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Monday, April 28, 2014

"Shades of Monsters" — guest post from Cat Hellisen, author of Beastkeeper!

A few months ago, before Bonnie and I really started to dig into the planning of this year's FTF, I stumbled across an upcoming fairy tale inspired book from an author whose work had stuck with me for a good long while now. The author was Cat Hellisen, the previous work was When the Sea is Rising Red, and the new book was a Beauty and the Beast inspired piece called Beastkeeper.
And when I say I "stumbled across" it, I mean I actively went looking to see what Cat had coming out next, because I was craving something from her brain (she says in the least zombie way she can muster).

Cat informs me that Beastkeeper has since evolved beyond being a Beauty and the Beast retelling, but that just made me want it included in Fairy Tale Fortnight all the more — I always find it fascinating how pervasive fairy tales are in our lives, that even once something makes it out to the general public and may no longer resemble the story we thing we know, that well-known story is still its origins. It permeates it.

Anyway, Cat is here today to tell us a bit about that. Enjoy, and let us know your thoughts in the comments!

Shades of Monsters
Inside the cage was a beast. At first, Sarah thought it was a bear, with its lowered head between great hunched shoulders, but then it moved and it was clear that this was no creature she’d ever seen in any book, or on television or at the zoo. There was the essence of bear, yes, but also of wolf, of lion. It was a king beast, great and gray, with coarse fur like matted wires, teeth long as her fingers, eyes like lost planets.
- Beastkeeper, Cat Hellisen
I have always been in love with fairy tales. There are two books I remember clearly from my childhood, like holy relics of infancy: a large illustrated book of nursery rhymes, and a fat, cloth-bound collection of Hans Christian Andersen's stories, with colour plates and tiny printing. These were my introductions, quickly followed by the wonders of Story Tellers; a fortnightly collection of illustrated fairy tales, classic children's literature and poems, which came with a cassette (anyone remember those?) of narration to help the young reader follow along. I blame all my books on the hours lost to those stories.
But why do they inspire me? Symbolism is rife in fairy tales, and probably why I love seeding them into my own writing. The drops of red blood, the velvet hood, the golden ball, the beautiful eyes in the faces of toads and monsters, the death and the life. The simplicity of the symbolism lends itself to play. Anyone interested in reading, rewriting (or perhaps unwriting) them, is given to so much to twist and shift and unpack and layer. They are intricate puzzles with deceptive wide-eyed faces.
And they're magic. Most important of all - packed to the gills with magic. How could I not take that magic and stitch it into my own stories? My books have been inspired by everything from the Snow Queen to The Pied Piper of Hamelin. My most recent manuscript riffed off Andersen's The Tinderbox. Their magic worms its way in, even when I'm not looking.
My novel Beastkeeper, coming out in winter 2015, was written in a rush, in a flurry of wintery madness. I'd been reading a lot of the Brothers Grimm, Diana Wynne Jones, and Angela Carter at the time, and at first I thought Beastkeeper was simply a play on Beauty and the Beast. After all, it began with the idea of what happened to La Belle et la Bete's children. Their children's children. Did curses run in families, I wondered, kept alive by love and jealousy? So I started writing about a girl who was the granddaughter of Beauty and the Beast, and as I did, the story began to shift. It stretched out like a sleeping beast woken, and it changed. The retelling became its own creature, plucking symbols from fairy tales like ripe plums to eat. It grew. It became a story about witchcraft and jealousy, about falling in love, about realising that parents are fallible and monstrous, about trust and trust-not.
It became about wild things and forests.
Family and friendship.
I left behind the trappings of Beauty and the Beast and instead I wrote a book about what makes monsters human, and humans monsters (thank you, Mary Shelley!) and about what it means to be a girl poised on the edge of a kind of inescapable monstrosity – of becoming a teenager. I took that grandchild of Beauty and her Beast, and I cursed her. I let her turn into a beast the first time she fell in love, and I gave her a family of monsters in all their forms, and left her to work out what she wanted.
It turned out to be very different from loving her Prince for the man he is beneath his monster skin, and instead, perhaps, became about loving the monster beneath her own human skin.
The cliché of fairy tales is always that they start with Once Upon a Time, and end with They Lived Happily Ever After, but this is not as true as we like to think. Stories start with all kinds of things, and they end in abductions, in tears, in marriages, in deaths, in punishments and rewards. The happily ever afters are affectations we dress them in. I won't tell you how my story ends, but whatever Beastkeeper transformed into, there is no doubt that it is a book that would never have been written if I hadn't fallen in love with fairy tales first, with magic beasts of stories: stories beautiful and terrible, fierce and noble, wicked and wild.
"Yes, yes," said the Beast, "my heart is good, but still I am a monster."
- Beauty and the Beast, Jeanne-Marie LePrince de Beaumont

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where you can access the schedule or find out more!

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