We’re back with “Frost’s Boy,” as promised during the time of “Ann-of-Rags.” What inspired you to write it? Is it part of Tales From the Great Sweet Sea?
The basic inspiration for “Frost’s Boy” comes from two things. The first is the permafrost layer, and the way that in sub-arctic cultures it affects everything, most notably agriculture, and just further thinking about what it means symbolically and mythically. The second is bad boy romances. At the time that I wrote the story fifteen years ago, our culture was at the height of one of our regularly occurring moral panics around bad boy romances. The theory is that if women are permitted to have sexual fantasies about tortured and angry men, somehow these fantasies will directly cause sexual and interpersonal violence. So I wanted to write a bad boy romance as a way of standing up for myself and my friends who love bad boy romance stories.
Because I am the sort of person who likes to ground modern narratives in folklore, when I think of bad boy romances, I think of magical fiancé stories like Beauty and the Beast or The Lindworm Prince. The core story is very similar: there is a monster, who is in fact a cursed prince, and a young girl suffers through his monstrosity to break the curse, guided by the purity of her love or the advice of a magically-aware older woman or both.
“Frost’s Boy” is definitely part of Tales From the Great Sweet Sea. You can see in little pieces of the stories that they’re part of the same folkloric set, although in “Ann-of-Rags,” Bone Grandmother is mostly just a wicked witch, whereas in “Frost’s Boy,” Frost and Winter and Bone are invoked as much more primal, elemental things, something along the lines of deities or at least powerful nature spirits. We can probably infer from this that “Frost’s Boy” is an older part of the tradition, or perhaps that it is told in a more isolated area where they have not yet reduced their traditional divinities to witches and fairies.
There are a number of nods to the real world and its unloveliness at the edges of the main narrative, such as the many possible fates of the couples. How do you see the voice behind these asides? Is it meant to be musing and curious, or more cynical and in keeping with the cruelty of frost?
Unfortunately, Dusty Boots, the narrator of these stories, is extremely coy about his motivations. As an accomplished Talespinner, he is excellent at masking his opinions and motivations, even from his author. So I can’t rightly say why he chose to end the story the way he does. You would have to ask him yourself, although I would not expect a straight answer.
That said, I don’t suppose that there’s any harm in some speculation. Dusty Boots is (as he notes in the beginning of each story) sworn to the truth. Whatever that means for him specifically, it clearly presents a difficulty with “happily ever after” endings. Were they really happy? Forever? I think by telling the ending the way he does, he gets to have it both ways: revealing the truth that marriages to cruel men are often quite unhappy while at the same time truly telling the story just as it was told to him.
You mentioned in our last discussion that there are accepted interpretations of fairy tales, and that you extrapolate very different material. Which lessons from which stories seem most relevant for surviving our current times?
“Frost’s Boy” has a more straightforward moral, I think, although it is double-barreled, mirroring the ending, with the happy moral and the terrifying moral. The happy moral is that if you want to save a monster from himself, you must ground him in the human and the humane. When evil people are reformed, it is rarely through high-minded ideology but instead through basic human kindness, reciprocity, and accountability. This is boring work, and dangerous, and hard, and it is of course wildly unfair (why should someone be kind to an evil person, who is by definition undeserving of kindness?).
You see this lesson throughout the magical fiancé stories: the curse is broken and the prince redeemed through insistence of cultural custom, enforcing personal boundaries, and extending genuine love. I think that the modern versions of this story have often lost the first two parts of this equation, which reduces them to paeans about “the power of love.” This is made worse because love is often, in modern media definition, the absence of personal boundaries. No wonder we’re quite uncomfortable with these stories now!
There is then, of course, the terrifying moral: Most evil people are not reformed. Most evil people remain evil, and continue doing evil, and extending them basic human kindness, reciprocity, and accountability does nothing but put you and your family at risk. No amount of insisting on cultural custom and enforcing boundaries will save you from a husband who thinks it’d be fun to murder you. The only solution there is to meet force with force, and often that is not enough.
If you had to choose an artist or musician to accompany your work, who would you choose? Either for this story, or for the Sweet Sea series. Feel free to expand past illustration and into textiles or sculpture if that feels like a more natural fit—I’m curious how your work might translate to other media.
The fairy tale books of my childhood were lavishly illustrated by Arthur Rackham and Trina Schart Hyman, so of course theirs are the images that run through my mind when I write these fairy tales.
As a fairy tale reader, I expected one ending, but as a modern reader, I expected another. Somehow you delivered both. Was that part of the first draft(s), or was it something you shaped later in revisions?
Magical fiancé stories were particularly useful for the time and place where they originated, when divorce was rare-to-impossible and you might very well end up married to a monster and need to figure out how to survive that situation. Of course, our current society views love and marriage quite differently, and thank God for no-fault divorce and the raft of other laws that have made our marriages happier and safer.
Of course, that’s where we run into the trouble with Beauty and the Beast and similar stories in a modern context—why not just leave? Different retellers have resolved this tension in different ways (Disney, famously, by introducing a new male character simply to be even worse than the Beast and make him look good by comparison.)
For “Frost’s Boy,” I always knew that there needed to be an ending with “happily ever after” and also there needed to be enough evidence for the reader to understand that the “happily ever after” was quite likely a lie.
Originally I tried to handle this with a frame story which added 3,000 useless words and didn’t even get the point across. When I couldn’t find a way out of that, I trunked the story indefinitely. This particular ending, with the repeated “I am told” refrain, was literally the last thing I wrote in this story, nearly fifteen years after the rest of it. But it is an ending that I could not have written fifteen years ago. Sometimes, the only solution to revision problems is to wait until you are a better writer.
What are you reading these days?
I have just started The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell as well as Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir. I’m in the middle of Floating Worlds by Cecelia Holland—a fascinating science fiction novel by an author who normally writes historical fiction, portraying (among many other things) a non-utopian anarchist society.
I just finished Yoon Ha Lee’s excellent new novel Phoenix Extravagant in a single night. I do not often shell out for hardcovers but for Yoon of course I made an exception and did not regret it.
Spread the word!