|Posted by Angie on November 19, 2015 at 6:25 AM|
Fairy Tale Friday - C.S.E. Cooney
C. S. E. Cooney (csecooney.com/@csecooney) is the author of my most favourite collection ever, Bone Swans: Stories (Mythic Delirium 2015), The Breaker Queen, The Two Paupers, and Jack o’ the Hills. She is an audiobook narrator for Tantor Media and the singer/songwriter for Brimstone Rhine. She is a Rhysling Award-winning poet, and her short fiction can be found in Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, Strange Horizons, Apex, GigaNotoSaurus, Clockwork Phoenix 3, The Mammoth Book of Steampunk, and elsewhere. She joins us this week for Fairy Tale Friday.
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?
First of all, my first reaction to the phrase “fairy tales” is that, in my mind at least, they rarely feature fairies. Witches, devils, death. Sometimes fairies. But rarely.
To me, whatever “fairy tale” conjures harkens back to something much older than the 19th century. To me a fairy tale is a sort of augury of bones. Only instead of throwing old, dried bones to designate a direction, resolve a conundrum, or interpret a pattern, it’s old, dried words. But the words were once a living story, breathed out in oral storytelling and passed on through generations. And something in their dry old rattling wakes the mind to possibility.
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?
I think it’s important, in a retelling, that the tale is—at some point at least—recognizable. I think that’s where the pleasure comes from, the comfort of the familiar and the discomfort of the strange. I think that’s what is compelling. You think you know something so well, like a best friend or a favourite blankie, and then your friend turns her face one way and she’s a changeling thing of twigs and leaves and dappled light, or you flip the blanket over and it’s a map of all the rivers in the world. Perhaps it is both our trust in the familiar and the new potential for betrayal or revelation that make us read on.
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?
Scaffolding, in the same way a skeleton is scaffolding for the flesh. (Keeping with the BONE METAPHOR above!) I guess, when you can see the skeleton of a thing, you can clothe it in any flavour of flesh you desire, then dress it up in whatever costume most pleases you, and send it off into the woods, or desert, or queendoms-under-seas. But the bones themselves will determine some of the features of the story. Those features will be familiar, and therefore beloved. That frisson of recognition. What my friend Karen Meisner once called “the fairy tale feeling.”
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?
I have worked at length with Grimms’ THE JUNIPER TREE, both in my novella “The Bone Swans of Amandale"—which is a retelling, sort of, mostly, in a way, of The Pied Piper. But it uses the Juniper tree, with its ghost child, its transformational death magic, its gift-giving, its slaughter of innocents, rather mercilessly. In another novella (shh, it’s an EROTIC FAIRY TALE!!! Don’t tell anyone! Also, it’s kind of like horror, because there’s CANNIBALISM and DEMON POSSESSION! But... not really during the erotic parts) called “The Witch in the Almond Tree.” The same tale of The Juniper Tree is woven into the narrative as part of the history of the place. Actually, it’s the same place as Bone Swans—Amandale—although way earlier in the city’s timeline, when it’s still a one-horse town.
I’ve also re-conceived (and published) the fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin in a novella called “How the Milkmaid Struck a Bargain with the Crooked One,” which has been collected in my book Bone Swans: Stories. This came out of a discussion—and a desire—for characters who were not classically beautiful, but could still, you know, have adventures and romance and thoughtful interactions and moments of terror, just like the golden boys and girls of genre. I also like twisting a villain’s narrative a bit, or flipping the coin and tagging a new villain in an old tale. Where does that leave the old villain? Room to grow.
If you could invite three fairy tale characters to dinner, who would it be? And why?
Baba Yaga (oh she’d just be FUNNY, you know???). The ghost from Hans Christian Anderson’s The Traveling Companion (he seemed gentle and wise and well-traveled). Aaaaaaand, let’s see… Morgiana from Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Because, besides Scheherazade herself, she’s the badassiest, smartest, cleverest, WONDERFULEST gal on the fairy tale block. Do the 1001 Arabian Nights count as fairy tales? I count them.