“I think that especially in fantasy, we need genuine emotions to ground our stories for the reader. Really, Zina’s story is quite human and everyday–just with one odd twist.”
The White Swallow (Gold Line Press, 2015)
In your acknowledgements I read that a white swallow in Bulgarian folklore symbolizes hope and healing. In what ways did the traditions and folklore of Bulgaria influence The White Swallow?
Bulgaria is there in small ways, in the food the characters eat, in the brandy they drink, in the sunflower fields that the girls hide in, which still dominate much of the roadside landscape. It’s there also in spirit: when I was little, I had a set of cassette tapes with Bulgarian children’s stories and fairytales on them that I would listen to over and over again. Some of these were dark and bloody originals, more like their Grimm Brothers’ counterparts than Disney movies. They didn’t always have happy endings, and even as a child, I liked that about them. I wanted The White Swallow to feel at home in the tradition of the folk tales that long predate it; it isn’t a happy or kind story in the end.
Like children’s stories the world over, the ones I grew up hearing also often had lessons to teach about how good girls should behave–that they should be self-sacrificing, clean, subservient. In the beginning, Zina and Hrista look quite like the girls who are heroes of those stories, but over the course of the book, they crack the mold. If they’d gotten older, I like to think they would have been more like the other women in the story, like Albena and Krasimira, who are independent and seem to enjoy doing things that displease their fellow villagers.
I find it fascinating that you are also a graphic designer. I had strong interest in graphic design for a short period of time and admire those who carry it into a career. Do you find that your graphic design work influences your writing, or vice versa?
Yes, I think there’s more similarity between the two fields than one would expect. I currently work primarily in web design, which is very human-focused. Good web design caters invisibly to the needs of a user, and the experience and interface designers behind it need a keen understanding of how people will interact with a site in order to do their work well–we talk about “user stories” in design, trying to predict what a user will want to accomplish so that we can design to accommodate them. It’s not so different from the way a writer needs to understand and anticipate their reader’s expectations in order to produce a story that can surprise and satisfy. I definitely think those skills can reinforce each other across disciplines.
Between graphic design and writing, do you use a routine or schedule to equally maintain both?
I work full-time as a designer, so writing unfortunately has to be a secondary pursuit. Luckily, a dear friend and I are both working on first novel drafts at the moment. Each week we trade pages, then cook dinner and cheerlead over a meal. It’s not a workshop, just a way for us to keep on task and stay excited for what we’re doing. The key is making sure your book cheerleader is the right person for the job–nothing saps my enthusiasm for writing faster than sharing an early idea with somebody who doesn’t get it. It’s really valuable to have a person on your side who you can trust to be enthusiastic about your project no matter how ill-defined it is.
In your interview at Kenyon Review, they asked what you’ve learned about the writing process in the last five years. Has anything progressed or changed in your writing process since writing The White Swallow?
I exclusively wrote short stories throughout college and my MFA program–The White Swallow being my longest finished piece to date. Now I’m trying to learn how to write a novel, where my natural brevity poses a challenge. I’ve spent most of this year in my planning documents, stringing together research and plot points into a coherent outline, which I’ve never had to do on this scale before, but I think I’m getting the hang of it. I also find it very helpful to remind myself from time to time that writing isn’t just typing.
In The White Swallow Zina experiences a coming of age and relinquishes selfless and sacrificial acts to help and heal people in her community. What influenced this character?
Historically and today, women are required to sacrifice their time, their health, and their emotional labor for the sake of husbands, children, and social good. Zina may have a unique ability, but what she gives of herself to others is all too common. It was important to me that her healing others should impact her in a visible way, and that she should be supported by other characters when it does. We so often demand this kind of effort from women and then ignore the cost to their own well-being; in this story, I wanted to make it an unavoidable fact.
When Hrista and Zina are seeking to heal something, she has the opportunity to try her powers on a dead rat. Zina says she doesn’t think her powers work on dead things, but Hrista affirms that the bird worked in her as a baby. Did you know you were going to write this scene upon beginning the chapbook or was it a point that came to be as you were writing?
At a certain point in the writing, it became clear that I needed to address the limitations of Zina’s powers, and also call attention to the fact that she is somehow special. Zina constantly deflects praise, positions herself as nothing more than a vessel for the swallow. She doesn’t realize that the bird recognized her potential strength, and then chose her because of it. I think Hrista and the narrator understand this, but sadly, Zina never sees it in herself.
I appreciate that you humanize Zina. For instance, “Zina shook her head, covered her heart with her hand. I think it’s excited, she said. I think it likes it when I make a shape it knows. I never noticed.” This reminded me, as the reader, she is just a girl and is coming to know, understand, and notice more about who she is and how she works. Did you have a particular method or purpose for doing this?
I never thought of Zina as anything other than human. As you say, she is a girl learning about herself, the same way any girl does in her coming of age, and she has some traits that I think are very easy to relate to–her willingness to sacrifice for her loved ones, her imposter syndrome, her jealousy and anxiety about the blacksmith’s son courting the girl she loves. I dislike stories that use fantastical set pieces to hide a missing heart; I think that especially in fantasy, we need genuine emotions to ground our stories for the reader. Really, Zina’s story is quite human and everyday–just with one odd twist.
What made you decide to write and publish a chapbook?
I had written this story, which was too long for most journals’ guidelines, and I was already wondering where I could place it. I heard about Gold Line Press’s Chapbook Competition from my MFA program’s alumni mailing list. It caught my attention because Aimee Bender was to be the final judge, and I adore her work. The publisher’s submission guidelines stressed their interest in self-contained works of fiction at chapbook length, so I had a work on my hands that fit both their guidelines and what I believed were the judge’s interests. Right place, right time!
Was it a challenge finishing this project? How did you start?
This story took much longer to write than most of what I’d done up to that point. I began working on a version of it the summer before I started my MFA program, and I sent out the final draft a few months after I graduated. The early draft was messier, with an extraneous frame that took up almost as much space as the primary narrative itself, and I spent those two years carving out the story I really wanted to tell. It was a constant background presence in my time as a grad student, but I didn’t submit any of it to workshop until my last semester in the program. My cohort were invaluable in helping me shed the last of the dead weight. By the time I left the program, the piece was quite close to its current form–the chapbook contest deadline was just the jolt I needed to finish it up and send it out into the world.
Hrista and Zina’s friendship is an endearing one to see develop. Again, there seems to be a recurring theme of coming of age through their friendship and Hrista being paired with the blacksmith’s son. Did the time period influence these themes?
At the workshop table, my classmates debated if–given the time and place of the story–the townspeople should be more bothered by the girls’ romance. The story of homosexuality in an intolerant time and place is important and sadly still relevant, but it wasn’t the story I was interested in writing. I wanted instead to explore the related and pervasive ideas that “girls don’t count,” and that girls and women are incapable of making decisions for themselves. Nobody is upset by Hrista and Zina’s relationship because they don’t believe it’s significant; they think it’s girlish nonsense, and that girls shouldn’t be taken seriously. The blacksmith’s son, the butcher–these men think they know better than Hrista what she needs in her life. These themes feel at home in the period setting, but they are also relevant today.
Are you more typically inspired by the past, present, or future in your writing?
It’s less the time period that inspires me and more the presence of the fantastic or strange. I like the unspecified, folkloric past of The White Swallow as a playground because I don’t feel too constrained by the rules of history–at the same time, the setting is built of the things in it, so I can’t go too wild with anachronism. I’m already asking the reader to accept a magical bird that heals the sick and wounded, so the world of story needs some realism to it for balance. Generally, though, I’m less interested in perfect historical accuracy than in the mood the place conveys. The novel I’m currently working on is set in a time and place similar to The White Swallow’s, in a village that believes it’s cursed. The setting is convenient–this sort of story is easier to write with a pre-Enlightenment cast. That said, I also love stories of an uncanny present, and speculative fiction or sci-fi that envisions our future. I think science fiction in particular offers a unique space to examine humanity, its strengths and its flaws, and I love that. I’ve been watching a lot of Star Trek lately–can you tell?
Your work is eloquent and fluent, and your imagery is effortlessly beautiful. I love sentences like “The blacksmith’s boy had carried Hrista like a bride all the way to the butcher’s barn.” Is there a particular author or work that inspires you to write?
Thank you! As a reader, I tend to abandon books that I don’t love; I’m always looking for the ones that will inspire me, so the answer to this question depends on what I’m reading right now–it’s Elena Ferrante at the moment. When I need to, I’ll return to old favorites–Margaret Atwood, George Saunders, Lolita, to name a few–but by far best trick I’ve found to beat writer’s block is a mini-marathon of Button Poetry videos or a reading in a bar on a Friday night. There’s so much incredible talent emerging on the literary scene right now, and there’s nothing more inspiring to me than a friend’s great work.
Anna Kovatcheva was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, and holds an MFA in fiction writing from New York University. The White Swallow was selected by Aimee Bender as the winner of the 2014 Gold Line Press Fiction Chapbook Competition, and was published in 2015. Anna’s stories have appeared in Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Kenyon Review, and The Iowa Review. She lives in New York City, where she works as a graphic designer. In her off hours, Anna writes about Slavic folklore and teenage girls conspiring to murder.