My lovely Italian fans sent me a set of challenging interview questions. Here they are, and my responses, translated from the Italian.
Enrico: Hi Becca! Welcome to our blogs and thank you for accepting our interview. Please, tell us something about you, introduce yourself to our readers.
Hi, Enrico, Sara, Saretta, and Francesca! I’m glad to meet you, and delighted that you enjoy my books so much.
As my biography says, I live in South Eastern Michigan (that’s the state that looks like a mitten when you look at the map of the United States. I live half-way between two fairish sized towns, Ann Arbor and Brighton, on ten acres of weeds, swamp and trees (we do mow an area around the house as a lawn, but that’s primarily to keep the mosquitoes down). I live with my husband Chris, two children (David, 22 and Tori, 21), and three cats (Mac, Eliot, and Oliver).
I’ve always told stories, so it was natural for me to tell my children stories to get them to go to sleep. I started writing them down so I’d remember them better. They sat on my computer for years, until a cousin of mine started putting together her father’s letters from World War II to self-publish, and gave me the idea to publish my own stories. I wasn’t sure they were any good, but I thought I’d throw them out there just to see. While my sales haven’t been overwhelming, I have been overwhelmed with how much those people who did like them loved them as much as I did.
Enrico: Why did you choose to self publish your work? Are you satisfied with the experience you’ve made? Have you ever considered or tried to submit your things to a publisher?
As I said above, I never really expected to sell any of my stories. I did some research in various book stores and at Amazon, and was pretty sure there just wasn’t a market for fairy stories told in the classical mode but with some modern lessons or themes to them. The biggest question an agent or publisher would ask is “is this marketable?” and I was pretty sure the answer would be no.
Through the years, I thought about traditional publishing, but the thought of the submission process, finding an agent, going through all that was just too daunting for me. And then the thought would go away, because I’d get busy with work, or one of the kids needed me, or I had health problems, and I’d forget about it for another several years.
So, when I decided to self-publish, I started to do some research. This led me to the Kboards Writer’s Café, a wonderful forum with many helpful people. I began to discover that self-publishing wasn’t necessarily “second best” but had some very valid arguments in its favor. Now, if a traditional publisher were to offer me a contract, I would think long and hard about it. The only thing that would really tempt me would be the ability to get my work fully illustrated, something I’ve always regretted that I can’t afford.
Enrico: The world of art and children’s literature are often connected. Who are your favorite contemporary illustrators? Is there anyone in particular with whom you’d like to work in the future?
I’m not that familiar with modern children’s artists. I think if I could get a modern artist to fully illustrate my books, I’d ask Todd Hamilton to do it, the man who does my covers. I think that he captures both the playful and the serious elements in my stories.
Since I’m an independent writer, my tendency is to go with independent artists. Through the Writer’s Café, I’ve found an artist (Annette, at Midnight Whimsy) who is going to be doing some spot art for me for my next project (Quests and Fairy Queens).
But of course, since I tend to write rather old-fashioned fairy tales, I think of artists like Kay Nielsen, Arthur Rackham, and Edmumd Dulac as illustrators I’d love to work with.
Saretta: Why you decided to write fairy tales? You created them for your children or you began writing them for other reasons? How complex is the conversion between oral and written?
I’ve always loved fairy tales and mythology. Even as an adult, my reading tends toward science fiction and fantasy – and what is fantasy but grown-up fairy tales?
When my children were very little, they went to a Waldorf Education school for a few years. In kindergarten, there is a strong emphasis on fairy tales. In first grade, the emphasis is on Greek mythology, and in second grade the emphasis is on Roman mythology.
Therefore, it just seemed natural to make up fairy tales for the children as bed time stories. We’d read a book or two each night, but having them look at the pictures seemed to keep them awake. When I would tell them a story, they would listen with their eyes closed, and naturally drift off to sleep. I think I told them the story of “The Dark” (in Dragons and Dreams) several times before they were able to stay awake to the end of it. Also, both children were a bit afraid of the dark, so that was my way of reassuring them that there wasn’t anything to be afraid of.
For years, in spite of having a perfectly good bed, my son chose to sleep on the floor (he still does on occasion) – and that was the genesis of “The Grumpy Dragon.”
Oral tales by their nature change, depending on mood, circumstances, the teller, the needs of the listeners. There’s always a trade-off between oral narrative and written narrative. Written tends to freeze the words, and make them less responsive to changes. I started to write down the stories partly because my children have better memories than I do, and would interrupt me sometimes saying “That wasn’t the way you told the story last night!” While I, as the teller, might want my stories to address something that was going on in my children’s lives at that moment, both my children had a need for consistency of story. If I wanted to make changes, I would have to make up a whole new story.
“A Princess for Tea” was my way of getting across to the children that words have meaning, that word choice had consequences.
Saretta: How can fairy tales adapt to changes in the natural (e.g. in some areas the fireflies are disappearing, so some children don’t know what they are) and technological world (the new generations are more “digital“)?
So many fairy and folk tales started out as ways to explain nature, and the changes in nature. And, in spite of mankind’s best efforts, nature is invading our towns and cities, adapting to changing circumstances. Deer are invading suburbs, and where deer are, so follow predators like coyotes. I have some friends who live in the heart of Ann Arbor (not all that big as cities go, but still a good size) who have fireflies in their yard.
There are lots of modern fairy tales (like “The Paper Bag Princess” that give more modern messages. The princess doesn’t have to marry the prince and can rescue herself from the dragon. Some modern stories are told in even more contemporary language and with contemporary settings. Someday maybe I’ll write a story called “The Magic iPad” or “The Magic Cell Phone” – but I like to think there will always be a space for the more old fashioned fairy tales too.
Francesca: Which are the classic fairy tales and elements of traditional folklore that influenced you most? Why?
I grew up in a small suburb, where the nearest library was half an hour away, and the school library wasn’t that good (I read a lot, and went through everything in the school library that interested me very quickly). So, when I wanted to read something, I had my mother’s old books to read, both from her childhood and her college days. I read some of the old ‘Grimm Brothers stories, the ones where at the end the witch was put in a barrel stuffed with nails and rolled down hill as punishment for her wickedness. I had some of the Andrew Lang color fairy tale book too, but those were written at a later date, and were rather Bowdlerized (that’s the process of taking out anything that was considered indecent or not proper for children to hear). I went through quite an Arthurian phase, too, but that only led me to doing research on whether there ever was a real Arthur, and the development of the Arthurian legends (did you know Lancelot was a later interpolation? Not part of the original stories at all.)
My grandmother gave me a collection of Hans Christian Anderson, but I hated them because they were all so sad.
It wasn’t until I started reading Jack Zipes’ history and critique of fairy tales that I recognized the parts of fairy tales that I accepted and the parts that I rejected. I tend to be something of a pacifist and almost militantly non-competitive, and I think my stories reflect that. You don’t have to kill the dragon to conquer him – and if you’re clever, you don’t really have to conquer the dragon at all; there are other and perhaps better ways of solving the problem.
So many fairy tales deal with The One True Hero, the one who will save everything. “Child of Promise” was written, in part, to re-cast a problem, and say that we all have the capacity to be The Hero, and it’s working together that solves the problem, that saves the day. In “Child of Promise” Agnes refuses to allow herself to be named the Savior, or to name any one person that, and by so doing she changed the attitude of an entire village.
Francesca: In the past, stories, legends and fairy tales characterized also a social and cultural context, the expression of the system of beliefs of a community of people. Do you think this statement could still be true nowadays?
Francesca: What messages or values your stories want to convey to your readers?
I’m going to take these two together because I think they’re part of a whole.
The early fairy tales tended to reinforce social norms. Particularly in the later versions of the Grimm Brothers, it was the female part to be submissive, industrious about household work, and weak, and the male part to be strong, adventuresome, and brave. In the earliest forms of Hansel and Gretel, both children were clever and Gretel is the one who ultimately saves the day. In later retellings, Hansel has all the good ideas.
That’s why I think books like “The Paper Bag Princess” by Robert Munsch are so important. It teaches that there are other ways of being. There’s a whole school of feminist fairy tales, and fairy tales for children with disabilities, or who come from broken homes, or have other disadvantages. I haven’t read many, and of the feminist fairytales I have read, I’m not sure how satisfactory they are. I worry that stories that address special needs and circumstances may tend to be preachy.
Most of my stories do have… if not morals, then themes, or something that I’m trying to get across. I hope I never am preachy about it. I’d rather be too subtle and have the message go past someone than have it be so obvious that it’s preachy and moralizing – I think that’s a good way to turn children off.
My messages tend to be common, everyday things,. There are consequences to your actions. If you do something wrong, you have the responsibility to make it right. There are better solutions than violence. Being clever and curious are good things, and should be encouraged. It’s OK to be who you are, and if the people around you don’t like it, you can look until you find a community that will support you and not expect you to change.
I know there are many people who disagree with me on these things (particularly that we should encourage curiosity among our children, and there are better solutions than violence). I like to think that, if more people felt that way, the world would be a better place.
Sara: Your style is clear but not simplistic or sloppy, as can be seen in many Young Adults or children books. How do you manage to adjust your language to your public, which I imagine varies in age?
I pretty much write how I talk. Even when my kids were little, we never talked down to them, but tried to explain things to them in language they could understand.
I’ve been a professional technical writer for years, and during that time I had to learn how to write to different audiences: you’ll write one way if the manual is for experts, and another way if it’s for beginners, and yet another way if it’s for upper management.
I must say, though, that Butterfly-Fairy rather surprised me. In a lot of ways, it was like she was telling me her stories, and I was just writing them down. I know a lot of authors feel that way about their characters, and I never quite believed it, but there it was. Butterfly-Fairy is about 6 or 7, clever, but a little bit thoughtless, and that’s how she tells her stories.
Sara: Fairies & Fireflies is the answer to one little reader, who asked “Then what?” Who are your beta-readers? Do you “experiment” your stories only with children, or do you have any adult “consultant”?
I have one family who have been beta readers for me from the beginning. Their father has been very helpful, too, in pointing out places where his children lose interest in the story, or the kinds of questions they ask. Sometimes I’ll ask on the Writer’s Café for other beta readers who have children of the age I’m writing for as well. I have a friend who is a student in early elementary education who has been a big help, too. I’ve also got a small community of adults who are willing to read my stories and help me with plotting difficulties.
Cassie (to whom Fairies and Fireflies was dedicated) has a older brother, Alex, who has significantly influenced a story that will appear in my next collection, “Quests and Fairy Queens” (coming out in June, I hope).
Sara: Do you have any modern fairy tale author to recommend?
To the best of my knowledge, I’m the only one writing this type of rather old-fashioned fairy tale currently. There are some wonderful authors who write fairy tale retellings or modern fairy tales for older children and adults. Patricia Wrede comes to mind, as does Robin McKinley and Peter Beagle. Neil Gaiman, of course, writes beautifully – I couldn’t write for a week after reading “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” because the writing and the story was so beautiful that all I could think was “I am not worthy!”