Welcome to the third installment in the author interview series! If you love learning more about the brains behind the books, you’re in the right place. Today’s interview is with Jessica Leake, the author of Through the White Wood, which was featured in the April 2019 ‘Animal Companions’ themed box. And also Beyond a Darkened Shore, which was featured in the April 2018 ‘Northern Myths’ box. I hope you enjoy this one as much as I did!

photo by @read_by_a.cave

Can you describe what sparked the idea for Through the White Wood?

I’ve always loved Russian folklore, particularly stories about Baba Yaga, Vasilisa the Beautiful, and the Firebird. I loved how the characters in the stories were both frightening and beautiful, wise and foolish. Russia has such a rich culture, and I wanted to showcase some of that in this book. Russian folklore personified winter by calling him Old Man Winter, so I took a lot of inspiration from that, as well as the story of the Snow Queen. I knew I wanted to stick with magic that complimented the seasons and nature, so after I decided upon ice for Katya, I just continued the natural element theme. Because medieval Russian culture was already steeped with folklore and magic, it lent itself to being combined with the magical abilities of my characters.

What was the process like in writing this book? And how did publishing your first YA book change your process of writing this one, if at all?

It was different in that I had to write under a pretty tight deadline, which was fairly new to me, and it was also different in that I had to outline and develop a synopsis before writing! But probably the best part was that I had my editor to work with while drafting. We made a good team because I would draft the book in a certain order, and then she read over it and realized some of the scenes would have a much greater impact. The scene with Babushka, for example, was at the end of the book originally, but my editor had the idea to move it to an earlier chapter.

A few characters we came to know and love in Beyond a Darkened Shore make an appearance in Through the White Wood. Did you know they were going to appear before you started, or did they surprise you as you wrote?

I decided to include them when I discovered in my research that the first prince of Russia was actually a Viking, and the Vikings had trade routes that led all the way to Constantinople. It seemed natural that Leif would want a piece of that trade action! But they were only meant to have a small role. Of course, their natural lust for battle quickly overcame that, and before I knew it, they were in chapters instead of just a few scenes .

What is one thing you learned about yourself while writing your most recent book?

That I’m capable of drafting a book really fast if I outline first. That was news to me, lol. Through the White

Wood was featured in the April ‘Animal Companions’ themed Unicorn Crate. Do you have any animal companions and if so do tell us all about them! 😊

I do! I have two dogs: a sheltie named Gryphon (he’s 14 now and still follows me everywhere — he’s my buddy), and a Havanese named Cody (he’s young and the perfect pup for the kids). I also have a coop full of chickens! The numbers tend to fluctuate with chickens — I always get more chicks in the spring, so there are a bunch right now, and then I usually end up selling the roosters — but it’s generally around 15.

Did you have to do any research for Through the White Wood? Was there a particularly difficult scene to write?

So much research! The book is set during a little-known time period in Russian history: the eleventh century, when the country was young and ruled by a grand prince instead of a tsar, and the capital was still Kiev and not Moscow. The time period was challenging in and of itself, but it’s always challenging to combine history and fantasy, to choose which historical events to retain and which to tweak to fit my story.

As for difficult scenes to write, battle scenes are always tricky, even though I enjoy writing them. I frequently lose track of characters and often have to make stick-figure diagrams for accountability! There are threads woven throughout this book inspired by Russian folklore.

What are a few of your favorite Russian folktales?

Whoops, I think I answered this in the first one, but I’ll reiterate that Vasilisa the Beautiful (or Wise) is my favorite of the ones I listed. My kids love for me to tell that story, and sometimes I’ll tell it as we’re driving around to various extracurricular activities. The more gruesome I make it, the more they like it, lol.

If you had an elemental power like Katya, what would it be?

Water! I love the water. Even as a teen, when all my friends wanted to lie around on the beach and tan, I wanted to play in the water.

Who are a few favorite authors that have influenced you as a writer?

Robin McKinley, for one. I adore any of her fairytale retellings. Katherine Arden, Leigh Bardugo, and Evelyn Skye for their beautiful books set in Russia or influenced by Russian culture. Laini Taylor and Holly Black because anything they write is magical.

What book are you most looking forward to reading this summer?

Finale, by Stephanie Garber because I absolutely adore that trilogy! Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson because after An Enchantment of Ravens, she became one of my fav authors. I’ve also been reading adult suspense and thrillers lately as a study of fast-moving plots, so I’m sure I’ll read some more this summer.

Do you have a favorite TV show or movie?

So many! I love a wide range of shows: everything from anime and k-dramas to period dramas like Downton Abbey and Victoria, to Marvel movies and thrillers. The only thing I won’t watch is horror — I’m easily terrified and then my imagination takes over after watching, and then I’m afraid to go to the bathroom by myself later that night.

The classic island question: If you were to be stranded on an island for many years, what book would you hope to have with you?

Something with a lot of depth and hidden meanings — like The Lord of the Rings trilogy. That’s a book that can be read over and over while still discovering new things each reread.

Thanks so much for answering a few questions, Jessica! I just love that you make stick-figure diagrams to work out your battles scenes. Thanks for writing such magical, entertaining books. We can’t wait to read more of your work!

Once upon a time, Jessica Leake was a psychotherapist, but even though she loved her clients, she couldn’t stop writing.
She wrote and wrote until she got her first book published, and then she wrote some more. In between all that writing she had four beautiful and hilarious children with her husband (best friend and man she’s known since high school; also hilarious), moved back to her adopted hometown of Greenville, SC, built a chicken coop, and got a bunch of chickens that poop breakfast every morning. She also has two dogs to keep the chickens in line. (The dogs made her write that last bit.)

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