Today I am interviewing Rena Rossner, author of the new fantasy novel, The Sisters of the Winter Wood.
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DJ: Hi Rena! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview!
For readers who aren’t familiar with you, could you tell us a little about yourself?
Rena Rossner: I work as a literary agent, based out of Jerusalem, Israel, but I grew up on Miami Beach, Florida. I have 5 kids, and a pug named Pablo Picasso Neruda, and when I’m not writing or reading (which is almost basically never) you can find me crocheting, doing pottery, or baking (and making slightly more than the occasional cocktail…)
DJ: What is The Sisters of the Winter Wood about?
Rena: The Sisters of the Winter Wood is a fairy tale retelling of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market poem, set in the town of Dubossary (where my great-grandfather came from) on the border of Moldova and Ukraine. It’s the story of two sisters, one that can turn into a swan and the other that can turn into a bear, and what happens when their parents go away and strange things start to happen in the nearby town.
DJ: What were some of your influences for The Sisters of the Winter Wood?
Rena: Christina Rosetti’s Goblin Market poem has always been one of my favorites, but I was also inspired by the Jewish/Hassidic Folktales that I grew up on, and their confluence with many Russian, Ukrainian, and Moldavian myths and legends. There are many swan-maiden and swan-prince folk tales, and the bear is one of the symbols of Russia, and the folk tale of the Shpoler Zaidy tells the story of a man who dances in a bear cloak to save a fellow Jew. It wasn’t too much of a jump to turn him into an actual bear, and so, parts of my story started to tell themselves. I also always wanted to read a fantasy novel with elements of the Yiddish language in it – which is a very colorful, and also sometimes magical language – and I knew that the only way that would happen is if I took the reigns and wrote one myself.
DJ: Could you briefly tell us a little about your main characters? Do they have any cool quirks or habits, or any reason why readers with sympathize with them?
Rena: Well,I would say that Liba, the older sister, is most like me. She is not thin, and she doesn’t think that she’s beautiful. Though she is older, she’s always lived in the shadow of her younger, prettier sister. She’s also more practical, and more connected to her family and faith – she is “the one who stays”, she’s bookish, responsible, all things that her sister Laya is not. Laya is flighty, and lithe, pretty and proud. She dances to the beat of her own drummer and does as she pleases. Organized religion is not for her, and she longs to see more of the world. What’s been fascinating to me is that some people who read my book connect more to Laya (often fiercely) and others connect more to Liba. And I love that. But I am definitely more like Liba (with perhaps Laya-like aspirations…)
DJ: What is the world and setting of The Sisters of the Winter Wood like?
Rena: When I was looking for a place to set my retelling of Goblin Market, I never expected to find that my family came from a town on the banks of a river that was also known for its forest and for the fruit that grew there. There actually was a fruit-packing plant in Dubossary, and the forests surrounding the town are known as Kodari – which means “dense forest” in Moldavian, so everything kind of came together, and it’s not much of a jump to make a place like that seem enchanted. But the book also takes place in 1903, during the time of the Kishinev Pogroms and I think there was a sense of foreboding and fear during that time – not know what tomorrow would bring. I tried to incorporate that as well.
DJ: What was your favorite part about writing The Sisters of the Winter Wood?
Rena: I was a poet first, before I wrote fiction, and I really enjoyed being able to alternate between the poetry and prose. I also love baking, so it was fun, and also very natural to me, to imagine food – sights and sounds and smells and tastes – into my book.
DJ: What do you think readers will be talking about most once they finish it?
Rena: I hope that the book will inspire other writers to play with poetic forms, there aren’t many books out there written partly in prose and partly in verse, but I also hope that readers like me will finally get a chance to see themselves reflected in a fantasy novel – as a child I would have given anything to see someone Jewish, let alone an Orthodox Jewish teen, as the heroine of her own fairy tale. I hope readers talk about that for a long long time.
DJ: Did you have a particular goal when you began writing The Sisters of the Winter Wood? Was there a particular message or meaning you are hoping to get across when readers finish it? Or is there perhaps a certain theme to the story?
Rena: I wanted to tell a tale of Jewish resistance that wasn’t set during the time of the Holocaust. So I started to do research into my own family history. I never dreamed that I’d find the story of a town that my family came from, where the Jews fought back (successfully) against a pogrom, and I think that one of the messages of the book is “you can become what you need to be in a time of great need” whether that’s a swan, a bear, or a resister. That we all have hidden strengths within us.
DJ: When I read, I love to collect quotes – whether it be because they’re funny, foodie, or have a personal meaning to me. Do you have any favorite quotes from The Sisters of the Winter Wood that you can share with us?
Rena: Here are a few:
“She didn’t waste her time trying to smooth herself into something she wasn’t. She was powerful because she forged her own path.”
“If you want to know the history of a town, read the gravestones in its cemetery.”
“Sometimes even the smallest voice can have a big opinion.”
“That’s what the forest teaches you – change can come in the blink of an eye – the fall of one spark can mean total destruction.”
“Mami always says that fairy tales are real. With my head in my swan-mother’s lap,I start to believe – and I wonder which tale is ours.”
DJ: Now that The Sisters of the Winter Wood is released, what is next for you?
Rena: I’m working on my next novel, which is also a fairy tale retelling, but set in Romania and based on Romanian mythology and folklore,and it involves a fox and an owl and a lot of stars…
DJ: Where can readers find out more about you?
DJ: Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to answer my questions!
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*** The Sisters of Winter Wood is published by Orbit and is available TODAY!!! ***
Buy the Book:
Amazon | Barnes & Nobel | Goodreads | Kobo
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Captivating and boldly imaginative, with a tale of sisterhood at its heart, Rena Rossner’s debut fantasy invites you to enter a world filled with magic, folklore, and the dangers of the woods.
Raised in a small village surrounded by vast forests, Liba and Laya have lived a peaceful sheltered life – even if they’ve heard of troubling times for Jews elsewhere. When their parents travel to visit their dying grandfather, the sisters are left behind in their home in the woods.
But before they leave, Liba discovers the secret that their Tati can transform into a bear, and their Mami into a swan. Perhaps, Liba realizes, the old fairy tales are true. She must guard this secret carefully, even from her beloved sister.
Soon a troupe of mysterious men appear in town and Laya falls under their spell-despite their mother’s warning to be wary of strangers. And these are not the only dangers lurking in the woods…
The sisters will need each other if they are to become the women they need to be – and save their people from the dark forces that draw closer.
I’m a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars Program, where I majored in poetry and non-fiction writing. I also studied at Trinity College, Dublin and I hold an MA in History from McGill University in Montreal, Canada. I currently live in Israel where I work as a literary and foreign rights agent at the Deborah Harris Literary Agency in Jerusalem.
My poetry and short stories have been published, or are forthcoming from various print and on-line magazines. I’ve also written for The Jerusalem Report and The Jerusalem Post, worked in PR, grant-writing, website development, web-content editing and in too many bookstores to count.
You can usually find me cooking or reading, but I also do ceramics (in my non-existent spare time) and have been know to do Yoga and take walks with my pug, Pablo. Did I mention I have five kids? Yeah. That too.