Thursday, March 8, 2018

Baba Yaga Tales Old & New, Uniquely & Chillingly Told - An Interview with 'Horrible Little Fables' Podcaster Keef

Vasilissa the Fair by Ivan Bilibin
"She went into the other room to sharpen her iron teeth..."

Did we get your attention? Well, be prepared for a whole lot more where that came from.

The best storytellers know how to build atmosphere and Keef, of Horrible Little Fables has been experimenting with soundscapes, voices and blending different texts, to create a unique podcast storytelling experience we haven't heard before. It reminds us of some theater we've seen, except that this is all 'theater of the mind'.

Here's Keef's 'pitch-tweet' for it:
It's a 42-minute block of bizarro storytelling, analog synth made specifically for the podcast, and strange sound collage. It is weird, and dark, and creepy, and I very much hope that some of you out there dig it.
We will admit, not normally having time to listen to an average podcast, we balked a little at the amount of time we were going to have to listen for, but it was Baba Yaga and Vasilisa, a favorite tale group of ours, so we started anyway, then ended up making time to make sure we heard the rest.

Here's an excerpt from some of the text used, of a traditional tale section (which can be read on the background of the podcast page):
(Click on the text to read it full size)
The presentation includes a number of Baba Yaga stories, both traditional and not, all with wonderfully descriptive wording. It also includes Keef's original story The Forest Gym, which complimented the traditional tales so perfectly; we loved it! (And it has the most darling little girl voice as one of the characters to bring it immediately to life...)
"Where the wind blows; being ten fairy-tales from ten nations."
1910, by Katharine Pyle, illustrated & embellished by Bertha Corson Dav. 
You can hear the whole podcast on the web for free HERE.

Keef kindly agreed to an interview to give us some insight into his fascination with twisted tales, why he was drawn to Baba Yaga and his process for creating this unique form of Story. Why don't you pull up a chair and join us for tea?
Hi Keef

Thank you so much for agreeing to chat with Once Upon A Blog today about your new podcast 'Baba Yaga'. We're delighted to have you here. You probably know by now that we adore this fairy tale and folklore character here, in all her iterations, so we're keen to learn what it was about her that grabbed your attention, and how that developed into the unique storytelling podcast you've created.

OUAB: *Sets out an odd assortment of irregularly shaped tea cakes and Oreshki on a vintage hand painted plate. Pours tea from a strange, beaked teapot into two mismatching cups with chicken legs. Once full, they strut over to some paper doilies made of foreign and yellowed newspaper, squat, then plop awkwardly down on their bases, splaying scaled legs and feet out in front. A small splash of tea trickles over the edge of one of them.* Heh. I'll take that one. *hurriedly catches the drip with a napkin, then indicates the food plate* Please help yourself. We know you're a writer of, as you fondly call them, 'Horrible Little Fables', all of which have a fantastic or wondrous element to them ('wondrous' in this case often meaning 'not normal'). What is it that draws you to creating and telling these sorts of stories?

Keef: There isn't really a lot of choice in the matter. I grew up reading and loving fairy tales, weird fiction, horror, and magical realism, and those particular flavors offer possibilities that others can't provide. I also have a hard lean toward postmodernism, leaving some questions unanswered or subverted.  With the horrible little fables in particular, my goal is to be unsettling, sad, sometimes funny, strange, and inclusive. Some of them work better than others. I've also been fortunate enough to work with some truly wonderful artists on pieces to accompany the text. 

Baba Yaga by Tin Can Forest
OUAB: Oh yes! We must admit we were immediately drawn to the Jes Seamans piece you used for your Horrible Little Fable, 'Laquinda and the Vértéktie'. In fact we could see that vértéktie hanging out in the same neighborhood as a certain chicken-legged hut we're fond of... But what was it about Baba Yaga that caught your imagination?

Keef: Oh, Jes is absolutely wonderful. I'm glad you agree about that! And I've loved the Baba Yaga forever. I went to the library every week with my mom as a child-- thanks, Mom-- and I remember finding Blair Lent's Baba Yaga, a beautiful children's book with these chunky woodcut-style illustrations. It was spooky in the most delicious way, and I had to know more about her. The Baba Yaga is a truly remarkable woman-- she doesn't slot into any real archetype. She's not a wicked witch, she's not a helpful fairy godmother, she's unique and individual. Jack Zipes, in his book The Irresistible Fairy Tale, has a great line about the Baba Yaga and how hard she is to define: 
"A Baba Yaga is inscrutable and so powerful that she does not owe allegiance to the devil, God, or even her storytellers... she is her own woman, a parthogenetic mother, and she decides on a case-by-case basis whether she will help or kill the people who come to her hut." 
She's brilliant, and deviously clever, and sometimes beautiful, and she approaches each person based on what they bring to the table.

OUAB: What do you think it is about her walking hut... -- *The teacups begin drumming their little legs excitedly on the table, dangerously sloshing the undrunk tea* -- Stop that! My apologies. My teacups haven't been allowed to help host an interview before and they're a bit lax in their manners... *glares at the cups, who stop drumming* Ahem. Baba Yaga's chicken-legged hut: it's a very curious construction. Why do you think people love it so much?

Keef: How could you not? It's such a weird and otherworldly vision! Chicken feet scratching in the dirt, the little hut surrounded by a fence made of human bones. It can pick up and move anywhere-- in any wooded area, you could turn around and find it right behind you, waiting expectantly. The possible intrusion of this ancient spooky structure, with clear links to pre-industrialized culture, engenders fascination, respect, and fear immediately. 

Faith Jaques’s illustration of Baba Yaga’s hut, from “The Red Fairy Book”
OUAB: You've kindly listed your resources in creating the podcast (see below for the books, with more resources listed under the podcast), but where did you begin your research? Did you use any resources you would recommend for folks wanting to tell or create Baba Yaga stories?

Keef: A lot of the readings in the podcast come from the old skakza themselves, many of which are freely available online: and Project Gutenberg both have a number of them. In terms of historical background, I mentioned Jack Zipes' The Irresistible Fairy Tale before, which has a wonderful chapter on the Baba Yaga. Dubravka Ugresic wrote a great book, Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, the last third of which is a fictional response from a Baba Yaga scholar to the first two-thirds. It's packed with history and insight. Oh, and there's another book called Baba Yaga: The Ambiguous Mother and Witch of the Russian Folktale, by Andreas Johns, that both of the sources I already mentioned cite. I've got it on order.

OUAB: Us too! There always seems more to learn, more stories to read... and to tell. Speaking of telling, literally - as in using vocal and auditory senses - at what point did you decide "this has to be a podcast"? *Raises teacup, takes a sip, then has difficulty putting it back as the legs begin air-bicycling on the way down. It's given a little tap and it settles on the table, standing in a lop-sided stork pose.*

Keef: This particular Baba Yaga recording started life as a two-hour broadcast in January on KVRX, but the recording method failed. I couldn't let it go, so my friend Dan and I re-created it as a podcast, which allowed us greater freedom in making sure things converged, creating and tailoring the music more specifically to the needs of the pieces, and cutting it down for greater impact. Then we figured, hell-- let's keep making these. I've also got two decades' worth of recordings that I can whittle down and intersperse with new episodes, so that should be fun.

Lacquer miniature by Nina Babarkina
OUAB: So how did you go about putting together the 'script' or text? Did your choices come from the soundscapes you were wanting to build *both teacups begin sloshing their remaining tea...* and, ultimately, hear, *... until they're in sync..* or did the text come together first, in a more typical writing fashion? *throws a 'Stoppit!' look at the teacups. They stop. Mostly.*

Keef: Honestly, a little bit of column A, a little bit of column B. The wonderful thing about these stories is that they've been retold and reinterpreted dozens of times, and translated from the original languages even more. So I asked my readers to read ALL of the stories, and then I just selected chunks from each recording to follow the original plots. 

OUAB: Did you write your original short story "The Forest Gym", which you've included, before beginning production on the podcast, or after?

Keef: After the initial broadcast recording failed, I had extra time, so I wrote "The Forest Gym" specifically for the podcast. The recording of that one is unique and was a family effort. I'm the voice of Daddy. My daughter is the voice of Stefania, and the Baba Yaga is an amalgam of her mother, both of her grandmothers, her step-grandmother, and her great-grandmother. All the extended family members were gracious enough to call me and leave their lines in my voicemail, and from there I could edit it into the podcast. The sound quality is a little rough-- cell phones aren't known for their high fidelity-- but it all came together pretty well. The cat meows and purrs are all courtesy of our cat, Nora. 

OUAB: Oh wow. That is the best family keepsake ever! And a lot to put together. Actually, you have a lot going on in the whole podcast. Storytelling, different voices, overlapping voices, voices with effects, atmospheric sounds and effects, music... It must have presented quite a technical-juggling challenge! 

Keef: Oh, tracks and tracks and tracks and tracks. It eventually reached the point where I had to curb my perfectionism and call it complete, because otherwise I'd still be working on it. 

OUAB: Let's talk a little about the soundscapes. How did they become a key component of the storytelling? How did you decide what to create and include? What was your process?

Keef:  I grew up listening to old-time radio shows, which are really master classes in immersive audio environments. Really, I want these things to be as consuming as possible, really just put the listener in another world. That started on the radio-- my two favorite records of all time for the show are an LP called "The Language and Music of the Wolves," with a B-side consisting solely of wolf noises, and an LP called "Steam Railroading Under Thundering Skies," which is just rain, thunder, and steam trains. It's calming and beautiful and strange, and when you start adding other things in it gets quite bizarre, but it never loses that draw.

Logo for UHID created by Natee Puttapipat
OUAB: You mentioned growing up listening to old-time radio shows. When did you evolve from just listening to wanting to create your own podcast? How did they influence the way you build your immersive storytelling? And, wait a minute: is that your logo? How seriously cool - and topical - is that?

Keef: Yes! That's our new logo, kindly created by the crazy-talented Natee Puttapipat, whose work you may know from, well, everywhere, including The Folio Society edition of Andrew Lang's Red Fairy Book. We love it too.

The Baba Yaga podcast has its roots in a college radio show, called "The Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed." (UHID) The name was taken from David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest." There’s a weird radio show hostess in the book who reads bizarro texts and interacts with her audience in interesting ways. I started doing it on KRUI in Iowa City from '99-'02, and then at KVRX in Austin from ‘05-'07, and then on KVRX once or twice a year since then. I always wanted it to be weird and strange and unpredictable. It started with the idea of often playing at least three things simultaneously, which often meant instrumental music, sound effects, and spoken word recordings. Doing it on the fly, on the radio, sometimes it would fall flat on its face; sometimes, it would turn into these beautiful bits of convergence where the whole was much more than the sum of its parts. Eventually, the show incorporated live music, and that's persisted through the last ten years or so: my compatriot and co-creator is Dan Butler, a bona fide musical genius, and I'm perpetually thankful for him.

OUAB: You have a HUGE cast of people who helped with voices and sound layers! Where did they all come from? Were they mainly readers of yours, or did you send out a call for voices? Was it a collaborative thing or did you have specific roles for them all in mind? *The teacups have wandered over to the food plate and are attempting to pull off a tea cake with their claws*

Keef: This was such a wonderful and beautiful experience! I am so incredibly indebted and grateful to everyone who read for the show. I posted, on my personal social media, "hey, I’m doing a UHID show about the Baba Yaga, would anyone be willing to lend me their voice?" Immediately, ALL these people volunteered. Some could only read short bits, some wanted to read longer passages. Some people read stories in the original languages, which I buried deep in the mix in places. Some people got their children involved!  It was an honor and pleasure to work with all of them. I have hours and hours of unused stuff that I just couldn't squeeze in. Everyone who read did an amazing job, and some of them have complementary tones and voices that layered absolutely wonderfully. 

Baba Yaga and Vasilisa, also by Natee Puttapipat
OUAB: Because we love hearing about different creative processes: is there anything you wish you'd been able to include, some bit of research - or story text - you found fascinating that didn't quite fit in the end?

Keef: Oh, sure. Two things in particular: 

Jeremy, one of my readers, hollers "TWO BOTTLES OF VODKA, AND A NEW BRIDE!" in the "Uncle Ivan" story (which is based on a beautiful comic book by Tin Can Forest). When he gave me that particular line, he submitted about twenty different readings of it, which totaled to about a minute and a half. Just over and over, "Two bottles of vodka, and a new bride!" It was hilarious. During the radio broadcast, Dan and I just went on an extended riff, like a dance remix, with thumping EDM beats and rhythmic samples of Jeremy's line. It went on for about four minutes. We just couldn't get it to gel for the podcast. 

There's also a story in the podcast about a woman who encounters a fortune-telling Baba Yaga hiding in a tree. It's based on a wonderful short story by Rachel Kadish called "The Governess and the Tree," from an issue of Ploughshares*. It's a wonderful and beautiful and sad story. It's also about three thousand words. I adapted it down to about half that, and then asked my readers to read the adaptation. The reading of that ended up being about fifteen minutes long, and that was broadcast in full on the radio. When it came time to do the podcast, I realized it was just too much-- so I took the existing recording and cut it down again, to about five minutes. I think it still works, but it excises a lot of beautiful material that I was unable to include. I highly recommend the story. Rachel Kadish is a genius. 
*(Ploughshares, Vol. 37, No. 4 (WINTER 2011-12), pp. 83-90)

OUAB: We are definitely looking up Rachel Kadish when we're done here! How long did it take you to create the podcast, from inception to upload? *teacups are now playing football with a tea cake, which is quickly becoming more crumb than cake* And, more importantly, is there any chance of you doing another fairy tale-ish podcast anytime soon? We'd be happy to offer a list of potential macabre tale-candidates for you...

Russian lacquerwork, artist unknown
Keef: Oh goodness. Making this took hours and hours and hours and hours. You can't really take shortcuts with audio, which means listening to everything in real time over and over and over again. I spent two eight-hour days with Dan working on the music, and I'm sure he spent twice that working by himself. It took me about two weeks before the broadcast to get just the storytelling bits layered and edited down, and another week working on "The Forest Gym" and the edit of the fortune-telling, tree-bound Baba Yaga. Then, adding some sound effects, mixing, editing, and making everything come together. I'll also happily tell you that of the two of us, Dan's the genius when it comes to sound recording and production. Any shortcomings in the recording quality are mine alone. Dan's extremely busy at the moment getting ready for SXSW, but we fully intend to keep this up. I'm already gathering versions of stories about La Llorona for another long one of these, and I'm planning some shorter ones that are dramatizations of the horrible little fables.

OUAB: La Llorona? OK we're sold! Thank you for your time and, er, patience today... *The remains of the tea cake land inside one of the cups, splashing leftover tea over the table. Both bounce up and down happily as your host hastily attempts to mop up the soggy mess with extra doilies* One last question: do you have any funny - or spooky! - anecdotes you'd like to share from your auditory journey through Baba Yaga tales? We know she has a mind of her own and, well, odd things tend to happen when we pay attention to her stories... *attempts to corral the teacups that are now randomly hopping and swirling around the table top, barely avoiding the edge*

Keef: Heehee. I shared some small portions with the contributors as I worked on it. One of them told me that they were gathered around the computer, listening to one of these previews, and right as one the story ended, their power went out. They were left in the dark, feeling very unsettled. I love that.

OUAB: Where can folks find you on the web these days and do you have anything in the works we should be keeping an eye out for?

Keef: My sort of catch-all page is, and from there you can access my blog, the Horrible Little Fables, the website for the podcast, and my twitter. Also, I've just added the podcast to iTunes, so if you want to subscribe, you can search for the Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed. Updates will not be frequent, however, especially early on.

OUAB: Thank you again for sharing your process with us Keef! We hope to hear more from your neck of the woods in the future. And you're always welcome to drop by for tea, anytime. *there's a distinct SMASH! of breaking porcelain* I'm sure we can rustle up another cup if we need to.

Keef: This has been an absolute delight. Thank you so much for listening!

Here are the quick links to Keef's lurkings on the web. Be sure to wave "hi" if you drop by!
Let the Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed enfold you within its embrace. Allow the bizarro soundscapes to subsume you. Enter a world of magical realism, fairy tales, horrible little fables, samples, and sound effects, all with a delicious original analog synth music base. It's going to get weird... we're going to make this weird.
To further entice you to make the time to listen to this, we're including Keef's list of book resources used, that he so wonderfully included on the page:
"Where the wind blows; being ten fairy-tales from ten nations."
1910, by Katharine Pyle,
 illustrated & embellished by Bertha Corson Dav. 
Russian Folk-tales. W. R. S. Ralston, Smith, Elder, & Company, 1873 
Folk Tales From the Russian. Verra Xenophontovna Kalamatiano De Blumenthal, Rand McNally & Co., 1903. 
Wonder Tales From Many Lands. Katharine Pyle, George G. Harrap & Co., 1920. 
Baba Yaga: A Popular Russian Tale. Rose Celli & Nathalie Parain, Pere Castor, 1935. 
Vasilisa the Beautiful: Russian Fairy Tales. Irina Zheleznova (translator), Raduga Publishers, 1964. 
Baba Yaga. Ernest Small & Blair Lent, Houghton Mifflin, 1966. 
Vasilisa the Beautiful. Thomas P. Whitney & Nonny Hogrogian, MacMillan, 1970. 
The Kingdom Under the Sea and Other Stories. Joan Aiken & Jan Pienkowski, Jonathan Cape, 1971. 
Lovely Vassilisa. Barbara Cohen & Anatoly Ivanov, Atheneum, 1980. 
Bony-Legs. Joanna Cole & Dirk Zimmer, Scholastic, 1983. 
Russian Fairy Tales. Gillian Avery, Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. 
Hellboy: The Chained Coffin and Others. Mike Mignola, Dark Horse Comics, 1998. 
Baba Yaga and the Wolf. Marek Colek & Pat Shewchuk, Koyama Press, 2010.The Governess and the Tree. Rachel Kadish, in Ploughshares, vol. 37, No. 4, Winter 2011-2012. 
Angela Carter's Book Of Fairy Tales. Angela Carter, Little, Brown, 2015. 
Vasilisa the Beautiful and Baba Yaga. Alexander Afanasyev, Post Wheeler, & Ivan Bilibin, The Planet, 2017.The Forest Gym. Keef, 2018.  
Note: We would also like to add our strong recommendation for the following book as well. In fact, if you invest in just one resource, this would be the one. It includes many wonderful illustrations - old, unusual and new - among the collected tales.
Baba Yaga: The Wild Witch of the East in Russian Fairy Tales - Introduction and translations by Sibelan Forrester, with contributions by Helena Goscilo and Martin Skoro. Foreword by Jack Zipes. Published 2013. (Available through University Press of Mississipi)
(Description) "A beautifully illustrated collection of fairy tales about the most iconic and active of Russian magical characters"
Baba Yaga is an ambiguous and fascinating figure. She appears in traditional Russian folktales as a monstrous and hungry cannibal or as a canny inquisitor of the adolescent hero or heroine of the tale. In new translations by Sibelan Forrester, Baba Yaga: The Wild Witch of the East in Russian Fairy Tales is a selection of tales that draws from the famous collection of Aleksandr Afanas'ev, but also includes some tales from the lesser-known nineteenth-century collection of Ivan Khudiakov. This new collection includes beloved classics such as "Vasilisa the Beautiful" and "The Frog Princess," as well as a version of the tale that is the basis for the ballet The Firebird.
The foreword and introduction place these tales in their traditional context with reference to Baba Yaga's continuing presence in today's culture--the witch appears iconically on tennis shoes, tee shirts, even tattoos. The stories are enriched with many wonderful illustrations of Baba Yaga, some old (traditional "lubok" woodcuts), some classical (the marvelous images from Victor Vasnetsov and Ivan Bilibin), and some quite recent or solicited specifically for this collection.
If you love Baba Yaga and Russian folklore and fairy tales, expect to put this on your 'favorites' bookshelf. You can check out a preview, including the contents, HERE (though images, apart from the cover are not shown).
Vasilisa the Fair by B.Zvorykin

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