Hopeful, magical, and empowering — fairy tales live on in the popular imagination through their timeless characters and imagery. Three previous F-BOM author partners, Anita Valle, Fiona J.R. Titchenell, and Intisar Khanani, have each taken on the challenge of writing a fairy tale retelling. We were lucky enough to get all three together to discuss their work, and what fairy tales mean to them.
Boy did they have a lot to say! We’ve split this conversation into multiple parts. I won’t say any more! The first five questions are below.
Question One: Why do you think we love fairy tales? / Why do fairy tales endure?
Fiona J.R. Titchenell: I think a lot of it just comes from the fact that they’re some of the first stories we’re told as kids. I know I have attachments to a lot of things that were the first of their kind from my perspective as a child, even if they wouldn’t mean anything to me if I encountered them as an adult with what I know now. I do think there’s something inherent about fairy tales too, though. There’s the magic, obviously, the possibility for anything to happen. But you can get that from other forms of fantasy that don’t fit the fairy tale label too. Fairy tales, though, they’re much tighter than lots of other fantasy forms. The basic versions are short enough to be a bedtime story, but they have these sky-high stakes, at least for the protagonists, and they have this sense that if you’re special enough to pass this one test, it can change your life completely and fix all your problems at once. That’s not how things really work most of the time, but I think everyone has a part of them that wishes they did.
Anita Valle: I think the love of fairy tales endures because they are timeless. They are usually not heavily grounded in a certain time period or culture – except perhaps slightly medieval – but their themes of love, magic, and following dreams are relatable to everyone. And because the original, classic versions were short, they are highly adaptable, where you can keep the bare bones of the story but change everything else and it’s still recognizable. It’s always fun to see a fresh spin put on an old tale.
Intisar Khanani: I’m with Fiona on the sky-high stakes, although I think there are plenty of fairy tales about ordinary folks as well as the special enough / chosen one stories – Hansel and Gretel, and so many other stories that feature children, do this. But I think what draws me back to fairy tales, and why the old ones especially appeal to so many, is that they’re dark and gruesome and violent – and absolutely lovely, because in the end, goodness perseveres. You meet your dragons, and they are hellish by definition, and then you get to slay them. And because they are, as Anita says, short and highly adaptable and can change with the times or context, they keep singing to us night after dark, dark night.
Fiona: Honestly, I think the specialness fantasy can still apply, even in stories like Hansel and Gretel. Gretel is clever and patient enough to not get eaten and to get the witch into the oven. She had the right traits to pass this sort of cosmic test, and because of that, everything is perfect forever after. But that said, there is definitely a divide in fairy tales between the destined, usually royal heroes and the clever everyman/everywoman ones. I always enjoyed Gretel as a great example of the latter.
Intisar: Three cheers for the everywoman heroes! 😉
Question Two: Why did you choose to adapt the story you did?
Fiona: I’ve always loved Rumpelstiltskin, ever since I had this Turner Classics cartoon version on VHS when I was a kid. It’s been at least twenty years since I saw it, so I can’t be sure, but I think in that version, the miller’s daughter actually stalks Rumpelstiltskin into the woods by herself to find out his name, instead of sending someone to do it for her. That might be my fallible memory turning something into what I wish it had been, but I don’t think so. Either way, though, it’s easy enough to have her do it herself, which is more than a lot of fairy tale heroines get to do to save themselves or their families. For years, I wondered why Disney hadn’t done an expansion of the story yet, because there’s just so much there to work with, so much recognizable imagery, so much intrigue you can add, so of course I got to thinking about how I would adapt it. The miller’s daughter would have to get herself into and out of trouble, of course, that was my first change, and already that made her interesting to me. And the prince she was trying to win would have to get tangled up in her mess too, so they’d have to work together to get out of it and have a chance to bond. I actually wrote a post about how I’d do it, way back when, but it was never the top of my project list until I decided to do Escape Velocity. When I started mapping out my plans to do space opera retellings of folktales, I knew that was going to be the first one in line.
Anita: I have enjoyed multiple versions of Cinderella over the years and have always been willing to read/watch adaptations, even the cheesy ones. Two of my favorites (they are movies) are Ever After: A Cinderella Story and a filmed stage musical of Roger and Hammerstein’s Cinderella from 1965. The latter was especially charming and I grew up singing the songs and actually snuck a random lyric into my book. It was really when I watched the 2015 movie Cinderella with Lily James that the unlikelihood of Cinderella’s unfailing sweetness really hit me. I remember thinking, she would probably be very bitter and angry in real life. Then after noticing a selection of dark fairy tales on Amazon, I decided it would be fun to develop my bitter Cinderella idea and take it as far as I could go. The complete opposite of everything Cinderella is supposed to be.
Intisar: Thorn is a retelling of the Grimm’s “The Goose Girl,” which is about a princess who heads off to meet her fiance, gets betrayed and replaced by her maid along the way, and happily goes on to be a goose girl for ages before eventually being discovered and returned to her rightful place. I mean, what? My main question with this story is: whyyyy? Why would a princess be happy as a servant? Why wouldn’t she try to take back her place? Why didn’t she bash her maid over the head? Why didn’t her talking horse, I dunno, say something useful? I wrote my adaptation in part to better understand the motivations of this story, to delve into the questions of choice and power and the ability to choose your own destiny, especially when so many of the choices of our lives appear to have already been made for us. But, confession time, I also chose this story because this was the first book I wrote and I wanted to start out with a plot I already loved and mostly understood, thinking that would make it easier. (In case you’re wondering, it didn’t.)
Question Three: When writing your adaptation, how did you decide what elements to keep and which to leave out?
Fiona: I love this question. It was basically the first one I asked myself when I decided to do The Acid Test of Naia Mills. Before I got to outlining, I sat down and made a list of elements from “Rumpelstiltskin” that I knew I had to include. The top one was gold, and the process of turning something into gold. I wasn’t set on starting from straw, but there had to be something in there to do with alchemy. Second was the theme of bargaining, of getting cornered into one bad bargain that leads to another. Third was having to find out the villain’s name, which I knew was going to take the form of an identity theft caper. Then the character of Naia sort of grew out of those pieces, and I followed her from there. I knew from pretty much the beginning that she was a con artist, because the bad bargains had to start with a boast about making gold, and the reason that made the most sense to me for Naia to lead people to believe she could make gold was as part of a scam. Then she has to keep on scamming and stealing her way out of this mess that gets bigger and bigger. I cut the repetition that usually happens in fairy tales, everything happening in sets of three, just to allow myself as streamlined a plot as possible, but I fit in little nods to the original fairy tale wherever I could. Like, I didn’t do the arranged marriage or the stolen baby parts of the plot, but slowly the possibility of dating the “prince” of this space station becomes tied to Naia’s possible success, and the threat of having her reproductive capabilities hijacked by Rumpelstiltskin’s people becomes tied to her possible failure. There are smaller references too, like Clutch’s ship being shaped like a giant ladle, which is what Rumpelstiltskin flies away on at the end of some versions.
Anita: I always create an outline before I write but it’s not a rigid one. I have to know what happens at the end and the large steps to getting there. But smaller plots and characters often pop up on their own as I’m writing the first draft. Usually, I stick in any idea that seems good at the moment and see if it enhances the story. When writing Sinful Cinderella I had not originally planned to have Godnutter be a pipe smoker. I was just looking for a physical detail to make the fairy godmother seem rough around the edges and this seemed to fit well. And for a while she also had a separate magic wand until I thought, Well duh! The pipe is the wand! This seemed hilarious and natural to the character and made the story more fun. But if I’m re-reading a draft and I discover a plot detail or character that didn’t go anywhere or just seemed to get in the way, I get rid of it.
Intisar: For me, a lot of the decision of what to keep or cut depends on how quirky the story is, and whether that element is considered “vital” to the construction of the tale itself – as well as how my characters grow as the story progresses. So, for example, The Goose Girl ends with the villain being executed in a rather horrific, gruesome manner that she (unintentionally) identifies for herself. But my main character has struggled with understandings of justice and compassion over the course of the whole novel. For her to stand by and let that ending unfold? It would completely annul her character arc. So, although I gave a nod to it, that was something that had to go.
Fiona: I feel you on having to change endings to fit the new meaning you find in a story. I knew I couldn’t have Naia get married at the end of the story, let alone in the middle. There was no way I could make that something she’d be happy about within three days. And I love Godnutter’s pipe-wand, Anita. I think that’s the first time I laughed out loud while reading [Dark Fairy Tale Queens].
Question Four: All of you have female main characters. Did you consider other points of view (other genders, animals, etc)?
Fiona: The whole appeal of adapting Rumpelstiltskin for me was to take a more-active-than-most fairy tale princess and tap into her potential to be even more interesting, so that was never really a question with this one. I don’t write male perspectives very often in general, just because male perspectives already dominate so much of media and academia and the way the world itself works, and I like my contributions to balance out that imbalance as much as possible, since that’s something I’m nicely qualified to help with. I do like writing male/female partnerships though, so I might do something in multiple perspectives in the Escape Velocity universe someday, either by myself or with my husband. I’m thinking maybe Saint George and the Dragon.
Anita: I do like writing from multiple points of view, both male and female. I published a middle-grade book once called Monster Manor in which a school bully moves into an apartment building and then discovers that all the other tenants are monsters. Putting myself into the mindset of a 13-year-old boy – and a bully – was both fun and challenging. Usually my main characters are female because that comes most natural to me but I have written drafts of books that change characters with different chapters, both male and female. Funny though, I always enjoy writing from a villain/antagonist’s perspective the most.
Intisar: NEVER!!! LOL. Okay, so I didn’t consider other point of view characters at all for Thorn, but I am struggling with a future novel that might have… a guy’s perspective. (gasp!) I’m surprised at how much I’m trying to get around this. I love writing girls’ / women’s perspectives, and I think part of that is a response to having trouble finding myself in books as a young person. So I’m not sure yet I will write that other male perspective, because I want to center those voices that most need to be heard. But if the story really needs it, then maybe I’ll do alternating POVs. 😉
Fiona: I find it so fascinating when writers enjoy the challenge of writing someone who doesn’t really represent them, and when they avoid it, and when they’re in the middle and feel more like, eh, I’m writing a person and the rest is window dressing. I know I’ve felt all three on different projects.
Intisar: You know, it’s interesting, because I’ve written POV characters who come from so many different walks of life, and they’ve presented a lot of different challenges to work with. Thorn centers a young woman who grew up in an abusive home; The Sunbolt Chronicles feature a biracial heroine; and my current WIP is told from the perspective of a physically disabled heroine. None of those experiences represent my own… and I’ve loved writing them all. But I’m still not so sure about writing a male perspective. There’s probably something deeper here I need to unpack…
Fiona: Ha, it makes sense though. I’d say it feels different writing someone who gets more representation than you, compared with writing someone who’s similarly or even more underrepresented, for sure. Even if they’re equally different from yourself.
Question Five: What is your favorite fairy tale? Any favorite fairy tale imagery?
Fiona: It’s really hard to pick a favorite, because there are so many that have spoken to me in different ways, and yet practically all of them are problematic to some degree. Rumpelstiltskin is definitely up there, and I have a soft spot for Rapunzel, though I can’t explain why. Straying away from both princesses and Grimm, I do like The Emperor’s New Clothes, just for its take on, I don’t know if you can strictly call it mob mentality, but the ridiculousness of what people can be fooled into saying and doing out of fear of going against the crowd.
Anita: There is a German fairy tale called “Maid Maleen” in which a princess and her maid are imprisoned for seven years because the princess refused to marry the man her father wished for her. The princess is cast into the tower as a punishment for her stubbornness and as her maid, Maleen must share the imprisonment. The story is told from the maid’s point of view. Other than one beautiful adaptation called Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, I have seen very little of this story and I think it’s even better than Rapunzel.
Intisar: Book of a Thousand Days was gorgeous! I loved that, Anita! And I’m with you on The Emperor’s New Clothes, Fiona. Definitely that sort of peer pressure / social groupthink that’s just ridiculous when you gain some perspective on it. For myself… I don’t know anymore. There are so many I love. But there is that Punjabi fairy tale titled “Prince Ruby” about a princess who marries a mysterious prince and discovers he’s actually the grandson of the king of the snakes–only now that she’s discovered his identity, he has to return to his grandfather’s court and can’t leave (yay fairytale logic) so she sets off to outwit the king of the snakes and win back her husband. Take that, dumb stereotypes of Pakistani women!
Fiona: These both sound amazing and I am absolutely looking them up.
That concludes Part One, so stay tuned for Part Two! We can’t wait to hear what else these authors have to say. In the meantime, you can find Anita Valle’s Dark Fairy Tale Queens Series here, Fiona J.R. Titchenell’s Escape Velocity series here, and Intisar Khanani’s Thorn here.
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