Fairy Tale Friday - Kirstyn McDermott

Posted by Angie on November 12, 2015 at 6:30 AM

Fairy Tale Friday - Kirstyn McDermott

This week's Fairy Tale Friday writer is Kirstyn McDermott. Kirstyn has been working in the darker alleyways of speculative fiction for much of her career and her two novels, Madigan Mine and Perfections, have each won the Aurealis Award for Best Horror Novel. Her most recent book is Caution: Contains Small Parts, a collection of short fiction published by Twelfth Planet Press. When not wearing her writing hat, she produces and co-hosts a literary discussion podcast, The Writer and the Critic, which generally keeps her out of trouble. After many years based in Melbourne, Kirstyn now lives in Ballarat and is pursuing a creative PhD at Federation University. She can be found online (usually far too often) at

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?

For me, a fairy tale is a story set at some time in our own world but glossed with a kind of magic or otherworldliness that is, almost without exception, taken as a given by those who encounter it. They are small, intimate stories about individuals and the unique trials, problems and choices that confront them – and they are also, very assuredly, about consequences. It’s the latter, I think, that attracts me most these days. There are always consequences, for someone, even when the tale has a “happy” ending – and, of course, the nature of that happiness, lasting or otherwise, is itself often highly questionable! There is also a delicious logic to the magic that permeates fairy tales, though it is seldom explained in such prosaic terms, and to the consequences of abusing or mocking such power. Fairy tale magic makes sense – not necessarily to our heads but always to our hearts.

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?

This does largely depend on the stories I’m working with and my reason for re-imagining them. And there has to be a reason. As either writer or reader, I find simple blow-by-blow retellings – what Jack Zipes refers to as “duplicates” – to be somewhat pointless. (I feel much the same about unimaginative remakes of classic or blockbuster films, but that’s another debate altogether.) If you’re going to take a story that is very familiar and use it as the basis for something new, you must have something new to say about it. Maybe you’re reconfiguring gender (as Angela Carter does) or sexuality (like Emma Donoghue); maybe you’re updating the setting and characters to illustrate the continued relevance (or otherwise) of a particular tale to readers today; maybe you’re simply asking, “What if this is what really happened?” Personally, I love reading fairy tales in contemporary settings. There is a sharpness and immediacy to such stories, unprotected by the safe distance of “once upon a time”. One of my absolute favourites of this subgenre is “The Forest” by Kim Wilkins, a “Hansel and Gretel” tale set in a low-income housing estate. It’s dark and magical and brutally honest.

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?

To tell the truth, my relationship with fairy tales is an ambivalent one. While they were among my favourite childhood stories, I drifted away from all those self-sacrificing maidens and put-upon princesses as I grew older. Until I started my PhD last year, I had never consciously retold a fairy tale – though I’d read and enjoyed so many retellings over the years. But our first loves never quite relinquish their grip on our psyches and I've come to recognise many of the dynamics, motifs and themes of fairy tales operating in my creative work, albeit at several removes. My novel "Perfections", for example, is a story of two sisters, an ill-thought wish and the most terrible of sacrifices, and it was a project with which I struggled throughout the entire creative process. It took me far too long to realise that I was, in essence, writing a contemporary fairy tale in guise of a horror story (and even longer to accept that this was something I wanted to write). So, until now, fairy tales have operated solely as symbols and touchstones in my own work.

With the novelette suite I’m currently writing for my PhD, however, I’m explicitly taking very well-known fairy tales and creating the stories that come afterwards. They all take place after the original fairy ends, at some later point in the lives of the fairy tale girls – my Red Riding Hood story opens the same night of the events of the traditional tale, for example, whereas my Hansel and Gretel are in their sixties. So here the fairy tales are most definitely both foundation and scaffold. I’m careful not to change too much of the bare bones that everyone knows – although there are usually multiple versions of any one tale, often in beautiful conflict with one another – but I do get read between the lines and offer my own interpretations of what might really have been going on, as well as building a brand new story on top of it all. It’s been so much fun, revisiting these tales in such depth and reading widely around them. I’ve even been trying to re-collect a lot of the Little Golden Book versions that I had as a child. It’s startling what memories are evoked simply by seeing those familiar illustrations again!

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?

My favourite to work with so far has been “Hansel and Gretel”. I quite honestly forgot how much I adored this tale as a child, and how equally disturbed I was by it, until I began work on my own version. (And my Little Golden Book is awful in how it goes out of its way to absolve the father and demonise the step-mother. But the father wears pink pants, so there’s that!) My elderly Gretel runs a confectionary store, though she can no longer eat sweet foods, and poor Hansel still suffers from having being imprisoned by the witch as a child. I wanted to talk about cycles of violence and oppression, family dysfunction and the long-reaching effects of trauma, and “Hansel and Gretel” seemed perfect source material. Because, really, how could the end of that tale be truly a “happy” one when you consider what happened to those children – at the hands of their own parents no less! In the end, I found myself also writing about the nature of narrative itself, the consequences of telling ourselves the same tales over and over again, and the necessity of freeing ourselves to rewrite our own stories. The novelette that came out of this process is called “Burnt Sugar” and will be published next year in "Dreaming in the Dark", edited by Jack Dann – which, just quietly, is going to be an amazing book!

If you could invite three fairy tale characters to dinner, who would it be? And why?

I would invite the Witch from “Hansel and Gretel” – she can bring the dessert! mmm, gingerbread! – the Queen from “Snow White” and Mother Gothel from “Rapunzel”. They all feature in tales that I’m working on for my PhD and I’d love to hear their sides of those stories. Women who are old(er) and powerful are much maligned in many traditional fairy-tale cycles, but I imagine that none of them think of themselves as “wicked” or “evil”, and all of them have forged their own unique paths in a hostile world. It would make for fascinating dinner conversation!



Categories: Fairy Tales, Writing

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