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Friday, April 3, 2015

Once Upon a Time...Again -- guest post from Jane Nickerson, author of Strands of Bronze and Gold

You fine folks will likely be familiar with the name Jane Nickerson, especially if you've been 'round Fairy Tale Fortnight before. We've featured her books, Strands of Bronze and Gold and The Mirk and Midnight Hour on FTF, interviewed her about all things fairy tale, and gathered around while she told us a little story about her decision to do a Southern Gothic take on Bluebeard, set in antebellum Mississippi.  Though the third book in the series, The Place of Stone and Shadow, doesn't have a set release date yet (that I know of! frowny face), we couldn't bear to not include her this year, so we asked if she'd mind stopping by again, and lovely woman that she is, she obliged!

Check out what she had to say on what draws her -- and so many others -- to fairy tales and retellings, time and again, below!

Once Upon a Time…Again..and Again…

What compels authors to retell fairytales?
There are a good many answers to that question. The most boring one is that it’s a current fad in all branches of media. Lots of folks want to jump on the bandwagon. For my own answer I must dig deeper, since I was re-writing fairy tales long before I ever read—and loved—Beauty, published in 1978 by Robin McKinley. That was the first retold fairy tale I ever heard of. I rewrote tales in my head as soon as I read them out of Andrew Lang’s whatever-color fairy book back when I was a kid.
I suppose that partly there’s the attraction of a ready-made empathy with readers sprung from nostalgia and our common culture. Traditions link us together. I loved it when I was a children’s librarian, telling four-year-olds the “Three Little Pigs,” and they would laugh and laugh when I said, “not by the hair of my chinny chin chin.” It was so fun that after hundreds of years, this line was still new and funny to them.
Another reason is that fairy tales provide a marvelous opportunity to have a plot already set up. Willa Cather said: “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”  Ecclesiastes 1:9 proclaims that there is nothing new under the sun. Therefore, if there is so little brand spanking new material, what an author can give to every story they write is their original slant on what may be an old plotline. Authors take a great deal of pleasure in making an old story their own unique one. And, of course, fairytales have wonderful plots.
Their plots provide the bare bones of a tried-and-true tale the author can flesh it out in any way she desires. The very incompleteness of the tales is compelling.  The original characters of the original stories are stock—often they don’t even have names, just “the youngest son,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “the miller’s daughter ,” “the prince.” They are all good or all bad. There is no involved psychology. However, the black-and-white-ness of the tales do bring out universal motives that everyone can relate to: jealousy, love, fear, unfairness, rage, longing, etc. The author can build on these universal motives.
And then there’s magic. I can remember a long, long time ago, when I believed in Santa Claus and fairies. It was beautiful. When I read or write about magic, I relive that beauty. And magic doesn’t have to be explained. It may defy logic. Phillip Pullman wrote: “I’d say to anyone who wants to tell these tales, don’t be afraid to be superstitious. If you have a lucky pen, use it.” I am not a fan of logic. I am very superstitious. Magic is…magical.
The two tales I chose first to retell for publication are “Blue Beard,” in Strands of Bronze and Gold, and “The Ballad of Tam Lin,” in The Mirk and Midnight Hour, both published by Knopf. I picked them because each had fascinated me in its own way—the first from its creepiness and the second for its romance. Also, each lent itself beautifully to my 1850’s-60’s Southern gothic setting.

I prodded the gaps in the why’s and where’s and what’s of the original tales. I asked myself what motivations and situations could cause the chain of events in the tale. I looked for new angles. What sort of person would do this and that?  In Strands, I had to figure out why my heroine, Sophie, would find herself at the mercy of Monsieur Bernard, the villain. Because Strands is a YA novel, I made Sophie be M. Bernard’s ward, rather than his wife, as she was in the original tale. She had to begin the story very innocent, protected, and vulnerable, so she wouldn’t suspect anything for quite some time. She had to be isolated so she was completely in M. Bernard’s power. My setting was perfect for the plot, because Victorian men had a good deal of power over their women, and Southern plantation owners had supreme power over many, many people. Once I realized that M. Bernard would have to be an abuser, since he ended up killing all his wives, I studied up on the characteristics of abusive relationships, so I could make my story authentic. In Mirk, because, as in “Tam Lin,” the heroine needs to be the one to rescue her lover, she had to be a strong, ever-resilient sort of person. To be like the original tale, her lover had to be completely vulnerable, and at the mercy of his captors. Since my setting was in Civil War era Mississippi, I made him be a badly wounded soldier. Also, because of the setting, I didn’t want traditional fairies for the kidnappers. Instead I made them mysterious voodoo practitioners.
The reasons for retelling fairy tales are compelling and the possibilities seem endless. They will draw readers and writers back again and again.

For many years Jane Nickerson and her family lived in a big old house in Aberdeen, Mississippi, where she was also the children’s librarian. She has always loved the South, “the olden days,” gothic tales, houses, kids, writing, and interesting villains. She and her husband now make their home in Ontario, Canada.

Find out more about her books, or pick up shiny new copies for yourself, here!

Want more fairy tales? Return to the main schedules
by clicking here for The Book Rat or here for A Backwards Story


  1. Oh yay! I can't wait to read her third novel (er....whenever it comes out?). Do we know what tale The Place of Stone and Shadow is inspired by?

    1. APPARENTLY, it's not going to be a direct retelling. It's a continuation of what's come before it, and it started out as its own retelling, but then the characters took over and derailed that (so says Goodreads), so instead, the tale it was *going* to be is on the backburner, because she still intends to tell it, but this is its own thing.


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