An interview with VERUSHKA author, Jan Stinchcomb

Stinchcomb’s debut novel is a magical, thrilling exploration of mothers and monsters, woven with the stark, secret language of the old tales and the gorgeous sensibilities of the contemporary. An exquisite story that will stay with me long after I put it down, like a dream, or a nightmare, staring through the window in the darkest hour of the night. ~A.A. Balaskovits, author of Magic for Unlucky Girls and Strange Folk You’ll Never Meet

Author Jan Stinchcomb has crafted something truly special with her novel, Verushka. This is a devastating tale of the bonds between mother and child as well as the all-too-real terrors of growing up. An astounding book and one that you’ll want to read immediately. ~Gwendolyn Kiste, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Rust Maidens and Reluctant Immortals

Jan, you’ve previously published short stories, including a chapbook and flash, but this is your first novel. What about this particular tale compelled you to write in this form?

I consider this a family novel, a family story, and I knew it was going to spill out in every direction and require thousands of words. I love multi-POV novels. The weight of certain stories can and should be carried by different characters across different time periods. And what is the story of a family if not an extended argument?

What came to you first, the plot or the characters?

The situation. I started with Caroline, Jack and Devon, all of them recently traumatized and living at a distance from the rest of the metropolis. The story of any small family alone in the world is already a potentially big plot. I wanted to focus on the child as much as the parents. I’ve always felt both charmed and frightened by children and what they can conjure with their imaginations. This children’s world is often inaccessible to adults: parents can teach their baby a language, but that child’s consciousness remains a mystery. We project certain narratives onto our children. It’s amazing to me that I can recall so vividly my own kids’ early childhood while they remember only certain moments. In this wonderland of lost time, all kinds of monsters could be lurking. In Devon’s case, however, she isn’t just imagining the wonders she sees. She is living it, and she can’t simply grow out of it. In fact, it gets worse as she gets older.

Verushka is the story of a curse that follows three generations of a family. The being who stalks them, the titular Verushka, starts out as human. She seems like an innocent girl at first. Were the seeds of evil within her from the beginning, or was she seduced to the dark side?

I think she’s innocent. I think we all start out innocent. But because Verushka has some psychic ability, she is more at risk than other children. Dangerous beings can communicate with her easily. And then, like all of us, she makes certain choices and does things that apparently can’t be undone. Most people would agree that Verushka is a victim of kidnapping and that she is only a child when she first encounters evil. Like a lot of unfortunate children, she has no one to save her, and it isn’t long before she is fully entrenched in the dark side.

Verushka’s first home is in Eastern Europe. Why this location when most of the story is set in the western U.S.?

Verushka’s chapter starts outside of the U.S., in the distant past, and it crosses over into an otherworldly realm. With her section of the novel, we get the villain’s origin story. I never specify her exact country of origin; it’s more important that she evolves into someone outside of the human race. She has no real citizenship by the time the Woodwards encounter her. That is part of her power and her danger.

Real talk: I had a Russian-Polish grandmother (that’s how she described herself), and I spent many years studying Russian as part of my work in comparative literature. It felt natural to create a darkly folkloric past for Verushka and to place her where nymphs and sprites are as real as people. Needless to say, my family isn’t in this book, and nothing bad has ever happened to me in the woods.

The first to be cursed is Elaine. Her story takes place in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s. More than anything Elaine wants to be free to explore herself and her place in the world. Verushka enters her life as a seductress and a mentor. I find this deliciously disturbing. Why so much seduction in Verushka?

Predators seduce. It’s their MO. They make you feel both that you are irresistible and that you are a willing participant, or maybe even that you initiated the whole thing. There is nothing wrong with Elaine’s various desires, but Verushka finds her way in through the cracks in Elaine’s self-confidence. She tries something similar with Devon, who manages, despite her youth, to stay a few steps ahead.

The book begins with the central family—Caroline, Jack, and their daughter Devon—having lost their home and nearly all of their belongings in a fire. When they retreat to a small chalet at the edge of a wood, Caroline seems more connected to those lost objects than to her own family. Devon instinctively knows that parents lie to children. The lost things that Caroline mourns are another kind of lie—the lie of permanence. How important are truth and lies in Verushka?

Truth and lies are the vocabulary of the family narrative. There’s the story we present to the outside world, a form of family PR, and the story that goes on behind closed doors. Verushka herself becomes one walking lie as the book goes on. And Devon is guilty of lying to her mother, or holding back on certain truths, as a necessary part of establishing independence. Mother and daughter lie to each other, but neither of them truly gets away with it. It’s a messy kind of victory.

Caroline, as you mentioned, has her own special problem. She’s in an emotional free-fall, planning her next move. She mourns the lie of permanence even as she engages in taking apart all that she has built.

A stuffed bear called Bear and a stuffed rabbit called Henry are important and vivid characters. I wish I had them in my life. Who are they? Where do they come from?

Henry actually lives in my house, in stuffed animal form, although I’m the only one who calls him by that name. (You can see him on my Instagram, 1/1/2023). There is no equivalent of Bear in my life, but you can find those vintage teddy bears on any website. Again, the power of these toys originates in the imagination of childhood, specifically in Devon’s mind. At some point they truly come alive and get to work. Animals are often fully realized characters in the fairy tales so I had no problem incorporating them into my novel.

Henry is all id and impulse, whereas Bear possesses knowledge and has a plan. He and Devon form a team. Bear goes on to play a very important role, which I won’t go into for those who haven’t read the book.

Gowns, hair, blood—the alchemy of black, white and red is ubiquitous in fairy tales. Did you consciously call upon this spell as you wrote Verushka?

These are natural choices for me as a writer. I didn’t even notice the color palette of the novel so it must be completely unconscious for me by now. Red of course is the color of blood, and blood means more than death in my work. It means life. In Verushka black and white get jumbled. Hair color changes. White is Verushka’s color, but we usually see her in dark settings or at night. Gowns are something we wear to bed or as part of a costume. They’re often required for special occasions, and Devon’s whole life feels like it is headed toward one big night.

Verushka is an original story that weaves fairy tale and mythic elements within its modern framework. You created a witch and an evil stepmother. Why does female power so often come in the form of magic and/or evil in these ancient stories, and in their descendants as well?

I think there is a tendency in the general culture to demonize powerful women. Witches don’t need to be evil or use their power for evil, either in life or literature. And yes, I hope there are many witches thriving out there in these dangerous times. That said, it is a lot of fun to explore and develop characters who are unapologetically evil. The horror genre allows evil characters to exist without being redeemed.

The evil stepmother of this novel is someone who doesn’t want to be a mother at all. She is also a liar, and liars can do incredible damage to powerless children.

What resource recommendations would you make for a writer who would like more fairy tale elements in their own work?

Start collecting. I have a whole shelf of fairy tale collections and rewrites. Pay attention to the stories you return to time and time again because there’s a reason for that attraction. I was always drawn to “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Vasilisa the Wise & Baba Yaga.” Your favorites will doubtless be different. Likewise, pay attention to the language and structure of the fairy tales. Repetition is important as a way to establish a mood and perhaps cast a spell. You can read the experts if you are so inclined: Kate Bernheimer, Marina Warner, Jack Zipes, and Bruno Bettelheim come to mind. Remember, finally, that this is very much a genre of the people––all the people, rich and poor––and you have every right to add your voice to the mix.

Pre-order Verushka here

Jan StinchcombJan Stinchcomb is the author of Verushka (JournalStone), The Kelping (Unnerving), The Blood Trail (Red Bird Chapbooks) and Find the Girl (Main Street Rag). Her stories have appeared in Bourbon PennSmokeLong Quarterly and Menacing Hedge, among other places. A Pushcart nominee, she is featured in Best Microfiction 2020 and The Best SmallFictions 2018 & 2021. She lives in Southern California with her family and is an associate fiction editor for Atticus Review. Find her at or on Twitter @janstinchcomb or Instagram @jan_stinchcomb