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Author Spotlight: David Barr Kirtley

You’ve described your story “Beauty” as “a twisted modern-day retelling of ‘Beauty and the Beast.’” Why retell it?

A lot of my fiction is a retelling of something or other, because I have serious problems with the philosophical underpinnings of a lot of stories, and it often seems to me that the best way to answer them is to rewrite them in a way that lays bare the absurdity. One advantage with something like “Beauty and the Beast” is that most readers will be familiar with the original story, so you’re writing for a broader audience. And of course, any fairy tale you read today is going to be the result of countless generations of people retelling the story before you. The fact that these stories have been retold so many times indicates that there’s something about them that strikes a chord with people, that speaks to something that people care deeply about, and so a good retelling is probably going to have a strong impact as well.

What inspired your version?

“Beauty and the Beast” has always driven me crazy. The message is like, “Hotness isn’t what’s important. And now that you’ve learned that, your reward is someone who’s TOTALLY HOT!!!” Um, hello? That more than anything provided the impetus for this story, to highlight just how dense that ending is.

I really enjoyed the reference to Disney’s anthropomorphic furniture, especially since Nicole’s expectations mirrored my own. How did you decide to make the Beast the only magically altered character in “Beauty”?

Mostly just because it’s funny. That part with the TV always cracks me up. I also think it sets the tone for the rest of the story—throughout the story things that you imagine are going to be more “fairy tale”-like (in the modern sense of a “fairy tale wedding”) constantly turn out to be crappier and more mundane than you expected. It also sets up that the Beast is not always entirely forthright, but not exactly dishonest either. After all, in a sense a television is pretty magical, and it does actually talk. And just as the Beast in the Disney cartoon has no one to keep him company but his talking candlestick or whatever, a lot of people in the real world have no one to keep them company but their talking television, and I thought that was an interesting analogy to draw.

How would you answer Brett’s question, “If you woke up tomorrow and you were some ugly monster, would you still act exactly the same way? Feel exactly the same way about everything?”

I’m a really analytical person, and back in college, in the wake of some truly devastating dumpings, I read through a pile of self-help books about relationships, to see if any of them might diagnose something I was doing wrong. One of those books described relationships using a sort of point system, and said that a relationship always balances itself out, like conservation of energy or something, in terms of looks, money, popularity, affection, etc. It described a marriage between a beautiful woman and an average-looking man, and said that because the woman “scored” higher, things had balanced themselves out in terms of her getting her way more often, and him giving her lots of gifts, etc. Then, it said, the woman was in a car accident and was seriously disfigured. Since her “score” had dropped so much, it was inevitable that the gifts would become fewer, and she wouldn’t be getting her way as much. I found that fascinating and horrifying—this idea that the husband’s level of affection for his wife wasn’t an act of free will, but instead an inevitable response to some hidden calculus of power and need.

Applying that to “Beauty and the Beast” then, where you have this relationship between a beautiful woman and an ugly monster, if the beast suddenly gains a lot of “handsomeness points,” is it true that his level of affection for and devotion to Beauty must inevitably drop, to bring things into balance? Looked at that way, transforming the beast into a handsome prince doesn’t just undercut the moral of the story, it seems a kind of curse.

That’s a big part of what the story’s about for me: To what extent is our level of affection for other people something we have any control over, and to what extent is it dictated by power dynamics? I want to believe it’s the former, but I sort of fear it’s the latter.

In addition to writing, you co-host The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy. What’s the best thing about hosting the podcast?

There are a lot of things about it that I really love, such as getting a chance to interview some of my heroes, or getting positive feedback from listeners, but probably the best thing is just that it keeps me in touch with my friends. For years John Joseph Adams and I were part of a close-knit community of writers and editors in New York, and in recent years the group has largely dispersed, with people relocating to such distant points as Myrtle Beach and Portland, Oregon. And of course John moved to California. Doing the show means I’m on the phone with him at least four times a month (since we do two recording sessions for each bi-weekly podcast), and recently we’ve been bringing on some of our other friends as guest geeks, so it’s a good way to keep the old gang together.

What other projects are you working on? What’s next?

I have two stories coming out soon, in two new John Joseph Adams anthologies. “Power Armor: A Love Story” is a dark romantic comedy about an inventor from the future who never takes off his invincible armor for fear of a lurking assassin. It’ll appear in the anthology Armored from Baen Books. The other story is called “Three Deaths,” and is set in the Barsoom milieu from the novel A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (basis for the new Disney movie John Carter). That story will appear in the anthology Under the Moons of Mars: New Adventures on Barsoom.

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Jennifer Konieczny

Jennifer KoniecznyJennifer Konieczny hails from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. An alumna of Villanova University, she now pursues her doctorate in medieval studies at the University of Toronto. She enjoys working with fourteenth-century Latin legal texts, slushing for Lightspeed Magazine, and scanning bookshelves for new authors to read.