By Bryce Moore
In Vodník, sixteen-year-old Tomas and his parents have just moved back from the United States to Slovakia. The adjustment is tough, especially when mythological creatures from his past appear, his cousin’s life is in danger, and it’s up to Tomas to make a bargain with Death. In this BookTalk, author Bryce Moore discusses Slovak myths and writing for teen readers.
What inspired you to write Vodník?
Bryce Moore: My wife told me about vodníks on my first trip to Slovakia in 2001. They were so different from any other folklore creature I’d heard of. Watery men who stole human souls so they could keep them in teacups? How awesome was that? I couldn’t get them out of my head. I tried some attempts at writing fantasies that took place in medieval Slovakia—with vodníks as the villains—but they didn’t work.
Then I had the idea of writing a haunted house story. As I worked on the idea, I thought about setting it in a Slovak haunted house. But why stop there? Why not a castle? Then I made the connection to the vodník villain I’d toyed with before, and the story developed from there.
Did you always want to write fantasy? Are there any other genres that you would like to try writing?
BM: I’ve written some “serious fiction” before, mainly because I was in the creative writing program at BYU, and they want you to do that sort of thing now and then. It never goes well for me. My serious stuff ends up being about dead puppies or abused children. Real feel-good stuff, let me tell you.
Once I started writing young adult, fantasy just felt right. It’s what I read when I want to have a good time, and that’s what my writing is all about—having a good time. No dead puppies in my books anymore. Unless they’re zombie puppies, which is actually a pretty good idea, now that I think of it.
I’ve written some other genres—mystery and noir—but they almost always have some fantasy elements in them at the same time. I’m firmly of the belief that almost any genre is improved with fantasy. Especially math textbooks.
What influences went into creating the main character, Tomas?
BM: Right away, you notice that Tomas is really into movies, a trait I share with him. I watch a lot of films—usually about three or four a week, at least. I grew up on television and movies, and a lot of what happened in my life, I evaluated by the movies I’d seen. In addition to that, Tomas is pretty introverted, particularly at the beginning of the book. He’s very self-conscious, and he worries what other people think about him all the time. Again, that’s something I dealt with a lot growing up. Once I knew someone, I could be outgoing and friendly, but it was always very hard for me to just be that way around complete strangers.
Mythology-based fiction is very popular right now in the middle grade and young adult genres. What do you think the appeal is?
BM: Mythology and folk tales draw on some very deeply rooted traditions in society. They go back thousands of years. It makes sense to me that these same stories and creatures will continue to play a prominent role in pop culture. For one thing, it’s easy for authors and filmmakers to riff on established tropes. Vampires that sparkle instead of vamps who shun the daylight, for example. A lot of writers are having fun taking these creatures and twisting them to new purposes. I wanted to go find some creatures who hadn’t been firmly rooted in American folklore yet.
Death has been personified in a variety of ways throughout history, most notably as the Grim Reaper. How is the Slovak character of Morena different from the American version of the myth? How did you want to portray the character of Death in Vodník?
BM: Morena snuck up on me in this book. I didn’t plot Vodník out at all in advance. I just started writing about an American kid who moves to Slovakia and then does his best not to die. Once Tomas was in the country, I started toying with different creatures he could meet, and I had a big discussion with my wife and her brother, all about the possibilities in Slovak folklore. When they told me about Morena, I knew I needed to have Tomas see her.
Once that decision was made, I needed to decide how to portray her. Was she dark and gloomy? Silent? Chatty? At first, she was ominous. All Grim Reaper, all the way. But the character just didn’t want to stay that way. She kept wanting to be fun, and so in the end, I let her have her way. (I’m usually like that as a writer. I’m a much bigger pushover as an artist than I am as a father. I think.)
The vodník’s traits are found in the mythology of many different cultures, from Russia’s vodyanoy to Germany’s nix. Even the western vampire shares some traits. What, if anything, do these creatures share with the vodník in your novel, and how is your vodník unique?
BM: He’s unique because he isn’t a stereotype, and he isn’t inherently good or evil. Slovak folklore is like that. The creatures are what they are. You don’t have good bears or evil bears in nature. You just have bears. They cause problems for humans, because bears are dangerous. Not because they have vendettas. It’s the same way with Slovak folklore. Vodníks want to drown people and steal their souls, because that’s what they do. That let me have a character who does things that seem really awful to outsiders, but seem totally normal to him. He doesn’t view himself as wicked.
That said, there are definitely similarities. Vodníks steal souls in the same way vampires steal life. They’re created when children are drowned by other vodníks, the same way the bite of a werewolf can make another werewolf. They live in the water, like water nymphs. They’re small and wear green, like leprechauns (although much bigger, size-wise). It’s really interesting how different cultures can take the same base concepts and come up with different variations on each one.
Do you have a favorite mythological creature from Slovakia? From other cultures?
BM: The vodník is definitely my favorite Slovak mythological creature. It’s just so different from anything else I’d ever heard, growing up. That’s the reason it stuck with me for so long after I first heard about them on my initial trip to Slovakia.
That said, another creature I’d like to explore at some point is the white lady. Many Slovak castles are believed to be haunted by women wearing white. My brother-in-law (who works at the castle in Tren?ín) has had experiences with seeing some of them, and he has lots of stories of encounters his friends have had. That would be a fun area to explore in a future book.
As for other cultures, I’d have to go with trolls from Norway. I recently saw a movie (Trollhunter) all about what it would be like if trolls were real. It was done in a fake documentary style, and I loved the concept. But really, any creature of folklore is fascinating to me.
Are there any particular stereotypes about Roma people that you wanted to address in your novel?
BM: Well, there are stereotypes Americans have of Roma (or Gypsies, as most of them unfortunately know them). First off, they actually are real people, not just characters from fairy tales. “Gypsy” isn’t a synonym for “traveler” or “nomad” or “tinker.” It’s a racial slur. So there’s that.
But there are even more stereotypes in Slovakia that I wanted to address. I’ve made several trips over to the country, and I’ve spoken to numerous people about their feelings about Roma and the situation in general. Roma are perceived by many as being thieves, dishonest, lazy, stupid—it’s a long laundry list of prejudices. If the book is ever published in Slovakia, I’d like to hope that some people will read it and begin to question these preconceived notions.
How does your work as a librarian influence your writing?
BM: When you work with as many books everyday as I do, you start being much more picky. Before I was a librarian, I would finish every book I read, faithfully. These days? A book has to grab me by the throat for me to really get into it, because I know that every minute I’m reading something I don’t love, I’m missing out on three books that I would adore. I have a new rule: I give a book 50 pages. If it doesn’t have me by then, I’m allowed to put it down.
So for my writing, I make sure my book is jam-packed with awesome in the first 50 pages. I try to practice what I preach. :-)
Your wife is a native Slovak; how did she influence the way you wrote Vodník?
BM: I couldn’t have written the book without her. She and her family were tremendous resources, both to help me come up with ideas—but more importantly, to evaluate how well I was capturing her city. She grew up in Tren?ín (actually, in the same apartment Tomas moves to in the book), and she helped read the book through multiple times, correcting me when I got too American. It’s hard to really step outside your nationality and view things from a foreign mindset.
I think one of my favorite illustrations of that comes up in a little side scene in the book. Tomas goes with his cousin to the movies to see a “classic” Slovak film, but he’s left baffled by the whole thing. He understands American cinema just fine—but foreign movies are beyond him. The same thing happens elsewhere in the book—Tomas encounters a different way of shopping, cooking, showering. Living.
It’s too easy to take some things for granted. My wife was there to keep that from happening.
If one of your readers is traveling to Slovakia, what do you recommend he or she absolutely must do?
BM: Besides checking out the sights in Tren?ín, you mean? (Seriously—Tren?ín has a beautiful downtown, gorgeous castle, and rarely gets slammed with tourists. It’s a great city to check out. If you go, find my brother-in-law at the castle, and tell him I said hi.) Slovakia isn’t a very big country, but it has a lot of history packed into it. The capital, Bratislava, is a city rich with history and heritage. It was the capital of the Kingdom of Hungary, for example. Better yet, the city is extremely close to Vienna (just about 45 minutes away by car). Because of this, Bratislava has tremendous musical talent in the city, and the operas and shows are just a fraction of the price in Vienna. It’s been a while, but I once went to the opera and got box seats for $4.
So check Bratislava out. Plus, if you’re a castle nut like me, there are plenty of fantastic fortresses to explore across the country. Some of my favorites include Orava (where scenes of Nosferatu were filmed), Bojnice (a castle used as a template for Disney’s Cinderella castle), and the ruins of ?achtice (where the Countess Bathory lived—a woman rumored to have slaughtered hundreds of villagers so she could bathe in their blood).
Another thing not to be missed is the food. Halusky (potato dumplings with bacon and Slovak cheese), Slovak sausages, Kapusnice (sauerkraut soup)—I’m a sucker for foreign foods, and these are some of my favs. (Then again, I also have a Slovak wife who cooks them for me all the time, so I might be biased.)
Be aware that the travel infrastructure is still growing. They’re working on getting highways throughout the country, and it might take longer than you’re used to to get from point A to point B. Also, many people speak English in the country, but not nearly as many as in other places in Europe. Still, Slovaks are welcoming and friendly—you’ll have a blast.
Vodník is one of the first titles in the Tu Books imprint. Why do you think it’s important to bring diverse settings and characters into fantasy, science fiction, and mystery genres?
BM: I’m so pleased with Tu Books and its mission, mainly because I think there’s a huge amount of inertia in these genres today—and in a lot of pop culture. It’s easier to just rehash the same tropes, same magic, same characters time after time. Studios and publishers know them, they know they sell movies or books, and so they stick with them. But there’s so much else out there to explore and depict. When you’re exposed to other places, people, and ideas, you can’t help but become a better person—more open minded and eager to continue discovering new things. It’s addictive.
Can you tell us about any upcoming projects that you are excited about?
BM: I just finished the fourth draft of a YA noir fantasy. It’s in the tradition of The Maltese Falcon, except it takes place in a present day high school. I had a ton of fun writing it, and I hope the rest of the world can read it in the not too distant future. Of course, I’d also love to be able to write a sequel to Vodník, but we need to see.
About This Title
Interest Level:Grades 7 - 12
Reading Level:Grades 6 - 12
Middle Grade, YA interest, Identity/Self Esteem/Confidence, Overcoming Obstacles, Immigration, Heroism, Friendship, Families, Dreams & Aspirations, Cultural Diversity, Childhood Experiences and Memories, Fantasy, Paranormal, Integrity/Honesty , People In Motion, Persistence/Grit, Self Control/Self Regulation, Pride
Fantasy Middle School, Fantasy High School, Diverse Background English Collection Middle School, Diverse Background English Collection High School, English Fiction Middle School, English Fiction Grades 6-12, High-Low Books for Teens (Middle and High School), Young Adult (YA) Collection, Humor Collection
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