The Big Idea: Yaroslav Barsukov

In this Big Idea for Tower of Mud and Straw, author Yaroslav Barsukov looks at potentially-fraught relationships, and how he approached them for his Nebula award-nominated novella.


Game of Thrones may have faded from the public consciousness, but the scar tissue remains. Incest on the small screen no longer makes us drop our sodas and pizza slices—worse still, a brother kissing his sister on the cheek now creates a certain expectation in the audience.

Against a backdrop of assassinations and ancient legends and mammoth anti-airship towers, two relationships intertwine in my novella—one between the protagonist and his lover, another, in the past, between him and his sister. Both women share the same name—Lena—but the similarities don’t end there: the posture, the outlook on life, the will and the spirit are reflections of each other. In the post-GoT world, that’s tantamount to innuendo, and sure enough, it led some readers to suspect my hero of having a fetish.

To be fair, George Martin did not start this conversation: I live in Vienna, where a life-size statue of a certain neurologist graces the courtyard of the city’s Medical University. If you fall in love with a woman who looks like your mother, it must be Oedipus whispering in your ear… Yet in this tangled mesh of neurons we call the brain, nothing exists in complete isolation. And if one thing influences another, are they always one and the same?

My take on this is that we’re rag dolls woven of nostalgia and regret. The past holds a spell over us, we’re drawn to places where we were happy, to the warmth and the lights. Bikes in the sunset, rain’s white noise in the garden, the way apples smelled in summer. And if we sometimes feel the need to visit the town we grew up in, relationships should be no different. The erstwhile ones will define the future ones; in people, we’ll always look for something we’ve lost.

Tower of Mud and Straw isn’t about folks building a tower using devices brought by refugees from another world. It’s about love as a virus. Platonic, sexual, doesn’t matter: love rewires us, changes our tastes, molds us into creatures of anticipation. So no, my protagonist isn’t a weirdo, nor does he have issues. He is a man who has been happy once, unequivocally, who loved someone without the desire to be physically close. Now he’s holding a mirror shard to the right side of his face, hoping to catch a glimpse of the left.

It would’ve been easier to create two love stories, or add a dash of the Lannister dynamic (hell, the latter could’ve driven up sales for all I know). But as a writer, I was more interested in seeing a platonic relationship reflected in a sexual one. The story is built to support this simile: our hero first encounters the “tulips,” the aforementioned otherworldly technology, in a workshop he runs with his sister. After a tragedy hits, he buries what remains of his past and thinks he’s moved on—until he happens upon a giant tower “tulips” have grown into and meets the woman who bears his sister’s name.

It’s karmic, if you will, and I hope it says something true about us as human beings. All fires the fire, all moths in the dark are drawn to the same lights, and, beautiful and misguided creatures, we keep looking for the things we lost.

Tower of Mud and Straw: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

2 Comments on “The Big Idea: Yaroslav Barsukov”

  1. It features platonic love, non-platonic love, flak towers, refugees from another world (in a fantasy setting), surrealist sequences, and a bunch of people hurting each other.

    That’s not quite the point of the essay, though.

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