An interview with Yaroslav Barsukov

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Yaroslav Barsukov
Risingshadow has had an opportunity to interview Yaroslav Barsukov, who is the author of the fantasy novella Tower of Mud and Straw.

About Yaroslav Barsukov:

After leaving his ball and chain at the workplace, Yaroslav Barsukov goes on to write stories that deal with things he himself, thankfully, doesn’t have to deal with. He’s a software engineer and a connoisseur of strong alcoholic beverages - but also, surprisingly, a member of SFWA and Codex (how did that happen?). At some point in his life, he’s left one former empire only to settle in another.

About Tower of Mud and Straw:


Minister Shea Ashcroft refuses the queen's order to gas a crowd of protesters. After riots cripple the capital, he's banished to the border to oversee the construction of the biggest anti-airship tower in history. The use of otherworldly technology makes the tower volatile and dangerous; Shea has to fight the local hierarchy to ensure the construction succeeds — and to reclaim his own life.

Tower of Mud and Straw by Yaroslav Barsukov
He must survive an assassination attempt, find love, confront the place in his memory he'd rather erase, encounter an ancient legend, travel to the origin of a species — and through it all, stay true to his own principles.

Climbing back to the top is a slippery slope, and somewhere along the way, one is bound to fall.


Could you tell us something about yourself in your own words?

Not everyone knows the Sphinx presented Oedipus with a second riddle, the one the good old King of Thebes couldn’t solve. Who speaks Russian in the morning, German in the afternoon, and English at night?

That would be me :) This isn’t something extraordinary—many expats do the same. We’re boats perpetually tossed between currents. And our future is a reflection of our past: I left one former empire only to settle in another, trading the dead USSR for the westernmost splinter of Austria-Hungary.

What inspired you to become a speculative fiction author?

If I tell you, “My knee hurts,” do you feel anything? What about “Damn, it’s like somebody sanded my knee to the bone?” I bet you’ve just reached down to scratch your leg.

Our brain loves running simulations. This is how we experience the world. You see someone massaging a pulled muscle, wincing, and your mirror neurons activate. What are they feeling? Does it hurt? Is it dangerous? When people say they suffer through others’ pain, it’s actually God’s honest truth.

I think that’s how cavemen survived, how the lucky ones evaded sickness and death. Speculative fiction engages the same mechanism, only it takes it to the extreme. The brain encounters a strange world, but does not know it’s not real; it has to probe it. It builds the world up from the blueprint.

Magic exists—on the pages of fantasy and sci-fi. And I’ve always wanted to be a magician.

Your novella, "Tower of Mud and Straw", is a well-constructed and fascinating tale that combines various elements in a compelling way. How did you come up with the idea of writing this novella?

I saw the novella in a dream. I rarely get vivid dreams, but this one I remember: looking through the foliage at a Renaissance facade, knowing somehow I was in a province, on the border, that I’d been banished there. There was humiliation, but also a sense of wonder: somewhere behind that facade hid magic.

Another thing was, I wanted to write about architects and artisans. I briefly toyed with the idea of an architect main character, but my knowledge in this area is non-existent and my laziness is great. So there you go—we've got Shea who, in order to save innocent lives, defies his queen and is sent to the border to oversee the construction of the biggest defensive tower in history. Tower that is held together by devices brought by refugees from another world.

On the human level, it’s a story about how our past relationships shape the future ones, about wanting to get back to a certain place in your past. It’s driven by my own desire to return to my Avalon, of course. Which I’ll never be able to do.

Could you tell us something about the protagonist, Minister Shea Ashcroft? What kind of a man is he?

He’s a tortured fellow. Remember what I said about expats being boats tossed between the currents? Shea’s like that, too. He craves grandeur, but he wants to do the right thing. He makes hard decisions, trying to assuage his conscience afterwards—and when that proves impossible, he reaches for the bottle.

Yet in the end, he still does the right thing.

Your novella has a fascinating and intriguingly detailed fantasy world. Did you find it challenging to create this fantasy world?

Not really—in many ways, it felt like a culmination of years’ worth of internal work I didn’t realize I’d been doing. Looking back on my short fiction now, the themes were there, germinating.

The result may have its flaws, but I said exactly what I’d set out to say.

Did you have to do research before or during the writing process?

Oh yes! The novella plays loose with time periods—you’ve got airships, medieval castles, and industrial revolution-era workshops—so I could incorporate a lot of things I’d already known. Still, how does an 18th century workshop look on the inside? What is the physics of the air battering you at the feet of a skyscraper? What is the foundation radius of the Empire State Building?

Are you planning on writing more stories that are set in the same world?

When I was outlining the novella, ideas emerged for a sequel—for me, a continuation of this story would be absolutely natural. It took me by surprise that many reviewers have perceived the Tower’s ending as something final. I did write it to be able to stand on its own, but even though—without spoiling anything—some characters are dead by the end of the book, the fate of at least three remains open.

I know what happens in the sequel, but am I really planning to write it? I guess that depends on whether Tower is successful, and whether there’s interest for more.

How would you advertise "Tower of Mud and Straw" to potential readers?

It's got some unusual worldbuilding and characters. As already mentioned, the novella is very eclectic in terms of culture and time periods, blending standard medieval elements with industrialization and late 19th century, and incorporating Russian and Austro-Hungarian influences. Not a classical fantasy, not a steampunk, not a gaslamp. The story revolves around what is essentially a flak tower, an anti-airship stronghold—and once you drop a thousand foot-tall flak tower into the middle of a fantasy tale, all bets are off as to what will happen. Miltos Yerolemou, who famously played Syrio Forel in Game of Thrones, said the novella “would surprise readers,” and I agree.

As for the characters, you’ve got a disgraced minister, a chief engineer, and a political émigré. Of the principal players, two are men and three are women.

Is there anything you'd like to add?

Risingshadow is one of my favorite fantasy blogs—it feels great to be here! Thank you for the interesting questions.