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Monday, April 23, 2012

Interview: Zoë Marriott, author of Shadows on the Moon

You guys.  We are SO SUPER EXCITED to welcome back Zoë Marriott, author of Shadows on the Moon, which is about to make its US debut!  You may recall the fun we had with Zoë last year, when she not only gave us a fantastic guest post and interview, but also took part in our community reading of Little Red Riding Hood!  (You should check those out, but first see what Zoë has to say for herself this year. =D)

What do you make of the resurgence in popularity for fairy tales? (Once Upon a Time, Grimm, Mirror Mirror, Snow White and the Huntsmen, all within a very short time)? Do you see it as a trend that will sort of peter out, or is it just getting started?
Firstly, my fangirl reaction: OMG ISN'T IT AWESOME? I've just started watching 'Once Upon a Time' and it's great - so unexpected (even though I have some concerns with the depiction of people of colour)! And I've literally watched every trailer and clip from SWATH about ten times because I can't get over how brilliant it looks! Ravenshifters! Evil knights! Black magic! CAN'T HANDLE IT! *Clutches head and falls over in sheer excitement*

Ahem. Now for grown-up Zolah. Have you noticed that all these retellings (bar 'Grimm' - I haven't seen that, so I'm not sure) centre on Snow White? Snow White is at the centre of 'Once Upon a Time' and is the basis for both film adaptions. So I wonder if it's less a resurgence in the popularity of fairytales per se as some weird ripple in our collective unconscious that's fuelling fascination with this particular story. I'm not sure why - but we do seem to have an enduring interest in the idea of the unconscious victim and then there's that classic dichotomy of Evil Ambitious Woman/Sweet Innocent Girl which keeps rearing its tiresome head. I think it's great that we're reinterpreting this story in new ways which allow for a more nuanced portrayal of the female characters and for empowerment of the traditionally powerless heroine. But I'm not sure it can continue - I think this kind of intense interest tends to move in cycles, and part of that is naturally allowing our interest to eventually wane so that our group imagination can lie fallow.

What impact do you think fairy tales have on society (especially with the same tales popping up in various forms in every society)?
To me, the way the the same themes and archetypes crop up in fairytales/folklore in so many widely divergent cultures shows that humans, no matter how diverse, have many of the same deep-seated, universal concerns. We braid together these narratives in ways which show the consequences for sin and virtue (this seems a constant, even when the idea of what constitutes sin and virtue differs or evolves radically) and we use them as a sort of teaching aid, almost. A baseline for our own behaviour. Good will triumph - so be good. Evil will perish - so don't be evil. Excellent advice.

Of course, there are some problematic areas too, like the idea that sweet, patient girls who are kind to animals and small children will be rewarded with riches and love, while non-maternal, ambitious, powerful ones will usually get tossed in a dungeon and die. And the way that brave, upright young men always get the girl is probably a leading cause of that awful 'nice guy' syndrome where modern day young men (who naturally think of themselves as brave and upright) believe they're entitled to a hot girlfriend and get rather angry when the girl they want has thoughts and feelings of her own and happens not to be interested.

I think we need to value and appreciate the rich history of fairytale, myth and folklore we are lucky enough to have. I also think we need to look carefully at the assumptions which underlie fairytales, and be critical of those. Humans love to feel they're part of a narrative. We all feel like the hero of our own story, we all think of ourselves as one of the good guys. We just have to be conscious of the fact that every villain in every fairytale believed he or she was in the right too. It can be a slippery slope.
[Misty says: Amen.]

What inspired you to set your retelling of Cinderella in a variation of feudal Japan?
Oh, I'm a complete Japanophile! Ever since I stumbled on Hayao Miyazaki's 'Castle in the Sky' as a kid, I've been in love with Japanese stories and culture (I nearly bankrupted myself shortly after I got my first proper job because I couldn't resist ordering anime and manga online, and the import and shipping fees were ridiculous). So I'd been wanting to use a Japanese setting in my work forever - it was just a matter of finding the right story.

The idea of putting the Cinderella tale on its head and turning the passive, romantic heroine into a ruthless, revenge obsessed one came about as a result of doing creative writing workshops with kids in schools, but it wasn't until I was re-watching Memoirs of a Geisha one lazy Sunday afternoon that the two things connected in my head.

Frankly, I felt really stupid for not figuring it out earlier, because once it had occurred to me it was just so seamless and perfect. Of course a world with the flavour of Japan - a culture which deeply reveres beauty and ritual and tradition - would be the only setting for a story which centred on illusions of beauty and control.

Was there a lot of research involved in trying to build that world and still make it work for the story?
So so much. After the flames of my initial enthusiasm had cooled down and I started work building this world, I realised that I was writing One Of Those Books. The ones where everything, but everything you want to achieve will depend on research, and every detail is going to be vital, and the first thing everyone is going to talk about in any review is the world-building. I'd always felt completely intimidated by the authors who wrote those kinds of books - and now I was attempting to be one of them!

I had thought all those years of voraciously devouring manga and anime and reading books and watching films set in Japan had given me this great understanding of the country. And I had slightly more knowledge than the average bear, sure. Just enough for me to realise the vast, screaming vacuum of my own ignorance. Just enough to realise that before I went ahead and invented any fantasy elements for my story, I had to educate myself on the real world a whole heck of a lot better.

So I gulped down my fear and wrote to the Society of Authors asking for one of their work-in-progress grants, for just enough money to enable me to buy a choice few of the expensive reference books that I lusted after. Imagine my astonishment, many long months later, when I received a letter telling me I had been awarded the Sasakawa Prize, a prestigious grant made by The Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation to assist with works which would encourage understanding between the peoples of Japan and the UK!

The letter came with a substantial cheque, and I went to town with that money. I visited museums, bought albums of traditional music and over a dozen reference books on Japan, ordered Japanese ingredients on the internet and learned to cook them, practised the tea ritual and eventually bought and shipped in an authentic kimono (including underlayers, socks and sandals, obi and obijime) and trained myself to dress in it properly and walk and move in it. That award made the book what it is, and I can't thank the Society of Authors and the Sasakawa Foundation enough.

Shadows on the Moon tackles some pretty dark material, and very unflinchingly (yay!) - did you ever have doubts that it was too dark, or that it might trouble readers? What is your response to people who think you shouldn’t write anything too dark for teens?
This is a hard one to answer, because this book was so deeply personal to me, and the way the characters evolved was so organic, that I don't ever recall making decisions about how dark it was going to be. I cried and winced and wailed my way through writing it, and felt very low and depressed at times because I was drawing on all the most hurt, vulnerable emotions inside myself. But that was the way it had to be. If someone, like my editor, had said, "This is too dark and you'll have to change it," I would have stopped work and the book would never have been finished. I could not have written it any other way. As it is, my editor was brilliantly supportive and looking at the story now I'm both proud and stunned that I really did it.

Suzume is nothing like me at all. She's nothing like I was as a teenager. And yet every hurt she endures and every pain she inflicts on herself and every transformation she undergoes is drawn directly from my own experiences as a teenager. She is broken and self-destructive, and in so much pain that she hurts everyone around her. And at some point in their life, almost everyone feels like that. Readers should find that troubling; it should make them question their own choices, make them look at people who self-harm or are mentally ill or grieving in a different and more humane way. I hope watching Suzume's journey will also make readers who have dark, vulnerable places inside them realise that no matter how bad things seem at times, you can get better again.

If someone were to tell me that they thought the topics covered in Shadows on the Moon were too dark for teenagers, I'd be hard pressed to respond to them at all. That kind of self-delusion is very comforting to the person who is clutching at it like a lifebelt. For the ones around them who are drowning, crying out for help, and being politely ignored...not so much.

Shadows on the Moon, which has already been released in the UK in softcover, is about to be released in the US in hardback; both cover designs are rather striking. I know authors don’t have much say in the designs of their books, but are you pleased with the 2 covers? Do you have a favorite?
Honestly, I love them both! I can't pick a favourite. I think what both covers have in common (aside from being very attractive, in my opinion) is that they both mean more to you once you've read the story. The white sakura and red lettering on the UK cover is a reference to important imagery in the book, and the model is wearing the enigmatic smile which Suzume uses like a mask to conceal her true emotions. The US cover shows Suzume in the process of shadow weaving, glowing bright like the moon, hair a mantle of darkness, while at the same time her face is fading away, just as Suzume fades emotionally the more she becomes trapped within her illusions.

I'll tell you a secret: the US cover was originally completely different. It was a pale, breezy blue with purple script, and an extremely modern looking Asian model. To me it looked like the cover of a light contemporary beach romance which just happened to have a Japanese heroine. There was nothing to indicate that the setting was Japan or that the book was a fantasy. I tried to be polite about it, but I expressed my concerns to my US editor. No more was said, and I attempted to resign myself, but a while later the new version arrived in my inbox and I was overjoyed! So now every time I see the US artwork, I want to kiss it.

A certain someone (*cough*Ashley*cough*) would like to know, in all seriousness, how you became so awesome - Please discuss... ;)
Er... *Blushes bright red, backs away, trips over stool* Um...

OK, I'm not sure about being awesome, but I do try to be kind. It's my personal motto that kindness is the most underrated virtue. I try to be the most compassionate version of myself possible in every situation. And I guess any awesomeness I might possess probably occurs as a sort of side product of that. Now, if you'll excuse me?

*Hides under pillow*

With FrostFire about to be unleashed on the world, do you have another fairy tale project lined up/in mind?
How funny you should ask that! The answer is yes. A few months ago I was in the shower, and I was contemplating my favourite fairytales (as I am wont to do) and thinking that it was kind of a shame that I would never, ever dare to try to retell Beauty and the Beast, despite the fact that it's up there in my top three, because, of course, Robin McKinley got there first and basically created the whole genre of fairytale retellings with Beauty. I mean, that's just too big a legacy to tackle.

But then, as I was scrubbing away at my hair, I started to see a forest in my head. And it was the green, untamed forest that covers Mount Moonview in Shadows on the Moon - a place we see looming over the City but never explore. And suddenly I imagined a retelling of Beauty and the Beast which turned the story upside down the same way that Shadows turned Cinderella upside down. A retelling where Beauty isn't sent to the Beast as a shrinking, maidenly sacrifice, but goes after him - goes hunting him, through those wild and untamed forests - of her own free will.

And then a voice - a tough, downright, sensible sort of voice - spoke up in the back of my head and said: 'There is a monster in the forest, and it craves human flesh...'

And I was sunk. So: Beauty and the Beast retelling set in The Moonlit Lands. I'm going to have to suck it up and dust off all my books and research again! But first I need to finish Book Two of the Katana Trilogy.
[You'll have to excuse Misty at this point, and for the rest of FTF.  She read this and immediately snuck onto a UK-bound plane and is currently trying to figure out the best way to sneak into Zoë's house and ever-so-politely demand the entire story be told to her now...]


Favorite fairy tale: The Wild Swans

Most underrated fairy tale? East of the Sun, West of the Moon

Most overrated fairy tale? Cinderella!

Last year we asked everyone’s fairy tale hero/heroine name; this year, we want to know your fairy tale villain name: The Witch of Words

Using that name, give us a line from your villainous fairy tale: And so the fearsome Witch used her highly developed magical vocabulary to transform the salesperson who had interrupted her while she was trying to remember that perfect synonym for 'light' into a rare yellow-striped slug, and laughed wickedly all the way back to her Writing Cave.

If a genie granted you 3 wishes, what would they be?
1. Perfect health for my family and friends (and pets!)
2. To see at least one of my books on the New York Times Bestseller List before I die
3. To meet Tamora Pierce at least once before I die

Best way to read fairy tales? (ie location, snacks, etc): That would depend on the fairytale! If you're reading The Snow Queen, you need a roaring fire, a comfy armchair and a cup of hot chocolate - preferably with snow falling softly outside. If you're reading The Wild Swans you need to sit on the deck of a little cottage surrounded by trees and mountains, staring down at a lake as the green-scented air gently ruffles your hair. Beauty and the Beast? A library, of course! With a pot of tea and some dainty sandwiches.

If one of your books was being turned into a movie and you could cast 1 character, which character would you cast and who would play them?
OK - I'm going to cast Gabriel from The Swan Kingdom, and I'm going to cast Douglas Booth. The moment I saw him in the recent BBC adaption of Great Expectations, I went: 'Eeeeee!' I may even have been less coherent. But basically, he fits perfectly. Gimme Douglas! Now!

Zoë Marriott is the author of The Swan Kingdom, Daughter of the Flames, Shadows on the Moon, and the upcoming FrostFire (2012) and The Night Itself (2013).
You can find her at her website, her blog, The Zoë-Trope, Youtube, Twitter, Pinterest (she has awesome boards for her books!) and Goodreads.

Make sure you enter to win a copy of the US version of Shadows on the Moon, and stop back tomorrow for my review!

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  1. "...Humans love to feel they're part of a narrative. We all feel like the hero of our own story, we all think of ourselves as one of the good guys. We just have to be conscious of the fact that every villain in every fairytale believed he or she was in the right too. It can be a slippery slope."

    Amen indeed. That was brilliantly said.

    And "Castle in the Sky" is one of my favourite movies EVER. One look at her blog and you'll know her love for all things Japanese. I'm especially enjoying the slight climb in Asian-inspired fairytales in YA fiction of late.

    OH! So that's the story behind the US cover. I have to admit that I don't like it as much as the UK. It's mostly to do with the font and also it looks like she's wearing a T-shirt. I'm sure it isn't, but it looks that way. :/

    That B&theB retelling sounds FABULOUS! So so many awesome books coming up! Great, great interview, Misty. Love it to bits!

  2. Okay so I'd like to coherently and eloquently express how much I loved this interview, but I'm too busy getting absofreaking fangirl crazy over the prospect of a Zoe Marriot Beauty and the Beast set in the same world as Shadows on the Moon that I'm pretty much wet on babbling like an idiot for the rest of the evening...

    Suffice it to say that I LOVED reading about the research process that went into Shadows on the Moon. I have so much love and respect for authors that give the cultures they are trying to portray this kind of respect, and it's what keeps me reading and loving these books.

    Also I've had that BBC Great Expectations sitting on my DVR for weeks and now I MUST check it out to scope some prospects. :P

  3. This was a great interview! I was really impressed with how Zoë conducted her research. Just reading books on feudal Japan would have been easy, but to practice certain things in the culture she wrote about is another. It's so cool that she practiced the tea rituals. I'm sure this will give her story more depth than if she just read reference books. Way cool! This makes me want to read Shadows on the Moon even more!

    Jackie G. @ Books & Tea


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