Writing Fairy-tale Fiction

Interview with Donna Jo Napoli
by Philip Martin
July 26, 2001

Martin: A number of your books (Sirena, Zel, The Magic Circle) take old fairy tales and myths and reshape them very inventively. What do you look for when tackling a traditional story? And are you changing these stories, or retelling them?

I am never retelling in the sense of trying to tell it differently. Instead, I am respectful of the integrity of the original work. I love folk tales, fairy tales, myths, religious stories – all of them – because these have stood the test of time. They are powerful.

What I respond to are the psychological realities of these stories. And I look for parts of them that haven’t been told. Those gaps free me to tell what I need to tell.  But on every detail that was actually told in the original I am faithful to the original.

For example, in the original Rapunzel story, we are told that a witch traded lettuce for a baby. We are not told why.

We know that witch raised the child lovingly and then put her in a tower when she came of age. We are not told why.

We know a young man found her and immediately tried to free her. Again, no hint of why his attachment to her was so fast and so sure.

Many details are given in the original (which takes about a page and a half), but without motivation.

I take the characters seriously. I believe the story. And that allows me to enter it and find the details that are the motivation.

I never really feel like I’m writing a story when I work on these traditional tales. I feel like I’m simply reporting more fully. I’m simply finding the truths.

Martin: It seems that these tales turn in complex, unexpected ways, and touch feelings we all carry close to our hearts, as fairy tales tend to do. Fairy-tale fiction seems to deal with interpersonal relationships, questions of love, loss, risk, transformation . . . who to trust, who is telling the truth, the boundaries between home and hearth and the dark woods or stranger Out There. . . . Can you elaborate on this? What is the importance of fairy tale / mythic fiction? Why do people feel so attached to such stories – yours in particular?

Your words are very much what I would say. Fairy tales deal with the evils we know exist in the world around us and in ourselves. Myths deal with the magic around us – the magic of natural phenomena like thunder and sunrise-sunset. Religious stories deal with the fact that our physical lives end – we are mortal – and that presents the question of whether or not our lives can be meaningful.

These questions and problems will always be with us. They are part of the human condition. I don’t care how much science you study, the first time you hold your own newborn, you are overcome with the magic of it all. I say this as someone who considers herself a scientist (I am a linguist) – so I am in no way casting aspersions on science. Much to the contrary. I am a person who has always cared more about why people do things than what they do.

And these traditional stories are, I believe, explorations of behavior that begs us to consider why the characters do what they do. It is the characters that draw me – the way they face their plights.

Martin: In reading reader reviews of your books, I was struck with how your stories seem to strike a chord with today’s teenaged readers. They gave wonderfully personal reviews of, for instance, Zel, responding to the story of how, like, there’s this mother, and she wants to keep a girl away from a guy and so she locks her up in her room. . . . It seems like the stories struck home! What’s your impression of how your stories affect your readers? Do you write for any particular audience? Are you trying to be “educational” or deliver something “uplifting,” or are you trying to writer a story to entertain and fascinate?

I wrote for 14 years before I finally sold something, so it is clear that I am not writing totally for an audience.

I need to write. And I never think of my audience as I write the first draft of a story. Instead, I just let the story come, all willy-nilly, and discover it as it appears on the computer screen.

Then I let my editor tell me what age the story is for, and I let her help me see that. Rarely, though, do I ever change something just to make it more appropriate for my audience. Rather, I write what I have to write—and then I find out who might be interested in reading it.

The Magic Circle, for example, was said to be an adult story by many when it first came out. Dutton, the publisher, debated whether or not to bring it out as a children’s book.

Albert, my first picture book, which came out this spring, has been said to be an adult story. Harcourt, the publisher, feels it’s a story for any age. In both instances, I feel outside the debate. I don’t really know what the difference is between children’s literature, teens’ literature, and adults’ literature. But children have responded to these works positively, and the publishers published them, so I don’t care about the debate.

Do you see what I mean? These are not academic questions. They are questions of emotional responses. If a reader responds to a story, then the story is appropriate for that reader, no?

I just want to say that I am not only a fantasy writer. I write contemporary stories and I write historical fiction, as well. And in all cases, I do a tremendous amount of research.

Fantasy does not give license to make up things at will. Instead, it demands an even stricter adherence to the truth of the story. No details can be allowed that do not fit.  Coherence is the bible.