Congratulations Karah on the publication of your dazzling debut A Wolf for a Spell! A beautiful blend of adventure, magic and myth, A Wolf for a Spell tells the mesmerising tale of Zima, a fearless wolf, who forms an unlikely alliance with Baba Yaga to save her pack and the forest from the wicked tsar. What was the original inspiration behind this?
I think the very earliest moment was about 5 years ago, while rewatching one of my favorite childhood movies called The 10th Kingdom. The movie follows a woman who is transported into a world where fairytales really happened. She encounters a lot of fairytale-inspired characters, my favorite of which is a not-so-big-bad Wolf. I started thinking about how I'd love a story about just that character: a wolf who wants to prove that they aren't the villain. It wasn't a big leap from there to imagine the wolf encountering a witch who also isn't as evil as the stories say.
Rooted in Russian mythology, what first attracted you to this folklore, and did you carry out much research during the writing process?
My mom is Russian and Polish, so I've loved Russian fairytales since childhood. This was what really excited me as I worked on the book — realizing that I could combine this idea of a wolf-as-hero with the wolf from the Russian fairytale Ivan Tsarevich, the Firebird, and the Gray Wolf. For research I reread a lot of my favorite stories again, but the bigger bulk of the research was in trying to depict imperial Russian culture. Most of the fairytales are quite vague in their descriptions — they mention tsars, and castles, and fine dresses — but having to paint a picture for the reader took a lot more historical research than I was expecting. In addition to texts about history, I referenced poetry and paintings, because I wanted to capture the feeling of being immersed in a place, and not just details like what kinds of shoes they wore or what food a villager might have eaten.
What’s your favourite myth?
There was a Hans Christian Andersen story called The Traveling Companion. On the surface it's about a young man who is traveling after his father's death, defeats a troll, and marries a princess. But it has a twist that totally blew me away when I was six years old, and I reread it constantly. I don't want to give the ending away! You should read it.
If you had a house with chicken legs for the day, where would you go?
Right now? To Kentucky. I was just about to travel back from New Zealand to Kentucky when the pandemic hit. I'm very grateful to be safe here, but not being able to visit my family has been difficult, like it has for everyone.
At any other time... maybe Iceland? It depends on whether or not the hut is a good swimmer.
A Wolf for a Spell is told from the perspectives of Zima the wolf, Nadya, and Baba Yaga. Did you face any particular challenges balancing these three voices and identifying with each character?
I originally wrote the book entirely from Zima's point of view. But there was a problem in that Baba Yaga is on a quest of her own throughout much of the book, and readers kept telling me that they wanted to know more about where she was and what she was doing. The addition of Nadya's voice was actually very late in revisions. It was my editor Katherine who said that the book is all about a conflict between wolves, witches, and humans, and it would provide a nice symmetry to have chapters from all three. I loved the idea, and once I started playing around with shifting scenes to be from Nadya's perspective, I found that it added a lot to the story, and clarified some of the twists and turns. So it was actually a really satisfying process!
Throughout your story you explore themes surrounding resilience, solidarity and belonging. What do you hope readers take away from A Wolf for a Spell?
I think a key thing is deciding for yourself who you trust and who you care about. In the beginning the characters are all very frightened and suspicious of each other, because they've heard stories about wolves or witches or villagers being evil. And while some of them are, many are not.
A Wolf for a Spell is your debut novel, why was writing this book important to you, and do you have any tips/advice for aspiring authors?
It's hard to say why this book in particular was important, because there were a number of books that I wrote before it that were also special. But something about this story made me persevere. I kept revisiting and rewriting. When I got frustrated and put it away for a time, I kept returning to it. This was the book that persisted. And that's probably the key advice really: persist. Keep writing, keep querying, keep trying. So much of this business is the luck of sending the right book to the right person at the right time. The only way to improve those odds is by starting the next book, and the next after that.
What’s next for your writing journey?
I'm writing another middle grade book for Knopf! This one has swans in it.
This question is about your favourite children’s/YA books. What’s a book you loved as a child, a book you love now, and a book you can’t wait to read?
Loved as a child: Ella Enchanted
Love now: Eva Evergreen, Semi-Magical Witch by Julie Abe. This book is like eating cookies while wrapped in a warm blanket.
Can't Wait to Read: Sorry I'm going to cheat and name several! Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls by Kaela Rivera, Josephine Against the Sea by Shakirah Bourne, The Gilded Girl by Alyssa Colman, and The Last Fallen Star by Graci Kim.
If you could invite any five people – past and present, real and fictional – who would you invite and why?
Jim Henson, Jane Austen, Stephen Sondheim, Anne Shirley, and Leonardo da Vinci. I have no idea how well they would get along!
Karah Sutton is a former bookseller and a current children’s author. A Wolf for a Spell is inspired by her Russian heritage and the fairytales that have enchanted her since childhood. She splits her time between her home town in Kentucky and a house by the sea in New Zealand.