Home  |  Reviews  |  Vlogs  |  Interviews  |  Guest Posts  |  Fairy Tales  |  Jane Austen  |  Memes  |  Policies

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Interview with Donna Jo Napoli

We have with us today fairy tale writer extraordinaire, Donna Jo Napoli!  Misty and Ashley would both like to give her a tremendous thanks! for helping us kick off Fairy Tale Fortnight in style with a giveaway of 15 books!  (I know - incredible, right?!)
Her tales show painstaking research and originality, as well as a desire to push herself and her reader into new territory, and we're very proud to host her here during FTF!
So let's get down to business, shall we?

~ What made you decide to write retellings? Have you or would you consider writing a non-retelling?
My first retelling was The Prince of the Pond -- the frog prince story, and I told it because when my children were little, we used to tell fairy stories from different points of view.  It was simply fun.  Then I got more and more into it -- and found it a major challenge to try to get from one (bizarre -- as they usually are) point in a classic fairy tale to the next (usually equally bizarre) point in a coherent way.
But I write lots of things that are not fairy tale retellings.  Lots and lots.

~ It seems you always try to push readers beyond the “standard” fairy tale setting (somewhere vaguely western European, within the last few centuries): is this just more appealing to you as a writer, or is this a conscious decision on your part?
This is a conscious decision. The world is huge, yet, of course, global considerations are imperative today. Given the geographic isolation of North America, it's easy for children whose families don't travel outside to feel like the rest of the world is somewhat abstract. And even those children who have traveled often have seen other places only through the eyes of the tourist -- which are, of course, heavily lidded. I try to bring my settings alive -- I even think of them as characters, if you will -- so that readers can feel invited into someplace they've perhaps never even heard of. They can walk the hills or fish the streams or help repair the mud huts, and they can feel more grounded in this other place so that it becomes much less "other."

~ A lot of the stories you've chosen to retell are the lesser known, or less popular fairy tales to retell. Many of your retellings are the only retellings for different fairy tales that I'm familiar with. Was this deliberate? How do you chose which fairy tales or stories you will retell?
I never read other people's retellings, so I don't know which tales have been done and which haven't.  I write those that fascinate me -- that make my guts twist because there's something in there that really hurts somehow.

~ Some of your fairy tales are distinctly darker than the traditional retellings on the market. What draws you in your writing to the darker side of things?
I work from the earliest versions of the stories I can find -- and I generally match my tone to that version.  So I guess what you're saying is that the oldest versions are dark -- and, yup, I'd agree.  Why do I like those dark stories?  I love misery.  Don't you?

~How do you go about choosing tales to retell? Do you have a list of sorts of tales that you want to tackle, or locations, etc? Or do you research various tales/places until something calls out to you?
I've done both plus other things. With The Magic Circle and The Prince of the Pond, my two earliest fairy tales, I loved the stories, so I set out to understand them and I came to believe they were, at heart, deeply rooted in the first country we find them in (Germany and England, respectively -- or these were the first countries I found them in). With Ugly and Mogo the Third Warthog, two of my more recent fairy tales, I wanted to tell the tales but I also wanted to give the reader new kinds of experiences. Since I had spent two summers in Australia and seen the magnificent Australian swan, setting Ugly in Tasmania was a natural. With Mogo, I had worked briefly in South Africa and seen warthogs in the wild -- but I chose Kenya (where I've never been) because I had been doing a lot of reading about trees in Kenya for a picture book (which came out in 2010 -- Mama Miti) and I felt very attached to the country, even though I've never had the opportunity to visit. With Bound, I spent the summer of 1997 in Beijing and went crazy for China. For the next six years I always had a book about China open beside me. Then I decided I wanted to set a story there -- and, miracle of miracles, i found out that our oldest version of Cinderella is Chinese. Utter luck.
I have a fairy tale I want to work on next -- and what draws me to this one is the psychology of the characters. Where it will be set, I have no idea yet. I haven't begun to research it, so I don't know which were the oldest versions of it. I don't even know what time period to set it in. A ton of my decisions get made through the research.

~ You have retold so many stories. Are there any that you are especially proud of, or partial to?
I felt like I had descended into hell when I was writing The Magic Circle and I still think it's my most disturbing fairy tale.
*Misty perks up at this...*

~ Are there any of your retellings that were especially hard for you to write? Any that came easier than others?
Breath was very hard to write because it's a medical mystery of sorts and I had to keep myself from letting modern ways of investigating interfere with how someone would have seen things in the 1280s.  It really drove me nuts not to be able to allow my main character to actually figure out what was wrong.
And I find writing fairytales with animal characters the easiest -- although they aren't easy -- just easier than the others.  So Mogo, the Third Warthog, for example, was just plain fun to write.  I love learning about animal habits.

Silly/fun/general questions:

~Rapunzel is named after lettuce; what odd thing would you be named after if you were in a fairy tale?
~ Using that name, give us a line from your life as a fairy tale:
Oh my.  I think I'd probably be some kind of bitter herb that makes people see in weird colors.  Maybe something psychedelic.  Let's call it "Batso"
Okay -- a line
"I don't know why he keeps stringing up squirrel tails in the garage; maybe he's trying to send me a message."

~Best fairy tale villain and why?
For sure the witch in Hansel and Gretel -- because she eats babies (what could be more villainous?)

~Favorite tale from childhood? Favorite tale as an adult? Least favorites?
From childhood, maybe Peter Pan.
As an adult, maybe Hansel and Gretel.
Least favorite -- as a kid, The Three Pigs (but writing "Mogo the Third Warthog" helped me come to terms with that tale)

~If you could be any fairy tale character, or live through any fairy tale "happening," who/what would it be?
I'm not sure.  Maybe I'd like to meet those seven dwarfs.

~Would you rather:
-- eat magic beans or golden eggs?
Probably even magic beans give you gas, no?
I'll take the eggs.
-- style 50ft long hair or polish 100 pairs of glass slippers?
I'd go for polishing the slippers.  I am into meditation and this sounds like a pretty good one.
-- have a fairy godmother or a Prince Charming?
Fairy godmother, for sure.

~   ~   ~   ~   ~   

Thanks so much for stopping by, Donna Jo!
Everybody, make sure to leave Donna Jo some comment love below!  And check out all of our DJN features during Fairy Tale Fortnight:
Bound | Hush | Sirena (coming soon) | Zel (coming soon)

Click to be taken to the main schedule!


  1. I think The Magic Circle was my first time reading a retelling. I'd never even heard of the idea before Donna's books came out. I LOVE the darkness to The Magic Circle. What a great book. Thank you!

  2. I am definitely interested in picking up a few more books! Thanks for sharing your time with us and thanks to Misty and Ashley for this as well!

  3. I read Zel and Sirena as a teenager and am looking forward to checking out more of Napoli's books. Thanks for sharing!

  4. I was totally obsessed with Zel, Sirena, The Magic Circle, and Spinners as a kid. Because of your interview, I am seeking out these books to reread them. They were really the start of my love for fairy tales and their reteliings. Thanks so much for this interview! It really made me want to reread the old books and read the new books like Bound. :D

  5. My first retelling was Zoe Marriot: The Swan Kingdom, which is actually how I discovered Zel; I was looking through the similar books and found Zel; had it ordered first class and read it straight away.

    Thanks to Donna Jo Napoli for producing some of the best retellings I have ever read!


Tell me all your thoughts.
Let's be best friends.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...