On writing

Katherine Arden on the landscape that inspired The Bear and the Nightingale

The author of The Bear and The Nightingale talks about her enchanting relationship with Moscow.

I was eighteen when I first stepped out of Sheremetyevo airport and came face to face with Moscow. Gawkily eighteen, I had only pretensions to adulthood, mixed with lust for adventure and appalling naïveté. I did not want to be a writer.

But I didn’t know what I did want. I only saw that four more years of education stretched before me, and I rebelled.

“Russia,” I announced, and proceeded to railroad through all objections. “I am going to Russia.” Russia, I decided, would be my adventure; it would be my escape. It would make me sophisticated, adult, different. In my head, I saw snow and samovars, golden domes, hussars, and troikas. I saw a sparkling country, new-made. I wanted to go there.

But standing in Sheremetyevo airport, faced with the grumble of a language I did not speak, I wondered what the hell I had done. I was obviously American and very young.

Outside the Moscow airport, I came face-to-face with a pearl-colored autumn sky, which was cheerfully spitting rain. 

I did not realize it then, but compared with Moscow, the sky over other cities seems small. The whisk and lights of New York, say, or London, make the sky seem almost incidental. But in Moscow, no matter how big or bright the city gets, the sky above remains turbulent, unforgettable. It dares you to ignore it.

I looked up when I came out of the airport, and I fell in love with the Russian sky.

A car was waiting for me at the airport, driven by a man named Kostya. He was there with his son, who was just my age.

“Katya?” they asked. Not Katherine. No, they called me Katya, and they—friends of friends—were about to become my family. Renamed, I embarked, shakily, on my adventure.

I stayed with Kostya’s family for a year. There were five of us, in a four-room apartment. Husband, wife, two children, and me, the foreigner. The family made space for me; they taught me and were kind to me.

In time, I fell in love with the rest of Russia too: the real country, not my imaginary one. I loved the language, the taste of butter and red caviar, even the bite and glitter of winter. I loved the terrifying independence of being self-reliant and far from home.

Through all of it, there was this sky: furious backdrop to a mad year. Changeable as a girl almost grown. Is that why I loved it so much? Because it reflected my fast-shifting sense of self? I don’t know.

I came home from Russia happier and sadder and older, in the best sense of the word.

Seven years later I thought that maybe, perhaps, I would be a writer.

When I sat down to write a novel, Russia came pouring back out. The sheer drama of that country—colors and noises and weather and history—lends itself to fiction. The instant I put my fingers to the keyboard. I found sky and weather and cold and light and dark all waiting, like colors in a palette. Something about being young and far from home had heightened my impressions and preserved them, so that my memories of pride, confusion and alienation were fresh as they day I made them, and they too found their way into my work.

My book, The Bear and the Nightingale is set in the a mythical version of the Middle Ages, long before I, a teenaged foreigner, got shakily off a plane. But the impression of my year in Moscow still comes through somehow. It is a flavor, a color, a turn of phrase. I don’t know.  

Perhaps it has something to do with the sky.

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