Interviews with Writers

Fantasy | Q&A Elena Clark | The Breathing Sea I: Burning

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I’m delighted to welcoming Elena Clark in my hot seat today.

Elena is the author of The Zemnian Series, a combination of high fantasy and literary fiction which begins with the award winning The Midnight Land.  Today Elena Clark is chatting to us about The Breathing Sea which is the next novel in the series.  

Here’s more about The Breathing Sea 1 : Burning:

The Breathing Sea I The Burning Elena Clark


Dasha is a gift from the gods. Only she’s not very gifted. Or at least so it seems to her.

Eighteen years ago, Dasha’s mother made a bargain with the gods. She would bear a gods-touched child, one who would stand on the threshold between the worlds, human and divine. Dasha is that child, now almost ready to become a woman, and one day take her mother’s place as Empress of all of Zem’. Except that Dasha is shy, lonely, and one of the least magically inclined girls in the Known World. Instead she has fits and uncontrollable visions. When she sets off with her father on her first journey away from her home kremlin, she hopes she will finally find someone who can help her come into her powers. But those whom she finds only want to use her instead. What will it take for her to unlock the abilities hidden within her, and take up her proper place in the world?

The sequel to the award-winning novel “The Midnight Land,” “The Breathing Sea” returns to the land of Zem’, where animals speak, trees walk, and women rule. Filled with allusions to Russian history, literature, and fairy tales, this coming-of-age tale straddles the line between high fantasy and literary fiction.

Purchase link for The Breathing Sea I: Burning:

Hi Elena,

Welcome to Jera’s Jamboree.


Please summarise The Breathing Sea in 20 words or less.

The Breathing Sea spends one pivotal summer with seventeen-year-old Dasha (Darya Krasnoslavovna) as she leaves her mother’s kremlin for the first time in order to see her realm and discover her powers.


What was the idea/inspiration for your novel?

It’s the follow-up to the first book, or perhaps it would be best to say mini-series, in the overall arc of The Zemnian Series, and it follows some of the same characters, plus some new ones, 18 years later.  The general idea of the main series came to me in pieces.  I wanted to write an epic fantasy series set in in the far north, in a Russia-esque world, and I also wanted to write an epic fantasy series about a matriarchal society.  I came across the phrases “the midnight land” (the title of the first book/mini-series) and “the breathing sea” (the title of the second book/mini-series) while taking an Old Russian Literature class in grad school, and knew that I wanted to use them as my book titles.  The character of Dasha was a late arrival; she suddenly appeared while I was writing The Midnight Land and I decided to make The Breathing Sea about her.


Please tell us about the characters in your novel.

The main character is Dasha.  She’s—SPOILER ALERT!!—the daughter of Slava, the main character of the first book, The Midnight Land.  Dasha was conceived at the behest of the gods, and everyone expects her to be a powerful sorceress and to be wilful, difficult, and dangerous, but instead she’s very meek and mild-mannered and seems to have very little magical ability, something that doesn’t stop everyone from treating her as the person they imagine her to be, not the person she really is.  Her father, Oleg, shows up one early spring evening with very bad news, and ends up taking her on her first journey.  He’s a servant of the gods who has been given prolonged life and other gifts in exchange for fathering lots of daughters.  He’s hotheaded, charming, and inconstant, and he’s been a very in-and-out presence in Dasha’s life, so this is the first time they really get to know each other.  Dasha has to come to terms with his legacy and what it means for her.  One of Oleg’s other daughters, Sveta, also joins them on the journey and she and Dasha struggle to get along and deal with the fact that Sveta’s had a hard life so far, while Dasha’s had a very easy life, at least materially, and is favoured by gods and women alike.  Dasha is also joined by her new friend Susanna, from a southern province that recently joined the land of Zem’, Dasha’s country, only semi-willingly.  Susanna is the daughter of the most powerful princess in that region and is bold, proud, and impetuous—basically, the person everyone expects Dasha to be.

There are a lot of secondary characters as well, including a number of horses, dogs, and wild animals, but those are the main ones who make the entire journey together.


What scene did you enjoy writing the most Elena?

In the beginning of Part II Dasha is lost and alone in the woods and has encounters with wild animals who initially appear threatening but turn out to be helpful.  Since I love animals, that was a very enjoyable scene for me to research—I spent a while looking at videos of bears, for example—and write, especially since it’s based in part on an experience I myself had while walking in the woods in Virginia and realizing a bear was walking parallel with me through the trees.  The whole thing was such a lovely, magical experience to write and then reread later.


… and the hardest?

One of the action sequences in Part I involves Dasha almost drowning and required numerous rewrites in order to get the details right.  I kept changing my mind about how it was supposed to go, and then it was difficult to keep track of where, exactly, all the characters including the horses were standing and what was happening in each of the multiple separate catastrophes that were taking place in different parts of the river, not to mention how to make Dasha trapped underwater but not so trapped that she couldn’t plausibly get out.  I still get confused myself about what actually went down in that river—which is maybe appropriate for the situation 🙂

I’ll also add that both that scene and the one I mentioned above, about Dasha walking through the forest, were inspired by the novel Longshot by Dick Francis, which has what I consider to be some of the best escape-from-the-bad-guy scenes of any novel I’ve read.  They’re brilliant in their low-key, down-to-earth simplicity and that’s something I really admired and realized as I was editing The Breathing Sea had been a major influence on me.


Did you do any research?  What resources did you use

Well, I have a doctorate in Russian literature and the books are heavily based on Russian culture and are full of references and allusions to Russian literature, so I suppose you could say that 🙂  For example, The Breathing Sea has recurring scenes that refer to Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Chekhov’s “In the Ravine,” and the Soviet animated classic “Hedgehog in the Fog.”  There’s a lot based on medieval Russian saints and religious sects such as the Skoptsy, or castrates.  I also spent a while reading about things like Slavic myths about water-spirits and wood-spirits, Baba Yaga and her house on chicken legs that was probably based on the raised houses that dead bodies were put in, healing and medicinal plants, and the habits of various animals such as wolves, bears, and Eurasian vipers, all of which feature heavily in the book.


Did you travel to any places Elena?  Undergo any new experiences?

It’s not so much that I travelled to new places or had new experiences as that places I’d travelled and experiences I had informed the book.  I lived in Russia for a while, so the landscape and culture are very much based on that.  I also incorporated my experiences such as sexual harassment and being ill into Dasha’s story.


You mentioned your own experiences such as sexual harassment above Elena, do you tackle social barriers within the stories?  

Hmm, to say that they tackle a social barrier is maybe not the right phrase, but they’re extremely focused on all kinds of social issues.  Most obviously, the whole series is set in a matriarchal/matrilineal society in which men, to simplify it dramatically, do the fighting and women do the ruling.  I deliberately set out to challenge both our own society’s constructs of gender and also the stereotypes about female-dominated societies.  My women are extremely flawed characters who struggle both internally and externally with the problem of how to deal with men who are even more flawed themselves, and tend to be entitled and violent.  As part of that, sexual harassment and assault come up again and again in the story.

Another major issue in the books, especially The Breathing Sea, is the relations between humans and the non-human/natural world.  Dasha comes face-to-face with the abuse and exploitation of non-human animals by humans, and also with the tremendous difficulties in doing anything about it, as other people, especially those closest to you, will often put a lot of pressure on you to conform to what you consider to be an evil social standard.

Bullying people because it’s fun for you, and forcing people to do things they don’t want to do because you think it is a good idea, is also a recurring theme throughout the story, especially the issue of when you have to force people to do things they don’t want to do, and when you have to give them their freedom to make their own life choices, even when you think those life choices are wrong.

Another major issue is the question of identity, how you know who “you” are, and whether you can take on different identities and whether or not that is even a moral thing to do—is it okay to be someone else because it serves your own ends or your own happiness?  Can you, and should you, decide to change the presentation of your species, gender, or social class, just because you don’t like who you currently are?  What is even possible, and what do other people owe you and what do you owe other people?

There’s also stuff about immigration and refugees, joining religious orders, child abuse, and much, much more.  I can pretty much guarantee that anyone who reads the book will find something thought-provoking at the very least, because I deliberately wrote it to be that way and from what people are saying, it seems to be effective.  I was intentionally working in the tradition of authors like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, by writing socially engaged fiction that provides unusual or challenging perspectives on social issues.  I think that fantasy is particularly suited for that because of the imaginative possibilities it provides, and that rather than being a retreat from the “real world,” it’s the best possible way to confront the “real world” head-on in a manner that you can’t actually do with realist fiction, let alone non-fiction.


Finally, can you tell us what’s in the future for The Zemnian Series Elena?

Yeah, so I ended up with a rather complicated structure.  The series was originally meant to be three books: The Midnight Land, The Breathing Sea, and The Dreaming Land.  But each book turned out to be quite large, so I ended up splitting them into parts, which means now I essentially have three mini-series within the main series: The Midnight Land I & II, The Breathing Sea I & II, and The Dreaming Land I, II, & III. 

I think of it sort of like seasons of a tv show—like you have the overall show Buffy the Vampire Slayer and then individual seasons within the show and individual episodes within the seasons.  Anyway, The Midnight Land and The Breathing Sea have been released and The Dreaming Land is currently in the editing stage and I’m planning to have it out sometime in 2018.

Thank you for being my guest.

Wishing you success with all your writing projects Elena.

[shopr collection=”the-zemnian-series”]

Elena ClarkE.P. Clark starting writing fiction as soon as she deigned to learn to read, which was not particularly early–she spent a good deal of her childhood doing more important things, such as pretending to be a unicorn. Slightly later, she wanted to be a world-class equestrian. But, much to her surprise, the heavy finger of fate pointed her way and she ended up moving to Russia, which led, very circuitously, to her earning graduate degrees in Russian from Columbia University and UNC-Chapel Hill, and her current employment teaching Russian at Wake Forest University, along with some odd travel opportunities. She continued writing fiction throughout all this, however, and has had multiple short stories published.

Connect with Elena Clark:


       Mailing List:


       Twitter: @Andreyev7,


       Buy link for The Breathing Sea I: Burning:

Buy link for The Breathing Sea II: Drowning

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I've been blogging about my interests at Jera's Jamboree for 8+ years. My love of reading, crocheting, being out in nature and positive psychology are all things that help me unwind from my role as an Inclusion Lead in a primary school.

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