Fairy Tales Behind the Curtain: A Conversation with Kate Wolford and Megan Engelhardt

May 9, 2013 § 6 Comments

Kate Wolford is a teacher, scholar, and author/editor of Beyond the Glass Slipper: Ten Neglected Fairy Tales to Fall in Love With, now out from World Weaver Press. She also edits the online magazine Enchanted Conversation. Megan Engelhardt is the co-author of Wolves and Witches, a collection of prose and poetry fairy tale adaptations by herself and her sister, Amanda C. Davis. Wolves and Witches is also available from World Weaver Press.

btgs-cover-ebook-300-dpiBoth Kate and Megan agreed to chat with me about fairy tales and their complicated relationship with gender, and what draws writers and scholars to them still. Enjoy!

crfricke: Both the act of collecting little known fairy tales and re-writing fairy tales are akin to drawing back a curtain on something—would you say that that was part of your mission in writing these books? If so, how would you define what is being revealed?

Kate Wolford: Yes, is my answer to the first question. Of the ten tales in Beyond the Glass Slipper, only “The Nixy” and “King Pig” are even moderately well known—especially when it comes to US readers. The massive domination of Disney fairy tale culture in the Americas means that even sophisticated fans of fairy tales might have a fairly narrow view of what a fairy tale is “supposed” to be. For example, people really believe that fairy tales always end in “happily ever after.” They very often don’t. What the book is meant to reveal is a wider idea of what a fairy tale can be, and that the world of fairy tales is richer and more diverse than most of us ever imagine. I also want readers to realize that fairy tale heroes and heroines often are people of questionable character. Look at the soldier in one of the stories, “The Blue Light.” That he will be as bad a king as the man he vanquishes is pretty clear. But, then again, in Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” the protagonist is a stalker, but people so seldom notice.

wolves-and-witches-coverMegan Engelhardt: For the first question, in our case, a lot of the tales we use are fairly well known. I think for Amanda and me, the fun comes in asking the reader to look at the familiar from a different angle. I’m not sure that it’s fair to call it a mission, really, but it is definitely an interest that directed a lot of the work in Wolves and Witches. We all know what happens from the main character’s point of view, but what’s the villain thinking? What’s going on over here to the side of the main action? What happens after the curtain closes? Those are the questions that fired our imaginations, and those are the stories we tried to reveal to the reader.

crfricke: Kate, in Beyond the Glass Slipper, you point out the influence of feminist critique in fairy tale scholarship, and let’s not ignore the fact that we’re all women here! Though neither of you use feminist critique as a main lens for your writing, is it something that you consider when you set out to craft your books?

And on the flip side of that, where did the choice come from for you, Kate, to include so many stories about male heroes (the soldier, the tailor, etc) and for you, Meg, to retell so many stories in a male voice (the shoemaker, Rumplestiltskin)?

Is sharing a proliferation of male fairy tale characters in some way a response to the troubled history that the tales have with women, or just a by-product of your inspiration at the time?

Kate Wolford: I consider feminist criticism to be essential to understanding fairy tales. It is a major underpinning for my fairy tale class, so I want to make this clear: If you want to understand fairy tales, you need to read feminist critiques of them. Beyond the Glass Slipper has an annotated bibliography with sources that include feminist thought on fairy tales. Also, I have found that men love learning and writing about fairy tales, and readily embrace feminist scholarship.

So, why did I include so many stories with male protagonists? After all, men do embrace the woman-centered stories, in my experience. I picked them because I figured if people could see that even the protagonists aren’t what we think they always are (princesses), then they would be willing to keep reading more varied tales. I want people to read more fairy tales and a far greater variety of them.

There is a troubling dynamic between fairy tale culture and women, but I believe we can’t blame it on the original stories themselves. True, fairy tales are hardly celebrations of feminist ideals. (Then again, most of them are hundreds of years old. Stories usually don’t rise above their own times.) Yet, I would argue that the trouble with women and fairy tales comes from the toxicity of popular culture at large for women. I think that fairy tales don’t cause the trouble. I think our culture has changed the original fairy tales to make them worse for women. After all, most old-school fairy tales don’t focus much on weddings, if they do at all. Yet, weirdly, when women want a big wedding, they often say, “I want the fairy tale.”

Megan Engelhardt: This answer is probably going to get me into trouble, but I honestly don’t think much about the gender of the main character when I’m reading. I’m as likely to identify with a main character who is a teenaged male with a stutter as I am someone who is a 30ish wife and mother! I don’t need the characters to be similar to me for me to be able to enjoy a story. As a result, I never really think about whether I’m writing a male or female voice. A lot of the stories in the book are from a male point of view because that’s what the original character was – Rumpelstiltskin is a guy! – and while I do love a well-done gender-flopped fan work, that wasn’t my intent here.

crfricke: What draws you to fairy tales and folklore?

Kate Wolford: I am drawn to fairy tales and folklore because wonder stories and fairy tales were plentiful in my home when I was growing up. I learned to love all the Oz books and Andrew Lang’s color fairy tale books at a very young age. I can’t not love them, as they are the basic texts that made me who I am.

Megan Engelhardt: I love the endurance of fairy tales. I love that I know Little Red Riding Hood, and my mom knows Little Red Riding Hood, and my grandma knows Little Red Riding Hood, and my great-grandma probably knew about her, too. I want to make sure my son continues in that chain, and his son, and all the kids that come after, until happily ever after, etc.

And there’s something for everyone! My little cousins love dressing up like princesses and twirling around in their tutus and tiaras, and that’s great! They can enjoy the tales of Cinderella and Snow White, and sigh over Prince Charming, and there’s plenty of time for them to learn that the shoe doesn’t always fit and the prince doesn’t always come back and sometimes you have to fight your own dragons. That’s what growing up is for. When I was a kid, I never wanted to be a princess: I loved (and still love) the villains, the tricksters and, for some reason, the kind of pathetic sidekicks who usually die. I loved skulking around with a stick sword and practicing my sneers and evil laughs and noble death scenes, and that was great! I could be drawn to the mysteries of the Pied Piper and Rumpelstiltskin, and when I grew older I still managed to find my own handsome prince and start down the road of my own happily ever after where, yes, sometimes I am the princess. No matter who you are or what you like, the right fairy tale is there!

Kate Wolford: Megan, I enjoyed reading your answers to the first questions, and wanted to ask one follow up: You mentioned young fairy tale fans in your answer, but what about the appeal fairy tales have for adult readers? I know that you and Amanda have written works that appeal to an older audience, so I am curious.

Megan Engelhardt: Good question! I think it’s definitely harder to get adults interested in fairy tales on face value. Kids get oral versions of fairy tales, which tend to be more concise and full of interesting voices and sound effects. Then there are the Great Illustrated Classics versions, or the friendly board book or edited picture book versions. When, as an adult, you pick up a book of compiled Grimm and read a story, it’s not exactly the kind of fast-paced, intrigue- and romance-filled thriller that people are used to seeing, is it? So I feel like, for a lot of adults, it’s a harder sell. That’s one nice thing about writing tales from a different perspective: it gives us a chance to present the known stories in a way that might draw more people in. And of course we all know that fairy tales are darker than the versions we give our kids! There is enough romance and action and blood and guts and betrayal and wonder to draw in any reader. Hopefully, if the reader is someone who knows fairy tales already, they’ll appreciate seeing a different angle. If they don’t know the tale, we’d love for them to be drawn to the original because of our version!

crfricke: I have just one last question for both of you! It’s a simple question, but might be a hard one to answer: what is your favorite fairy tale, and why?

Kate Wolford: Tough one. I like so many fairy tales. At the moment, “The Nixy,” which is annotated in BtGS, is probably my favorite. That the hunter/protagonist is in love with his wife, and that he yearns for her while imprisoned by the Nixy is just romantic as heck. Fairy tales are almost never truly romantic, so I appreciate that.

Megan Engelhardt: That is a hard question! Generally I tend to say “The Juniper Tree” is my favorite. [Editor’s note: mine too!] It’s just so unexpectedly violent and random, I love it. It’s my gold standard example of how fairy tales are not, at heart, the sanitized versions we pass on. Lately, though, I’ve been having a bit of a love affair with Rumpelstiltskin. It started while I was writing “The Long Con”, went dormant for a bit, and was blown back to life by Robert Carlyle’s amazing interpretation in Once Upon a Time. That little twisted man is just so full of plot potential that it may take some time to get him out of my head.

A huge thank you to Kate and Megan, and be sure to check out their books over at World Weaver Press!

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