Exclusive Interview: “Spring’s Arcana” Author Lilith Saintcrow


With Spring’s Arcana (paperback, Kindle, audiobook), writer Lilith Saintcrow is kicking off a fantasy duology called The Dead God’s Heart, which she’ll conclude August 8th with the release of The Salt-Black Tree.

In the following email interview, Saintcrow discusses what inspired and influenced this first half, and why it’s a story that had to be told in two.

Lilith Saintcrow Spring's Arcana The Dead God's Heart The Salt-Black Tree

To start, what is Spring’s Arcana about, and when and where does it take place?

Spring’s Arcana centers on Nat Drozdova, whose voraciously beautiful mother is dying. It takes place in our world — or close to it, because it deals with the powers and divinities lying just under the skin of what we think of as “reality.” But at heart, it’s a story about a young woman who sets out on a quest to save someone.

Such quests are dangerous things. You can never be sure they’ll end up where you intended to arrive, and you will learn things you did not want to know.

Where did you get the idea for the plot of Spring’s Arcana?

The duology — really, it’s one big book split into two pieces — coalesced rather slowly. I’ve known for years I wanted to write it, but the time wasn’t quite right. There wasn’t a single “a-ha!” moment; it arrived very much as a matter of, “Well, the publisher likes the idea of Baba Yaga and I have four different stories featuring that grand lady; perhaps this one will suit best?” So…while I knew I was going to write this tale, I didn’t know when. The stars all lined up and I had a chance to do so with publisher support.

Is there a reason why Nat has to go to Manhattan to get the cure for her mom’s cancer, as opposed to Paris or Los Angeles or some other big city? Or a small town, for that matter?

Well, Nat has to go initially to Manhattan because she and her mother live in New York, and when going on a quest one usually starts close to home. And honestly, Baba Yaga chose Manhattan; I had very little say in it.

Of course, New York is often a first stop for immigrants too, and it follows that it might well the first landfall for a number of the deities or powers that travelers and refugees bring with them. I didn’t really question why Nat lived there initially; the story simply said, “This is where we are,” and I followed along.

That happens a lot to any writer, I suspect.

Marie Lu said Spring’s Arcana was a fantasy story, though it sounds like it could be a grimdark urban fantasy, or a grimdark sci-fi story. Or a mash-up of all those things, and more. I’m not really sure. How do you describe it?

Much of my work lies in the valleys or interstices between genres. I’ve learned to let the books be what they are during writing, not worrying overly much about genre or shelf placement. Once the work is actually written, then one can figure out how to use the tools of genre and cover art are to tell readers “this is what you might expect to find here.” But really, I view genres like Barbossa views the Pirate’s Code: more guidelines than absolutes.

Spring’s Arcana is not your first novel. Far from it. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Spring’s Arcana but not anything else you’ve written? Because it kind of reminds me of both Stephen King’s The Stand and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

Russian folktales, certainly, and books on Siberian prisons and “thief culture” in that harsh environment. Plus, there were a few philosophical and theological books feeding directly into The Dead God’s Heart; I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of humanity making gods, or divine beings accreting in response to natural conditions or a need in the world, consequently acquiring “personalities” as they do so. The idea of tulpas in some Buddhist thought, and of “servitors” in modern chaos magic, also fed several aspects of the books.

I should also mention C.J. Cherryh’s Russian trilogy, especially Chernevog. And naturally the John Wick movies, which my daughter adores.

I was actually about to ask if Spring’s Arcana was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games…?

I tend to be a very “filmic” writer; I see books in my head, and have often talked about the influence of certain directors on my work.

For The Dead God’s Heart, the major visual influence was probably [music video and movie director] Tarsem Singh. The ride to the desert well under the cherry tree was very much inspired by his movie The Fall, and the salt-black tree which figures heavily in the second book also takes a great deal from his aesthetic. Especially his TV show Emerald City, which just has stunning visuals.

There’s also a great deal of [director] Wong Kar-wai. In many of his movies, the more public the setting, like a restaurant or a street, the more achingly private the drama taking place is. And that idea — that gods and divinities and powers are right here in the visible world, going about their own business and their own heartbreaks — very much followed from that influence.

And what about your dogs and your cat? How did they influence Spring’s Arcana?

Our last remaining cat is very old, and has very little time to supervise me while writing anymore. Our dog Boxnoggin (not his real name, all our animals have Internet Names while they are alive for safety concerns) patrols the house while I work during the day, and keeps me up to date on anything (anything!) that happens upon the street.

My beloved Australian shepherd Bailey passed on while I was writing these books, which in one way was fitting because they are very much about grief and loss. I’m sure plenty of that grieving fueled and informed the books.

That’s also part of being a writer. Everything goes into the work.

Now, you’ve already said that Spring’s Arcana is the first half of a duology called The Dead God’s Heart, which will conclude August 8th with the release of The Salt-Black Tree. What was it about this story that made you realize it couldn’t be told in just one volume? Or, for that matter, that it didn’t need three or four or even more than that?

After writing a few novel-length works, one acquires almost a sixth sense about how many books a certain story needs. One can be proven wrong sometimes, naturally, but the longer one is about this kind of work, the more one can sort of feel out how a story is structured and how many books are needed. It’s akin to judging the stopping distance while learning to drive, and once learned that instinct is fine-tuned in a short period driving an unfamiliar car. You just have to figure out what car you’re driving.

I’ve also been very lucky that when I am insistent that a particular series needs X many books, or does not need another one because it has reached the right ending, my editors have listened. I’ve been very blessed in that regard.

Upon hearing that Spring’s Arcana is the first half of a duology, some people will decide to wait until The Salt-Black Tree comes out so they can read them back-to-back. Do you think that’s the best way to take in this story?

I would never presume to tell readers how to enjoy the books. I will say that Spring’s Arcana stops at the proper place, and that The Salt-Black Tree picks up right where the previous book ends, so there’s not a lot of “lag” story-wise between the two.

I am also somewhat known for throwing my readers in the deep end and letting them figure out what’s happening along with the characters. I tend to enjoy those kinds of stories myself, along with ambiguous endings and a great deal of picking up on the book’s “world” by inference and context.

Earlier you said you were “a very ‘filmic’ writer.” So, do you think Spring’s Arcana would work as a movie? Or maybe a TV show or game?

That’s a difficult question. To me, a lot of my own work is cinematic because I “see” it so clearly in my head. At the same time, there are a lot of peculiarities that might not translate over to visual storytelling, and of course any adaptation is naturally going to leave some things out. I’ve never had any work adapted; I suppose if it ever happens I’ll get the chance to see how someone else would interpret the work visually, which would be fascinating to me on an artistic level.

So, if someone wanted to adapt Spring’s Arcana into a movie or TV show, who would you want them to cast as Nat and the other main characters?

Casting is so difficult. Sometimes characters have a physical look that’s very much patterned on a particular actor. Ged Gizabón in HOOD, for example, is very much Richard Armitage, who I think would make a fantastic Dima Konets. And who wouldn’t want, say, Tilda Swinton in a move of one of their books? I think she’d make an unsettling, absolutely perfect Baba Yaga. I think the quality of compressed grief and sheer holding-on-by-fingernails Florence Pugh brought to her Midsommar role would be very close to Nat Drozdova’s state during most of the books, and in my head Ranger looks very much like Cleavon Little, who is sadly no longer with us. Mr. Priest was also inspired by the late and very much missed Lance Reddick’s amazing performance as Charon in the John Wick movies.

But all in all it’s very hard to say, because of course any actor is going to find things in a character that the writer will be surprised by, just as readers will. That’s part of the wonder of art and creation.

What if someone wanted to adapt Spring’s Arcana into a game?

I think anything can work as a game. Human beings love games, and we can turn anything into one. It would be fun to see some of my RPG-making friends do a divinities game, where you have to get through your initiation into godhood (or adulthood) without being eaten.

Because growing up is very much a process of navigating carnivorous shoals and riptides, or so it always seemed to me. Adulthood has its own perils, but the road to get there is particularly fraught with danger, and is something even divinities might struggle with.

So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Spring’s Arcana?

I’m sure a lot of people might be upset at the implicit questions about religion — what do we worship, is it worthy of worship, do these things even exist and does it matter whether they do or not — and about the mélange of influences and gods in the duology. But I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.

Lilith Saintcrow Spring's Arcana The Dead God's Heart The Salt-Black Tree

Finally, if someone enjoys Spring’s Arcana, which of your other novels would you recommend they check out while waiting for The Salt-Black Tree to come out?

A loaded question! If you’re looking for another Baba Yaga tale there’s Rattlesnake Wind; if you like the fairytale aspects there’s the Tales Of Beauty & Madness; if you like carnivorous magic there’s Ragged & Gallow; if you’re wanting something with some romance, well, I’ve written a lot. But really, what I’m hoping for is that Nat Drozdova’s journey reaches those readers who need it. As long as the story gives even one person some relief, or some pleasure, or the sense that they are not alone, every agonizing moment of bringing it to the shelf is worth it.



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