Book Country Member Spotlight Q&A
“Writing is an apprenticeship.” –Nicholas Kotar
Nicholas Kotar is a Book Country member and a full-time theology student in the seminary. He comes from a Russian family, who didn’t teach him to speak English until he figured it out for himself around age four. In his free time, he leads choirs in Orthodox chant. When he’s not studying, he’s out traveling somewhere—looking for the Siren who came to him once, and sang the beginning of his first novel, Raven Son.
Nevena: Thanks for joining us, Nicholas. How did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
Nicholas: I don’t actually remember when I started. I just remember writing. I still have one of my early stories—a terrible Star Wars rip-off called “Duels of Space,” complete with pencil drawings of laser-swords and blasters. Then I read The Lord of the Rings. That was it. I never stopped writing after that.
Nevena: How do you fit writing into your life?
Nicholas: I honestly don’t know. Right now I’m studying full time at a Russian seminary in the middle of gorgeous nowhere, and also conducting the choir for church services, and working as an assistant editor at a small publishing company, and translating a 600-page non-fiction book from Russian to English. But occasionally it’s like Dostoevsky described—the chick starts to peck at its shell, and you can’t keep it in. When that happens, I’ll just put nearly everything else aside until the torrent of words starts running out.
Nevena: The muse just descends upon you! So what draws you to the fantasy genre?
Nicholas: Tolkien and Lewis were my favorite authors in childhood (in English, that is), not only because they tell a good story, but because they write beautiful language. That’s what I look for in fantasy—glimmers of transcendent beauty in the language, the story, the characters. And yes, that does mean that my fantasy reading is limited almost exclusively to Tolkien, Lewis, LeGuin, and Gene Wolfe (he’s a recent discovery).
Nevena: I noticed your fiction is influenced by Russian folklore. What’s unique about it?
Nicholas: I could tell you, if you had about four hours of free time! That’s like asking what’s unique about the Russian people. I think what I find most interesting is how comfortably these stories jump tonally from serious to hilarious to absolutely horrifying and back again. Death is never far from any of the characters, and going through death is sometimes the only way a character can make sure that “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world,” so to speak. There’s something very compelling about that, I think.
Nevena: Raven Son is a finished novel. How did you come up with the idea for the book?
Nicholas: I was on my way to Cairo for a month-long trek through Egypt, Sinai, and Israel. I had a thirteen-hour layover in the Amsterdam airport, and for some reason I thought it would be smart to stay awake the whole time. So I drank lots of coffee, opened a notebook, and one of the Syrin—paradise birds whose song has been known to drive people mad—started singing to me. Seriously! I wrote the first scene without lifting my pen from the page. Later, when I got back from the trip, I thought it would be interesting to write down my experiences in the form of a fairy tale. But by page fifty, the story had run away from me. It went wherever it wanted to go, and I had to follow it, trying not to lose it. The next few years were incredibly eventful—traveling on all the continents except Antarctica, spending a winter in a Russian monastery on an island, getting engaged, then un-engaged in the worst possible way, then being brought back to life again by a blue-eyed angel in a small cafe on a St. Petersburg canal. Through it all, Raven Son kept writing itself, while I struggled to follow. It was exhilarating.
Nevena: What have you learned in the course of writing and revising the novel—and having all of those incredible experiences?
Nicholas: The hardest thing to realize was that the elation I feel while writing doesn’t immediately translate to elation while reading. I used to think that since I read a lot, then my writing would automatically reflect the greatness of Dostoyevsky, Austen, Eliot, and Tolkien. Nope! After running into the wall many times, I finally got it. Writing is an apprenticeship. You have to learn how to follow the rules, even if the rules are arbitrary and silly, and depend only on the fluctuating market. If you learn to follow them, then much, much later you can (maybe) start to break them.
Nevena: So what’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Nicholas: “Don’t write about long journeys on foot! You’ve never been on one.” So I went on a walking tour of the Lakes in North England for 10 days. I guess that’s an unusual variant of “write about what you know.”
Nevena: Amazing! Why are you a Book Country member?
Nicholas: Other sites, Authonomy.com for example, are built in such a way that people are afraid to give anything but positive feedback. I don’t want to know my book is good. I can convince myself of that easily enough. Book Country is good in that sense—I’ve heard some very constructive comments that have helped me revise Raven Son several times.
Nevena: I’m glad! Any advice for new members?
Nicholas: New members! Don’t immediately react negatively to people who don’t think your book is the Great American Novel. It really isn’t, honestly. Not yet.
Nevena: Is there anything else you want to share with the community?
Nicholas: Even though all of us could use a healthy dose of humility when it comes to taking harsh criticism, it’s important to know that sometimes people are just wrong. It’s really hard, but I think all of us need to learn how to distinguish between good and bad criticism. Otherwise we might kill our baby before it grows up on its own. Oh, and give Raven Son’s first few pages a read, if you have a few minutes. Thanks!
Nevena: Thanks for joining us! Good luck shopping the book.