We’re delighted to announce that the winner of this giveaway is CARINA BISSET. She has been notified via email. Thanks to all who entered and don’t forget to come back soon. We have a number of giveaways lined up for the future.
We’re giving away all three of of Carolyn’s fairy-tale based novels today. Leave a comment on this post and you’ll be entered to win.
In The Fairest of Them All, Rapunzel lives in the forest with her adoptive mother Mathena, who’s a witch, and they tend a large garden filled with herbs and offer spells and potions to women from the kingdom. I know it’s shocking when I admit that very little of this is based in my own life or true-life events I’ve witnessed. What I love, though, is to write about beautiful, fantastic places and events as vividly as I can so that the reader forgets where she is altogether. You might be sitting in a Starbucks reading my book, but I want every cell in your body to believe that you’re in the deep ocean, a medieval castle, or an enchanted forest where two witches live in a house and the tower next door. It may not work for every reader, of course, but I try!
Two years ago I visited my old high-school friend Erika in Haines, Alaska, where she’s lived for the last couple of decades. I knew that she had built her own house and studied herbs and liked to fish and garden, but for some reason talk of outhouses and no power and snow over the years had given me the impression that she lived somewhere… kind of crappy. So when I arrived in Haines for her summer wedding, I was surprised at how dazzling the whole landscape was—the massive mountains, the gleaming lakes, the lush green all around and that purple fireweed ripping through it. I guess I had this idea that she lived in a shack, submerged in snow all year round. When I turned up her driveway—after a long drive up Haines Highway and past a galloping mama moose and her babies—I was astonished to find little wooden fairy tale house and a magical oversized garden next to it bursting with flowers and vegetables and herbs. There was abundance and beauty in every direction: beets, carrots, kale, cabbage, zucchini, dill, lemon balm, bright red dahlias… all of it oversized and spectacular, from a giant’s garden. For the evening wedding feast, we ate bright luscious salads heaped with fresh vegetables Erika had grown, along with platters of wild salmon, halibut, and crab. Above us, the sky turned milky but never darkened.
So there are real places where the fairy tales start. When I sat down to write about Mathena and Rapunzel’s garden in the middle of that enchanted medieval forest, I imagined myself back in Alaska, in that garden, and I imagined a traveler’s surprise when they turned down a forest pathway and confronted the witch’s garden with vegetables and herbs and flowers so bright and so massive that no one but a witch (or two) could have grown them.
Carolyn kindly sat down for an interview this week. We are fascinated by the way she puts a new spin on classic fairy tales. We think you’ll be every bit as delighted by her answers as we were.
Marybeth: Because of your subject matter, I always assumed your books were aimed at a young adult audience. Do you get that a lot?
Carolyn: I do get that a lot. When I mention “fairy tale ” people almost always ask if I write for children. I think most people associate fairy tales with children and Disney, and the packaging of my books tends to be pretty sparkly and girly, and plenty of teens do read them. But they’re not really aimed at teens. The issues I explore in my books, and through fairy tales, are women’s issues: aging, beauty, mother-daughter dynamics, female rivalry, female friendship, and so on. And though I’ve worked with the fairy tales made popular by Disney, my books go back to the Grimm, Perrault and Hans Christian Andersen stories, which are much darker. I like taking the extreme situations and relationships that you find in fairy tales and exploring the psychology and raw emotion behind them, “looking at their guts ” as my friend Jo-Ann Mapson described it. The evil queen from Snow White? In this book, she’s Rapunzel: a gorgeous girl valued for her beauty above anything else, overly sensitive, damaged, disillusioned by the prince, who’s not perfect, and by her own process of aging and diminishing beauty and power. I’m not sure she has much choice but to become the evil queen from Snow White, who’s motivated by a kind of jealousy and insecurity that most women can at least relate to (even if they’d never consider eating someone’s heart).
Ariel: I can distinctly remember my mother reading to me from a book of classic fairy tales when I was a very young child (maybe three or four years old). I was spellbound. Can you remember the first fairy tale you loved? Which one was it? Why?
When I think about my childhood it’s this tangle of memories run through with shimmery, spellbinding moments from (Disney) fairy tales: Snow White racing through that dark wood with the branches reaching out for her, Cinderella hurrying away from that chiming clock, the brambles surrounding Sleeping Beauty’s castle as she sleeps, that glass coffin in the forest surrounded by grieving dwarves. They’re all dark, beautiful, frightening moments that seared themselves in my brain, I think! I read those Golden Books when I was very young, and discovered the Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen stories, etc., later. My aesthetic has always been that combination of light and dark, beauty and terror, that’s at the heart of those old stories.
Marybeth: How did fairy tales become the fodder for your fiction?
Carolyn: Well I’ve always loved fairy tales, as well as magic realism and traditional storytelling. My favorite book is 100 Years of Solitude, in part because it just feels like the kind of storytelling you might have heard sitting around a fire, wrapped up in a blanket, way back when. And then in college I studied Italian literature and old story cycles. In the same week had to write a paper comparing three versions of the traditional “three rings ” story that appears in the Novellino and Decameron and other places and also write a short story for a creative writing class. I think I became enamored then with the idea that there are these stories that we tell and retell again, that take on new, specific meanings with each retelling, in each new time and place. So my first novel, Rain Village, began as a modern retelling of the same three rings story (which is this lovely religious parable) that I began for that creative writing class. That element was dropped by the final draft, but I remained enamored by the idea of what you can do when you retell these incredibly powerful, flexible old tales. It was probably natural, then, for me to move on to Godmother next—my second novel, about the fairy godmother from the Cinderella story and what really happened on the night of the ball.
Ariel: I always joke that THE LITTLE MERMAID ruined my life. I was twelve years old when the Disney movie released. And because I share a name with the main character people have always felt the need to crack some bad joke about the coincidence. Because of that, I’ve always resented that story. Yet the fact is the original version is so different than the Disney version. Why do you think we so often feel the need to sanitize what are, in many cases, very dark and alarming stories?
Carolyn: I love Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid ” and based my novel Mermaid on it, but it’s definitely a weird and depressing story. Publishers Weekly called my book “a dark retelling ” of the Hans Christian Andersen tale, which was a bit crazy since my book couldn’t possibly have been any darker! But people conflate/confuse the original versions and the Disney versions all the time. I can say that if I’d been at Disney and trying to turn that dark Danish tale into a huge Hollywood animated movie for the masses, I would have changed it, too! Hans wrote the story in a state of absolute despair and heartbreak (when a friend he had strong not-quite-brotherly feelings for was off getting married), imagining this little mermaid who loved a human prince but could never be loved back by him and could never truly belong to this human world she so desperately wanted to be part of—so desperately that she lets her tongue be cut from her mouth and gives up her voice forever in order to get the potion that will change her tail to legs (and also cause her excruciating pain). It’s pretty masochistic and dark, but I love that the mermaid became a way for Hans to express just absolute alienation and despair. If you have to be heartbroken, that’s the way to do it! But yeah, I would probably give the mermaid her man and let her keep her tongue if I were at Disney and going for mass appeal… Luckily, I’m not!
Marybeth: I’m fascinated by how you use beloved fairy tales as the frame for stories that are relevant for today’s reader. Why do you think these classic stories have such staying power?
Carolyn: I think they tap into pretty primal, universal fears and desires. One theory is that fairy tales, with all their darkness and horror, allow children to grapple with their fears of a terrifying world and exert some control over it. The situations fairy tale characters find themselves in might be extreme, but they’re all based in real fears: the child abandoned in the woods, the candy-covered house inhabited by a witch who wants to eat you. The world is scary and dangerous and these stories offer a way to negotiate that. I think they do the same for adults—offer a safe, remote way to explore very real anxieties and tensions.