Russian and Research: Interview with Among the Red Stars author Gwen C. Katz

Something a little different this time!30122938

Gwen C. Katz‘s debut novel, Among the Red Stars, is out October 3rd! It follows Valka, a Russian teenager who becomes one of the “Night Witches”–an all-female unit of Soviet bomber pilots in World War II. The blurb is vague on the plot, but I believe it involves a daring and unauthorized rescue that flips the damsel-in-distress trope on its head. Anyway, here’s the cover copy:

World War Two has shattered Valka’s homeland of Russia, and Valka is determined to help the effort. She knows her skills as a pilot rival the best of the men, so when an all-female aviation group forms, Valka is the first to sign up.

Flying has always meant freedom and exhilaration for Valka, but dropping bombs on German soldiers from a fragile canvas biplane is no joyride. The war is taking its toll on everyone, including the boy Valka grew up with, who is fighting for his life on the front lines.

As the war intensifies and those around her fall, Valka must decide how much she is willing to risk to defend the skies she once called home.

Inspired by the true story of the airwomen the Nazis called Night Witches, Gwen C. Katz weaves a tale of strength and sacrifice, learning to fight for yourself, and the perils of a world at war.

Katz kindly agreed to answer a few questions for this blog, with a special focus on her learning Russian and Russian-language sources. Below is the interview:
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Q: I read on your Twitter that you learned Russian for research purposes while writing this book. Tell us a bit about that, and how you became proficient enough to do primary source research.

A: I did four semesters of Russian and then worked independently in preparation for this book. A lot of English speakers rate Russian as a very difficult language but I found it rather intuitive (to read, anyway), possibly just because I have a fair amount of experience with foreign languages by now.

Q: What was the most useful source you accessed in Russian?

A: tamanskipolk46.narod.ru is a great Night Witches fan site with extremely detailed information about the different women that isn’t available in English, such as their ranks and how many missions they flew, along with many stories from their time in the war. rkka.ru has a ton of information about the Red Army, including lots of photos of uniforms and equipment.

Q: What Russian-language source would you love to be able to share with English speakers?

A: Raisa Aronova’s “Ночные Ведьмы” is surely the best history of the Night Witches. It is baffling that it has never been translated.

(Maya’s note: Raisa Aronova was herself a veteran of the unit.)

Q: How did learning Russian affect how you wrote Valka’s story in English?

A: You always try to emulate the patterns of the language your characters are meant to be speaking, although it’s impossible to capture fully. And of course there’s the bit where Valka mistakenly refers to an American plane as a “V-24.”

Q: The female soldiers and airwomen of the Soviet Union encompassed many different ethnicities. How did you research their diverse experiences?

A: The Soviet Union was a much more diverse place than most people realize. So I was disappointed to discover that Aviation Group 122 was a pretty homogeneous group. The only airwoman of color I was able to find was Kazakh navigator Hiuaz Dospanova. She had an incredible story: barely survived a crash, pronounced dead at the hospital, recovered and lived to fly with the 588th again. Originally she was in this book and she had a big subplot. But her story was too complex for me to give it the treatment it deserved, and my agent decided it should be cut. Maybe I’ll return to her in a future project!

Q: How did you approach including real-life people in your story, and integrating Valka into a well-documented group?

A: The women of Aviation Group 122 were such cool people that early on I decided I wanted to include the real historical figures in the cast instead of making up a supporting cast. This was a big challenge, since it exponentially increases the number of facts you need to check, and ultimately I had to move around a few dates and locations in order to get everyone where I wanted them. But it was a lot of fun thinking about how Valka would interact with all these different people!

Thanks to Katz for a great interview! You can preorder Among the Red Stars.


Katz is also an artist, and has drawn characters Valka (right), Iskra (center), and Pasha (left), pictured above. Check out more art drawn from the story at Katz’s gallery here.

And if you’ve preordered, get a free bookplate with another of Katz’s illustrations here!

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