The Grammar of Happiness: An Interview with Kate Bernheimer

March 29, 2013 § 3 Comments

Kate Bernheimer, editor of Fairy Tale Review and author of a trilogy of novels, The Complete Tales of Merry Gold, The Complete Tales of Lucy Gold, and The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold, loves to talk fairy tales, even with a grueling schedule of panels and readings at the 2013 AWP Conference. Which is how I found myself lucky enough to be sitting next to her at a flyer-littered table in the AWP Bookfair as she graciously answered my questions about fairy tales, her past work, and her upcoming projects. Just that morning she was among the speakers at a unbelievably packed panel on fairy tale retellings (the other panelists were Jane Yolen, Kelly Link, Anjali Sachdeva and John Crowley), and so fairy tales and their prolific influence on all kinds of literature were on both our minds. In our conversation, we talked about the undefinable nature of fairy tales, writerly childhood nostalgia, the brutality of myths, and the power of the perfect final word.

bernheimerphoto2012-ks1Kate is the author of the children’s books The Girl in the Castle Inside the Museum, The Lonely Book, and the forthcoming The Girl Who Wouldn’t Brush Her Hair (Random House Children’s Books/Schwartz & Wade Books, illustrated by Jake Parker) as well as the short story collection Horse, Flower, Bird (Coffee House Press, illustrated by Rikki Ducornet). Her second story collection, How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales, is forthcoming in 2014 (also from Coffee House Press). She is the editor of the award-winning anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me (Penguin Non-Classics), as well as of Fairy Tale Review, which is now accepting submissions for The Emerald Issue, which will be inspired by The Wizard of Oz. She teaches at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where she lives with her husband, the writer Brent Hendricks (A Long Day at The End of the World) and their daughter.

CF: So when I was coming up with questions for you, I came upon a theme, and that is how fairy tales overlap and blur the lines of genre. Mostly because my 1st question is about the Oz issue, and it occurred to me that, like Alice in Wonderland or Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio, it’s not technically, by traditional definition, a fairy tale. It’s a novel with an author that we can point to and say, that’s where it comes from. And yet there are all of these examples in children’s lit that become, in the popular consciousness, fairy tales, and so it still seems to fit.

KB: To speak first to the “traditional definition” of fairy tales, it’s important to point out that many do have authors; authored works are not excluded from the  body of work known as “fairy tales.”  Pinocchio is a fairy tale. Even the Grimms are author/editors. The stories collected in their editions were painstakingly gathered, and edited by them in literary versions, that is “written.” Of course the stories don’t belong to the Grimms; fairy tales don’t belong to anyone.  So that question of authorship and the question of the purity of the author and the individuality of the author comes into play in diverse ways in the fairy-tale tradition.  My operating sensibility is to read through fairy-tale techniques and a fairy-tale affect.  Reading this way, the entire Oz series is inarguably a fairy tale. Some scholars consider The Wizard of Oz series to be “the first American fairy tale”—I don’t think along those lines – looking for originating definitive versions; that’s a gesture that weirdly obliterates a more expansive sense of history. « Read the rest of this entry »

On Hansel and Gretel & Good (Very)Old-Fashioned Humor

January 2, 2013 § 8 Comments

Ok, so have you guys seen this?

Hilarious.

I’m not even mad, I mean, how could I be? It’s hysterical. I can see how some loyal readers might expect me to get all up in some steampunky arms about the ridiculous-looking romp that will surely be Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to disappoint you, because I’m too busy cracking up.

It looks like fun. I’m gonna see it. At least, I’ll Netflix it when it turns up on Instant, and take a shot every time a witch dies in an unexpected and hilarious manner.

Why?

Because there are times for snobbery and contextual hand-wringing, and there are times to just gather around the fire and laugh and laugh and laugh when someone tells a story about a witch getting her just gingerbread desserts.

There’s a misconception pretty widely spread about fairy tales which concerns their morality. When I was in graduate school and teaching freshman writing courses, I used fairy tales—namely, “Little Red Riding Hood”—as tools for students to learn about critical thinking and rhetorical narrative in a low-stakes setting. As we looked at the many iterations of LRRH, the students could see how some fairy tale tellers would manipulate the tale to serve their own purposes. Those purposes ranged from 17th century European court morality to 20th century feminist narrative-reclaiming. But the first thing I had to do for those students, before we dove into the tale, was erase their incredibly pervasive notion that fairy tales are inherently morality stories. Many of them showed me in their very first blog post that they believed that all fairy tales, regardless of edition, historical context, or even Disney film status, were intended to teach a lesson.

Not so. « Read the rest of this entry »

We Are the Folk, Vol. 2: Cinderella in the Closet, Blood in the Shoe

November 27, 2012 § 2 Comments

You might remember my post on three odd news stories that, to this blogger, had the ring of Grimm to them: a woman who wished for children and instead collected over 500 cats, a man who had a fight with his wife about soup and then became lost in the frozen woods for three months, and a girl who was promised in marriage to a man only to be shut away and replaced by a false bride who, together with the groom, tortured the young woman for years. For links, see my original post here.

All of these are real, contemporary stories, and all are perfect ammunition to use against those who claim that we no longer live in the world of “fairy tales.” What, exactly, do these folks believe fairy tales are? It doesn’t take much—certainly not an entire feudal caste system, as some have suggested—for someone to embody an archetype. Shit, brides do it all the time. Cinderella gowns! Fairy tale weddings! And if you pay attention, it isn’t just the ones tossing “Cinderella” around as an adjective who are unwittingly playing what could very well be parts in some of our darkest tales. Let’s stick to our Cinderella theme, shall we, and take a look at the news. « Read the rest of this entry »

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall: Who Has the Most Girl-Power of Them All?

June 20, 2012 § 12 Comments

Below is a freelance article I wrote after the release of Snow White and the Huntsman. Though it didn’t get picked up for publication this round (among other reasons, the fact that I misspelled the name of the magazine’s editor in the email wasn’t a winning move), I’m pretty proud of it, and want to share it with you–it’s not just a review of the film, but a comparison between the two Snow White films that came out this spring, and a call for more empowered and honest depictions of women in fairy tale films. Too tall an order? We’ll see…

So it’s pretty clear that 2012 is the year of the pure white virgin with gumption. Snow White and the Huntsman won the box office its first weekend over such nostalgic temptations as Men in Black III and Battleship—to really hook an audience, you have to go farther back than their middle school years. Way back. Two hundred years back, even. Many of you readers may be aware already that this year marks the bicentennial anniversary of the Grimm brothers’ Nursery and Household Tales. It seems that big-budget studios are helping audiences celebrate with last fall’s fairy tale themed shows Once Upon a Time and Grimm and films such as the upcoming Jack the Giant-Killer and Maleficent (a new take on Disney’s Sleeping Beauty).

The fairest tale of them all, however, is the one getting the most Hollywood attention: the Grimms’ “Snow White,” the inspiration for not one, but two feature films this year. The afore mentioned Snow White and the Huntsman, now in theaters, is a medieval fantasy epic starring Kristen Stewart as Snow and Charlize Theron as her black-hearted stepmother, Queen Ravenna. A darkly hued, adventure-heavy take on the fairy tale, Snow White and the Huntsman is interesting enough to warrant positive reviews on its own, but in comparison to this year’s earlier offering, Relativity Media’s Mirror, Mirror, is even more deserving of a closer look. The light-hearted Mirror, Mirror starred Lily Collins as Snow and Julia Roberts as her vain, tittering stepmother. Both films attempt—with varying degrees of sincerity, I might add—to endow lovely Snow with a little more bite as a feminine role model. But here’s the trouble: when fiddling with stories that have been told and retold for over two hundred years, it takes more than a princess with a sword to tell a tale that truly speaks to women.

« Read the rest of this entry »

“We Are the Folk”: Fairy Tales in the News

June 8, 2012 § 1 Comment

Consider these three stories.

Once upon a time, a man and a woman are married, and they live near a dark wood. The woman cooks a stew for dinner, but the man complains that it is too cold. They quarrel, and the man storms from the house, and becomes lost in the woods. He is gone for over 30 days. Upon return, he pledges devotion to his wife’s cooking—a happy ending, despite the impending loss of the man’s legs from frostbite: Row Over Cold Soup Leaves Husband Stranded in Frozen Forest for Over a Month

Once upon a time, a man and a woman are married, and they have no children. How the woman wishes for something to care for! She finds a cat. Then another. Then another. Then another and another and another until there are 550 cats for her to love. Her husband fears that they will not be able to feed all of their furry children—or himself, for that matter, as the cats continuously steal his food, the clever beasties. He also fears that his wife’s love for him is no longer as strong, when it must be spread amongst all 551 of them: Man Divorces Wife After She Refuses to Get Rid of Her 550 Cats

Once upon a time, a man and a woman are to be married, to ensure the man’s status in the kingdom. The bride’s mother makes all necessary arrangements, then departs. But when the wedding is to take place, the bride is hidden away from the light, while a false bride takes her place. The man and the false bride treat the girl like a servant and a lowly beast. She is made to sleep, eat, and behave like an animal. She is beaten and ridiculed for years, until a kindly neighbor comes to the bride’s rescue with a camera phone. She is found by authorities in a depleted state near the forest: Bosnian Police Arrest Couple Over Girl’s 8-Year ‘Slavery’

In March of this year, the New York Times ran an article about the recent “trend” of fairy tale films and shows, titled “The Better to Entertain You With, My Dear.” The author, Terrence Rafferty, argues that most fairy tale films are unsuccessful, not because they’re ill-made (though in most cases, he admits, the direction lacks the vision of what he considers to be the standard, Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast), but more so because the “world” of fairy tales is irrelevant, a thing of the past. « Read the rest of this entry »

Before the Singing Mice

March 19, 2012 § 2 Comments

Cinderella in the Silent Film Era

I finally watched Hugo last night. It was as fabulous as I had hoped, even in the slightly forced but inevitable orphan-child-finds-a-family scenes. And of course, I could see what the reviewers out there had been talking about–that Scorsese had essentially crafted a love letter to the early days of film, when imagination could be sparked by a clever film cut, or an elaborate tableau. Being familiar with the book, I had been aware that the biography of George Melies, the pioneer of early film, featured largely in the film, and I was pleased to find that most of the film’s claims about Melies are actually true. He did, in fact, give up making films, and did, after all, work in near poverty in a toy shop in the Montparnasse station before being “re-discovered” by several researchers and journalists interested in his work. While no biographies I can find make any mention of a scrappy orphan boy being the key to Melies’s reemergence into public life, and Melies actually lived with his granddaughter (Madeline), and not a goddaughter (the fictitious Isabelle), the essence of Melies’s withdrawal from and eventual return to the world of filmaking in the early 20th Century remains as magical as a fairy tale, and as real as one could hope.

Also, it got me thinking.

What with the spate of fairy tale offerings due out from the major film houses this year, I’ve been hearing–or rather, reading, thanks to WordPress’s genius “terms people have used to find your site” tool–one question repeated often:

Why the new obsession with fairy tale films?

Now, why anyone would type that in as a search an expect a “well, Davey, here’s what you need to know” answer to pop up immediately is beyond me, but with that said…

Well, Davey (or whatever your name is), here’s what you need to know: « Read the rest of this entry »

The Fairy Tale Review’s Brown Issue: Dust to Dust, Tale to Tale

February 10, 2012 § 7 Comments

A father changed into a giant of earth, a dank basement haunted by a joyful, simple-minded porter, a dust-bowl burial that leads to the discovery of Devil’s gold. The color of mud, the color of death and life together, the color of change and transformation of the seasons. The Fairy Tale Review’s Brown Issue, guest edited by Timothy Schaffert, author of The Coffins of Little Hope, is packed dense with stories and poems whose minds are on the transcendent, but whose eyes are on the ground.

The Fairy Tale Review names each issue for a color, inspired by Andrew Lang’s iconic Fairy Books (my favorite, growing up, was The Lilac Fairy Book, which included “The Brown Bear of Norway” and “The One-Handed Girl”), and though not every issue has a stated theme, the color of each issue does provide the reader with a pre-packaged lens through which to read its contents.

“If ever there was a color more suited to earthly existence, it’s the color of earth itself,” Schaffert offers us in his guest editor’s note. “And certainly earthly existence is at the very heart of fairy tales, despite all the unearthly circumstances depicted.” In the Brown Issue, it is from dust we come and to dust we will return. That, and from fairy tales we come, and to fairy tales we return. « Read the rest of this entry »

Stepping Into the Story: Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard and The Sleeping Beauty

February 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

Part Two: The Sleeping Beauty

If French director Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard explores the timeless tendency of young girls to identify with storybook characters to aid their burgeoning self-awareness, then The Sleeping Beauty, her next film in a trio of fairy tales (Beauty and the Beast will be Breillat’s third), shows how this same story-escapism can create a real identity-crisis shitstorm when it comes to the realm of romance, sex, and bruised expectations.

The Sleeping Beauty turns the visual spectacle dial up a notch from its Bluebeard setting—here we have sprightly sprites, a clan of clattering gypsies, and a be-gloved Jezebel of a Snow Queen, always shown in wavering blue light.

To the same degree, Breillat’s narrative structure gets even stranger. Narratively speaking, The Sleeping Beauty could be argued as less satisfying than Bluebeard, maybe because Breillat attempts some pretty awkward transitions by breaking the film into thirds. First comes the princess Anastasia’s birth and her “normal” childhood, in which she plays by herself, hates her dresses but loves her dictionary, and wants her parents to call her Vladimir. Then she pricks her finger at age 6 with a wooden hair implement, and we have her long dreaming state, in which she befriends another child named Peter and goes on a quest to rescue him from the evil Snow Queen, meeting an odd prince and princess and an eccentric gypsy girl along the way. Finally, in perhaps the most jarring move, Anastasia is suddenly awake, in the midst of puberty and contemporary France, and she has an affair with the moody teenage boy—Peter’s grandson, we’re meant to believe—who finds her alone in her family’s abandoned estate.

In Bluebeard, Breillat’s divergences from the original Perrault story were done on the sidelines: an added framing device and some illuminations of character, but no ballsy renderings of plot. In The Sleeping Beauty, however, she takes great liberty with the familiar fairy tale, starting with the character’s age. The Sleeping Beauty of the title is not the princess we might remember from the stories—for one, she is only six, and not sixteen, when she falls into her hundred years’ sleep. She dreams through puberty, and wakes up one hundred years later, aged ten years. When asked why this is, the fairy who cast the spell shrugs and says, “childhood lasts too long.”

Touche, fairy. « Read the rest of this entry »

Sleeping Beauty Has Always Been About Sex.

November 29, 2011 § 15 Comments

Before I begin with Breillat and Campion’s sexy new Sleeping Beauties (trailers below), Mr. Jack Zipes and how he sees into the insides of my brain, and the vast sweeping problem of internet trolls, let me admit fully: I can see what this blog has become. If I could tell wee little Cate of October to give her blog a name that more obviously advertised her overwhelming obsession with fairy tale retellings and her desire to sink her ineffectual teeth into the hides of those who would desecrate the names of Grimm, Andersen, and Pushkin, I would. But you can’t live in the past, dear readers, and that’s a fact. Oh, how long ago October seems, and already this blog has found a pretty clear focus.

Stick with me, readers. I’ve found a niche.

That said, let me give you a piece of worldly advice: never read comments on articles you like. You’ll want to. You’ll read an article that speaks to you, or just generally amuses you in a pleasant way, and you’ll see the “30 comments” button winking at you.

My goodness, you’ll say. How delightful! 30 people who surely feel the same exact way I do about what I just read and who couldn’t possibly have anything negative to say about it! Let’s meet them!

Don’t meet them. You’ll hate them. In all likelihood, if given the chance, they’ll hate you too.

We all know that there are, out there, your obvious “u suk!” internet trolls out there (and fellow blogger Amy at Lucy’s Football has a hilarious tutorial on how to be an effective one here), but possibly even worse–or just more irritating–are the ones who really want to show everyone how effing smart they are. Like, SMARTER THAN A COLUMBIA PHD smart. Smarter than SOMEONE WHO’S BEEN STUDYING THIS SHIT SINCE BEFORE YOU WERE BORN smart.

Case in point: this article, from August, on Salon.com, interviewing fairy tale expert Jack Zipes on the subject of the myriad of fairy tale film adaptations this coming year.

I know that Jack Zipes doesn’t know who I am and certainly doesn’t need me to defend him from the masses at Salon.com. So I hardly need to mention, to you readers or to the complete moron who sarcastically jabs at the interviewer calling Zipes an expert, this little achievement:

No biggie. Just the translation that’s most relied on, in any edition, by scholars and critics. WHATEVS. He’s “clearly not a film critic”? NOPE. NOPE, HE’S NOT. He’s a friggin professor emeritus who’s published nine books and so many articles and essays that his bibliography is ten pages long on the subject of children’s literature and fairy tales. LET’S BE SNIDE, SHALL WE?

Jerkoffs. « Read the rest of this entry »

The People’s Obsession with Snow White, and Why the Queen Really is the Coolest of Them All

November 21, 2011 § 4 Comments

There are times when—in the film industry, the world of community and high school theater, mass market paperback production—I wish I could convince a bunch of people in the same gig to get together, just once, and discuss their season’s offerings so no one steps on someone else’s toes. There are only so many times one can see Zombie Prom in a fifty mile radius. So it is with this year’s apparent obsession with Snow White, one of our culture’s most recognizable and beloved fairy tales. New spins! That’s what the people want, and there’s clearly no problem with putting several new spins on the same tale out into the world at once.

It could be, though, as Obama would say, a teachable moment, one for the world of casual fairy tale lovers, in which they don’t have to accept that Disney’s is the only version for them. This is what will separate the men from the boys, the pretty pretty princesses from the Grimm enthusiasts, for now we are faced with—ta da—a choice. A smorgasbord of Snow Whites, all set out at once.

That’s not to say that any of our current three examples—ABC’s Once Upon a Time (which has about as much to do with the fairy tale of “Snow White” as my cat does with the Oxford English Dictionary), Universal Pictures’ Snow White and the Huntsman, and Studio Canal’s Mirror Mirror, directed by Tarsem Singh of The Fall and The Cell fame—are destined to satisfy anyone of either camp (least of all the snot-nosed academics like myself), but we do at least get to know who likes colorful costumes and dumb jokes and who likes mirrors  MELTING OFF OF FREAKING WALLS AND TURNING INTO CREEPTASTIC PROPHETS.

In case you were in any doubt, I am in camp two.

But as neither of the two films have come out yet, and you’ve already heard my rant about Once Upon a Time, let’s pause, and take a moment to prepare ourselves, by recalling what “Snow White,” according to the folks who aren’t Disney, is really about. « Read the rest of this entry »

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