Hi, everyone! Petrik here. I hope all of you are having a great day! Today, we have our first guest post to ever appear on Novel Notions. Please welcome Sarah Chorn, the author behind the recently released debut: Seraphina’s Lament. I’ve read this book almost two months ago and I will say that if you’re a grimdark fantasy reader, you have to give this book a go. You can find my full spoiler-free review on the blog. Without further ado, Sarah Chorn will be talking about the main inspirations behind her debut!
On the Holodomor and Fantasy Influences
It’s hard for me to talk about Seraphina’s Lament without talking about the Holodomor.
The Holodomor took place in 1932-1933 in Ukraine. This was a period of widespread starvation and millions of tragic deaths.
Stalin passed a series of policies in Ukraine that dramatically impacted Ukrainian life. He had done away with traditional ways by relegating individuals to communal farms. His drive for modernization took a bunch of people from the countryside and stuffed them into crowded factories in the cities. Farm equipment was owned by the state, as were animals. People had to essentially borrow necessary farming implements from state officials. They were often broken, or in states of ill repair. I read tons of stories about how entire families would weep when officials would come to take their family cow away, because they knew that without their cow, they would die.
Eventually, Stalin increased his grain requisition quota, in spite of the fact that actual grain production was steadily decreasing across Ukraine. The amount of grain he was requiring people to turn over to the state would leave nothing for the Ukrainian people. Knowing this, he sent his secret police and soldiers around the countryside to search homes, and find hidden food. Many secret police, in fact, were paid with food rather than money. Some officials and soldiers were reportedly ordered to climb trees and look for smoke coming from chimneys in villages. If there was a fire burning, it meant that family hadn’t turned all their food over to the state. They were to raid the house, find what those people had, and take it from them.
Image and following description taken from education.holodomor.ca
“This is an image taken in 1932-1933 and depicts officials standing on a villager’s property, outside the house, looking for food stored in the ground. They did this by using long, thin rods that they would press into the ground in what would seemingly be soft locations. If the rod went into the ground and abruptly stopped, they would then dig to see what had stopped the rod. In this picture, you can see two barrels had been found and confiscated using this method.”
Kulaks (land owners) were arrested and sent to gulags (when it got really bad, some people even volunteered to be sent to the gulags), meanwhile, those left in the countryside were often times forced out of their homes, and/or lost all their food to state officials. Ukraine was starving. Cannibals roamed the countryside. People were desperate, eating anything and everything they could to survive. Mass graves became commonplace.
Between 1932-1933, it is estimated that somewhere between 3.3-7 million people died from starvation in Ukraine.
This is what Seraphina’s Lament is based on. It’s dark, and largely unknown to the wider world. I had to do a lot of reading and research to get some of the details right. While my book is set in a secondary world, I wanted to weave enough of the real world into it to be able to make it real. Straddling the line between fantasy and reality isn’t as easy. I had to do a ton of research, and then figure out how to take that research and both keep it real enough for readers to be able to draw upon it from our own history, but fantastic enough to fit into my secondary world.
What started out as researching one event mostly for the hell of it, quickly spiraled. I couldn’t really understand the Holodomor until I understood Stalin. Then, I couldn’t really understand Stalin until I learned a bit more about Lenin. I couldn’t understand Lenin until I learned more about the Russian Revolution, and I couldn’t understand that until I knew more about the last three Tsars (at least, but especially Nicholas II), and WWI.
Essentially, what started out as a random trip to the historical nonfiction section of my library to pick up the books Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montifiore, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder, Red Famine by Anne Applebaum, and Lenin by Victor Sebestyen turned into over a year of historical research that culminated in a series of books on Stalin (that total around 6,000 pages) sitting on my bookshelf (which just thrills my husband, let me tell you), and the book Seraphina’s Lament.
These books hugely influenced my writing of Seraphina’s Lament, but I also learned that, while I did a ton of historical research for this book, there is no such thing as doing too much. Being able to put things in context helped me a lot. Not just understanding the details, but understanding why – what led to this happening, how people reacted, and as much of the impact on society as I possibly could helped me weave details into my book that I think it otherwise would have lacked.
That being said, historical nonfiction books aren’t the only ones that influenced me in the writing of Seraphina’s Lament.
I’ve always been quite enamored by the ability some authors have to pair dark themes and intense stories with stunning poetic and lyrical prose. The juxtaposition of beautiful writing and all that darkness has always enchanted me. Authors like Mark Lawrence, who marry the two so well, and Steven Erikson, have taught me a lot about how the style of the prose can help balance out a dark book.
I listened to Margaret Atwood’s books about a hundred times while I wrote Seraphina’s Lament as well. She has an uncanny ability to play with words, and use them in the simplest, but most powerful way to drive her point home. Once I got past the story, and started listening to how she weaves her sentences together, I ended up learning a lot.
Catherynne M. Valente is one of my favorite fantasy authors, and another one that I listened to a bunch of times just to pick apart her sentences and study how she tells the story she is telling. Specifically, Six-Gun Snow White, which has a directness and poetry to it that will never get old, no matter how many times I read or listen to it.
Seraphina’s Lament was influenced by a lot of different books and people, all those authors that have come before, and taught me so much through their excellent books. It’s also influenced by a dark bit of history that more people should know about. However, in the end it is all my dark, twisted little creation and I hope you enjoy it.