|Posted by Angie on September 3, 2015 at 11:10 AM|
Fairy Tales and Fridays go hand in hand. For one, the title itself is lyrically pretty and alliterative, and for the other, as an avid lover of fairy tales, and a writer who likes working with folklore and fairy tale, I thought it would be an interesting to see how women writers work with these tales to create new stories.
For our first Fairy Tale Friday Writer we have the amazingly talented, Angela Slatter. I first had the pleasure of meeting Angela at Clarion South where I got to spend six glorious weeks in the company of this wondrous writer of dark tales brewed from the richness of fairy tales and folklore.
Angela Slatter is the author of six short story collections (two with Lisa L. Hannett). She has five Aurealis Awards, has twice been a World Fantasy Award finalist, and is the first Australian to win a British Fantasy Award. In 2015 her story Of Sorrow and Such will be one of the inaugural Tor.com novella series, and in 2016 her debut novel Vigil will be published by Jo Fletcher Books, with the sequel Corpselight following hot on its heels. Her short stories have appeared in publications such as Fantasy, Nightmare, Lightspeed, A Book of Horrors, and Australian, UK and US Best Of anthologies. She holds an MA and a PhD in Creative Writing, is a graduate of Clarion South and the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop, and was an inaugural Queensland Writers Fellow. She blogs at www.angelaslatter.com about shiny things that catch her eye.
1. The term ‘fairy tale’ can conjure up clichéd images of ‘happy ever afters’ and thanks to Andrew Lang’s ‘Coloured Fairy Books,’ Victorian tales for children told before bedtime. In your experience as a reader and writer, what is a fairy tale?
Well, I think I’m lucky that I got to hear the old versions of the tales before they got Disneyfied! I didn’t, for some reason, read any of the Andrew Langs, and the Grimms’ books I had still had gruesome endings in them (Huzzah!), and Hans Christian Andersen was the cruellest of them all. For me, a fairy tale is a written version of something that sprang from an oral folk tale - and those oral folk tales were meant to be cautionary tales for adults and children; they were told around fires and warned people about the dangers of life, like wolves in the woods, kids getting lost, and offered explanations for things that weren’t understood back then like violent weather phenomena, etc. They reflected customs and beliefs, learned behaviours, value systems and, perhaps most importantly, consequences - they were stories that didn’t generally have ‘happy ever afters’! For me the ‘fairy tale’ we have today is the literary version of the folk tale, and it’s been transformed and transfigured over time and culture. Nowadays, a lot of them are about ‘entertainment’ for children, but that’s not how they started out and for me the best ones are definitely not about ‘entertainment’ - they still retain their cautionary function.
2. Writers such as Angela Carter have written retellings of fairy tales set in contemporary worlds. In your retellings or re-imaginings how important is it to keep the original content? How important is divergence to you? Or is this something that is discovered through the writing process and unique to each story?
There’s a risk in keeping so much of the original content that you just end up re-writing something so close to what’s already been done that the story offers nothing new or special to readers. I like to keep a fairy tale ‘spine’ when I’m starting out, but by the end I’ve generally made the story into something very different. When I first began re-loading fairy tales, the shape remained very close to the originals because this was my ‘prentice work, how I learned the rules and the form - only after that was I able to do something new and different. So the divergence is very important for me in making a tale my own and not just copying the old stories; it’s about making anew, morphing the old skeleton and layering on new and unexpected flesh. Carter talked about putting new wine into old bottles and watching it make them explode, and I think that’s what fairy tale re-workings should do; you just learn more as you go and your mixture becomes more volatile with each batch!
I think what you see in my collections is a progression and an evolution: so Black-Winged Angels is very much about re-worked fairy tales with an identifiable spine, then Sourdough and Other Stories draws further away from the source material and into new territory, and then The Bitterwood Bible and Other Tales is another step or three even further away, so while it has fairy tale elements, the stories don’t look at all like old tales re-done.
3. Sometimes writers work with the bones of fairy tales to write new tales. When ‘working the bones’, do you find that the original tales act as scaffolds, metaphors or symbols for your new tale?
Oh, I sort of just answered that above!
But as a specific example when I wrote “Red Skein”, which is a version of “Little Red Riding Hood”, I kept the skeleton very close to the original one: a young girl with a red cloak, her mother sends her off into the woods to visit granny, there she encounters wolves and there is a woodsman who thinks he’s doing the right thing in saving Little Red and Granny ... except they don’t need saving. In “Red Skein” these female leads are skin-changers, they become wolves; the majority of the difference occurs in the emotional tones, I think, where Little Red (Matilda actually) is older, she’s got no interest in marriage or being ‘normal’, and as a consequence her relationship with her mother is fraught. She gets on better with her grandmother because they are more alike, and not afraid of being ‘dangerous on the inside’.
But when I wrote the short story “Sourdough” I was further on in my career and had learned a lot more and was much braver about jumping off the cliff as it were in terms of writing ‘away from the spine’. So, although that story has some fairy tale ‘reflects’ such as the girl putting jewellery in food for the prince (“Donkeyskin” or “Catskin” and a ‘princess’s journey’- which means upward mobility and winning the prince - the tale is very different. Emmeline is a baker and makes wonderful ‘art’ bread that the rich folks of the city clamour for; she meets her beloved when she’s making bread for his wedding; his wife-to-be bewitches him so he’ll forget Emmeline; and Emmeline bakes a ring into a loaf of bread that the wife-to-be chokes on. So, much more original and darker!
But yes, some of the bones definitely remain as motifs or ‘reflects’.
4. Can you tell us about a favourite fairy tale you have worked with for one of your stories? Was it a retelling or a re-imagining or a new story with the skeletons of past tales?
Gosh, that’s like being asked to choose amongst your babies! But!
A few years ago Paula Guran asked if I’d contribute to an anthology called Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales. I had drafts of two fairy tales from my MA that I’d never managed to make work and in the end I decided to mash them together. They were “The Raven” and “The White Bride and the Black Bride”. After much gnashing of teeth and editing (and a lot of patient midwifery from Lisa Hannett), that become the story “Flight”, which has been reprinted three times, and is now being turned into a story book for grownups, illustrated by the wonderful Kathleen Jennings and published by the awesome Tiny Owl Workshop in time for Christmas this year!
5. If you could invite three fairy tale characters to dinner, who would it be? And why?
Carabosse! And I would make sure she sat at the top of the table; none of this ‘Oh we can only fit twelve fairies at the table’ crap. I think, treated with respect, she’d be perfectly delightful, if a little wicked.
Rapunzel, because she needs a serious talking-to about being so bloody passive and giving in to everyone else’s wishes and having no agency of her own.
The Little Match Girl, because if anyone needed a good meal and some kindness it’s her.