Monday, May 7, 2012

Twisted Fairy Tales: an interview with Mette Harrison

This is the first in a series of interviews I'll be posting once a week on Mondays for the next few weeks with Mette Harrison, YA Fantasy author—and one of my idols. This first interview focuses on doing fairytale retellings—one of my favorite genres to read and write. Mette has a vast array of knowledge and some wonderful insights into the subject. So here we go! Hope you get as much out of and enjoy the interview as much as I did.

Me and mette (or I should say Mette and me) at LTUE

1. Twisted Fairytales
 What made you decide to write fairytale retellings?
I love fairy tales, always have since I was a little kid. But I also studied them while working on my PhD in German literature. I taught for a while, then decided to work on my writing and it seemed a natural transition. I get absurdly excited about almost anything German and am obsessed with WWII and the Nazis. I think sometimes I felt in grad school like everything in German literature had to answer the question: How did this lead to the Nazis? I think it might be just as interesting to ask how fairy tales work against the Nazis. There are a lot of powerful characters and lessons in fairy tales.

Do you plan on doing more? Why or why not?
I am reminded of Hugh Grant's interview with Julia Roberts in Notting Hill where he pretends to be a reporter from Horse and Hound and asks her if she plans to use horses in any of her other movies. She says no, because the next one is set on a submarine.

I have actually moved to seeing every book I write as a retelling. Perhaps not always of a fairy tale specifically, but of something else that I love. I read a great post on-line about authors stealing I've also written my own essay about writers stealing. We all steal. It's how we recreate the story that matters, not where the material came from.

Some of the projects I am currently working on include:

A retelling of The Happy Prince story by Oscar Wilde
A retelling of An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilds (An Idea Boyfriend)
A retelling of The Nibelungenlied
A retelling of Cinderella from the stepmother's point of view
A retelling of The Little Mermaid called The Sea Witch
A retelling of Pride and Prejudice called Magic and Misapprehension
A retelling of the Queen Elizabeth/Mary Queen of Scots story
A retelling of Dr. Who with a female doctor set in medieval Germany with death magic.

I never know when I begin a project if it will end up working or not, nor am I always conscious of which fairy tale/original material will end up being the most closely linked to the final draft. When I wrote The Princess and the Hound, I did not think of it as a Beauty and the Beast story at all, though of course it is. It took my editor to see that.

Your fairytales vary a lot from the originals. How do you come up with your ideas?

Ideas assault me day and night. I wish I could get rid of ideas. I've heard some writers say they keep notebooks to write ideas down in. I NEVER do that. I want the ideas to go away and leave me alone. If they keep bugging me to write them down until I can't stand it anymore, then I do it. I will say that I have not always been this way. I used to have no idea what to write. But I think that after I realized that ideas just came from stealing something I loved from someone else and twisting it to make it better, then it was easy.

I love the way that Dr. Who is able to transform the doctor into new actors. The old doctor dies, and the new doctor has his memories, but isn't him anymore. And the way the companions love him, but are also ruined by him. I also love the way that the romance arc between Rose and David Tennant works. Trying to figure out how to do that all my own way, I thought up a series (it will probably never sell, mind you) about a girl who realizes she has magic that makes her revive every time she dies. The only problem is that the price for this magic is the death of the person she loves the most at the moment of her death. How does this change her? Well, it makes her avoid attachments to other people. It also makes her reckless to begin with. But then as more and more people she loves (even a little) die, she has to become more careful about her own life to protect those around her. But she can also never tell them the truth.

I'm just using that as an example of the process I go through, wanting to copy something I love and yet tweak it and make it something I love even more, and also something that is mine.

One problem that I've had recently is with my Jane Austen with magic novel. I love Jane Austen so much that it has been really hard to write something that echoes her without echoing her too much. I think it is actually easier when you hate a fairy tale (as I hate Snow White, for instance) and want to twist it around. Anger is great fuel for writing.

What is it about fairytale retellings that appeals to readers?
Oh, I think it's the same thing that appeals to readers about all stories. The combination of the same and the new. This modern Western idea that we are somehow writing "original" material is just so silly. In medieval times, bards were acutely conscious of who they were stealing from and I think they were smarter.

It is also true that princesses seem to appeal to girls (who are big readers) right now a lot. I think that a lot of people believe fantasy in particular is an escape from modern life. I think it is more a meditation of what we have lost and what we have gained in becoming more modern. It is a story about what it means to be human, then and now and how we are connected to our past.

How do you choose which retellings to do?
See above. They make me. Probably I am most interested in retellings that allow me to subvert patriarchal culture with feminist ideas and to debunk certain myths of humanism that unerly a lot of modern political philosophy. This idea that humans are capable of changing who we are from millenia of evolution just because we want to seems rather foolish to me.

Do you think retellings are still popular or have they all been done before?
There will always be new retellings. I can't imagine Cinderella not being told again and again in ways that will always delight me. Yes, there will be retellings that don't appeal or that feel less fresh, but then a new Gail Carson Levine or Megan Whalen Turner comes along, and the world holds its collective breath.

Is there room for more in today's market?
I think the pendulum is swinging back to more traditional fantasy at the moment, away from urban. But I could be wrong.

What is your idea of a good/bad fairytale retelling?
I have been trying (not altogether successfully) to accept that my idea of good writing is not necessary the "true" or Platonic ideal of good writing. Nonetheless, I like female characters who do something. However, I am annoyed by anachronistic modern characters set in a medieval world. If you want to do modern characters acting out a fairy tale, set it in a modern world. That's what I've done with Tris and Izzie. Another annoyance of mine is overwrought language. I tend to think language should be a window, not a picture. You should see through it to the story. If you have something to say, do it with the story, not the words. My prejudice.

What are some of your favorite fairytale retellings and why?
Robin McKinley is one of my all time favorite retellers. Also Patricia Wrede. Patricia McKillip. Gail Carson Levine. Shannon Hale. Diana Peterfreund is doing interesting stuff with unicorn myths. Also Nancy Werlin. There's a new book coming out called The False Princess by Eilis O'Neal that I think is great.

How do you handle romance in your fairytales?
I spent years trying to figure out what the formula of a good romance was. When the first meeting should happen, what sorts of obstacles should come up, how things should be resolved. The proposal. The humilation.

In the end, I decided that the individual characters have to dictate what happens. In The Princess and the Hound, I had two strong characters, George and Beatrice, who had their own motivations. Once I figured out who they were, they just had to figure out their own way together. I felt like I was sort of a scribe for them, writing down what they told me they would do. But it's also true that the set up required me to choose characters who desperately needed each other. In my original version of the novel, George had no magic. But I realized that he had to have a counter balance to what is set up later in the novel. He needed to have his own sorrow and pain. And also, he needed to have something that was complementary to what Beatrice was going through. He understands her in a deep way. That's the set up and that's important. But how it plays out, well, Beatrice is not an ordinary female character. There are some very odd moments. And I used some tricks to reveal character to each other in magic dreams. I think it worked, but it still feels a bit like a trick.

Tell us about your new book coming out.

Tris and Izzie is about Izzie, a girl whose mother makes potions. Izzie's best friend Brangane is in love with some guy desperately but she won't tell Izzie who. Izzie decides to solve the problem by making a love potion (a potion her mother thinks is dangerous and has never used) and she plans to give it to Branna and whichever guy seems the best bet. But due to a series of disastrous circumstances, Izzie has to take it herself and she ends up falling in love with the guy that was supposed to be Branna's, even though she already has a boyfriend who is awesome in every way. It's based on Tristan and Isolde by Gottfried von Strassburg, which is the first German story I read in college. I gave it a happy ending and updated it, but a lot of the old magic is the same. There are a lot of tips of the hat to those who know the original. Everyone else I'm sure won't care. But of course, Tris and Izzie have to save the world. After they figure out if they can really love each other.

Any other tips for those interested in writing fairytale retellings?

Write a lot. Revise a lot. Try a lot of different ways to work the story. Don't be afraid to change things up or to start over from the beginning.

Thanks for the wonderful interview, Mette!

That's it until next week. Be sure to come back for my second interview with her on "Editing" next Monday May 14th. 

Contest: Win a copy of Tris and Izzie!!!

Also, for a chance to win a copy of Mette's fabulous book, Tris and Izzie, go to my writer's group podcast at where we'll be posting several podcast interviews with Mette starting on Monday May 14th, and comment on one of her interviews! 


  1. YOU come up with such wonderful interview Titles!

    1. Thanks. Glad you liked it. I love coming up with titles!

  2. Wow, you'r retelling of Doctor Who sounds magnificent. I know they have toyed with making the Doctor female...they've been talking about it for DECADES.

    Writer on Fire

    1. Yeah, Mette's pretty clever that way.

  3. What a great interview. I love Mette's books. It was great to hear her point of view.

    1. She's awesome. Glad you liked it.

  4. Great interview! Mette is pretty fantastic. :)

  5. That's awesome that you got to meet her at the conference! :D
    Thanks for the interview!

    1. I've known Mette for a while and admired her from a distance, but just in the last year have gotten to know her better.