to what she believes is Light. And this is what makes the novel so dark.
Probably the hardest lesson of history is that bad things are often done by good people. Svetlana is pure, brave, dedicated, and selfless. But is uncompromising goodness really something to admire? I don’t accept the simple black-and-white moral scheme of so many fantasy novels. Evil is not a Sauron in his dark tower. Evil is believing in something so much that you are willing to sacrifice everything, including your own humanity, for the sake of your belief. And this is what happened in the U.S.S.R. This is why we find it so hard to understand it, and other utopias-turned-nightmares. We are looking for selfishness and corruption instead of blaming selflessness and fanatic faith. I want the reader to love Svetlana, who is just a teenager in the time of war. But I also want them to be appalled by her. Girls and boys like her defeated the Nazis. And girls and boys like her built the gulags. Now we see the replay of the same story in the war in Ukraine.
It sounds like Girl Of Light is an alternate history sci-fi story. Is that how you’d describe it?
Girl Of Light is a genre hybrid. It definitely has elements of alternative history but also a strong current of dark fantasy and horror. I’d describe it as alternative history with monsters.
And did you write Girl of Light and Nightwood either at the same time or concurrently? I ask because I’m curious if you think writing Light influenced Nightwood, and vice versa.
I wrote them concurrently, and of course, they influenced each other. They deal with similar themes: history, memory, finding your own path in a dark and dangerous world. Both echo Slavic folklore and recent events in Eastern Europe. But they are also quite different. Nightwood is a fairy tale, and as such, has a (qualified) happy ending and a likeable protagonist. Ally, despite the horror of her heritage, is essentially a good person who risks her life to save the man she does not love but feels grateful to. Svetlana is a true believer. In a different world, she would be either a freedom fighter or a terrorist. And while both novels have strong horror elements, the ending of Girl Of Light is much darker, but also I believe, more challenging and open-ended than the ending of Nightwood.
Going back to Nightwood, we talked earlier about how it was influenced by movies. But to flip things around, do you think Nightwood could work as a movie? Or would it work better as a TV show or game? Or as none of those things?
I would love to see Nightwood: The Movie. I believe the novel has a clear and compelling plot, a complex heroine, and a fantastic setting that could work well in a cinematic adaptation. I don’t think it could work as a video game, even though its world is visually very impressive (no false modesty here). But Ally’s inner transformation requires a kind of psychological insight that I don’t see working well in a game. A TV series would require a significant expansion of the plot, and would probably complicate it to the point of incomprehensibility. But a Pan’s Labyrinth-like movie…well, one can dream.
And if someone wanted to make Nightwood: The Movie, who would you want them to cast as Ally, her husband, and the other main characters?
Of course, I would like a Ukrainian actress to play Ally. Somebody like Mila Kunis, perhaps? (She is also Jewish, like me, though Ally is not). But perhaps the best would be to pluck a young actress from the war-torn Ukraine, unknown to the West, and give her the chance to tell the story of the Bloodlands and Nightwood.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Nightwood?
Honestly, I think it is my best novel to date. I tried to make it both fantastic enough to spark the sense of wonder, without which fantasy is dead, and to create an appealing, though flawed, heroine, with whom the reader can identify. In my other novels and stories, the world dominates the characters. Here I think I have achieved a proper balance.
Finally, if someone enjoys Nightwood, what dark fantasy novel of someone else’s you suggest they check out next?
I could give you a very long list — remember, I am also an academic and fantasy is my field — but I will limit myself to only three titles.
Alison Littlewood, The Hidden People. This is a proper fairytale-based fantasy, with a Victorian setting and a very interesting (and creepy) narrator. I’ve always liked the idea of changelings. They don’t play much role in Nightwood but the next novel…perhaps.
T. Kingfisher, The Twisted Ones. This is part horror, part pastiche, and part the strangest depiction of fairies you are likely to find. I can’t say anything more about it except that this is a novel you will either love or hate.
Naomi Novik, Uprooted. A well-known fairytale fantasy based on Eastern European folklore. It’s perfect until about ten pages before the end.
These novels do what I tried to do in Nightwood: to combine terror and wonder in a way that tells us something important about the human condition. Like Nightwood, they remind us that all fairy tales were history once.