You’ve been retelling fairy tales for a while. Did you write fairytale mash-ups and twists from the beginning or did your career take a turn at some point?
My very first story, written when I was seven, was entitled, quite vaguely, “A Story About a Princess.” She had a dragon and a fiancé and no plot. I can’t think of what fairy tale I was referencing, but I clearly had already begun a certain pattern of story-telling at that point. I wrote constantly throughout my childhood and teen years, and did rewrite a few fairy tales then, but they were not at all my main focus, nor was that a plan for when I decided to pursue publication. I probably wrote a dozen short stories before coming up with “Huntswoman,” which is a Snow White retelling that was my first sale for professional rates, and likewise, I started many (and completed a few) other novels of various types before writing a Middle Grade fairy tale retelling. I think it’s some combination of luck and timing — and perhaps something also about how I’m best at my ease working inside an existing story structure rather than trying to come up with my own.
You revisited the East of the Sun, West of the Moon and Beauty and the Beast fairy tales in other stories, including your novel Princess Curse. What about these two stories resonates for you?
My parents were divorced when I was very young, and for a long time, I considered that rift in our family the central crisis of my life. I was fascinated with the process of falling in love and getting married and starting a family. I imagine lots of people are, and that’s why romance novels are so popular. I didn’t really believe in romantic love the way it was presented in stories. I spent a lot of time wondering if an arranged marriage (sort of epitomized by Beauty and the Beast) was better than marrying for love; I spent a lot of time wondering if once one fell in love, you would develop an unswerving dedication to the relationship, as in East of the Sun. Later, I realized those stories also have a lot of metaphors about integrating parts of your unconscious mind, and deeper resonances far beyond that than just the love story, and I think that’s why there’s been a staying power with those fairy tales for me. Ultimately, I think when I’m troubled by a story, I want to retell it, and I was always troubled the most by those.
What is your process for retelling and mashing up fairy tales? Do you start with the tales or with a character you are interested in exploring?
I did children’s theater growing up, which informed a lot of my writing process — reading lines out loud and trying to find the character in the words that were given to me morphed into just saying random weird sentences out loud, and then having a conversation with myself from there. It’s like playing pretend. It’s definitely a “and then people look at you funny” kind of thing. But there’s usually a core moment that pops up at me, and the story starts building itself around that. If I’m deliberately trying to retell a fairy tale at that point (which did happen for The Princess Curse), I start thinking of what works best — for that story (it started out as a short story), I had a scene near the end in mind, where the main character’s father asks her if she’s okay, and she lies and says she is. Then I started to wonder: Who was lying, why, etc. I had always been troubled by The Twelve Dancing Princesses, in particular how basically the princesses were complicit in the deaths of many people, and I already knew that I’d never be able to tell a story about that fairy tale where one of the princesses was a hero, and yet I wanted to tell a story about a girl. It started to come together from there.
My most recent book, The Castle Behind Thorns, was much less intentionally a Sleeping Beauty story. I even wrote a bit into the beginning where the main character knew the story about the thorns in Sleeping Beauty and thought there was a princess asleep in the castle, but he never found one. Just to make sure we all knew it wasn’t a retelling! And yet, the story totally is a Sleeping Beauty story. So obviously, I lie to myself about my intentions all the time. The few times I have deliberately set out to retell a fairy tale include “Sun’s East, Moon’s West” — I wanted to discuss the troubling aspect of shapeshifting husbands and how derailing of life plans a fairy tale interference can be — and also “The Girl-Prince” which is gender-bent Sleeping Beauty in space with a dungeon crawl, and which was exactly what I’d wanted to write from the start.
Lissa’s intelligence, kindness, and wit come alive through her distinctive voice. Do you have any advice on finding your character’s voice?
I re-read Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle every few years, because I can’t think of another book that is as meaningful to me as that one for having taught me what voice entails. The first page of that book is absolutely amazing; the voice is everything. Voice is, to me, analogous to the way someone laying out panels in a comic would try to draw the eye across the page. It highlights, it points at what matters to the character speaking, it filters the world through their point of view. As I mentioned, I like talking to myself out loud. I start babbling aloud because I learn so much about the character so quickly — obsessions, interests, quirks, likes and dislikes, even information about the world they live in. I throw a lot of it away, but I keep a lot, too.
Who are your favorite characters from fairy tales?
I love a pragmatic and practical-minded character, or one who can be rewritten as such. The soldier in The Twelve Dancing Princesses is perhaps my favorite — world-weary and just ready to put an end to the nonsense. I also love the characters with secret, tragic pasts. Of course.
Is there a particular fairy tale you are working with for your next project?
I am currently writing a Beauty and the Beast Regency YA, as it happens, with aftershocks from seventeenth-century tulipomania instead of anything to do with roses.
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