When I was very young, I was given a battered hardback copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales from a garage sale. I think the person who bought it figured, hey, Disney, all girls love princesses and she loves to read, right?
What the giver did not realize–and what I never told anyone for fear of the book being taken away–was that it was an unexpurgated version. Heads and heels were cut off, Falada the horse spoke from the dead, people were burned to death, torn to pieces, made to dance in red-hot shoes. Heady stuff, especially for a seven-year-old.
It was great.
Later, when I watched the Disney versions, I would writhe internally with disdain, thinking of everything that had been left out. (Except for Maleficent. Maleficent was a badass. MALEFICENT SAID “HELL” IN A DISNEY MOVIE.)
So now, writing for a living, I find myself often returning to fairy tales. The old ones, with blood and gore and all their various cautions–don’t go out in the woods, don’t speak to strangers, be careful of people who are too kind at first. The other bit–that one should just suffer in patient silence–didn’t manage to sink in so thoroughly. (Even though Dickens tried to rub it in too.)
For a long while I didn’t feel ready to attempt a fairy tale retelling. I didn’t understand enough about how they worked under the surface. I probably still don’t, but I trust the Muse. Besides, one can only do so much research. Getting into the muck and the dirt, that’s where the real fun is.
So I started to think about fairy tales. I also returned to something I love very much, Kieslowski’s Trois Coleurs trilogy. Those interconnected movies simply blew me away, and spotting the different characters seen through the lens of other characters’ eyes is one of the best ways I know to spend an evening and a bottle of wine. I began to think about how fairytales shared the same dreamscape, where things happen because they must according to some weird logic that is not reality’s logic, but is nevertheless consistent and able to be anticipated while one is in that weird fugue-state of creativity.
I had some YAs due, and so the cauldron in my head was given another jolt of material: teenagers. One thing became another, and I found myself writing an homage to both Kieslowski’s masterpieces and the things I loved about fairy tales themselves.
First of all, Snow White. I’d had the beginning to her story in my head for quite some time, but I hadn’t felt capable of going back and plunging in. For one thing, Snow White is terribly passive. She doesn’t do things, they are done to her. (Of course Disney takes this to laughable lengths–if one laughs with a certain bitterness because of the misogyny our culture soaks itself in.) It was a challenge to write a character who chose to efface herself.
The other component to Snow White is the evil stepmother. When a mother is toxic, when she wants to consume you, when you are supposed to live out her unfulfilled fantasies and be at once parent and pliable child to her according to her whims…well, let’s just say I had demons to exorcise. Fairy tales will do that to you. You start working with them, just lightly brushing the surface, but the whirlpool will pull you in and shake you up. These stories survive because at their core, under so many layers of accreted grime and commercialism, there is a raw bloody truth. For a child, to be subsumed in this creature you are utterly dependent upon and terrified of at the same time is annihilation. Breaking the Queen’s mirror, finding your voice, is a lifetime’s work. (If you felt a jolt of recognition at this, I highly recommend this book.)
Then I had to start thinking about Cinderella. I had always known the next book was Ellie’s story, but what I wasn’t prepared for was the sheer depth of fear I felt writing it. The fact that I was juggling the book and a couple of Life Changes (namely, during the whole buying a house and recovery from the mortgage process thing) added together to make me even crazier. When I finally finished, I realized that the thing I really had wanted to express with Ellie was the fact that what you perceive as safety when you get out of a toxic situation might be, in fact, a different danger. What does Cinderella do when the fairy godmother has sharp teeth and an appetite? What happens when you think you have everything planned, and you find out all your plans are dust, and you’re worse off than you were before? How do you deal with being young, being essentially property, and depending on charity?
Yeah, you can see I went and exorcised another demon there, didn’t I. They’re not autobiographical in the slightest, but that’s the joy of writing–you can be nakedly vulnerable and safely behind a screen at the same time.
Fairy tales work, and keep working, because of that core of raw bloody truth. They are also shapechangers. Cinderella will not mean the same thing to me at 40 as she did at 30; that is a damn good thing. The stories are a magic mirror, and you see in them what you may be blind to otherwise.
I’ve finished Ruby’s story and it’s in revision now. When it comes out, maybe I’ll be ready to talk about what Little Red Riding Hood had to teach me, too. I’m still too close to the book to see what particular foul beast I was splashing holy water on. I’ll just leave you with this question, the one that began to possess me during the writing of the third book, wrapping the other two in its thorny embrace: what if Red is the wolf, too?
Sweet dreams, dear Reader. Catch you next time.