I mentioned Cassandra's book, 'New World Fairy Tales' [winner of The Scott Prize], in the 'Things What I've Read Recently and Rather Liked' blog post the other day, and now she's hear to have a chat about it. Hurray!
Everyone who replies to this interview by 15th March will have their name put into a hat. The name pulled out of that hat will win a copy of Cassandra's book! It doesn't matter where abouts in the world you live, just make sure that I'm able to contact you from your comment [either via your blog, or leave your Twitter name or email address in your comment :)]
Hi Cassandra, thanks so much for stopping by to have a chat with us.
Thank you for having me! I love your blog, and I can’t wait for “Weird Things Customers Say In Bookshops” to come out. [Jen: Yey! Thank you.]
Tell us about yourself.
I’m married with two children, and I’m from Hull (I know a lot of people tend to hear this as “I was raised by wolves”, but actually it was fine), then went to York University to read English Literature. After graduation I somehow managed to parlay my MA in eighteenth-century women’s writing into a marketing position with a huge, giant company that made everything. I then spent about fifteen years stealthily trying to convert my day-job into a copywriting position, at which point I finally gave in and admitted that what I really wanted was to make a living from words. So I’m now a freelance copywriter, and I also do some brand consultancy work.
How did you get into writing?
I’ve written fiction on the sly for as long as I can remember - mostly when I was supposed to be doing something else. I have the bad habit of writing in both ends of my notebooks, which meant I could get away with secret fiction-writing in classrooms, lecture theatres, meetings...however, it never really occurred to me people might be willing to pay money for something I’d written. So for a long time, everything I wrote (including the short stories that made up “New World Fairy Tales”) was written either just for myself, or as presents for friends and family.
The thing is, my friends and family were always very nice about the things I wrote for them, but then, they were sort of contractually obliged to be. So I never really took them seriously when they said, “You really need to try and get your work published. No, really, you should.” They said it and said it and said it, very patiently and without ever getting cross, for about ten years. And in response I just kind of stuffed my fingers down my ears and went, “La la la, can’t hear you, not listening, world already self-sufficient in struggling authors, too old, not good enough, let’s move on…” Looking back on it, I can see how this must have been quite annoying.
What were your favourite fairy tales when you were younger?
That’s a very hard question, actually! But “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” had a huge fascination for me, because I always felt there was a whole other story there that we just weren’t getting.
I mean, truly - why dwarfs? And why seven of them? Neither of these points seem even faintly important to the plot – “Snow White and the Nice Old Cat-lady” would work equally well – so what, exactly, are they doing in the story? “Snow White” was the first interview I wrote, and it was inspired by a nagging desire to know why seven adult men, all with dwarfism, would choose to set up house together in the middle of the forest. I loved “Rumplestiltzkin” for the same reason. Can you imagine having to marry a man who was perfectly happy to execute you three mornings ago?
What’s your favourite adaptation of a fairy tale [other than your own]?
I’m going to cheat a bit here, because my huge desire to reclaim the term “fairy tale” from the Disney Corporation is probably one of the more arrogant reasons I wrote “New World Fairy Tales”.
We all know that Fairy Tales were passed down orally, presumably evolving along with their audiences. But when the Grimm brothers wrote them down a couple of hundred years ago – right in the middle of the Industrial Revolution, when feudal society, forests stuffed with wolves and village wise-women were still a recent memory – they got fossilised. We all became convinced that the important part of them was the external stuff – the castles, the kingdoms, the princes and princesses, the witches and wizards and magical spells. And so, most “modern” retellings are set in a strange, cod-medieval nowhere-world, where everyone’s poking cowpats with sticks for a living and only the heroine gets to wash her face.
And that’s a shame, because I don’t think Fairy Tales are about landscapes or settings at all. They’re about people and situations that transcend time and place; they’re about the moral and immoral choices we all make, and the strangeness of Chance and Fate. We talk about “living in a fairy-tale”, about “fairy-tale romances” and “fairy-tale weddings”. But how many of us have been to a wedding where the bride’s stepmother was forced to wear red-hot iron shoes and dance until she died?
So with that in mind, I’m claiming Roald Dahl’s “Kiss, Kiss” and Saki’s “Beasts and Super-Beasts” as fairy-tales. They absolutely rocked my world when I first read them, and they’re the short story collections I re-read more often than any others. Slightly more conventionally, I also vividly remember being blown away by Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber”, which I read when I was about fifteen. Finally, the music of Tom Waits contains some of the very best fairy-tales ever written, nestled in the walnut-shell of the song-lyric.
Did you plan out any other alternative fairy tales? Did you even write some out in full? Do you see yourself revisiting this project in the future?
Oh my goodness, yes! As well as the six stories in the book, I wrote interviews based on Red Riding Hood, Godfather Death and Chicken Licken, and I have outlines for Sleeping Beauty, The Frog Prince and Hansel and Gretel. Given the chance (or possibly just if a stranger throws me an encouraging look across a car-park), I’d love to write a second collection. Grimm’s Fairy Tales is like a gigantic treasure-trove for writers everywhere to plunder.
What made you decide to set the stories in America?
The simplest reason is that most of the friends I wrote the Tales for are American, and because the collection grew out of that friendship, it seemed natural to set them there. But the more important reason was that America is like Fairyland.
I don’t mean this in a starry-eyed OMG-guys-your-country-is-like-so-totally-amazing way (although it is). I just mean that, if you happen to be British, when you compare America to the landscape where fairy-tales are set, they’re eerily similar. Like Fairyland, America contains all possible spaces and landscapes - mountains and deserts and plains and oceans, great cities and curtain-twitching suburbs and tiny, isolated rural hamlets. It contains many kingdoms, loosely federated, each with their own distinctive culture and autonomous power of legislation. Getting there requires a long journey, and when you arrive at the border, it’s weirdly difficult to actually get in. Its population is at once more devout and more violent than we are; when we visit, we tread softly, aware of how easily we might offend. Even if we’ve never been before, it looks strangely familiar – after all, we’ve been there so often in our dreams. Its citizens speak our language, but also…don’t.
Oh, the language, my goodness, the language. Of course, we’re all peripherally aware of the differences, but it wasn’t until I tried to seriously write in American that I realised what I’d actually committed to – writing a series of short stories in a language I didn’t speak, set in a country I’d never lived in. Genius! Almost every night I’d be emailing off another SOS to my incredibly kind and patient American friends – “I’m trying to understand the difference a Highway, a Freeway and a Turnpike, can anyone help?” or “What’s a really boring handgun?” They helped me out more often than I’ll ever be able to repay, and all remaining mistakes are entirely my own.
Do you have a writing routine?
I mostly work at our dining-room table. This is because everyone walking past the window can see in, which stops me from spending all day in my pyjamas (on the downside, it’s quite hard to hide convincingly when the nice young men bringing salvation and copies of the “Watchtower” come to call). In theory, I write in the mornings and edit in the afternoons. In practice, I sandwich in my creative writing between work for clients, so how much I can get done depends on how busy I am for them. We’ve also just adopted two cats, so sometimes (like right now, for example) I have to delete spurious rows of “kkkkkkkkkk”, and explain why the cursor is never going to come off the screen no matter how hard they bat it with their paws.
Then at 3:30, Becky and Ben plus various friends come home, and I have to switch between the careful construction of elegant yet naturalistic sentences, and settling disputes about whose turn it is on the Wii. The most productive hour of the week is usually their riding lesson– it’s cold, which encourages me to keep writing, and because it’s outside of my working hours, I don’t feel bad about focusing on fiction rather than website copy.
Hmm. I just re-read that. “Routine” is probably a bit too dignified, isn’t it? [Jen: Sounds about right to me ;)]
How long did it take you to write the book? Did you always intend to enter it into the Scott Prize?
The project began as a late-night Facebook conversation with a group of much-beloved American friends. We were talking about the cultural significance of fairy-tales, and how the stories we love as adults are informed by the stories we love as children. (We’re not normally this high-falutin’, by the way. Mostly we talk about zombie plans and what we’re all having for dinner.) I was looking for a new project, so I offered to write everyone their own short story, set in contemporary America, but based on their favourite fairy-tale.
Altogether it took about eighteen months. It wasn’t until I got to the end that I realised I’d actually written an entire collection, which might be suitable for the Scott Prize. At the last minute I had a huge attack of nerves and almost didn’t enter, and I never really expected to even make the shortlist. Actually winning was amazing.
Where were you when you found out you’d won the Scott Prize? How did you celebrate?
I spent the day of the announcement glued to my laptop, repeatedly pressing F5 to refresh the Salt blog and slowly losing my mind. F5. F5. F5. No announcement. Diet Coke. F5. F5. Biscuit. F5. F5. No announcement. F5. F5. F5. F5. More biscuits.
After about six hours of No Announcement, I decided I couldn’t stand the tension any more (also, no more biscuits), so I went to the supermarket and did the shopping. I was in the kitchen unpacking Muller Corner yoghurts when my husband called me to tell me I’d won. He’d been keeping an eye on the Salt website in a meeting and had rushed out to tell me. In hindsight this was the only possible way it could have happened, because one of the unwritten rules of our marriage is that he will somehow know everything of importance about five minutes before I do (the other one is that he puts the bins out). When he told me, I burst into tears, then phoned my mother.
Are you working on something new, now? What are your plans for the future?
I’m working on a second short story collection, “Bestiary” - two of which have already been published by “The View From Here” and Beat Magazine. I’m also editing the first draft of a novel, about a group of strangers who find themselves living in a deserted, half-renovated mansion in the West Country. Oh, and a Young Adult book I’ve been trying to write for about three years – a sort of realistic Superhero story set in Mid-West America.
However, right now right now, my main goal is to train the cats not to walk on the keyboard. [Jen: Good plan ;)]
Thanks so much, Cassandra!
In this book, in contemporary America, an un-named college student sets out on an obsessive journey of discovery to collect and record the life-stories of total strangers. The interviews that follow have echoes of another, far more famous literary journey, undertaken long ago and in another world.
Drawing on the original, unexpurgated tales collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, six of their most famous works are re-imagined in the rich and endlessly varied landscapes of contemporary America. From the glass towers of Manhattan to the remoteness of the Blue Ridge mountains; from the swamps of Louisiana to the jaded glamour of Hollywood, New World Fairy Tales reclaims the fairy tale for the modern adult audience. A haunting blend of romance and realism, these stripped-back narratives of human experience are the perfect read for anyone who has read their child a bedtime fairy story, and wondered who ever said these were stories meant for children.
[New World Fairy Tales - click to view] [Cassandra's blog]
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