I think fairy tales are about archetypes, which makes them very easy to rework. They take pivotal moments in people’s lives and build fantastical narratives around them, but when you strip them right back they’re very simple: naive girl becomes experienced. Child with multiple siblings finds their own path. Poor person refuses to settle for what they’re born with. I can layer the fairy tale back over the top as much or as little as I like, picking out the elements that are most relevant to the story I want to tell and tweaking the ones that aren’t.
My favourite themes usual revolve around sexual awakening (unsurprisingly), usually through shapeshifting. So far I’ve played around with mermaids, selkies, sirens, swan maids, and an arachnophobic version of Red Riding Hood. You can probably see a bit of an aquatic theme there too; I blame that on growing up in a country where you’re never more than 65 miles from the sea!
What fairy tales did you enjoy as a child? Which fairy tale and fairy tale-type stories do you enjoy as an adult?
I had a real soft sport for Little Red Riding Hood, which I entirely attribute to Roald Dahl’s retelling:
“The small girl smiles. One eyelid flickers.
She whips a pistol from her knickers.
She aims it at the creature’s head
And bang bang bang she shoots him dead.”
These days I still love Little Red, though it’s Angela Carter’s interpretations I enjoy most. I think overall i have a preference for stories where animals, or animal transformations, are stand ins for sexuality. They make for really vivid metaphors, and as a writer they give scope for endless reinterpretations.
Do you have any modern fairy tale authors that you enjoy particularly?
The most famous name that immediately springs to mind is Angela Carter, but a few of my favourite lesser known fairy tellers are KV Taylor, Andrew S Taylor and Adrienne Odasso. I was really sad when Drollerie Press went under (and not just because I had a yet-to-be-released story with them!) because they had some stunning fairy tale anthologies.
Most classic fairy tales are pretty heterosexual. What challenges do you face when creating m/m or f/f fairy tales?
When it comes to relationships in fairy tales there’s often an imbalance of power. It’s usually gendered in fairy tales, partly due to the culture in which most European fairy tales took root, but it usually reflects other social attitudes as well, such as sexual experience and class. I like the challenge implicit in addressing this imbalance by using characters of the same gender, drawing attention to the other aspects of it.
I really enjoy writing repressed characters (not just sexually repressed – I love to see an emotionally repressed character cracking). The most obvious expression of repression in GLBT stories is the bildungsroman of personal acceptance and coming out, but the advantage of fairy tales is that implicit power imbalance. Even characters who are already out can’t know what they’ve internalised about themselves until they’re confronted by someone representing the alternative, and fairy tales allow for some stark alternatives.
Sometimes there’s a perception that writing fairy tales is easy because you can be creative with mermaids and fairies, rather than trying to base you characters in a real contemporary world. What sort of research did you have to do for your fairy tales?
I’ve got a complete Brother’s Grimm, which is useful for variants and older versions of fairy tales (and my favourite fairy tale of all time – The Duck, the Mouse and the Sausage, which is as cracky as it sounds), so that’s my first stopping place. Then I usually do a thorough read around of other versions of the myth – Encyclopedia Mythica is a good starting place – to see if there’s anything I want to work into the tale I’m familiar with.
For all that fairy tales involve mythical creatures, the people in them still have to feel real, which can be more of a challenge in a fantastical setting than it can in the real world. They have to behave believably when faced with the unbelievable. All of my fairy tales are set in the contemporary world (after all, the originals were when they were written). I usually have a lot more back story in mind compared with what makes it into the story. Becky, the MC in A Little Night Swimming, for example, grew up in a Swansea fishmongers, watching the city become more and more student focused, knowing that even after university her only hope of a long term job is working for her parents. Though it’s not precisely Swansea in the story (the coast line is a little more Cornish), I wanted that real world root for her, that sense of being trapped by circumstance and having to repress her sexuality to keep herself from going mad.
What’s your favourite part of Coffee and Porn?
Well, since I’m a tea drinker, I’m gonna have to say it’s the porn Seriously, I love that there’s a good blog of quality, hot pictures that caters for such a broad audience.