The Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale has never been as captivating as it is in Naomi Novik’s latest novel, Spinning Silver. The lush retelling of a classic story follows Miryem, the daughter of Jewish moneylenders who takes on the family business. But her talent for turning silver into gold draws the attention of a calculating fey king, catalyzing a chain of events that places both human and fey realms in danger.
Novik already proved her herself a master of weaving fairy tales with Uprooted, her 2015 Nebula Award-winning novel about a young woman chosen to be a “Dragon’s” servant. Spinning Silver further cements her place as one of the genre greats, delivering a magical story tackling sacrifice and anti-Semitism that will enchant readers from cover to cover.
We caught up with Novik at BookCon last month to chat about Spinning Silver, which celebrates its release today. Check out the interview to learn about Novik’s inspiration for the novel, the importance of angry women in fiction and her future projects (including a Harry Potter-inspired book).
Paste: Spinning Silver is called the “spiritual sequel” to Uprooted. What does that mean, and what inspired the novel?
Novik: I started writing Uprooted after my daughter was born, and the experience of writing it, for me, was engaging with my family’s immigrant experience. Uprooted is very much about my mother’s side of the family, who were Polish Catholics. They were deeply patriotic and deeply rooted in their country. My mother, to this day, feels that she is Polish. Poland is her country, even though she’s lived in [the United States] for more than 40 years and is now an American citizen. She didn’t go back to Poland for decades because of the communist regime. She was severed from her roots, and she felt that separation very keenly. A lot of that experience is in Uprooted.
Spinning Silver is about my father’s family, and they were Lithuanian Jews who had to escape persecution—not just from the Nazis, but from their own neighbors. It’s a really complicated history.
So I had two of these examples: one of family history deeply rooted and part of the dominant culture, and one that felt very much under siege. [Both novels are] coming from this place that I found myself accessing more after my own child was born, where I was getting in touch with my own memory of what I thought my family history was when I was a child. They both take place in a deliberately unrealistic world—in a fairy tale world—because that’s what the place they came from was to me. It was not a real place; it was so far removed from my environment growing up in New York.
Paste: There are many powerhouse women in Spinning Silver. Do you have a favorite?
Novik: Miryem. She is the voice that came to me right away—the voice that I wrote for the short story. [Editor’s Note: Novik published a short story titled “Spinning Silver” in The Starlit Wood anthology in 2016, which she later fleshed out into the novel.] I liked the flavor of her anger. Young women aren’t allowed to be selfishly angry. They’re sometimes allowed to be angry in a sort of righteous way for other people, but they are often discouraged from being like, “This is unfair to me. I’m mad for me, and I want these things for me.” I think it’s really important for women to fight against the idea that they’re not allowed to want things for themselves.
I can never write a message consciously into a book; I feel like I’m not telling the truth, not telling a true story. But Miryem felt like a character that was saying true things, and that always makes me excited.
Paste: The story may be a fairy tale, but it includes the real-world issue of anti-Semitism (directed against Miryem and her family). Why was it important to you to include that in the novel?
Novik: I wanted to lean into it. I think that a lot of anti-Semitism is historically a deflection of resentment of capital. It’s a deflection of that by the elite onto Jews, who are a convenient population to target. And this was something that happened in Western Europe and Eastern Europe, where the Jewish community became a piggy bank for rulers. These rulers deflected hostility from people who felt themselves being exploited but didn’t understand the system of exploitation.
Historically, the Jews are constrained by laws and by the bounds of their community from doing anything outside of the small pieces of the economic fabric of society in which they’re allowed to participate. In a way, the Jewish community’s in this position where they apparently have this successful place. But their very success makes them a target. That’s a sensation of being under siege, and I think that is more broadly applicable to oppression in general.
It’s the story of my father’s family being under siege, and there’s no way to take that out of the novel. It’s in the novel in multiple ways; with Miryem, there’s explicitly anti-Semitism directed against her. But the sense of being under siege is the case for Wanda as well in her home. Irina is under siege, and the question is: “How do you protect yourself from the forces who are much larger than you?” Sometimes the answer is that you can’t. But I wanted to write a story where they could. And the answer to how you can is by reaching out to people around you and by making connections beyond the barriers.
Paste: Will you write any more stories related to Spinning Silver?
Novik: I switched [from the Temeraire series] to writing standalones, because I really like endings. When you get to the end of a novel, you should feel like you didn’t expect that ending but that it makes perfect sense.
It’s really hard for me to do that if I can’t go back and revise the beginning, because I don’t know how the book is going to end until I get there. I deliberately don’t want to know, I don’t outline. Sometimes my editor forces me to outline, but the outline’s a lie. Sometimes I use bits from the outline, but the way I motivate myself to write is to find out what happens next to my characters that I care about. When I do get to the end, I’m like, “So that’s where they were going the whole time.” Then I go back, and I prune out the things that don’t really belong in the story.
So Spinning Silver is finished. That doesn’t mean there’s no other story to be told in the universe of Spinning Silver; I certainly hope people write fanfic for it. I might write something in the future, but I’m not currently writing it. And if I do, it’ll be because there’s another complete story to be told.
Paste: What are you working on now?
Novik: A lot of short stories; I just wrote one called “Blessings” for Uncanny Magazine about a girl who accidentally gets too many fairy blessings. As I was writing it, it started to go long on me again, so that might turn into a book at some point. I have a [Young Adult] book that I’m working on that’s very much a conversation with Harry Potter, as if Hogwarts wanted to kill and eat the students. The books I most want to talk to are the books that I love, even when I’m arguing with them. I want to argue with Harry Potter about the cost of magic; I feel like it doesn’t have enough of a price in [the series].
The people who put together The Starlit Wood anthology, where the short story version of Spinning Silver appeared, are doing one on myths. So I’m writing a story about the Minotaur.
I’m writing a story for the Unfettered III anthology, and it’s an interesting piece inspired by a work of art. One of my favorite artists, Brian Dettmer (he’s called the Book Surgeon sometimes), takes old books and turns them into solid blocks that he carves away. I have a couple pieces of his, in fact. At his last show in New York, and he had a little piece called “The Lost City,” and it made me want to write a story about it.
And I’m writing Game of Thrones fanfiction. Jaime and Brienne!
Paste: What is something that you’d like your readers to know?
Novik: I love to hear from people, but I’m terrible about responding in any direct way. I read things as they come in, so if I don’t have time to respond in that instant, I put it aside. Then it stays aside for like three years, and then out of nowhere, I respond. So I have questions on Goodreads that I just answered that are like two years old. I love to get those questions and to hear from people on Twitter. Encourage people to drop me a line!