When we launched our Feminist Fairy Tales boxes, we had no idea how many conversations it would spark. We’ve seen them happening across our social media platforms, in our Members Facebook group, and in our emails with our team. One that particularly stuck with us was a conversation we had with subscriber, Laura, who told us she was currently writing her PHD on Feminist Fairy Tales. Thus began our intrigue, and we were thrilled when she agreed to answer some of our questions about her work and her stance on this month’s theme! Trigger Warning: This interview does contain mentions of rape and violence, please continue at your discretion.
Could you outline for us what you’re doing in your PHD and what your work is focusing on? It’s fascinating, and so needed! My PhD is a creative writing degree, and my focus is on fairy tales and feminist retellings. The main part of my dissertation is my magical realism novel, And I Have Touched the Sky, which is a contemporary story about trauma, PTSD, and the aftermath of rape. At its core, it’s a modern retelling of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’. The protagonist, Lucy, is a witch with a familiar, her wolf-like dog Zaub. The ‘evil’ figure in the story is the hunter figure, Lucy’s abusive ex-boyfriend. The novel is semi-autobiographical, based on my own experience of being raped and dealing with the fallout/aftermath. My research into fairy tales and their retellings has been very much to strip them back of all the lyric prose and fantastical imagery to get to the heart of a fairy tale’s original function: a cautionary life tale about dangers we face as humans, especially as women and children. At its heart, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ is a cautionary tale about rape, which is why I chose it for my book. The story is set in my native rural Wisconsin, very much in a real world setting not typically found in fairy tale retellings. I’ve worked with fairy tales a very long time, starting in the beginning stages of my master’s degree (also in writing), and I’ve progressed to working with fairy tales in the most contemporary of settings, to bring back the ‘realness’ of them, with the magical elements being those ambiguous glimmers of otherworldliness that peek through the pages.
What was your motivation for choosing this topic? Was there a lightbulb-moment or was it a slow-burning labour of love throughout your academic journey? I’ve always loved Disney and fairy tales. My bachelor’s degree is in English Literature, and my master’s started in English Literature as well, but I soon realised I love writing fiction and my professors were very encouraging. I realised I loved exploring themes, research, and feminism in the world of fiction more than I do via pure research writing. There’s more room for creativity and blending of theme and narrative. My master’s dissertation was part critical essay on Disney films and the progression of modern fairy tales/princess culture, and part fairy tale retellings set in contemporary settings. For example, my version of ‘Hansel and Gretel’ is set in the 1970s, where Gretel is a little girl whose alcoholic father is unemployed and becomes increasingly hostile toward the ‘women’s lib’ movement and the women in his own life. My ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ version is a story about a college student who gets raped and realises that her life will never be the same. I carried those themes with me into my PhD, where I gravitated for a while toward the more current/popular lyrical and pure fantasy fairy tale fiction, but I eventually found my way to magical realism and have been working ever since on developing my own voice and style that sits somewhere between ‘stories set in the real world’ and ‘magic in the real world’. It’s absolutely been a labour of love, going on over a decade by now!
What has been your most shocking/surprising/empowering moment of doing your PHD study on this topic? I think my most surprising moment has been the friendships I’ve developed and the collaborative projects I’ve worked on. My best friend, the poet Cameo Marlatt, and I have a lot in common in terms of our reading and research interests, despite working on very different projects. We collaborated for a class project in which we began writing a feminist cocktail recipe book, based all on female authors throughout history—the lesser known/more marginalised, the better. We ended up having our pitch accepted by a publisher and the book, A Drink of One’s Own: Cocktails for Literary Ladies, was published and even won a design award. It’s so different than anything I expected to work on, but so satisfying and so enriching at the same time. Working on that book really helped me solidify and explore more themes and ideas around identity and feminism and literature that I’ve also gone on to explore in my fiction. And inventing drinks—working with herbs and infusions and scents and tastes—was a new kind of creativity that also felt very practically connected to my creative work in fairy tales. I am a witch and a neopagan myself, and something about melding literature and creativity with working in the kitchen with herbal syrups and infusing my own gins and vodkas was a very hands-on, rich, earthy experience. I felt like I was a character in one of my own stories—it really helped me connect to my work in this super unusual, unique way. And, of course, I designed a fairy tale cocktail—the Dorothea Viehmann, the woman who gave the Grimm Brothers a good chunk of their tales.
How do you feel about the way cinema depicts fairy tale retellings? We’ve seen a lot of new takes coming from Disney with the new Little Mermaid with Zendaya, Maleficent, and some more retellings. Do you think there has been progress in the way these narratives are framed? I love a lot of the fairy tale retellings in cinema. My favourite is probably the Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland films (not strictly a fairy tale, but I’d argue very close/related)—I’m not a huge Tim Burton fan in general, but those films hit just the right tone, and they’re simply beautiful. The melding of the beautiful with the weird, unusual, dark is very visceral in so many ways; I believe it really digs into the heart of true fairy tales themselves, often weird stories with elements of fear and the uncanny.
What do you hope fairy tale anthologies for young readers will look like in 10-20 years? As for what I’d like to see for fairy tales in the coming years, I’d say more nuance and complexity. It’s not an anthology, but my absolute favourite fairy tale retelling of all time is Naomi Novik’s Uprooted—honestly, it is probably one of my favourite books in general. The feminine magic she evokes and pits against a more masculine, dry, ‘academic’ magic, combined with the amazing empathetic, healing ending is unlike anything I’ve read before in terms of our ideas of ‘good vs. evil’. I’d like to see more work like that—things that don’t just subvert expectations, but really tear the whole genre apart and rebuild it from the ground up.
What further reading would you recommend to people who want to read more feminist fairy tales, and perhaps some critical essays/journals about them too? I’d definitely recommend Novik’s Uprooted and Spinning Silver. Robin McKinley’s Beauty and Deerskin. The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson (an excellent retelling of the Japanese kitsune legends). Orkney by Amy Sackville and Sealskin by Su Bristow are great versions of the Scottish selkie legend. Mermaid by Carolyn Turgeon is a simply beautiful novel, a retelling of ‘The Little Mermaid’. And of course, any feminist collections of folklore and fairy tales from around the world: Fearless Girls, Wise Women & Beloved Sisters: Heroines in Folktales from Around the World by Kathleen Ragan; Angela Carter’s Book of Wayward Girls & Wicked Women by Angela Carter; Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales by Angela Carter; My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me edited by Kate Bernheimer; Barbecued Husbands and Other Stories from the Amazon by Betty Mindlin. The stories of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya are also excellent modern fairy tales of the weird and macabre. And as far as critical studies go, I can’t recommend Jack Zipes highly enough. If you’re interested in dipping your toes into fairy tale theory and history, check out any of his books.
Thank you so much again to Laura for answering our questions about her work within this genre. Such a unique perspective to spotlight this month, we’re so glad we were able to hear about her research and writing! Laura R Becherer is a Creative Writing DFA student at the University of Glasgow. She writes fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction and is the co-author of A Drink of One’s Own: Cocktails for Literary Ladies. Laura writes mainly magical realism, particularly with an eye to feminism, identity, trauma narratives, and fairy tales. Originally from Wisconsin, Laura now lives in Glasgow with her husband and their two American cats. Twitter handle: @thewiscowitch