The woods are full of mystery in The Sisters of the Winter Wood, an enchanting tale of family loyalty and secrets. Drawing on elements of Jewish and Russian myth, along with Christina Rossetti’s poem, “Goblin Market,” Rena Rossner’s debut novel makes for an intoxicating brew. Sisters Liba and Laya couldn’t be more different—and each will discover a secret that can either save or unmake the world they know.
I caught up with Rena Rossner to talk about the novel’s mythological elements, Jewish food, how she found the book’s soul, and much more.
It’s hard to think of a juxtaposition of elements more fascinating than what you have accomplished in The Sisters of the Winter Wood: Jewish history and lore, Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” Russian mythology… How did these disparate elements come together for you?
I originally set out to write a fairy tale retelling of Goblin Market, and because the two novels I’d written previously hadn’t found a publishing home, I was determined to write in a different genre this time—fantasy—and to write a book that wasn’t overtly Jewish. But when I finished writing the first draft, I realized that my book didn’t have a soul. It felt flat, uninspired. I had originally set it in an imaginary town called Blest, in France, but I realized that I needed to find a new setting, something that felt more real—authentic to who I was.
I woke my husband up in the middle of the night and said, “I think I need to put Yiddish into my book,” and he said “Rena, go back to sleep.” I started to do research and I found out about the town of Dubossary, on the border of Moldova and Ukraine, where my grandfather’s family came from, it was a town of that made a living from its fruit trees which were located on the banks of the Dniester River, and more importantly, when a pogrom was supposed to happen thee, the Jewish residents resisted, and a pogrom never happened in the town. The Russian mythology naturally followed—bear people, swan maidens—and The Sisters of the Winter Wood was born.
The descriptions of traditional eastern European Jewish foods, as seen through the eyes of the food-loving Liba, are mouthwateringly vivid. I know you’ve written a cookbook. It seems like Liba combines both your projects of Jewish fantasy and its culinary tradition. What do you think?
Absolutely! Anybody who has been a guest at my house or has eaten at my table knows about my passion for food. My husband and I make wine, and yes, I wrote a cookbook (which came out in five languages!) I used to run a book club where I insisted that we pair a food with every book we read. So it was only natural to me that this book would be filled with mouthwatering foods. Besides—food is a really critical part of Jewish culture and tradition. There is a Russian myth about a swan maiden who brushes her hands over the top of a bowl and creates incredible delicacies—how could I have a swan-woman in my shtetl who didn’t make babka?
Laya’s sections, written in verse, are beautifully done, and as gripping as the novel’s prose sections. The challenge of such an undertaking—to write half one’s book in verse—must be tremendous—it takes chutzpah! Was there ever a moment when you thought, “Oh my God, I’m really doing this?
I actually originally set out to write the book [entirely] in prose, and had written both sisters’ chapters that way. But when I was trying to differentiate Laya’s voice from Liba’s voice, I started to hear Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” melodies in my head—he plodding sound of the grandfather or the wolf, and the flute-like sound of the bird—and I realized that I needed to do the same thing in literary form. I’m a huge fan of novels in verse, and I had been writing poems about the storks that fly over my home in Israel every year for a while. It all just came together, and seemed to make the most sense to me as [the way] to tell the tale. If we can have novels-in-verse, why can’t we have novels that are written partly in verse and partly in prose? As a writer who was a poet first, I was really excited to play with this new format and see where it took me.
Liba and Laya’s parents’ marriage, and the fragmented identities of the sisters, seem like they could be read as encapsulations of the Jewish Diaspora experience: two identities that are intimately connected, but are forever at odds. Liba and Laya each represent one of these identities, and they couldn’t be more different, but they’re still sisters. What are your thoughts?
When I decided to make my “Goblin Market” retelling a Jewish one, set in the shtetl, I naturally thought about Fiddler on the Roof–which is an amazing musical that has withstood the test of time. It’s an incredibly popular story, despite how Jewish it is—countless audiences the world over have loved that story, and I thought long and hard about why: what is it about Fiddler on the Roof that has delighted generations? And I think that what you’re hinting at here is at the heart of it—fragmented identities, coming of age, the diaspora experience, all these things are very Jewish in nature, but are also universal. Sisters each choosing their own paths, contending with the religion they were brought up with, but having to choose between tradition and modernity. Even within a traditional family you can have two siblings who end up looking nothing alike, and choosing completely different paths. So yes, this is very much a Jewish Diaspora story, but I think it also has its roots in something so much more universal.
Did you at any point think of this novel as an opportunity to speak, in a sideways fashion, about the anti-Semitism that is still with us?
Yes, absolutely. Once I realized that the Goblins/Hovlin Brothers were the representation of anti-semitism in my novel, I became fascinated with the idea that I could show how insidious it is—how it comes and sets up shop in the center of a town, and starts with whispers on the wind, rumors of dangers in the forest, or at the heart of a town, how easy it was, how easy it still is, to spread rumors and lies and tell tall tales, and how gullible people are to believe them. I also really like the idea that these goblins were the very embodiment of the people they were trying to demonize—the goblins are the ones that are hook-nosed and gold/money-hungry, not the Jews. How easy it is to demonize others, and how often that very same bad behavior is exhibited by the bigots themselves.
What are some of your literary inspirations?
My love for fairy tales began with Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling series of fairy tale retellings that were published in the early 1990s. I remember waiting for each new volume to come out and gobbling [them] up the books. Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose, Patricia Wrede’s Snow White and Rose Red. I’m also a huge fan of epic narrative poems and ballads, like “Goblin Market,” and Alred Noyes’s “The Highwayman.”
I always say that I can tell when a novelist was a poet first, and when I fall for a book, it’s often on a sentence level first. The authors I admire show that level of mastery of language in their writing, like in The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton, and Anne Michael’s Fugitive Pieces.