Cheryl Mahoney’s pen portrait tells us she is a fantasy writer “living in California and dreaming of fairylands”. Her two published novels are in the Grimm tradition, but with a modern twist. The Wanderers was published in 2013 and concerns a talking cat, a witch’s daughter and a wandering adventurer who wants to live by the rules that govern the fairytale world, until it starts to go horribly wrong. The Storyteller and Her Sisters was published recently and is a story about twelve trapped princesses who must dance every night with twelve princes; but they are not the passive victims that the Grimm story would have us believe. Both titles are available in ebook and paperback format, with the second also on Kindle.
Besides novels, she also writes an excellent book review blog, Tales of the Marvelous, a title inspired by L Frank Baum’s confession “”Since I can remember, my eyes have always grown big at tales of the marvelous.” Here you can read discussions on books in a number of genres, from fantasy to detective, and from SF to historical fiction. I recently asked her about her approach to her own writing.
What particularly attracts you to fairytales?
I’m fascinated by these stories that have become so much a part of the cultural narrative. I don’t think a story achieves the kind of prominence that “Cinderella” or “Snow White” has without having something integral at the heart of it. There’s something about these stories that continues to capture the imagination, generation after generation.
But at the same time — when you go all the way back to the Brothers Grimm or Charles Perrault — so much of the stories just don’t make sense! Some of this is due to changing cultural understanding (I’m sure no one 300 years ago thought Cinderella ought to leave her step-family and find a job, which is what I usually think) and some may be due to symbolism that would explain oddities but isn’t clear on the surface. But the fact still remains, these stories are full of plot holes, flat characters, and bizarre motivations, making them ripe for retelling! All those plot holes are opportunities for a new way to look at the story, and I love that blend of doing something new with stories that people will also recognize.
Do you feel a part of the fairytale tradition when you retell a particular tale or motif, and if so do you feel a responsibility for your charge?
I think I feel more responsibility to my readers than to the fairy tale (or its earlier writers). That may be in part because there’s no one definitive version (I go back to Grimm a lot, but even they retold earlier stories). I feel like my role is less to honor the “original” (although I certainly acknowledge that many storytellers have come before me!) than it is to present a new version that will, hopefully, give something new to the reader—and often something at odds with the way the story was originally told. My particular pet peeves in fairy tales are instant-romances and weak heroines, so I want to offer something different—a version of the story that says maybe the princess wasn’t a victim at all, but was making choices and directing the course of things in her life.
What do you think there is about your retelling that makes it special or out of the ordinary?
My last answer segues nicely here, as my particular goal on this novel, The Storyteller and Her Sisters, was to give the princesses in “The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces” a position of control in the story. I’m not the first to give the princesses more agency in a retelling, but most versions still come down to a hero (or sometimes heroine) who arrives to rescue them. My spin (which I believe is unique) is that the princesses really don’t need rescuing at all. They are in peril, but they’re setting about to rescue themselves, through the very actions that usually lead people to think they need help. And I’ve also played with who the villain of the story really is — drawing directly from the Brothers Grimm, but looking at it from an angle I haven’t seen another reteller take.
Are there any authors whose approach to the fairytale tradition you especially admire, and what influence if any do they have on your writing?
Absolutely! Robin McKinley (Beauty, Rose-Daughter), Gail Carson Levine (Ella Enchanted, Fairest) and Patricia C. Wrede (Enchanted Forest Chronicles) are all amazing retellers of fairy tales who pull apart plot holes and re-invent the story with much stronger heroines and often more compelling romances. I’m probably lucky that none of them have yet written a novel based on “The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces” as those would be big footsteps to follow in! It’s hard enough following Juliet Marillier, whose Wildwood Dancing introduced me to this fairy tale to begin with. Luckily for me, hers is a much looser retelling, very different from mine (but still with a powerful heroine—and an utterly adorable romance).
I read McKinley, Levine and Wrede when I was pretty young, and I think they did influence my thinking on all the interesting ways these old stories can be retold and reimagined.
Much fiction uses themes and plots common to fairytales (eg Rags to Riches, the Voyage, the Quest) without consciously referencing them. Do you think that this influences the narrative we imagine for our own lives?
I think this unquestionably happens. It’s a circular situation — we tell stories to understand our lives, and we understand our lives according to the stories we know. This is exactly why I want to tell stories that are often different from what the Brothers Grimm gave us. The original fairy tales have powerful influence through their prominence in the culture, and often they have themes that can be very damaging. How many stories present every female character as a passive victim, and every male character as either a villain or a perfect white knight? None of that is a healthy model, for either gender!
I want my stories to say something different, to say that girls can make choices too and that you really shouldn’t marry someone you just met (thank you, Frozen!). I think those messages make for better stories — but it’s because of the way stories influence our views about ourselves and our lives that makes a story’s message matter.
Cheryl’s latest novel is published by Stonehenge Circle Press, and can be ordered online in various formats, where you can also preview excerpts from the book. A review will appear in due course; if her blog and her interview responses are anything to go by readers are in for a treat!