Connecting Texas books and writers with those who most want to discover them
Each week Lone Star Literary profiles a newsmaker in Texas books and letters, including authors, booksellers, publishers.
Kay Ellington has worked in management for a variety of media companies, including Gannett, Cox Communications, Knight-Ridder, and the New York Times Regional Group, from Texas to New York to California to the Southeast and back again to Texas. She is the coauthor, with Barbara Brannon, of the Texas novels The Paragraph Ranch and A Wedding at the Paragraph Ranch.
Taisia Kitaiskaia is the author of Ask Baba Yaga: Otherworldly Advice for Everyday Troubles, based on her column voiced by a Slavic witch in The Hairpin. She holds an MFA from the James A. Michener Center for Writers and has published poetry in journals such as Crazyhorse, Guernica, Gulf Coast, Pleiades, and The Fairy Tale Review. Her poetry has been published widely. Baba Yaga lives deep in a treacherous wood; Taisia lives in Austin, Texas.
Taisia Kitaiskaia of Austin scores two otherworldly debut titles this fall, in time for Halloween. Drawing from the traditions of Russian folklore and feminist creativity, her works are bound to cast a spell over readers. After interviewing her via email this week, we predict you’ll be entertained and enlightened, witch-ever you choose.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Taisia, you lived in Russia until you were five. What inspired your family to come to the U.S.?
TAISIA KITAISKAIA: My parents are scientists, and my dad wanted to get his Ph.D. here in America. We actually moved right before the Soviet Union crumbled.
When your family moved to the U.S., where did you live and grow up, and how did your upbringing influence your writing?
We moved around a lot to follow my father’s academic posts, and I moved even more for my education. When we left Russia, we landed in southern California. It was November, and the bright colors of California were a shock after the muted winter in Siberia. I fell in love with it. The cheerful weather agreed with my personality and boosted my creativity, because I started drawing and writing a ton. I wrote and illustrated these little stapled “books” for my parents’ friends when they came over. I was shy but wanted to connect, so I’d work on a book while the guest had dinner or tea, sort of shove the finished book over to them at the end of visit, and run blushing up the stairs. Then we moved to Seattle, a climate hospitable to reading, so my reading habits blossomed there. By the time my family moved to Fairbanks, Alaska, I was already off at boarding school, studying creative writing at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan as a teen. That experience was absolutely incredible—I got an invaluable head start on developing as a writer.
Did you want to be a poet/writer when you were growing up?
Always. As a little kid, I liked to say that I wanted to write and illustrate my own books. I guess I’m halfway there.
What brought you to Austin?
I came to get my MFA in poetry at the Michener Center for Writers at UT. I stayed because I married a local (writer Fernando A. Flores)—plus, Austin is the best.
What inspired you to write Ask Baba Yaga? Will you tell our readers about the advice column and the book?
I’ve always been in love with the character of Baba Yaga. In the Russian folktales I grew up on, even if Baba wasn’t the main character, she always stole the show with her magical powers, her old-crone ways, her mischievous amorality, her chicken-legged hut and skull-post fence and very real dangerous side (she usually tries to eat the humans who come to her door for help).
The idea for the advice column came to me accidentally, as good ideas tend to do. I was trying to get to know Baba Yaga better for a play I was writing. I asked her questions in my notebook and tried to access her responses through writing quickly, without thinking, and hoping to hear her voice. In the end, her voice was the one asking questions and giving me advice.
This exchange led to an “Ask Baba Yaga” advice column online at The Hairpin, where I took real people’s questions and answered them in the voice of Baba Yaga. The book Ask Baba Yaga is a collection of these posts, along with new pieces.
What do you consider to be your first big break as an author? How did it come about, and what was it like?
Hmm... I don’t know if I’ve had a big break! Or maybe happening it's now, since Ask Baba Yaga: Otherworldly Advice for Everyday Troubles [Andrews McNeel Publishing, Sept. 2017] and Literary Witches: A Celebration of Magical Women Writers [Da Capo Press, forthcoming October 10, 2017] are finding their way onto bookshelves. You can feel like a writer within your own mind and a small sphere of friends and family, but it’s hard for the rest of the world to feel the same way when you don’t have physical books out and about.
What inspired you to write Literary Witches? Will you tell our readers about the book?
Literary Witches, my collaboration with Katy Horan, a brilliant Texan artist and illustrator, is essentially a love letter to creative women. Katy Horan and I made portraits in painting and writing, respectively, to honor thirty women writers from various backgrounds, time periods, and cultures. In these portraits, we presented the authors as the witches that they are—magical, powerful, mysterious beings who transform humble materials like paper and ink into astonishing works of art. My imaginative vignettes about each author’s special powers and qualities, which pair with Katy’s gorgeous, surreal paintings in inextricable duos, are accompanied by short factual bios and recommended reading lists. Since female artists have historically been discouraged from serious creative projects and often have difficulty attracting appreciation for their work, we hope the book can have educational as well as aesthetic value. Many people have hopped on the #ReadWomen train, and Literary Witches is an answer to the question of, “I want to read more books by women; where do I start?” I’d love to see the book not just on coffee tables and bookshelves, but also in high school and college classrooms as an enticing accompaniment to English literature curriculum.
What is your creative process like?
It depends somewhat on the genre. Literary Witches took a lot of initial research on each author, followed by a mulling period in which I let what I’d absorbed of the author’s work and about her life sink in before I could write the imaginative vignettes. With “Ask Baba Yaga,” I sit down at the typewriter and type out the question, then wait for Baba’s distinctive language to form in my mind. Then I quickly type it out before I lose it. With poetry, I let the first draft or two be as wild and associative and uncensored as possible, basically writing down whatever comes to mind and almost detaching from the words as I do so. Only then do I hone in, make sense of the mess, and cobble the poem together. I’m working on my first novel and find it much less fun than poetry in a certain sense—it’s a bit of a plod, but then creating a large and continuous world is rewarding in its own way. Across genres, I try to enter a space where I don’t know what I’m doing at all. That’s when I feel the joy of creating from the undiscovered. Everything has to feel like a surprise.
Which Texas authors do you enjoy reading?
Mary Karr and Patricia Highsmith are definitely literary witches.
Tell us about Typewriter Tarot. Can you read our Tarot via the Internet?
is a collective of three writers who love to read Tarot, including myself, and I’m very excited about it. One thing we do that’s special is type up a summary of your Tarot reading and snail mail it to you on beautiful stationery, along with a photo of your favorite card from the spread. We’re based in Austin but we can, indeed, read Tarot cards for anyone over the Internet. We offer a variety of reading types, including Readings by Mail, where you submit a question or a concern and we do the reading remotely. The occult is expanding its borders and becoming more appealing to different kinds of folks, who are attracted to the playful spirituality offered by things like Tarot, crystals, witches, and witchery. I invite everyone to try Tarot, with us, with friends, or on your own. It’s such a rich, beautiful way to gain a deeper understanding of your life and feelings or tackle a thorny problem. Most people who try Tarot find that it’s a lot less silly and a lot more fun and insightful than they expected—I know I have.
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“Fans of Cheryl Strayed and haunted grandmothers will find solace and solutions in these bite-sized piquant pieces. Baba Yaga's advice lifts up the ordinary problems of love affairs, bodies, loneliness, friendship, and loss, making each as strange and extraordinary as life itself.” —Amelia Gray, author of Isadora and Gutshot
“Ask Baba Yaga is no ordinary book.... Reader, hand over your soft animal soul to Baba; watch as she seizes it, pokes around, finds the ticklish and tender spots. Rejoice in her primordial wisdom.” —Kelly Luce, author of Pull Me Under
“Every word of Ask Baba Yaga feels like a gift.” —Julie Buntin, author of Marlena
“There is plenty of advice in the world, but only Taisia Kitaiskaia has channeled the wit and wisdom of a solitary witch whose cauldron has seen more than its share of bloody human parts. In the pages of this book ‘there will be no sootheengs wench,’ but you will find a wild clarity and a rich seething aliveness matched only by your strangest childhood dreams. Read it if you dare.” —Alyssa Harad, author of Coming to My Senses
“Ask Baba Yaga is Dear Sugar for the supernatural set. Witty, wise, and weird in all the right ways, Kitaiskaia proves that good advice is its own magic spell. She meets each query with a generous spirit and a crone-old soul. Pull up a chair in her chicken-leg hut, and let her potent, poetic insights bring you comfort during your darkest nights.” —Pam Grossman, author of What Is a Witch
“Ask Baba Yaga is a beautiful, strange, troubled, moving piece of fresh air. Pick up this book, turn the pages, inhale, and feel ready to march back into everyday troubles with renewed courage and hope. I adored it.” —Edward Carey, author of The Iremonger Trilogy
“Ask Baba Yaga is the only advice column I trust. Taisia Kitaiskaia’s thoughtful, otherworldly responses are calming talismans in a time when turmoil feels a part of daily life. When you're feeling adrift, let Baba Yaga be your remedy.” —Emma Carmichael, Jezebel.com
“I am in awe of how Taisia Kitaiskaia so beautifully captures the tough crone love, the sly witchy wit, and the uncanny, otherworldly wisdom of Baba Yaga...This book is a rare gift for all of us who find ourselves navigating life's thorniest paths.” —Cate Fricke, fairy tale writer and blogger
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