Excerpts from the interview:
“I started writing fiction in English. To me, Moscow is the archetypal city, so when invent a city there's always going to be some part which is very old, and a river of some sort. Cities are interesting. I don't know if it's so much fantasy cities, because when I read, I perceive them as real cities at some point, and I try to figure out what cities they were based on. With Jeff VanderMeer or China Miéville, theirs are very European cities, though in my own mind I may be imposing things that are not there.
“I've visited Prague for a short time, and it is a strange city, very Gothic and grotesque in some ways. You can spend a week in Prague and write about it for the rest of your life. One of my favorite poets, Marina Tsvetaeva, also lived in Prague, so there is this secondary layering going on since this is the poetry I grew up with. I spent 20 years behind the Iron Curtain, where you don't expect to see beyond the one country. Reading Victor Hugo, I thought 'I'm never going to see Paris. It might as well be a fantasy city.' I was blown away when I discovered New York actually existed! To me, most of world geography was fantasy.”
“The scientist in Secret History was basically modeled on several of my professors at Moscow State University's biology department. The professors all went through the Gulag because they refused to accept Lysenkoism, and they were very old, very craggy. They smoked incessantly in the classroom and they swore like you would not believe. 'Fuck' every other word. Yet they were well educated, spoke several languages, and were extremely smart. Most of them were geneticists.
“Lysenkoism was basically a form of Lamarckism (like 'you can teach a birch to be a pine') that asserted the inheritance of acquired characteristics. People in power are not necessarily very scientifically savvy, but it made sense to them: 'Oh, God made it this way,' or 'You can talk a birch into being a pine -- okay, I understand that. I don't understand the whole chromosome thingamajig.' Lysenko was favored by Stalin, and then by Khrushchev. The geneticists actually stayed in the Gulag longer than the other scientific political prisoners, because Lysenkoism was much more influential than you would imagine.”
“I don't sit down and try to work out my fantasies as though they were SF. I do think there's a definite overlap, but scientifically I'm not averse to saying, 'We've reached the limit of scientific understanding -- magic.' When you have the gargoyles in The Alchemy of Stone, science stopped working long before this thing started!
“People say, 'There should be rules to magic.' Why? It's magic. I understand you shouldn't be able to do anything you want, necessarily, but it shouldn't be like the laws of physics laid on magic. I'm much more interested in surreal kinds of things, where you don't know how things work but you don't care. It's like the Celestial Cow in The Secret History of Moscow -- she has no rules; she's a cow.”
“The book I'm working on now, The House of Discarded Dreams, is mostly based on urban legends, but there's also some other strange stuff going on. This girl's parents are Zimbabwean immigrants, and she has problems with her mother, who is politically aware and insistent on her daughter following the same road and having the same beliefs. It's urban fantasy, but it's more Atlantic City/New Jersey/horseshoe crabs (though the urban legends are mostly Zimbabwean). There's a Zimbabwean writer, Dambudzo Marechera, who wrote about this entity known as Man-Fish -- it's a fish that swallows the soul of a drowning person, and becomes a fish with the soul of a person inside of them. I read this book and thought, 'Oh my god, this is so awesome! But I'm not going to steal somebody else's ideas.' Then I found out the Man-Fish was actually an urban legend. Score! I am so going for it!”