I really enjoyed the style of this piece, as wry a fable as “How the Emperor . . .” in Escape Pod earlier this year. How did this story come to be?
I wrote my first draft of this story around fifteen years ago so it’s a bit hard to remember its specific origin. (I have a vague memory that I wrote it while in central Finland? But that is all.) It’s part of a series of stories which are all fairy tales told from a secondary fantasy world, which is to say that they are like our fairy tales but a little different. John Joseph Adams and I have named this series Tales From the Great Sweet Sea and I have two more coming sometime soon.
I started writing this series when it became clear to me that I read stories, fairy tales and fables particularly, very differently than other people do. It took until I was a young adult to realize that there are consensus interpretations to most of these stories. “Everybody knows,” for instance, that the moral of Hansel and Gretel is “don’t go into a stranger’s house.” But traditional fairy stories have much more depth than that, and contain all sorts of morals and lessons that depend on the listener and the teller and their respective life experiences. To me, to continue the example, the moral of Hansel and Gretel is “the appearance of kindliness is not the presence of safety.” So I started writing this series of stories to give my minority report on fairy tale morals.
I don’t think it’s an accident that traditional fairy tales support these divergent readings. They’re incredibly flexible stories and they would not have survived to the present had they not fulfilled multiple purposes. They also contain vital messages about how to survive systems which in whatever way exclude or immiserate you, but given their origins within those systems, the messages themselves must be cloaked in metaphor.
Ann-of-Rags reminded me of Vasilisa’s little wooden doll in the Russian folktale, but in this case, the girl doesn’t follow her companion’s advice, and the sacrifice at the end is offset by a kind of humorous indifference. What kinds of storytelling patterns catch your attention, and how do you make them your own?
Fairy tales are great in some ways because they have been aggressively deconstructed several times, resulting in great documents like the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Index. Of course, a writer doesn’t actually stick to a specific index, but the way that it views stories as agglomerations of different working parts is extremely insightful.
I end up feeling like there are these motifs and plot elements and other riffs that get used in various stories and the job of telling a fairy tale is to select ones that fit together well and form a proper story shape (of course sometimes they aggressively don’t fit the modern idea of a proper story shape, as in the case of a story like The Turnip from Grimm.)
Anyway, to me, telling a fairy tale is a matter of assembling these riffs into a shape that fits together in a satisfying way and serves to accomplish the goals that you’re trying to accomplish (education or self-expression or entertainment or all of the above or something else entirely). When you do this, you’re behaving like the bricoleur from Claude Levi-Strauss’ anthropological writing: assembling the narrative elements you have available into a Rube-Goldberg machine of a narrative that suits your present situation and understanding. This differs from the way that we normally talk about creative fiction in our culture, wherein the writer creates original ideas whole-cloth and deploys them only in an “elegant” narrative with no extraneous parts. In a fairy tale, by contrast, the ideas are pre-existing and the creativity comes from their assembly and telling. And often in fairy tales there are weird bits and bobs hanging off the edges, which is anathema to modern story-telling aesthetics and which I love dearly.
An interesting thing about doing this is that sometimes you end up with a pre-existing story without entirely knowing it. I have no conscious memory of reading or hearing Vasilisa, although I must have encountered that story before at some point (the skull-full-of-coals is definitely lodged in my memory somewhere). “Ann-of-Rags” was written as a riff on Hansel and Gretel. But I’ve very clearly produced a lot of the same structures as Vasilisa, albeit re-aligned to serve my purposes. Baba Yaga in Vasilisa appears to be wicked, but is in fact helpful (as well as wicked), whereas Bone Grandmother in “Ann-of-Rags” appears to be kindly and helpful, but is in fact wicked. This makes sense, given the message I am trying to convey.
The ending is another point of divergence in service of my own goals. An ending that I am very fond of, which is common in fairy tales and has fallen out of fashion in creative fiction, is “its purpose served, the magic goes away.” This is because, in a very real sense, the goal of childhood is to leave childhood and become an adult. After her experience in the forest, the girl is now an adult, and Ann (her childhood toys and imagination) has helped her survive to that point. What use is it holding on to Ann, then? Practically, it is no use at all. Of course that is extremely sad. Living as an adult means that, for you to exist, the child-you-were has died. I think, in a way, many adults are still mourning themselves-as-children. But it is still better than the alternatives.
What are some concepts or theories you’re intrigued by that haven’t found their way into your work yet?
Just speaking in terms of the fairy tale project, I spent an extraordinarily long time working on various versions of Little Red Riding Hood and have not managed to successfully reconstruct it yet (I’ve only produced a couple of catastrophic failures.)
Lately, I’ve been dwelling a lot in the “visit to the underworld” stories—Orpheus and Eurydice, Persephone and Hades, Inanna and Erishkigal and Dumuzi, Gilgamesh and Enkidu. I think that there’s a common element there that I can’t quite get a grasp on, an important lesson about traumatic memory vs. non-traumatic memory and the process of grief.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about the “not story-shaped” fairy tales like The Turnip or The Mouse, The Bird, and the Sausage and trying to figure out if there’s a way that I can understand them well enough to produce a version that a modern fiction-reading audience could engage with.
Whose work do you read that makes you think, “ooh, I’d like to try that!”?
I was really impressed with Allison Thai’s “Saga of the Knapaleith” in Zooscape which manages to be:
- A biologically accurate story about arctic foxes
- A story about anthropomorphic talking foxes
- A story about a fantasy race with their own culture and traditions
- Set in Iceland and about real history
- Set in a secondary fantasy world about a fantasy apocalypse
- An epic adventure story with a grand quest and a misunderstood heroine
- A magical talking animals helping a human story
all at the same time. Being any one or two of these things would be impressive already (and there are some, like the epic fantasy adventure, that I’m still struggling with myself). But the really striking thing is that Allison is doing all of these things—even the apparently contradictory ones—simultaneously. Every sentence, practically every word, advances all of these goals at once. That’s really impressive to me and I’m in awe that it’s even possible. I’d love to get to the point where my writing is precise and efficient enough to tell that many stories at the same time.
What can we look forward to next from you?
I have two more stories in this series coming out at Lightspeed, currently titled “Frost’s Boy” and “The Bear Prince” (like all unpublished stories, the titles are subject to change.) I have a few other short stories in the works as well, including “Your Own Undoing” for the relaunch of Apex Magazine. At some point I may succeed in finishing and selling a novel, but for now my publishing future is short stories and novelettes out to the edge of the horizon.
Spread the word!