The Muse of Research: An Interview with Lev Mirov

16 Mar

The Muse of Research is a monthly column in which E. P. Beaumont interviews poets, medievalists, and speculative writers about their research.  This week, E.P. Beaumont talks to Lev Mirov.

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E. P. Beaumont: Talk about your nonfictional obsessions! (could be academic training, stuff you like to read about, topics that pique your curiosity)

Lev Mirov: I’ve studied medieval Europe widely, and I have put a lot of time and energy into the history of western magic, folk Christianity, 12th century England, ritual studies, and the relationship between western religion and esotericism and indigenous cultures. In 2011, I wrote an undergraduate thesis on gender and military leadership in 12th c. England and France, and, in 2014, a master’s thesis about magical rituals as expressions of religious life in later medieval England.

I am also learning about the history and culture of Russia and questions of ethnicity and identity in Russia, ballet, New Orleans history and culture, gender and sexuality, psychology and the human mind, religions and spiritualities, the history of medicine, and food as culture.

I do 90% of the household cooking, and have found being gluten and egg intolerant amazing for introducing me to global cuisines and styles of cooking and eating outside the mainstream American paradigm. I am an adventurous gluten-free baker, and am always trying to capture interesting dishes as part of my culinary repertoire.

EPB: How do they find their way into your fiction?

LM: In my fantasy, food is literally magical, which opens up a lot of fun stuff for me.

I often say there is no such thing as a “useless” historical fact. Maybe the question “Does my character eat toast?” doesn’t seem important on its face. The small details of the world matter a lot in making characters feel like real products of their time.

If they don’t have toasters on your alien planet, what do they eat for breakfast instead? Why would they eat cereal pebbles if they never went through the US cereal = health food craze and has no big agribusiness profiting from it? Who is selling the space cereal?

The big details matter too. Knowing the world people were born into, whether speculative or historical, is hugely important to making people feel like they belong there.

EPB: Any story inspired by something interesting (nonfictional) that you learned?

LM: Medieval research is a huge part of my household epic. Faeries born in medieval Normandy invade California in the 1920s and establish a faerie monarchy in San Francisco.

Ask “Well, what would they care about? How would their cultural tastes and assumptions change the development of the 20th century? Does magic change the development of technology?”

You get a very different alternate history which seems familiar but is very definitely not 2012 with some magic pasted on.

EPB: What’s the interplay, for you, between project-specific research and writing?

LM: There are the things I am always reading about, not for any particular project but just in general, which spark stories.

When I decide to get thick into a project, a lot of my research is prompted by my characters. If a character went to university in the 1990s in St Petersburg, to really do that character justice, I need to know what their baseline for “normal life” is like; the food they ate, the music they heard, the clothes they wore, what they saw on TV, what the big news stories they thought about were, the landscape of the city at that time.

Knowing who my protagonists are means diving deep into the intangible cultural current of their worldview, and staying submerged. Sometimes I have to stop writing to google the answer to a question that might otherwise seem like a small detail.

Details are what bring people and settings to life. I abandon projects, characters, and plots that never make it out of the conceptual stage because non-fictional details in my fiction are what sell me on its reality.

EPB: Is there a nonfictional detail that saved your story/characters/setting from being boring/stereotypical or otherwise not up to your artistic standards?

LM: I was working for a while on an apocalyptic story about Greek gods and goddesses set in Charlottesville, Viriginia. Charlottesville’s microclimate parallels that of the wine-growing regions of Normandy — making it an ideal place for Dionysus to tend a vineyard!

I’ve often used the specific history or details of local places in Virginia and Maryland, or my childhood home in the Bay Area in California, to avoid the horribly lazy trap of urban fantasy set in the same handful of big cities or generic, small towns with the same mostly-white population.

EPB: What kind of nonfictional information are you addicted to?

LM: Anything written. For disability reasons, I can watch a very limited amount of documentary television occasionally. I cannot listen to podcasts or most educational videos that rely on auditory processing to relay information.

Photographs and art are great, too. I love the stuff that turns up on medievalists.net. If I cast my net wide enough, I learn something new. I love cookbooks that are also cultural studies, especially histories told through food.

When I am up for it, there is nothing quite like walking through a historic house or down a historical street to help you understand the physicality of the past. I used to do a bit of reenacting, and I think physically handling reproductions of historical objects (or the objects themselves, depending) is one of the best ways to understand how people in the past lived.

EPB: What new topics are on your horizon for further reading?

LM: The cult of Dionysus, 19th century English medicine, the colonial history of New Orleans, Judaism, the history of the US food lobby, nighttime as documented in late medieval France.

For the novel I am writing with my wife:  medieval beliefs about ghosts and death, medicine in WWI, the American South in the 1920s, San Francisco in the 20th century, Jewish life in India prior to the 1940s, how memory works, gastronomy, professional kitchens, high-end food service, viticulture, and the history of the Philippines and Mexico.

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