Deborah J. Brannon conducted this interview with Patricia A. McKillip.
Several of your novels can be called literary fairy tales: lovely narratives that interweave fairy tale tropes into new (and sometimes surprising) shapes. What do you think the role is of the literary fairy tale in contemporary fiction, fantastic and otherwise?
Basically, it’s a great framework upon which to hang a tale. The plot is there; beginnings and endings are already defined; the writer has only to think up some good characters, a setting that can be as realistic or imaginary as desired, and ways to use or subvert the tale with unpredictable twists to keep the reader interested in a very familiar story until everything comes to a satisfying end. If a reader reads a fairytale once and never picks it up again, need has been satisfied. If a reader willingly reads a fairytale nineteen times, even in that many different versions, I think it’s because the need for that particular tale hasn’t been resolved, deep in the place where imagination and symbols, emotions and experience all speak the language of fantasy. Reading fantasy wakens the imagination; if the imagination returns again and again to the path of a particular tale, it’s out of some particular need on the part of the reader to keep taking that journey until something vital is resolved. The symbols of fairytale become the guideposts for the very personal journey into a definition of one’s self. I suppose that’s why those hoary tales have endured for so long, and probably will for as long as we still need them.
Could you perhaps tell us any particular fairy tale that has kept you picking it up again and again?
I suppose I was thinking more of children, who are apt to demand the same story over and over, even the ones that frighten them. A Baba Yaga tale comes to mind which frightened a young friend of mine, yet fascinated her as well; perhaps each time she had it read to her, she whittled away at her fears. Baba Yaga tales fascinate me, too. I finally had to write about her in The Forests of Serre; the ruthless, seemingly arbitrary witch who can also be a powerful force for justice, and who is not only associated with death, but with the magnificent Firebird.
I remember another tale – I don’t know its name – of an ugly man who fell in love with a beautiful princess. He had a mask made for himself of the handsome prince he wished he were, and wore it so that she would fall in love with him. She married him, and he proved to be the kindest and most loving of husbands. Only one thing preyed at him: that mask, which was his only lie. After years had passed, he finally confessed, reluctantly and with great fear, what he had done. She demanded that he take it off so she could see his true face. He found, to his astonishment, that through those years of loving her so well, his face had grown to fit the mask, and he had become what he had always wanted to be for her. This tale moved me very much; I took it to mean that we can change things we most dislike about ourselves, though it may take a long time: we will one day be surprised by the power we possess over ourselves.
I was recently at a talk given by Peter S. Beagle and Pat Rothfuss: both spoke about how an education in fantastic literature is in some ways required to be a well-rounded person. Rothfuss felt that a person who escaped childhood unexposed to the fantastic was stunted in some vital imaginative ways; Beagle felt that initiation into the fantastic at a young age makes one’s life in the “real world” difficult, for one’s imagination is switched on and nothing seems impossible. What do you think is the role of fantastic literature in the development of functional adults?
I can’t make a sweeping judgment about “functional adults”; like the writers above I can only make it personal. I can’t remember when I “developed” an imagination; I only know that nobody ever told me what it was (this was in the 50’s, when I suppose nobody figured it was important), and, being a child, I just assumed that everyone saw the world the same way I did. I was given Grimms’ Fairytales and a hefty Catholic education; nobody bothered to tell me that what I was taught was “real” (e.g., angels) and what was “unreal” (e.g., fairy godmothers) ultimately came from the same place: the imagination. It took a few shocks and a few more years for me to realize that things I thought were obvious simply weren’t, to most other people. The world of fantastic literature was very different back then. The landscape was pretty barren; there were no bookshelves full of genre fantasy in the bookstores; there was very little in the way of science fiction. I was into my teens before I encountered a weird and evocative novel called The Hobbit in my high school library, whose imagery lingered powerfully in my mind. And several more years until The Lord of the Rings fell like a cloudburst onto the parched and thirsty imagination of a generation, and turned so many of its budding writers toward fantasy.
I read in your 1992 Locus interview that you’re always looking ahead to the next story while you’re working on your current story, that you’ve already moved on once you’ve begun the current narrative. Have any of your books since then captured your attention sufficiently that you focused on nothing but the joy of writing it?
I’m not sure what I was working on during that interview. But I have had fifteen years since then to become more aware of the way I work. One thing has been constant: every novel has its own problems. I think it’s when the problems get a bit overwhelming that I start thinking about new ideas. It’s not so much that I’m looking longingly ahead to something more fun to write, as that searching for a new idea takes my mind off whatever difficulties I’m having. That way the “basement” or the “muse” or the “thingie” or whatever it is in the back of your head that solves problems can get a clear look at what’s going on and come up with an answer while the rest of the brain is busy elsewhere. Sometimes it takes a very long time; it depends on how complex the problem is. Every novel I’ve finished has sufficiently captured my attention, otherwise I wouldn’t have finished it. But sometimes staring at a problem simply doesn’t work; what does work is moving to a different world in your imagination so that the problem-solving genie can do its work in the world you’ve left.
I usually don’t think of “writing” and “joy” in the same sentence. Nalo Hopkinson once said something along the lines of “writing a novel is like wrestling with a mattress.” I thought that was a bull’s eye description of the process.
A novel is bigger than you are, it’s bulky, it’s hard to grasp, it threatens to fall over on you, it doesn’t go where you want it without shoves, prods, kicks and swearing. The joy might come when you’ve finally got the unwieldy thing where you want it. Or it might come much later, when you finally realize how close actually you came to doing what you set out to do. Most of the time, for me, it comes with the idea – the wonderful vision in my head, the moment of falling in love with the possibility of what I can create. After that it’s pretty much uphill all the way to the end, when I’m never quite certain I’ve actually gotten there, except that I don’t have anything left to say.
On a related note, which of your books is your favorite? And did its reception meet your expectations?
I’ve written about two dozen novels. They all have flaws; they all have left indelible images in my head; they are pieces of my life. I can’t say that I have a favorite. I do think that the most nearly flawless of them is my YA novel The Changeling Sea. I still get caught up in it when I open it; I still tear up at the same passage, which I wrote a good twenty years ago. I don’t remember what kind of reception it got. I do recall that somebody at Atheneum – my editor, maybe – suggested that I do a series based on the characters in the novel, so it must have been well received. I thought the story was pretty much finished, and I declined.
I also read in one of your Locus interviews that you’ve been working on a version of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter as told from the adulteress’ point of view. Could you tell us a little more about that project? Is this a novel we can look forward to reading in the future? (Please say it is so!)
That novel was a problem I just couldn’t solve. I worked on it off and on over several years, but it simply died without ever being finished. I was living in the Catskills then, in a tiny village surrounded by “the green wood.” The local minister lived next door; the stone church where he preached was across the street. I wanted to write about the village and thought that it would be a great setting for a modern version of The Scarlet Letter. The book pretty much died one day when I read what I had and got an image in my head of a huge jet so crammed with people and their baggage that it simply couldn’t get off the ground. My novel was so bogged down with details that the plot got lost in them and couldn’t move forward.
I’ve had other novel fragments that have suffered the same fate, for the same reason. Eventually I did write about that village, in the novel Winter Rose, and later, in its sequel, Solstice Wood. That satisfied my urge to write about the village; the urge to write about adultery pretty much faded along with the overstuffed jumbo jet.
As the importance of our online identities increases, it seems both prudent and exciting for authors to maintain some form of web presence, whether it’s the relative simplicity of Robin McKinley or the full-blown interactivity of Neil Gaiman. When I searched the internet for pages on you, however, I discovered that a fan has registered your name as the URL for his unofficial fan site. Are you comfortable with this, or do you think it may cause difficulties in the future?
I met that particular fan a long time ago, liked him very much and am grateful that he did something for me that – at least back then – I had no interest in doing. I don’t anticipate that his use of my name will cause future difficulties.
I’d like to take a moment and turn to your latest novel, The Bell at Sealey Head. Quite a few of the reviews out for this novel focus on it being a “thriller” and being “almost high fantasy.” All the comments seem to be about the basic plot; however, one of the most compelling stories I found in the novel was the commentary on the art of storytelling, both the traditional written tale and an aggressive, literal tale-forging. I appreciated the ruminations on how storytelling affects both our personal lives and our communities. What did you hope to get across with this layer of your novel?
I haven’t read the reviews; I’m astonished that anybody would go anywhere near the word “thriller” to define that novel. I think of it as my “Jane Austen meets Upstairs, Downstairs” novel, which is about as far from being a thriller as you can get without bumping into P.G. Wodehouse. Basically I was just having fun with the different layers of storytelling. When I was still mulling over the basic plot, I had to figure out exactly why that bell was ringing, and I came up with the story idea that my heroine ultimately wrote to explain it. The idea wasn’t useful as a plot framework for the novel, but I liked it so much that I decided to let her work with it. I had done some research on female writers such as Austen and the Bronte sisters, just to find out how difficult it was for them to find time to write, to find publishers, and what people at that time would have thought of young women writing. That worked itself into the story, along with aspects of the process that I go through when I write: for instance, how you take the story with you when you leave your desk.
That novel, I have to admit, was closer to being fun to write than anything else I’ve ever written. I came up with the idea when I had a book due and had spent months endlessly rewriting the first five chapters. (That was a job for the problem-genie!) I had to give my editor something. Fortunately for me, Sealey Head put itself together quite easily. I wasn’t sure of all the details towards the end, but the book pretty much wrote itself and solved its own problems while it went along. So I really can’t say I was hoping to get anything across by writing about writing; I was just doing it. I did like very much what was happening with all the different levels of story in it, but looking back, I can’t say that it was very deliberate, except that the details of the secret world between the walls of Aislinn House were so often details that had excited me in books I had read. Maybe that’s what I was trying to get at without realizing it: how I learned about these tales, these details out of our literary history, through reading, and would never have known of these strange, wonderful realms – these myths and legends, this poetry – without opening the covers of a book.