Power Plays: Journeys in the Zemnian Empire with E.P. Clark

I came across E.P. Clark’s work when I participated in the Brain to Books Cyber Convention last April. Like Guy Gavriel Kay (one of my favorite authors), Clark writes not-quite-historical fantasies, and her Zemnian Trilogy is inspired by Russian history and geography. Each story in the Zemnian Trilogy is divided into two volumes; Clark has just released the second story, The Breathing Sea, Parts I and II, and I recently finished reading both volumes in the first story, The Midnight Land, which follows a princess called Krasnoslava Tsarinovna, aka Slava, as she journeys above the Arctic Circle and finds confidence and power through her dealings with malevolent spirits, bandits, gods, courtiers, and her own sister, the Empress of Zem.

I loved The Midnight Land (see my reviews of Part I and Part II on Goodreads), and found the story so thought-provoking I asked E.P. to join me here for an interview. Her answers made me even more excited about her work, and I can’t wait to dig into The Breathing Sea.


Q: I see from your bio that you’re a professor of Russian language. What led you to that profession?

My “day job” is teaching Russian language and literature, which people have let me know is a pretty unusual profession. My family moved from Kentucky to central Russia shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and I studied Russian quite intensely while I was there. When I came back to the US and started Russian, I already had this rare and rather difficult skill under my belt, but I wasn’t planning to go into academics. I was much more interested in international relations and things like peace and security studies, and then later, translation. I decided somewhat on a whim to apply to an MA program in Russian translation, and rather to my surprise, I got in. I didn’t realize that Columbia University was an Ivy League school until I went to visit it after being admitted, and everyone was like, “Oh my God! You got into Columbia! Tell me your secret!” After graduating, I was going through the painfully slow process of applying for government jobs in security and intelligence, and while I was waiting I applied, once again on a whim, for a couple of PhD programs. I got into the one at UNC-Chapel Hill while I was still cooling my heels waiting to hear back from various agencies, so I decided to go do that for a while.

I’d like to say that getting my actual teaching job was equally serendipitous, but it wasn’t. By the time I had finished my PhD I had drunk the ivory tower Koolaid, and I applied mainly for academic jobs, despite the fact that the job market had imploded and thousands of PhDs were collecting public assistance even though they had teaching jobs. The only thing less successful than my struggles to get academic jobs, however, were my pathetic attempts to get non-academic jobs, and unfortunately, I have never been able to completely kick my eating habit, and bankruptcy doesn’t make student loans go away, so getting some kind of employment was essential. Through several years of intense and unremitting effort, I did get an academic job in my field of specialization.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that when my heroines slog through a lengthy series of painful adventures, that’s a pretty accurate reflection of my actual life experiences, only in the books I add magic.

Q: Your bio also mentions some “unexpected adventures” in Russia. Can you tell us about some of these and how it might have inspired some aspect of The Midnight Land?

Hmmm…adventures in Russia…where to begin, where to begin…Well, this is actually a conflation of two different adventures, but there’s a scene in The Midnight Land Part I in which Slava, the heroine, is skiing through thick snow and she accidentally goes off the road and she gets scared and tells herself that all she has to do is turn around and she’ll end up back on the path. When we lived in Russia we used to go cross country skiing all the time, which was a big deal for me, since hitherto I had spent most of my life in Kentucky and couldn’t even begin to comprehend what real winter was. I remember walking across town with my class (I attended a local high school) the first January I was there and seeing my breath freeze on the back of the coat of the person in front of me, and literally not being able to believe how cold I was. Anyway, we used to go back country skiing all the time, which was great fun and often ended up with us floundering around up to our waists in snow. So one of the things I wanted to convey in the book was that very visceral sense of skiing through the deep woods, in heavy snow, with a cold so intense it would cause your breath to freeze your hair to your hat.

The second part of the experience was actually in Belgium, not Russia. We had gone there to renew our Russian visas, since you had to leave the country to do that. I was traveling around Brussels on the metro, which was the first time I had traveled around a strange city by myself. At the time I didn’t speak any French or German, so I was basically helpless. I got on a train going the wrong way, and I still remember the moment of panic, like a lightning strike to the chest, when I realized what had happened, and how I calmed myself down by telling myself all I had to do was get off the train, walk across the platform, and get on the train going the other way. So Slava experiences both those things at that moment, although her adventures end up being a lot more exciting than mine.

There was also some getting used to having automatic weapons pointed at you on a regular basis, but to be honest that didn’t bother me as much, and I haven’t worked it into my stories yet. Most of my memories are about semi-magical times in the woods, the physical hardships we underwent along with the rest of the country, and how incredibly welcoming most people were to us even though they had very little themselves and most Americans did nothing to endear themselves to their Russian hosts. Seeing things from a Russian perspective was a fundamental change in my understanding of the world.

Q: Did you ever go above the Arctic Circle or to Russia’s north coast?

I did go above the Arctic Circle—but in Finland, not Russia, and in the summer, not the winter. There was still snow, though! Those experiences are the basis for some stuff in The Breathing Sea and The Dreaming Land. While in Russia, one of the most significant experiences I had that influenced a number of things in the books was a trip I took with my family out to Lake Baikal, in central Siberia. For example, the prayer trees with their ribbons (something that becomes a central motif in the later books) were something I encountered for the first time out there. And it was just dang cold, even though it was already spring! The intense cold and darkness in The Midnight Land mainly come from my experiences in central Russia, though, where even though it was below the Arctic Circle it got down to -40 degrees our first winter there.

Q: About a year ago, I (re)read Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, which like The Midnight Land Part I, contains a long journey on skis. Did any books inspire Slava’s journey, or did the whole story emerge from your own experiences?

It’s a cliché, but I admit I was inspired to start the whole thing in part by reading A Game of Thrones. I got an advance copy through no merit of my own and was just stunned by how amazing it was. The adventures of the Black Watch in the cold were in the back of my mind—or sometimes in the front—as I wrote about Slava’s journey through the snow.

Another important well-known fantasy book that inspired me was The Golden Compass, in which the characters make a trip up to Svalbard. I actually re-read the book on my first flight to Finland, as I was preparing to go to the Arctic for the first time.

But the main literary inspiration were stories and movies about the Arctic and Antarctic explorers, especially things I read and watched about Shackleton and The Endurance, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica. There were some unsuccessful attempts to reach the South Pole using skis, but the first successful attempt was with sled dogs, half of whom were killed for food, something that was planned ahead of time. So my characters take sled dogs and worry about having to eat them.

Q: One of the most fascinating things about The Midnight Land was the reversed gender power relationships, where the institutional and internalized biases of society and individuals favored the female over male. We live in a world of men, where grammar books tell us that we may use “man” to mean “human.” Zem is a world of women, where “woman” equals “human.” What inspired you to create the female-centric world of Zem?

The gender reversal was something I knew I wanted to do right from the beginning, but it was by far the most difficult thing to work into the story, and I only feel somewhat satisfied with how it turned out. Which means it was an excellent exercise, since it forced me to confront all the gender biases embedded in our culture and our language, even for people like me who have considered themselves committed feminists from childhood.

I wanted to do it because I had always resented very strongly the sexism and misogyny I encountered starting in early childhood, and I just couldn’t believe that women were naturally “inferior” to men, and meant to be submissive to them. I myself didn’t feel very submissive at all, and inferiority is a matter of perspective. Inferior at what? At tasks designed to showcase male superiority, that’s what. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy and a vicious circle that I wanted to break out of.

At the same time, most of the gender-reversal stories I’d read were profoundly unsatisfying, and upheld misogynistic stereotypes rather than dismantling them (role reversals tend to do that). And none of it reflected the reality of how the people I knew actually thought and behaved. Also, once again my exposure to Russian culture was eye-opening, because it tends to uphold strict gender roles and explicitly macho behavior in men, but women and femininity tend to get a lot more power and respect than Westerners would expect. Some of the original tribes in what is now Russia were matriarchal, and you can still see the pagan matriarchal underlayer beneath the macho, male-dominated overlayer of Vikings and Mongols, Christianity and Islam.

So as I wrote, I tried to create a society where gender roles remained similar to what we know, but the power dynamic was reversed, and I tried to come up with the kind of logical reasons for female rule that have been used to prop up male dominance—e.g., women live longer, they learn to speak and read more quickly, descent through the female line is much easier to keep track of, and so on. And then I tried to present it with the same uncomplicated acceptance that we accept our own gender power dynamics in our own society. Which was much harder than I thought it would be, something that was enlightening and frustrating in equal measure.

Q: The uncomplicated acceptance was an aspect that intrigued me, because bias favoring males is so deeply entrenched in our contemporary society. Another writer friend and I were commiserating over the fact that we had set out to write books that met the Bechdel Test, and we still had more male than female POV characters! As I read The Midnight Land, I thought about present-day societies where women’s roles are still severely proscribed, and how it’s the mothers who probably do the most to enforce and propagate women’s subjugation. Was this something you thought about as you crafted this piece of your world?

Yes, it’s so difficult to pass the Bechdel Test even when you’re really trying! That’s something I thought about a lot, and it’s also something that’s a recurring theme in Russian literature—the oppression of oppressed people by other oppressed people, and particularly the oppression of women by other women. I wanted to explore that thought, and in particular explore the possibility that maybe women’s good qualities, such as the ability to love unselfishly someone different from yourself, like, say, men, could lead to the oppression of other women.

Q: As a reader I never came across a depiction of your gender reversals where I thought, “oh, that was a slip-up where she failed to flip the power dynamics.” Can you give us an example of one of the difficulties you encountered in making this swap, or alternatively, an example of something you wish you had done better?

Glad to hear that! I did struggle a lot with the gendered nature of language, especially since I was writing in English but trying to think as much as possible in Russian, which is an even more gendered language than English. I had to go back and fix a lot of places where I had made the default for “human” as male, and change that to female, and then reconcile myself to the fact that it looked “weird” to me.

Something that was much more difficult, though, was trying to make the male characters. I wanted them to be recognizably masculine/male, but with some of the negative personality traits that we associate with women but that are the result of being second-class citizens. And I wanted to make the male characters who were unhappy with their assigned roles both sympathetic and stridently silly, kind of like how early (and modern) feminists are often depicted. That turned out to be super-difficult, and I’m only sort of satisfied with how it turned out, but since we don’t really have any role models for me to work from, it’s hard to say how well I did. I also wanted to make my male characters complex and sympathetic, and wouldn’t you know it, that’s actually quite easy to do—but it just sucks you right back into a male-centered worldview. Our default is that men, especially men with problems that make them act out and misbehave, are worthy of our sympathy and understanding, but women are evil, even women with problems that make it difficult for them to be selfless and kind, so I kept falling into the “poor man, mistreated by the mean women” trap and having to claw my way out of it.

I also tried to think seriously about how men would really be treated in a matriarchal, female-dominated society, and how that would differ from how women are treated in a patriarchal, male-dominated society. I decided that they would probably be restricted and infantilized, and their opinions discounted, but there would be much less overt violence and hatred aimed at them. So most of the violence and mistreatment that the men face in my society is something they do to themselves. My depictions of it are heavily based on Russian/Soviet military and prison camp writing, which takes a good hard look at male-on-male violence and blames a lot of the abuse that occurs in these all-male institutions on the fact that they are all-male.

Which brings us to a great big elephant in the room for a lot of contemporary Western gender theory, at least as far as I can tell, which is the problem of male violence and the worrisome probability that men really are just much more prone to physical violence, as well as hierarchical forms of government (Putin’s infamous “vertical of power,” for instance). So my women do have very real and pressing reasons to police their men’s behavior and restrict their access to power, since all the male-run societies they see around them are incredibly dangerous and hostile, especially to women. How to integrate men into society as full citizens and give them access to power is something my characters wrestle with throughout the series, because it’s something they attach increasing importance to, but they are not blind to the dangers.

Q: Slava’s powers are centered around an impulse toward mercy rather than violence. What inspired you to explore this theme in your work?

Slava’s focus on mercy was part of my attempt to reverse gendered valuations of behavior. I wanted to create a hero whose heroism was in her unselfish, selfless behavior—a very “female” hero, especially in the Russian tradition, which values female mercy highly. I was particularly thinking of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita as I wrote it. I wanted to show mercy as a positive trait, but at the same time examine how you need some backbone as well in order for it to have meaning. Slava has to learn how to stand up for herself and take what is rightfully hers—to “act like a man”—while still retaining the mercy that is at the core of her nature.

Q: Slava’s adventures take her from the intrigue-filled halls of her sister’s palace to encounters with bandits, malevolent and benign tree and animal spirits, pagan gods, and the forces of nature, and back to palace intrigue. What can we expect in The Breathing Sea?

The Breathing Sea, the next installment in the series, as well as The Dreaming Land, the last part, which is still in the editing and revision phase, all follow there-and-back-again narrative arcs in which the central heroine leaves Krasnograd (“Beautiful City”), has adventures in the wilderness, and comes back to the city a changed woman, better able to occupy her place in the difficult world of high-court intrigue that she must navigate whether she wishes it or not. The difference is in the heroines, who are all distinct characters, in the seasons, and in the magic. The Breathing Sea begins in spring and ends at midsummer and follows a teenage girl who must learn how to control her magical gifts, which are much stronger than Slava’s. The Dreaming Land follows a headstrong warrior princess who has to learn how to put down her sword and cultivate the mercy in her heart, and begins in midsummer and ends in autumn, thus completing the cycle (The Midnight Land begins in early winter).

I suppose the biggest development in The Breathing Sea, other than the continuing development of the series-long plot arc, is its heavier focus on magic. Dasha, the heroine in The Breathing Sea, has out-of-control magical gifts which she spends a lot of time working to master. There is also a greater focus on human-animal relationships and what we would now call ecology and environmentalism. Although gender relations still play a major role, I move somewhat away from that to contemplating human interactions with non-human beings and the natural environment.

Q: You allude to some troublemaking foreign influences in The Midnight Land, both in the capital and out in the provinces. Do these forces play a role in The Breathing Sea?

Yes, those troublesome foreign influences play a major role in The Breathing Sea! That’s another difference between it and The Midnight LandTBS is less insular and more international, with several non-Zemnian major characters. I actually went back and added in hints to future developments in The Midnight Land after I had finished the later books in the series. Again, I try to reverse Western expectations and present things from a Zemnian (read: “Russian”) point of view, although Zem is only loosely related to the real Russia, especially in the foreign policy realm—it’s much more benevolent than the real Russia (Zemnians would say that’s because Russian women let their men get out of hand and apply their militaristic values to the entire society).

One thing that comes up as a major theme in both The Breathing Sea and The Dreaming Land in relation to troublesome outside influences is the issue of slavery and freedom. Our English/Western word “slave” comes from “Slav,” and Eastern Europe has historically been a center of slavery, both within its borders and as an exporter of slaves to other, more affluent regions. This is still the case, in fact: for example, while it’s hard to track exact numbers of sex trafficking victims, the largest number of them seem to be from Russia and Ukraine. So in the later books the Zemnians find themselves in a fight against slave trafficking even as they live in an unequal and exploitative society that forces people to turn to slavery as the best out of a set of bad options, just like in the real Eastern Europe.

Q: What’s next for EP Clark?

What’s next? Well, I’m working on getting The Dreaming Land, the final part of the series, out by next year. Then I also have some other projects in the pipeline, one a series of short (I bet you weren’t expecting that!) stories set in an alternative Renaissance Florence, and another that I suspect may turn into another epic fantasy series, this time about dragons. I’m still mulling that one over in my mind, but it’s starting to come together and I’m hoping to be able to begin writing a first draft as soon as I finish revising The Dreaming Land.

 

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