Elena Clark is an author and Teacher Scholar and Postdoctoral Fellow in Russian at Wake Forest University.
When did you first develop an interest in Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies?
My family moved to Russia in 1993 and so I had to learn the language. While I was in college I realized Russian was a very useful skill and I ended up minoring—my university didn’t have a Russian major—in it and going back to Russia for study abroad. I became interested in translation then and got into the Russian Translation program at Columbia, which led to an interest in literature, and the next thing I knew, I was getting a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures from UNC-Chapel Hil. Getting an advanced degree in Russian and making it my career was not originally my intention, but at every step of the way something would come up, just as I was thinking of quitting, to encourage me to continue. Kind of my own epic/heroic journey, I guess!
How have your interests changed since then?
I was originally interested in translation and prose, but during my first semester in grad school I had a road-to-Damascus moment while reading the Tsvetaeva poem “Каждый стих—дитя любви…”, and so my dissertation and a lot of my post-dissertation research has been on poetry. I also became very interested in Finland, so I combined the two things and wrote on Evgeny Baratynsky.
What is your current research/work project?
Aside from my academic work, I’ve also been working for the past several years on a fantasy series set in a Slavic-based, matriarchal society, the first book of which, The Midnight Land, is now out on Amazon. Slavs rarely feature in Western fantasy, and when they do, they’re normally stereotypical bad guys, like Igor Karkaroff in Harry Potter. I wanted to write something where the central characters were recognizably Slavs, living in a Slavic world, and I also wanted to write something about a matrilineal, matriarchal society that wasn’t like any of the (very disappointing) matriarchal societies I’d read about in other speculative fiction. I wrote some drafts of things in college, and in grad school I wrote some short stories about the world I was creating. The first one, “Winter of the Gods,” won a fantasy writing competition, and then I had several more published in e-zines and things like that. While I was taking an old Russian literature class I came across the phrase “the midnight land” and I instantly knew that had to be the title of my next work. So I sat down to write another short story, only to finish it 1000 pages later. My heroine, Slava, ended up going on an epic physical and psychological journey that neither of us were expecting when we set off! And then I decided to turn it into a trilogy, which I’ve named “The Zemnian Trilogy.” I wrote the final novel in the series—the middle novel is still only partially written—and that one was even longer, and I realized I was going to have to split up each book into multiple volumes, so I’ve called it “A Trilogy in Seven Volumes”—I assume a lot of my readers will get the reference! The story is meant to be mainstream, contemporary fantasy in the spirit of George R.R. Martin or Terry Pratchett, two of my favorite fantasy authors; instead of working with and playing on Western European culture and literature, it’s drawing not only on medieval Slavic writing and Russian fairy tales, but also on Pushkin, Gogol, Karolina Pavlova—a huge influence—Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and so on, all the while tackling some of the “big questions” and subverting gender norms. I hope fans of Russian literature will have as much fun picking out the direct and indirect references to things like Dead Souls and Anna Karenina—my “Anna” is a man, by the way—as I had putting them in there!
What do you value about your ASEEES membership?
It’s great to have an association that brings together different disciplines of Slavic studies. I especially appreciate the annual convention, since it allows me to meet up with Slavists who study things like linguistics or art or history. I think cross-disciplinary fertilization is very important.
Besides your professional work, what other interests and/or hobbies do you enjoy?
I love animals and outdoor activities. I have two dogs and I try to go out walking and hiking with them as much as I can. I also have a regular yoga and meditation practice. And since I do spend a lot of time translating and working on my academic and fiction writing, I try to make it fun by doing things like listening to music.