That’s what some are calling Toby Barlow‘s Babayaga, but the advertising wiz doesn’t believe in labels when it comes to his fiction.
Zola: What drew you to write about witches as a subject matter in the first place—and what made you decide to combine them with Cold War-era Paris and espionage?
Toby Barlow: I’d been playing around with an idea for a novel involving the various semi-pro spies that were mucking about in Paris in the late 50’s. I had some notions for a loose plot running from a dead man on a bench in the Luxembourg Gardens to the atomic test out of the Saharan military base (I had a subplot where a misunderstanding of the base’s name “Reggane” accidentally gave birth to Ronald Reagan’s political career). But then, while I was staying in a castle in southern Germany, my hostess said to me, “You know, after the Russian Revolution, when all the White Russian nobility fled to Paris, and all the White Russian military fled to Paris, and all the Russian orthodox priests fled to Paris, the [witches] followed them to Paris…” That changed everything.
Zola: Your previous novel, Sharp Teeth, dealt with werewolves. There has been much discussion in the literary community lately about the line between “genre fiction” and “literary fiction” being blurred. How do you feel your fiction fits into all this, and where do you think the line divides, if it even exists at all?
TB: Good question. I don’t know what category this book falls into. Some people have called it “highbrow beach reading” but I’m not sure how a book about witches and spies can be considered all that fancy. To me as a writer it doesn’t really matter, I know divisions between genres are helpful for librarians and book store owners who are trying to figure out where to place a book, in the “horror” section or “historical fiction” section, etc. I generally try to keep it simple and aim my books to land in the “staff favorites” section.
TB: Not a lot of specific research (that’s the nice thing about playing with myths, you can rewrite the rules), but bits and pieces of various things. Ishmael Reed‘s Mumbo Jumbo and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow stand out as strong influences here. There’s probably a bit of Pratchett, Wodehouse, and Neal Stephenson in there too, though I’m not sure where. I’ve always loved Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths in the way he binds up history and mythology. I tried to apply a similar logic to spinning this tale: how did these myths emerge, what were the truths behind them, what if maybe some of the myths were true?
Zola: The book unfolds as character point-of-views, switching between each chapter—how did you decide this would be the best method of storytelling for Babayaga?
TB: I think it’s because I’m easily bored and distracted and I suspect my readers are too. Plus it adds a natural tension to the story: while you’re reading about one character you’re also busy wondering what the other characters are up to.
TB: I think advertising made me less of a self-indulgent writer: instead of drowning in a kind of adolescent self expression, I learned to worry about engaging and keeping the reader, how to engage them and keep their interest. I also think it teaches you to get the job done. It makes you less defensive about your work, which makes it easier to throw out stuff that’s not helping. Great writers have come out of advertising: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Sayers, Don Delillo. There are a few really inspiring writers still working in advertising, real artists: Luke Sullivan, Bill Heater, and Paul Mimiaga. Then there are the ones like Sally Heppenstall and Hillary Jordan, who write great books and still freelance on the side.
Zola: Speaking of ad men, do you watch Mad Men? If so, which character would you say you’re most like?
TB: I don’t watch Mad Men much, mostly because I don’t own a TV. But I have seen a few episodes and from what I can tell, if I were on that show I would play Peggy.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.