A long while ago, someone emailed me to tell me that, as much as they wanted to like my work, they just couldn’t read another goddamned fairy tale. It was too much, they said. Everyone’s doing it. There’s no there there. It’s tired and trite and they just couldn’t be part of it anymore. Look at your life, look at your choices. That sort of thing.
Everyone has a right to cry uncle on a genre every once in awhile. I’ve done it myself. Sometimes you just can’t bear another gear or pair of wings or vampire teeth. You go on a fast and sometimes you come back and sometimes you don’t. I get that on a basic level. And there is less than zero chance that folks are going to stop retelling fairy tales any time soon. But I’ll never forget that moment. Not because of the sting of it—though of course it stung—but because I was still in the flush of fairy tale love, so surely everyone else found them as thorny and interesting and worthy as I did. Not everyone does. Which meant it was my responsibility to bring the awesome when I showed up on doorsteps with a retelling in tow. And not just the blue light special fair trade organic 2% milkfat awesome. The real stuff, the mountain to the prophet love it like you stole it cut-the-cream-off-the-top-of-the-glass-bottle awesome. I took it as a challenge.
And sometimes I fail at that challenge, let’s get that out of the way up top. But you gotta try for it. And this is about trying. And fairy tales. And choices.
Because it is a lifestyle choice, to write fairy tale books. Make no mistake. I mean, in our culture, the phrase “fairy tale” practically means: trite, lightweight, and fluffy.
You know, girl stuff.
Because Tam Lin help you if you’re a woman writing fairy tales. Someone clearly didn’t play catch with you enough, because otherwise you’d be writing “kickass” books that utilize the F-bomb and feature people being punched/shot/hit in the face with fists of fire/a clockwork ray gun/a sudden realization of the weight of their sins. Men can get away with it to some extent, but for a lot of readers, a fairy tale retelling is just a nonstarter. Maybe it’s because the writer didn’t invent the core tale, so there’s a whiff of fanfic about it. Maybe it’s because we’ve all been trained to associate fairy tales with Disney and therefore with toothless storytelling. Maybe it’s something uglier and deeper, that shrunken, deformed thing that lies beneath all separations of stories into boy stories and girl stories, black stories and white stories, gay stories and straight stories.
Funny thing about Disney. They’re postmodern fairy tale retellers, too. No less than I or any other mythpunk kid scribbling stanzas in the dark. They take an old story and change it—sometimes radically, as in The Little Mermaid and Tangled—to conform to their own sensibilities, what they think it is important to teach children, to reflect the world they think they live in. Sometimes this goes poorly, because the world of Disney is not often the world the rest of us live in, and girls need to learn virtues other than vague spunk, and boys need to learn a role other than privileged rogue. But they are astonishingly good at it. So good that their images of Snow White and Alice in Wonderland have almost completely erased the originals in the American mind, so good that they have essentially bought the idea of a fairy tale from our collective consciousness and made the idea of Disney indistinguishable from the idea of the fairy tale.
That’s a pretty good trick.
But I’m not Disney. My Snow White will never replace that girl in yellow. I’m just a working stiff who wants to tell stories. Just about every science whiz can tell you how he or she took apart the TV or the radio when they were kids, just to see how it worked. To see what the world was made of. Well, when I was a kid, I took apart fairy tales to see how they worked. To see what the world was made of. Because those stories represent the purest distillation of what it means to be human. They have been revised for thousands of years by every generation and every culture, boiled down to the core images that move hearts and shape minds, the images that haul up the reptile brain and make it pay attention.
No matter what you write, you actually can’t help retelling a fairy tale somewhere along the way. Take the fairy part out. Stop thinking of it as fairy dust and gossamer wings. Think of it as blood and mirrors and death and mothers and fathers and food and fire and resurrection. If these stories had no power, they would have been forgotten. It’s far easier to forget than to remember, and I can’t think of a book or a movie that isn’t retelling some old tale. In fact, the more bald and bold the original moves in its new skin, the more we like it, because we feel a familiarity. We thrill to the newness, but we know the answer to that riddle. I have a friend who doesn’t read retellings because he never read fairy tales as a child. And I’ve always wondered: why wouldn’t you read them now? They’re like the cheat codes to the narrative brain. Play that old game on the nodes and watch the mind dance.
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is not a retelling of any particular fairy tale. But it is a retelling—it cannot help but retell. The core narrative is so old it’s got tenure: a girl escapes her life into a magical and dangerous land where she must become something greater than she was. Half the stories in the world go like that. The other half go: “a boy escapes his life.” It’s growing up, coming of age—that’s what almost all portal fantasies are about. Adulthood looks like a fairyland to a child: arbitrary rules, beautiful and reckless and cruel people, dark secrets to do with violence and forgiveness, incomprehensible stirrings of sexuality and an incomplete but growing understanding of wealth and power, the ability to simply reach out and take whatever you want. Of course, those of us who live here know it’s not like that. You can’t have whatever you want. But to a child who must ask permission for every single thing, adulthood looks like a constant parade of every desire’s satisfaction. It is a heady and terrifying place. It is the Otherworld. It is Fairyland. In fantasy, we make this literal. In realism, it becomes metaphorical. Even stories of middle-aged literature professors having affairs are actually portal fantasies—a man escapes his life into a land of desire. It is the biggest tent in the circus of fairy tales. Everyone tells this story—even people who’ve never written books. One day I will make a million dollars and escape my life into a land of plenty. One day I will move to Paris and escape my life into a land of magic.
It is The Story.
And so even though Fairyland is not a retelling in the same way that The Orphan’s Tales or Deathless is—it is not married to any one tale or culture, it is not looking for that sweet spot, that place where you can turn a tale around and show the back of it to the reader, the dark shadow-tale they didn’t know they were reading—it is still telling an old tale. And on top of that, the tropes of folktales, fairy tales, and myth abound in Fairyland. It is a place where anything goes, a prism through which the light of folklore is split into many beams. And where those beams fall, you find witches cooking the future, queens wicked and tragic, baths to wash your courage and your wishes, blue-skinned time-traveling water genies, and a little girl who doesn’t dream of going home, but of knowing and of loving and of experience. Fairyland is a place where stories go to play. Everything we’ve wanted so much we were afraid of it. Because that’s where fairy tales live, on the border of desire and fear, just to the left of pedagogy and to the right of raw survival.
That’s not girl stuff. That’s everybody stuff.
And it’s why I’ll be writing goddamned fairy tales until I’m blue in the face.
So to speak.
Catherynne M. Valente is the author of over a dozen works of fiction and poetry, including Palimpsest, the Orphan's Tales series, Deathless, The Habitation of the Blessed, and crowdfunded phenomenon The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Own Making. She is the winner of the Tiptree Award, the Mythopoeic Award, the Lambda Award, the Andre Norton Award, the Rhysling Award, and the Million Writers Award. She has been nominated for the Hugo, Locus, and Spectrum Awards, the Pushcart Prize, and was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award in 2007 and 2009. She lives on an island off the coast of Maine with her partner, two dogs, and one enormous cat.