Adam Gidwitz on Spooky Spooky Fairy Tales

Halloween’s just around the corner which means All Hallows Read is too. When Neil Gaiman first proposed this idea of giving books for Halloween I offered some suggestions, among them Adam Gidwitz’s fairy tale debut, A Tale Dark and Grimm.  Now Adam is back with In a Glass Grimmly, as macabre and entertaining as his first book, and I thought it would be fun to see what he had to say about fairy tales, their reputation, and other related topics.

For those readers unfamiliar with your two books, how about a twitteresque description. Not too much more than 140 characters that is!

Two children travel through the funniest, weirdest, darkest Grimm tales, facing horrible parents, cruel peers, and other monsters. And—most painfully of all—themselves. (147! I’m a champion!)

Since you are a sort of fairy tale nerd (as am I) what is your take on my impression that for the general public fairies and fairy tales continue to have an image problem. Seems to me that for all the urban fantasy out there (in books, movies, and television shows), many still associate fairy tales with sparkly teeny tiny women flitting about with wings, pink, and Disney.  Would you agree? Disagree?  

I agree. And most of these adaptations don’t really help the cause at all. Most of the current adaptations of Grimm fairy tales take details from the original tales and use them as a jumping off point to tell their own story and to do their own thing. They toss the form and the style of the fairy tale out the window. I think this is a great waste. Fairy tales have endured not only because of the stories they tell but also because of how they tell them. Fairy tales are told simply, matter-of-factly; they are brief; they deal with the deepest of emotions–pain, humiliation, betrayal, lostness (if you will)–without any hyperbole or drama. The Grimm fairy tales in crystalize our most essential emotions. These modern adaptations, for the most part, have nothing to do with our deepest human emotions. They miss the point of fairy tales altogether.

Another criticism fairy tales get is that they are violent yet you seem to have embraced that idea and run with it. Why? 

The real fairy tales are indeed quite violent. But the violence is not gratuitous. On the contrary, it is essential to fairy tales’ task. One of fairy tales’ methods of speaking to the readers’ deepest emotions is a technique I like to call “tears into blood.” There is a wonderful Grimm tale called “The Seven Ravens,” in which a father loves his one little daughter so much more than his seven boys that he wishes they would turn into birds and fly away–which they promptly do. When the little girl discovers that her brothers’ disappearance is due to her father loving her more than he loved the boys, she runs away from home to find them. She is given a chicken bone by the stars (yep, you read that right), and told that it will open the Crystal Mountain where the boys are trapped. The little girl journeys to the mountain but, upon arriving, realizes that she has lost the chicken bone. At this moment, any real child’s feelings of guilt would be extraordinary. Not only was it indirectly her fault that her brothers were turned into birds, but in losing the chicken bone she has lost the ability to save them.

Now, do a little thought-experiment with me. Imagine that “The Seven Ravens,” at this critical juncture, abruptly changed genres and became adult realistic fiction. What would the little girl do? She would live out her days trying to come to terms with her guilt, failing in the majority of her relationships and wondering what could have been. Right? Very depressing. Now, let’s imagine that “The Seven Ravens”, at the moment when the girl discovers the loss of the bone, switches from fairy tale to middle grade adventure novel. In this scenario, the girl would remember a little piece of wire that she received in the first chapter, and she would pick the lock on the door to the mountain and free her brothers. Either that or the bad guy would show up and she’d have to fight him.

But “The Seven Ravens” is a fairy tale. So what happens? The little girl cuts off her finger. And then she slides it into the lock on the door to the Crystal Mountain, and, without any further explanation, the door opens, and she sets her brothers free. This solution raises a series of questions (why the heck does her finger open the door? for example). But what this solution does for the reader is that it takes all the guilt the girl was feeling–about the transformation of her brothers, about the lost chicken bone–into blood. It turns emotional pain into physical pain. It turns tears into blood.

But why is this good? Because every child has cut himself. Every child has been bruised or bled. And so every child knows that the blood stops eventually, the wound scabs over, the bruise yellows and fades. Fairy tale violence teaches the child that emotional wounds heal. That salty tears dry. That no matter the pain, victory is possible.

In your first book you stuck pretty closely to several Grimm fairy tales. This time you branch out a bit.  How did you end up with the tales you did retell and what made you move farther into your own original ones?

Thematic considerations and practical ones. First, the thematic: The emotional journey of A TALE DARK AND GRIMM is the children’s evolving relationship towards parents. The journey of IN A GLASS GRIMMLY is about peers. There were certain tales–”The Emperor’s New Clothes,” for example, and Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”–that dealt with issues of peers and peer-pressure beautifully, that I really wanted to include. The practical consideration was that I had settled on calling the children Jack and Jill, mostly because that was another folkloric pairing (like Hansel and Gretel) that kids would recognize. (I briefly considered the Grimm Jorinda and Joringel, but I just didn’t think those characters have the same instant name recognition, you know?). So, once I settled on Jack and Jill, that suggested the famous Jack stories, such as the gruesome “Jack the Giant Killer” and the popular “Jack and the Beanstalk.”

I’m curious about your research. In addition to presumably reading a ton of fairy tales, what other research have you done? 

I spent most of 2012 living in Europe–mostly in France. My wife was doing her dissertation research in medieval history. I, on the other hand, was eating a ridiculous amount of bread, writing in the mornings, and traveling on the weekends. I explored the Black Forest. I found the Crystal Mountain (well, I think I did). I walked under white cliffs along an endless beach (see the chapter “The Giant Killer” in IN A GLASS GRIMMLY). So I certainly did some geographical and scenic research. I also play with language in my books, particularly regarding characters’ names. So I had some German friends I consulted with on the name of the giant salamander that appears near the end of IN A GLASS GRIMMLY, and I spent a lot of time buried in the Gaelic dictionary developing the names of the giants. Finally, I read a fair amount of secondary material on the fairy tales, to ensure that I was honoring their traditions as well as their content.

Your books are being rightly recommended as fun Halloween-related horror.  Do you have any others that you might want to recommend to go with them?  

I love Laura Amy Schlitz’s SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS –very creepy, very Victorian, and very dark. It’s got a witch, a magic amulet, a murderous puppeteer, and a little girl who has to visit a graveyard every year on her birthday. What’s not to love?

The other day one of my students who loves your books was railing about the oddity of fairy tales. Why, she ranted, does Gretel have to use a bone for a key in the first book? Why can’t she just just a carefully constructed object that doesn’t involve..let’s see how to phrase this so as not to spoil things….nasty personal stuff?  How would you respond to her and others like her?

Fairy tales don’t make any sense. That’s the wonderful thing about them. Their strangeness is their beauty. Also, it’s hilarious.

What’s next? 

One more Grimm book. This one is about a boy named Coal and a girl named Ash. Coal is based on the simpleton character that recurs throughout Grimm’s fairy tales–the boy who everyone thinks is stupid, but turns out to possess a special wisdom. Ash is short for Ashputtle. Also known as Cinderella. If you know the Grimm version of Cinderella, you know this book will be just as strange and dark as the two that preceded it.

And to end, for fun, a few questions that Proust also had to answer (and Vanity Fair has taken-off from for years).

What is your idea of happiness?
Writing in my pajamas in the morning; a huge, rare cheeseburger for lunch; an afternoon with my wife and friends; and an evening with just my wife.

What is your idea of misery?
A world with no introspection. For this reason, I fear for our society. Who needs Big Brother and thoughtcrime, when self-awareness is obliterated by a constant stream of chattering screens?

If not yourself, who would you like to be?
An astronaut.

Where would you like to live?
Most of the year in Brooklyn, and then the month of June in Paris. Or the White House. They have a bowling alley, a basketball court, and a private chef. As long as I didn’t have to do any of that annoying work that the dude who lives there has to do.

What is your favorite food and drink?
My favorite food is a huge, rare cheeseburger. My favorite drink is not for kids, so I’ll leave it out.

What is your present state of mind? 
What did Proust say? Bored because of these questions? No. Hungry, because I keep talking about cheeseburgers.

Also at Huffington Post.

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