The Bear Prince’s tale is upon us! This is your third release for Tales from the Great Sweet Sea, a series of fairy tales from a secondary fantasy world. In an earlier interview, you described this as your minority report on fairy tale morals, and I’d like to ask about how you build out each story and make it your own. Does it begin with the lesson? The trope? Something else?
For most of these stories, I wrote the core of them long-ago enough that it’s hard for me to remember how it started. But luckily “The Bear Prince” was a recent story, so I can actually walk you step-by-step through it.
A while back, I was talking with some friends about this fairy tale series and how I have never really been able to “crack open” Goldilocks as a story. By “crack open” I mean find that secret message/moral core that I can find in most other fairy tales.
A woman I was talking to, who has studied a ton of different folkloric traditions, said, “Oh! That’s because the story changed recently. It used to be called ‘Silverlocks’ and the protagonist was an old woman, and the story is about how, at that time, old women were allowed to do whatever they wanted and no one could stop them. But as that social custom died away, the story changed into a little girl and the moral was different.”
So that absolutely cracked the story wide open for me. It is, basically, a story about privilege and comeuppance. Goldilocks thinks that she can get away with all these things, but in the end she cannot, because the people that she’s messing with are bears and don’t care much for social convention. (Goldilocks is also about a lot of other things, of course. I’m not trying to say that this is the sole meaning.)
Anyway, once I got the idea that this was a story about privilege, much of the rest of the story clicked together. How to make that theme clear? Reverse it: Give a bear the life of a privileged human and show the consequences of the humans around him. This blended in my mind with the image of the secret princess raised by bears, which is an image that recurs throughout Germanic folklore, most notably for me in the beginning Naomi Mitchison’s absolutely phenomenal book Travel Light, where a nursemaid takes her charge to be raised by the bears in order to protect her from her father. So why not have a “switched at birth” story about both of them?
From there, the rest of the story falls out as reasonable consequences from the initial set-up. We have these two characters in untenable situations (a bear living as a prince and a princess living as a bear) and we see how these untenable situations collapse, and what they manage to build for themselves out of the contradictions that they’re living in. The ending—where the family of bears eats the cruel and capricious king—is just pure wish fulfillment on my part, albeit one that is mirrored in the original story. But it’s a fairy tale and so I’m allowed to have a wish-fulfillment ending.
Did you have a say in how the stories were curated or arranged? Do any of the tales reflect or contrast each other by virtue of their place in the lineup?
The stories are not in any particular order, and John [Joseph Adams] is the one who decides what order they are printed in. There are obvious connections between all of them, but they aren’t order-dependent.
I have it in my head that once I have enough of them (twelve perhaps? with one extra for luck), I might put together a collection or a fix-up novel. If I do, I’ll try to make sure that they’re in a complementary order. But right now they’re mostly just in the order which I submitted them to Lightspeed, which is absolutely not the order that I wrote them in or an order I’ve chosen to present them in, just the order where they felt ready to submit.
There is one novella-in-progress with the working title “The Queen Beneath the Earth.” That one might have to be the final Dusty Boots story. I’m not yet sure whether this means I’ll refrain from submitting it until the rest are done or I’ll just re-order them in a later collection, though.
At the risk of posing a Pop-Tarts-are-a-ravioli question, are there any stories or pieces of media that read as fairy tales to you when no one else seemed to agree?
I’m more likely to err the other way—seeing some stories as “not fairy tales” when other people do. We have this idea as a culture that fairy tales are tales for children, and that tales for children ought to be nice, and because of that we keep rewriting fairy tales to be “nicer” in a way that makes them lose a lot of their important emotional qualities. The world of fairy tales is violent and cruel and full of betrayals and injustice, because the point of fairy tales is to teach us about how the world works, and the world is violent and cruel and full of betrayals and injustice. Even when injustices are rectified, which sometimes they are not, they are often rectified with an intense violence.
(There is probably a long tangent here about the idea of a “fairy-tale ending” and a “fairy-tale wedding” in our culture. I’m pretty sure most people aren’t looking to be eaten by bears at their wedding, or have their stepsisters cut off their own feet! But that’s straying pretty far from the question.)
So, anyway, a lot of versions of fairy tales end up ringing hollow for me because they’re rewritten to remove the injustice and violence. This is true of both “nicer” versions and “dark” versions.
Regarding the core storyteller, Dusty Boots, what are three things we should know about them before approaching?
“I am one of the ones sworn to the truth,” might not mean what it seems to mean.
That’s three things.
What are three things about Dusty Boots we will never know?
It’s hard for me to say “never” because I don’t what I’ll want to write in the future, and I’m firmly committed to writing whatever I want to write, especially if that means changing my mind. But, as of this particular moment, it is my intention to never write direct narration for this setting; every story from the world of the Great Sweet Sea and the Icicle Coast and so on will be written as a story told to you, the reader, by a particular character with a particular set of interests. I do have a couple of other narrators waiting in the wings, but just like Dusty Boots, they have their own concerns and their own relationships to both stories and the truth.
Because of that restriction, we’re unlikely to ever hear about Dusty Boots outside of his own direct narration. Which means we’ll likely never know any direct personal information about him because, like most storytellers, he tells stories in order to reveal his true opinions and experiences while also disguising them. Perhaps he’ll tell you the story of the girl he’s in love with and can never have, but how could you tell it from any other story of unrequited love? Perhaps he’ll tell you the story of how he became a tale-spinner, but it will be hidden at the heart of a very different story.
Dusty Boots is a storyteller, so he puts a part of his life and heart into the stories that he tells. And, like many of us, he prefers to keep those connections hidden.
What can we look forward to next from you?
I don’t know! After “The Bear Prince,” I have no more stories awaiting publication. I’m working on more, of course (including more stories in the Tales of the Great Sweet Sea series), but will editors want to buy them? I can’t say. Short fiction is such a volatile and tricky business. Hopefully this won’t be the last story that I sell.
Spread the word!