The comparison to “Spindles” is, of course, Sleeping Beauty. Other fairy tales seem to be in here as well. Can you tell us more about this connection, and how this story emerged for you?
I love short stories that have fairy tale roots. Fairy tales, myths, and legends give storytellers a common language for effectively communicating big ideas. Roald Dahl has a fun version of Cinderella in which the prince turns out to be a sociopath (kind of like the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland). In the end, rather than going through life with a “someday my prince will come” mindset (that’s Snow White’s song, I know, but it applies!), Cinderella decides to ask the fairy godmother for a nice guy. Because we all know Cinderella so well, the choice of transforming the prince into something unrecognizable makes Dahl’s point instantly comprehensible. I like playing that game.
At the same time, I am more intrigued by tales that build off of other fairy tales than ones that explicitly retell them. So, while a tale like Sleeping Beauty and literary tales like Peter Pan and A Little Princess certainly influenced the core ideas of the story, I thought it would be fun to transmit them via a story structure that was more Groundhog Day than Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
We seem to have a paradoxical view of growing up; we often describe it as a process of “losing” things. The idea of losing something after sleep and having it all be a repeated process gave me my version of the Groundhog Day eternal return narrative structure, and once I had that, mixing in a little bit of Sleeping Beauty, Peter Pan, A Little Princess, and a number of my own bits of inspiration followed naturally.
You use short section breaks to great effect in this story. Can you tell us more about this choice?
The best fairy tales have a dreamlike quality, and insofar as sleeping and dreaming are essential components of this story, I wanted the sometimes shorter, sometimes longer sections to fly in and out like a series of dreams. In addition, I hoped to contrast the linear nature of Evelyn’s curse (her repeated, ordered, numbered cycles of childhood) with what is ultimately a non-linear narrative. Roman numerals always seem so smug when they help organize a perfectly straightforward series of events, so I hoped to drop them down a peg by undermining their attempt to present Evelyn’s story in a clear and uncomplicated manner.
There seems to be a theme in “Spindles” regarding growing up, and parents’ reluctance to let that happen. Can you tell us more about this?
I feel that there’s something beautiful about parents who don’t want their child to mature and something sinister at the same time. In Peter Pan, the natural enemies for the children are not the pirates but their parents (it’s frequently been the tradition that the actor who plays Hook also plays Wendy’s father). But Wendy leaves her parents because they want her to grow up, and she doesn’t want that. I thought the opposite was more accurate: Children want to grow up and their parents are their enemies because they oppose that desire. Unfortunately, many young girls seem determined to blame their mothers for everything holding them back, but it amazes me how easily protective and ultimately oppressive attitudes that fathers display towards “their little girls” are seen as “cute” and “admirable.”
I have some experience with education, and I remember sitting in on public school PTA meetings about the possibility of adopting school uniforms. During the opening statements given by parents, those who were pro-uniforms listed numerous legitimate justifications (uniforms create a sense of unity, they eliminate bullying about clothes, etc.). Once the debate began, however, I quickly realized that the real reasons parents wanted uniforms were almost always misogynistic in nature (girls dress like sluts, they distract the boys, it’s unfair to the male teachers, etc.). There was such a great fear of young women being able to express themselves freely. The solution was to have both boys and girls wear polo shirts and slacks; basically, to have girls dress like well-dressed boys. It may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but the venom and anger behind the words of parents who were afraid that young girls were growing up too fast affected me deeply.
What would you like An Ideal Reader to take from this story?
There’s an excellent episode of The West Wing where the president has to deal with a political scandal of his own making. In the process, his opponents publicly castigate his wife in order to score points against him. Watching this unfold, he says, “The things we do to women.” I like to think that as this story unfolds, an ideal reader would feel what President Bartlet was likely feeling as he said those words.
At the same time, just as Evelyn goes through an incredible amount of cycles in this story, I hope that there are just as many ideal readers. Some might focus on the gender themes mentioned above, but some might come away just thinking about how dangerous that perfect moment of sleep is. No matter what else is going on in my life, if I find that perfect position, time, and place for sleep, I will inevitably succumb. If my life depended on it, I don’t think I could stop myself from falling asleep, which tells me that deep down I prefer the sleep to anything else. That’s a kind of frightening thought.
Do you have anything upcoming that you want us to know about?
In addition to a longer-term project and regular blogging on speculative fiction (at lbgale.com), I continue writing short stories that have a fairy tale element. I wanted “Spindles” to be a fairy tale that focused on an adolescent girl’s experience, so for my next short story, I’ve worked on a tale that showcases an adolescent boy’s travails. It’s typical fantasy stuff involving prophecies and wise guardians and such—save that it takes place almost entirely in all the McDonalds of the world. Needless to say, I had a great time writing it and a better time researching it.