Last week, Laura VanArendonk Baugh interviewed contributor Shannon Phillips about her Fae story, “The Fairy Midwife”. (Check it out here if you missed it).
This week, I’m pleased to have author Kari Castor here on the blog as we discuss her story, “The Price”, also published in Fae. I really enjoyed reading her story and feel it’s a great note to end the anthology on. Without further ado, here we go!
Alexis: At the very start of the story, the tension feels so carefully crafted by the sudden stillness. When the berries plunked into the bucket, I could almost hear them. Thus, I expected a visitor or a surprise. That the expected visitor – the fairy – was unexpectedly male was quite pleasing.
Most often, I’ve seen fairies portrayed as female. Thus, seeing him cast as a man was surprising. What went into your decision for him to be male? Was it a conscious choice or did it come about naturally as you were writing the story?
Kari: Well, I’ve always loved the old fairy folklore that comes most particularly out of the British Isles, where the fairies always seem to be abducting humans and carrying them off to fairyland. Male fairies are pretty common in those stories, since they’re generally the ones laying claim to human women (while the female fairies are snatching human men). Anyway, I knew I wanted to play with that folkloric version of fairies, so it wasn’t a stretch to have my fairy be male.
I did very briefly, before I ever put anything down on paper, conceive of the story as having a male protagonist and a female fairy, but I swapped it, I think in part because the trope of the female fairy felt too familiar. And the instant I made the change mentally, I knew it was the right choice.
However, now that I think about it, I really want to write a story that throws the traditionally heteronormative opposite-gender fairy abduction out the window…
Alexis: I would love to read such a story! When you think of fairies, do you automatically associate them with one gender or another?
Kari: I suppose that I do tend to think of fairies as female, because that seems to be primarily how they are presented in modern culture. I wonder if that is because so many of the traditional fairy characteristics fall in line with stereotypes about women. Capricious, selfish, beautiful, flirtatious, graceful, slender, dangerous… Fairy or femme fatale?
Alexis: I had noticed that fairies are often presented as female, but never thought about how that plays into stereotypes about women. Quite fascinating.
You mentioned that fairies—especially female ones—are often portrayed as ‘slender’. Do you think there’s a reason for this? Does it just feed male fantasy? Have you ever come across any old fairy tales where the fairy was heavier built?
Kari: Hmm, interesting. I didn’t really mean to suggest that fairies were “feeding a male fantasy,” but just that I think the reason we tend to conceptualize them as female is because the traits that seem to get applied to fairies are very stereotypically “feminine” traits.
I think we tend to associate slenderness with a specific type of ethereal, otherworldly beauty. Look at the elves in the Lord of the Rings films, or Tilda Swinton as Gabriel in the Constantine film, or Claire Danes as Yvaine in Stardust, or David Bowie as Jareth (straddling an interesting androgynous line) in Labyrinth. They’re all characters we’re supposed to read as beautiful but a little bit alien, unearthly. Contrast that with characters who are very earthy and tend to be much thicker & stouter, like the hobbits and dwarves of LotR, the goblins from Labyrinth (they’re certainly magical in a way, but they’re absolutely not ethereally beautiful), or typical depictions of Mother Earth.
Note that, even in my above examples, I really can’t draw strict gender lines between the two. Jareth certainly has, um, strong elements of the masculine in his appearance. Mother Earth is often depicted as soft and voluptuous (which is in itself a different, but also very common, depiction of femininity). But in general we tend to view slenderness as feminine and bulkiness as masculine.
The only example I can think of that falls outside that “slender fairy” norm is actually Tinker Bell from J. M. Barrie’s novelized Peter and Wendy: “It was a girl called Tinker Bell exquisitely gowned in a skeleton leaf, cut low and square, through which her figure could be seen to the best advantage. She was slightly inclined to embonpoint.” For those of you who don’t speak French (which includes me), embonpoint is plumpness, particularly in the bosom.
If any of your readers have any other examples of fairies who are plump or even fat, I’d love to hear about them! Why should skinny fairies get to have all the fun?
Alexis: Very educational, thanks for that. I’ll be interested to see if anyone else can point us towards plump/fat fairies!
Back to the story–as we read along, the interaction between Addie and the fairy is excellent. I love that Addie didn’t seem terribly shocked by his presence, nor terribly alarmed. It made it feel like this sort of thing—happening upon a fairy in the woods—was quite natural in her world, and thus, it made the world feel more fantastic and more magical.
Is the world in which this story takes place, meant to be our world (or a variation of it) or some fantastical world (such as we see in Lord of the Rings, etc)?
Kari: “The Price” is actually a (loose) adaptation of a very short tale collected by the Brothers Grimm. (It’s called “The Rose” — you can read the original here.) While I changed and expanded a lot, I wanted to keep that sense of normalcy that fairy tales always seem to have. No one in fairy tales is ever particularly surprised when a talking wolf asks where they are going or when they find the moon tethered to an oak tree.
So I didn’t do much world-building in this story because I wanted it to feel very much like a traditional fairy tale. Fairy tales always seem to take it for granted that they just take place in the normal world and that strange and magical things just happen.
Alexis: I tend to write very in the character’s head, allowing their interpretations to color the reader’s views. In your story, I felt it was quite the opposite. I felt we were pulled back a little, allowing me to interpret things for myself. I didn’t need Addie to tell me that the addition of ‘tonight’ offered some sort of threat. I didn’t need you to tell me of any worry she might be feeling as the raven, and the bear, and the storm lead us on an increasingly tense journey towards the end. I could feel that all by myself, without being hammered over the head with it.
On that note, was this sort of pulled back narration a choice you made consciously or subconsciously? Does your writing always tend to work that way, or do you sometimes sink deeper into the character’s mind and thoughts and emotions?
Kari: I don’t think it was a particularly conscious choice, but I think it probably flowed naturally from the traditional fairy tale style I was borrowing. We don’t, it seems to me, usually get a lot of interior monologue in fairy tales — they tend to have that, as you say, “pulled back” style of narration where they’re just reporting the events and letting you the reader (or listener, traditionally) come to your own understanding about what it might mean for these characters.
Considering that these stories would commonly have been shared orally, this style of telling makes sense. The storyteller’s gestures and inflections would imbue plenty of emotional depth into the tale, and so it wasn’t necessary to embed that into the words or the story. Later, of course, those traditional oral stories were collected by people like Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, who wrote them down and passed them on to us in written form. So folklore and fairy tales tend to have this interesting stylistic quality that results from their origins as oral tales rather than written ones.
This was something of a departure for me; I definitely lean towards writing much more from the perspective of my lead character, whether I’m in 3rd person or 1st person. I would say that most of my stories are much more in a character’s head than this one is, which was part of what was fun about it. Using the fairy tale as a stylistic framework gave me an opportunity to explore a type of storytelling I might not have used otherwise.
Alexis: Stepping outside of our normal comfort zone as writers can really be fascinating! Are there any stories you’ve written or had published that you felt particularly pushed you into new territories, genres, or styles as well? (If so, where can we find them?)
Kari: I’ve been writing prose fiction since I was a kid (in fact, I got my first publishing credit in junior high — although it was about a decade and a half after that when I got my next one!), but this past year I’ve actually been writing an ongoing comic book series, which has definitely been a step outside my comfort zone in a lot of ways. For one, it’s an ongoing series, rather than a single, self-contained story. But, at the same time, each issue has to have a relatively self-contained story within it! In addition, writing a comic script is a very different kind of writing than a piece of prose fiction. Instead of describing something for the reader, I have to describe for an artist, and trust them to draw the scene in a way that makes sense. I’ve been lucky to have some really amazing artists to work with, but geez, it’s definitely scary to hand off so much of the story-telling responsibility to someone else! And, just to make things extra complicated, I have a co-writer. And again, she’s awesome and we do some really great work together, but it’s definitely a challenge to share a story with someone else and sit in a room together for hours trying to hammer it out. There’s a lot of push and pull, and a fair amount of wine, that goes into each issue, but ultimately, we’re really proud of the thing we’ve created. I can tell you it would be a different book, and I think not nearly as good, if we weren’t both writing it. We’re very different people, but each bring our separate strengths to the table on it, and we wind up having a kind of system of checks and balances on each other that keep things from veering too far into left or right field field (hurray for mixed metaphors!).
The series is called Shahrazad, and it’s published by Big Dog Ink. It’s written by myself and Kim Hutchison. Vol. 1 is available now, which collects the first six issues of the series. You can buy it on Amazon or order it through any local comic book store.
Alexis: Oh, how exciting! That does sound like a challenging, but rewarding endeavor. I’ve only recently begun to explore the world of comics/graphic novels with Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “Alabaster: Wolves” graphic novel. I’ll definitely have to check Shahrazad out.
So, throughout “The Price”, Addie seemed to handle interactions with the fairy without showing us any clear surprise or fear. She even tells him she’s not afraid of him.
What in Addie’s past made her so brave in the face of this very dangerous creature? I get the sense, as we continue, that her strength may have something to do with the strength of her mother. Still, it takes some guts to face something which she seemed to sense was otherworldly without a trace of fear. Do you think she’s had interactions with the fae before? Or heard tales of them?
Kari: I wanted Addie (and her mother) to be very no-nonsense sort of people. I keep going back to this fairy tale thing, I know, but I was thinking very strongly of the sort of people who live in little cottages in the woods in fairy tales, and they always seem fairly matter-of-fact about whatever challenges they face. And I was thinking too of the sort of people who live in little cottages in the woods in real life — I imagine it must require a certain amount of practicality and perseverance to make your life in a remote wilderness location.
I don’t think that Addie herself has had a run-in with the fae before, but I think she’s heard tales (or warnings) about such things. I imagine that Addie is the kind of girl who knows what to do if she’s caught outside in a blizzard and how to play dead in the case of a bear attack. Her strange visitor in the woods is just another hazard of life in the wilderness.
Alexis: Well put, and that makes me love Addie as a character even more. It’s not just strength, but knowledge of what to do in dangerous circumstances. She’s definitely a very self-reliant character and I love it.
Strength was, to me, a particularly strong undercurrent in both Addie and her mother. Her mother showed great perseverance, unwavering as they faced the destruction created by the bear.
“We rebuild.” – the mantra that has perpetuated humanity through many a disaster, I think.
If there’s a theme (or more than one theme) to this story, do you think it has to do with strength? With doing the best with what you have been given or with what challenges you face? Is there any particular theme or message or meaning you intended for readers to get out of this story? If so, did you set out to write the tale with this theme in mind or did it just come about naturally? (I know, that’s a question I ask a lot of you so far, I’m just very curious about how much of other people’s writing is conscious vs. subconscious).
Kari: I don’t know that I ever set out to write to a specific theme or message. I’d much rather just tell a compelling story and, hopefully, allow my readers to make their own meaning from it.
Alexis: That’s kind of the beauty of most stories—seeing what messages or themes different readers take away from it.
There’s some really great symbolism throughout the story–I’m not sure how much was intentionally written in by you, Kari, and how much I just found on my own. I did notice a shift in the imagery toward the end of the story. The fairy was typically symbolized by a pervasive darkness, threaded with silver. However, towards the end, the imagery changes to silvery threaded with black.
It didn’t occur to me until I reread the section again, but is this symbolism of a sort I didn’t note before? Before, he was always the looming threat with a thread of hope—a hope I felt for Addie, whether she herself felt it or not. I felt he would do some good for her (and in one way, he did—yet only by fixing a harm I think he created himself).
Yet with the flower, it is reversed and I wondered if it showed that the flower was full of hope for her sister, yet threaded with black veins, the threat of the price that would fall upon Addie’s shoulders.
Kari: It’s so wonderful and interesting to experience how you, as a reader, thought through the symbolism of the dark/light repetitions! I don’t know about you, but I often wonder how my readers will interpret some element of my story, and whether it will be in the way that I intended, or whether they will find meanings I never even thought of. In the end, I’m not sure it really matters what I intended, as long as the reader (in this case, you) pulled something meaningful from it.
Alexis: And I certainly did pull something meaningful out of it, which was a great experience for me personally.
What drew me on throughout the story was the fairy’s cunning, his planning, the way he waits and manipulates—all thrilling! And the why of it was irresistible. I had to know the answer. What does he want? Why is he doing this?
In the end, it seems that he wanted her. I’m still left with so many questions! Feel free to answer (or not) any of these. Sometimes it’s better that we don’t know, so I won’t push for answers.
I wanted to know why her? What made her appeal to him? Why did he take her and where?
Kari: To go back to the fairy folklore I referenced earlier, these are the same questions that I often ask about those old tales of fairy abductions. Why that particular person? What does the fairy want with him or her? I think I’m probably more interested in the questions than the answers, honestly!
I will say, though, that I don’t think my fairy would have been quite as interested in Addie if she’d been a little less indifferent towards him. I think that fairies in general are rather used to getting their way and of evoking fear or fascination (or a mixture of both) in mortals. Addie defies his expectations right off the bat and thus intrigues him.
Alexis: Now that’s an insight I hadn’t considered! Thanks for that.
So I’ll come to my final question…
Did you write this story specifically for the Fae submission call or had you written it previously and found it a perfect match?
Kari: I had written the story previously and was sort of letting it languish when I saw the call for submissions for Fae. It seemed like it might be a good fit, so that gave me a nice push to go back to “The Price” and make some revisions and finishing touches. I’m honored that Rhonda selected it as the end-piece for this really great anthology!
Alexis: Well, I definitely glad you didn’t let the story languish any longer. I really enjoyed the read and this interview process. Thank you!
And that’s the end of our interview, folks! Thanks for stopping by to read. If you haven’t already picked up a copy of Fae, I highly recommend it (Amazon, Barnes & Noble). I’m only a few stories in myself and already thrilled to be sharing the pages with so many talented authors. Tune in next week to Kari’s site, as she’ll be interviewing me about my story next!