COMIC BOOK YETI: Hey there, Valya, and welcome to the Yeti Cave for an interesting and fun interview! Before we get to the interview and prior to the year ending, how has your year been?
VALYA DUDYCZ LUPESCU: Thank you, Ty! I’m honored that you took the time to talk with me about Mother Christmas. The publication of Mother Christmas was definitely a highlight in a very challenging year. We have family and friends in Ukraine, and watching Russia’s continued aggression against the Ukrainian people has been heartbreaking. The war casts an ever-present shadow, but there were also moments of inspiration and gratitude, most of those quiet, joyful moments spent with family and friends.
CBY: Aside from creating graphic novels, you’ve also created cookbooks such as Forking Good: An Unofficial Cookbook for Fans of the Good Place and written poetry within the anthology called The Year’s Best, to mention a few of your many works. Do you prefer to write cookbooks, poetry, or graphic novels more?
VDL: That’s a little like being asked to pick a favorite child, they are all so different. Graphic novels are a creative collaboration, and crafting poetry is the closest I will ever come to making music, just with language. Stories and novels allow me time and space to live in a new world with characters I come to love. The truth is I’m one of those writers who really loves the act of writing. I love sitting down with a laptop or notebook, putting down one word after another until I stop being aware of the process and become fully immersed in the flow. I even enjoy the act of revision, when I shift my focus to craft and exercise different muscles to tighten and polish. I have a day job and three teenagers, so the time I carve out for writing is sacred, and writing is a joyful practice, even when it’s hard work.
CBY: Now that we can get to talking about your graphic novel Mother Christmas, how would you pitch your new book to a group of potential readers?
VDL: Mother Christmas tells the secret origin of Santa Claus as a mythic fantasy epic with a twist: Santa really is the 1,700-year-old Saint Nicholas, and his mysterious magic powers have come from his largely uncelebrated partner, Amara, who is one of the ancient Muses. Amara has her own story. The daughter of one of the most highly regarded Houses of the Mousai, she struggles to follow the rules and live up to her mother and grandmother’s expectations. She finds a rare and precious friendship in Nicholas and his sister, Flavia, and she learns some life-changing lessons about fear, generosity, and friendship.
CBY: What were the reasons you wanted to write about the past and journey of Mrs. Claus?
VDL: The story of Mother Christmas began in 2003 when I was living with my family in Frankfurt, Germany. We went to the Heidelberg Christmas Market, and among the ornaments for sale I came across a St. Nicholas ornament right beside an ornament of a witch. I came home with both ornaments and a headful of questions that started me down the rabbit hole of researching Christmas folklore, winter goddesses, and the historical figure of St. Nicholas.
We planned a trip to visit the southwestern coast of Turkey: to Patara, the birthplace of St. Nicholas, and other sites in the area. As we visited the landscapes where he had lived centuries before, the pieces started coming together in my imagination, and I plotted out an epic that stretches over more than a thousand years. Then I put the story aside—epics take a while to germinate.
CBY: Vic Terra’s art meshed extremely well with how the story was told and provided greater understanding within the events that occurred within the book. With that, how did you go about partnering with Terra on this project?
VDL: Bill Campbell of Rosarium Publishing thought that my writing would be well-matched with Vic’s art, so he made the introductions. Bill recognized something in both our work that would go really well together—a similar way we try to tell magical stories under the shadow of real-world darkness. Vic’s art has a way of depicting modern fairy tales with bold colors and mythic landscapes that stand in contrast with a gritty and monstrous fear.
CBY: In knowing you enjoy incorporating tales or stories from your Ukrainian heritage, how did you go about weaving your heritage and past into the characters and story within Mother Christmas?
VDL: It’s true that a lot of my work incorporates Ukrainian folklore, but the first volume of Mother Christmas is rooted in the mythology of ancient Lycia and the world of the Roman Empire. In Volume 2, we follow Amara and Nicholas into the North and that’s where we’ll meet some of the more recognizable characters and images of Christmas as it is celebrated today. That said, I spoke Ukrainian before I spoke English, and I was raised with stories from my grandparents: devils that hide in corners waiting to inspire mischief, angels that watch over you from the rooftops, a kindly traveler who leaves presents in your shoes on the eve of the Feast of St. Nicholas.
CBY: With Mother Christmas telling readers quite a bit about the history of Mrs. Claus, as well as giving more light to the characteristics of Amara throughout the book, do you believe that this book closes the gap on what readers know about Mrs. Claus compared to what the general population may know about Saint Nick himself?
VDL: The character of Nicholas is rooted in the historical Christian bishop of Myra in the 4th century A.D., who was the inspiration for the saint who became Santa. In my travels and research, I tried to get an understanding for the rich cultural and religious diversity of his life, and how that might have shaped him.
It was the way that Santa inspires generosity that led me to connect his mythology to that of the ancient Muses. From ancient times, the Muses have helped to direct people toward their creative potential. It seemed to me a perfect pairing: Santa as the spirit of generosity and wonder partnered with a Muse, the personification of encouragement and inspiration.
In truth, I don’t want to close any gaps. I hope that Mother Christmas helps us to recapture some of that curiosity and joy we experienced as children.
CBY: In creating Mother Christmas, what different inspiration(s) did you have that helped you along the way?
VDL: Most of what I read while working on Mother Christmas was nonfiction, but there have been books over the past few decades that certainly fed into the way I told the story. I was forever changed by the way Neil Gaiman used myth and folklore to tell the stories of the Endless in The Sandman. Then there is the otherworldly magic of the Edena Cycle by Moebius. And outside of graphic novel writers, the ways I think about subverting expectations of fairy tales and fantasy have definitely been inspired by authors including Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Isabel Allende, and Ben Okri, as well as the work of Hayao Miyazaki.
CBY: I believe you may have mentioned somewhere that this first volume of Mother Christmas isn’t the last we’ll see of this story and characters within. Can you divulge how you plan to build off of the first volume and what impact the volume had on readers?
VDL: I plotted Mother Christmas to be a trilogy. The first volume introduces us to the world of the Muses and the Kobaloi. We get to know Amara and Nicholas when they are young, before they become the characters we now know as Santa and Mrs. Claus. The events of the first volume set the trajectory for the rest of the story, setting up questions about the role of fear and hope, the cost of power, and the challenges of being vulnerable, that Nicholas and Amara will spend their lifetimes trying to answer.
The bulk of the adventures that really shape them into the iconic figures we’re familiar with will happen in Volume 2 as they travel across Europe and Asia, meeting the Álfar (elves), Krampus, and other supernatural beings. Volume 3 will bring them into the New World as we experience the evolution of Christmas in America.
CBY: Before the interview is finished, I’m betting readers would love to know what plans and/or projects you’ll be working on in 2023! Can you tell us anything about what may be coming from you in the future?
VDL: At the moment I’m working on Volume 2 of Mother Christmas, as well as a few short stories and poems that I hope to have published in the year to come, but nothing I can announce just yet.
CBY: I really do appreciate your time participating in this interview Valya! I’m sure I’m not the only one anxiously awaiting more on Mother Christmas, as well as what else is coming from you in the future, so I hope the coming days and 2023 is incredibly smooth for you! I sincerely cannot wait to see and read what book you come out with next!
VDL: Thank you! Happy Holiday and blessings of the Muses to you and yours. May 2023 see more peace for people around the planet.