by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz
“I was born of cold copulation, white-fleshed and waxy like a crust of fat on beef broth left outside in winter.”
This opening line to Julia Sidorova’s debut novel pulls the reader into an immersive and intensive read and compels us to follow the life of Prince Alexander Velitzyn in his quest to find the answer to his immunity to ice. The Age of Ice is a novel rich in historical detail and the scientific problem of Prince Alexander’s physiognomy is presented in a plausible and intriguing manner.
Julia Sidorova attended Clarion West in 2009 and she worked on the draft for The Age of Ice during the 2011 Clarion West Write-a-thon. Here, she takes the time to talk about her novel, inspiration and process, and the influence of Clarion West on her writing.
Rochita: Where were you when you received the news that Simon and Schuster wanted to publish your novel and what was your first response?
Julia: I was at home. It was the boundary between 2011 and 2012, either Christmas week or the first week of January. If the latter, I would have been home because it snowed in Seattle and all life stopped (as it usually does here when it snows). Strangely, I do not remember exactly. It would have been in the morning because of the three-hour difference between Seattle and New York. But my first, second, and third reaction was definitely disbelief. Sold? This stuff does not happen to people like of me. There is bound to be some Oops, never mind just ahead.
Rochita: While your stories have a fantastic feel to them, there’s also a very scientific aspect to these stories. Is this a conscious decision you make when you write a story and to what extent does your scientific background/work inform the stories that you write?
Julia: It is not a conscious decision. For more than twenty years most people around me were molecular biologists. If anyone said, Genomic replication proceeds as a spatio-temporal program of origin firing, everyone understood just what it meant, so you could freely make jokes or poems, or metaphors out of it. What it means is I do not have to invite science into my stories, it barges in no matter what, it feels so comfortable there. I have to push back at it instead, shut it out. For example, when I read in a myth that a hero sows dragon teeth into the ground and out come phalanxes of warriors, I think: but of course! What insight! The pulp of molars contains stem cells, with which one can clone an army of clones! But there are times when one needs to let magic be magic.
Rochita: You attended Clarion West in 2009. How did the workshop influence your writing? (Did it influence it at all?) And what things did you carry away from the workshop that have helped you in your career as a writer?
Julia: Clarion West taught me something that I have not thought of before: unless you write solely for your desk drawer, writing is a three-way negotiation — between you, your text, and your audience. It never stops amazing me how remarkably diverse can be the emotions, associations, and interpretations that different readers take home from the same piece of text (anyone’s, not just mine), even if these readers are a relatively homogeneous crowd of talented and creative Clarion West students, let alone a crowd of readers at large. Ever since, I’ve been thinking whether there is such a thing as a “science” of literary communication, and how one can excel in it.
Rochita: Can you share a little bit of your writing process for The Age of Ice?
Julia: I seem to like to give myself challenges: I impose constraints in terms of what I can work with and what should be in the story. The idea for the Age of Ice goes back to a real historical event that happened in the winter of 1740, and the book itself opens with that event. This anchored the whole narrative in time, but above and beyond that, I challenged myself to stick to historical facts throughout the book as much as I possibly could. It meant that if I needed my protagonist to go on an Arctic expedition, there had to have been a real one that went on historical record during the correct window of time. The most remarkable thing is — I did find such an expedition, as I found many other, “conveniently” timed and spaced, dramatic historical events! As for the rest —it was just a lot of research and a lot of writing and rewriting.
Rochita: What’s next? Are you working on a new novel?
Julia: Yes, I am. Once again, it will require some research. And I have imposed spatio-temporal (see? I am using that science jargon again!) constraints on the plot. So it should be a healthy dose of challenge.
Rochita: If you had to choose between continuing on as a biologist and a full-time career as a writer, which one would you choose and why?
Julia: It will never be completely up to me, but if I were able to choose, I’d probably choose writing. There are many professional reasons for it, and in the interests of space I cannot go into every one of them. But just one, for example, argument is that having worked in a research field for decades, one accumulates a burden of “cannot do”: efforts that failed, chains of reasoning that went nowhere or keep playing in an unproductive loop, steps not taken. It is fatiguing and it can grind you to a halt. As an up and coming writer on the other hand, I am still fresh-eyed and childishly excited, and hopefully will remain free of this cannot-do burden for the next five-ten years.
Rochita Loenen-Ruiz is a Filipina writer living in the Netherlands. She attended the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop in 2009 and was a recipient of the Octavia Butler Scholarship. Her work has been published in various online and print publications in the Philippines as well as outside of the Philippines. You can visit her website at rcloenenruiz.com or follow her on Twitter.