In the past few years you have published several books, been an active contributor in academic circles, and engaged a large audience through social media. Do you set a strict schedule to maintain this level of productivity or do you find other ways to sustain your work?
I have a bullet journal. It is not very decorative, but it is great for making checklists, and I like checking things off (yeah, I’m an overachiever). I read a certain amount of stories each day with my breakfast, and most of my blogging and social media posts are scheduled for specific days. It also helps that I do a lot of the storytelling research purely for fun. Sometimes I just feel like looking up folktales about a topic, or from a place, and I enjoy going down the research rabbit hole. It’s one of the things I do for fun.
"I have a bullet journal. It is not very decorative, but it is great for making checklists, and I like checking things off..."
Your work on folktales from around the world spans both continents and centuries. Is this work driven primarily by personal passion or do you hope that your translations become contributions to the ever evolving conversation on globalization?
It is mostly personal passion. I love learning about cultures through their stories. I started the “Following folktales around the world” reading challenge a few years ago, and I still have about 40 countries left to read folktale collections from! As for contributions: With my books I hope to bring Hungarian folktales to English-speaking audiences and storytellers, because they are not very well represented on the English language folktale market. On the flip side, I translate a lot of tales into Hungarian so that Hungarian audiences can have access to them as well.
"With my books I hope to bring Hungarian folktales to English-speaking audiences and storytellers,
One of your first books was Tales of Superhuman Powers: 55 Traditional Stories from Around the World. Today more than ever, North Americans are flocking to the theater to watch movies about superheroes and traditional story-telling media, such as comic books and graphic novels, are becoming popular again. Given your work in this field, what do you think draws people to stories about superheroes? Is it human nature? Is it a part of our mythos or culture? Is there perhaps something psychological at work?
"My personal favorite thing about these “superhero” tales is teamwork.
Earlier this year you released a book titled Forum-Based Role Playing Games as Digital Storytelling in which you describe an emergent form of digital storytelling facilitated through online platforms. Through this experience you discovered “a subculture of unbound creativity” as people wrote novel length descriptions of fictional characters and experience that they lived through these digital worlds. As a professional story-teller yourself, what drew you to engage with and study these emerging communities?
And the stories that come out of it stay online, and you can go back and read them for fun, or out of nostalgia. There are sites where I have been active for 8-10 years, and the stories still keep surprising and entertaining me. I love creating them in cooperation with others, rather than just writing things alone.
In your 2018 publication Dancing on Blades: Rare and Exquisite Folktales from the Carpathian Mountains, you translate the tales of Anna Pályuk, a Rusyn woman who married into a Hungarian family. I find myself challenged by the task of ‘crossing cultures’ as I work with Icelandic source material from a different culture and time. How did you preserve the essence of Anna Pályuk’s stories while translating them for a modern reader? Were there any guidelines or strategies that helped to guide your process?
Joseph Campbell believed that common connections existed between stories from many parts of the world and summarized some of the key aspects of those similarities in what he called the Heroic Journey. Do folktales from around the world share much in your experience or have you found them to be highly distinctive to the culture they were first told in?
I have a bone to pick with the Hero’s Journey. For one, it only fits a sub-category of folktales, usually known as wonder tales or fairy tales. The more one digs into different kinds of traditional stories, the less the theory holds up. Plus, as a storyteller, I tend to focus on how the story is embellished, rather than the basic plot. A lot of tales can be boiled down to “someone gets into trouble, then gets out of it”, but let’s be honest, that is not what makes one tale more compelling than another. There are tale types that exist all around the world, but I only ever really liked one or two variant of them and the rest just didn’t click, because of small details.
"The more one digs into different kinds of traditional stories, the less the theory holds up.
Where can readers find more of your work and stay up to date on your latest publications?
I regularly blog through my website and I have a professional Facebook page. You can also follow me on Twitter.
What does a productive day of writing look like for you? Do you have any habits or rituals that help you stay focussed or be more productive?
I’m currently working on ritualizing 1,000 words a day minimum. I’ve been all over the place, ranging from zero to 8,000 in a single day. A good day is when I’m in a state of flow, when the words seem to come of their own accord. That only comes if I’ve been regularly writing for a few weeks. Habits right now are hard to form, because I have three toddlers. But I do have a special writing station, I have noise cancelling headphones and my favorite 16th century choral music station on Pandora, and sometimes, that works.
"I do have a special writing station, I have noise cancelling headphones
What is the greatest obstacle between you and your writing?
Myself. Having a self-defeating mindset that feeds on internal negativity. Sometimes I can’t write. Then I hate myself. But recently I’ve gotten pretty good at just forcing myself to work through it. Still have some bad days, though.
Your work is inspired by the Russian Folktales; I can relate as my work is based off the Norse Myths. Where does the writing process start for you: with an original idea or with the folktale?
Good question! The folktale is the frame for me, the backbone. I don’t study it or read it; it’s inside me already, I grew up with them. So within that world that I know, I then start to think about original ideas inspired by the tropes of the fairy tales. If I’m stuck, then I’ll read a folktale I haven’t read before, and often I’ll get weird tangential ideas for mythical creatures or obstacles or conflict that way. It’s fun.
"The folktale is the frame for me, the backbone. I don’t study it or read it; it’s inside me already, I grew up with them."
But there’s something about them that engages very intrinsic parts of human beings, no matter what the culture. Tolkien talks about this, modern neurobiology confirms it with interesting studies on brain scans. Basically, there’s something about fairy tales that can tell a deep truth in a way that goes straight to the heart, sometimes even bypassing the brain. It’s some like incantation or music, which is more experiential than rational.
"there’s something about fairy tales that can tell a deep truth in a way that goes straight to the heart,
What is next for you creatively? Do you have another project on the go?
I’m taking a very long time editing book 4 of my series, which is a novella, but has taken longer than almost any other book I’ve written. It’s got a lot of emotional stuff in it, which I need to get right. And I’ve been battling… what do they call it? crippling self-doubt? Something like that. I’m also working on a screenplay with another writer, a historical fantasy set in the early days of medieval Russia, when the Russians were basically Vikings. It’s been fun.
Where can we find more about you and your work?
I blog about Russian folk history and culture, and I write book reviews on my website, where you can find all my books as well. You can also find me on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest, where I share images that inspire my writing.
Read more from Nicholas and find his Raven Son series on his website.