My Favorite Bit: Chris Cutler talks about UNSPUN
Chris Cutler is joining us today to talk about his anthology Unspun. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Whatever happened to “happily ever after”?
Heroes search for happiness, villains plot revenge, and nothing is as easy as it once seemed. Gretel suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, an orphan girl questions Rumpelstiltskin’s legacy, a monster cat searches for a child to eat, and the pied piper realizes stealing a hundred and thirty children may not have been his smartest idea.
Fairy tales have endured for centuries even though—or perhaps because—their conclusions are often more unsettling than satisfying. In Unspun, eleven storytellers come together to challenge and explore a few of those classic tales. Unexpected twists are sure to provoke both thought and laughter.
What’s Chris’ favorite bit?
Fairy tales are wonderfully flawed, and we love them for it. They are morality tales whose morals have changed. They are cautionary tales repurposed as entertainment. They are improbable tales built out of incongruities and logic holes. They are escapist tales in which love at first sight relationships and rags-to-riches success fade to “Happily Ever After” before the heroine has time to confront the lasting consequences of her adventure. And I am convinced that we love fairy tales precisely because of these flaws, because each dissonant quality compels us to tell the story over again in a new way. Without those rough edges to catch our imagination, they couldn’t have embedded themselves so deeply into our social consciousness.
If you can’t tell, I happen to really love fairy tale adaptations. Several of my all-time favorite books fall into that category, as do many of the bedtime stories I tell my children. There is something inescapably fun about unpacking motivations to make the characters feel genuine. There is something incredibly satisfying about rearranging background events and people to justify the narrative thread of a story. And, at heart, there is something simply wonderful about telling a familiar story in a new and exciting way. I was thrilled by the experience of participating in this anthology because it not only allowed me to join some great authors in doing exactly this sort of unpacking, rearranging, and retelling, but it also let each of us explore the wonderful realm of “What happens next?”
For example, I absolutely adore Jeanna Stay’s story “Breadcrumbs,” which follows Gretel after she escapes the horrors of the gingerbread house. How do you return to your family after betrayal and abandonment? How do you escape the nightmares that remind you of what you had to do to survive? Gretel’s struggle to find hope and direction after the trauma of her fairy tale is intensely personal and beautifully told.
Another personal favorite from the anthology is Katherine Cowley’s novella “Tatterhood and the Prince’s Hand.” In the original fairy tale, Tatterhood is an ugly princess who rides a goat and wields a magic spoon. After rescuing her sister from trolls, she finds herself happily-ever-aftered to a foreign prince. In Cowley’s continuation of the story, Tatterhood is happy with herself and her abilities, but she is not entirely confident in the affection of her new husband (or in her affection for him). When he is captured by a magical creature, Tatterhood has to decide how much she wants him back. Underneath the action scenes and the search for clues, the story is an insightful and touching exploration of loyalty and confidence and acceptance.
When I approached writing “Heart of a Thief,” my continuation of Jack and the Beanstalk, the flaw that captured my attention was the cow. Recall that Jack’s whole adventure starts off when he sells the family cow to an old man in exchange for a handful of magic beans. If someone has genuine magic beans, why on earth would they trade them for a cow that can no longer help Jack and his mother subsist?
As it happens, there are a whole slew of possible ulterior motives. Here is a glimpse into my brainstorming session:
- The man is Jack’s estranged father in disguise, coming back to make amends by giving Jack something valuable.
- It’s the giant’s wife in disguise, hoping to get rid of her good-for-nothing husband. That explains why she keeps hiding Jack in the house on repeated visits despite Jack’s habit of running off with their valuables.
- No disguise, he’s just a con man. Buying the cow is step one of a heist. It’s easier to rob a farmhouse than a giant’s stronghold, and he’s planning to steal the treasure from Jack.
- He is a pickpocket who stole the beans from a passing wizard, not knowing their value. Now he’s being pursued and needs to offload them quick.
- Maybe it’s a fair trade, even knowing all the treasure that Jack stands to gain, because the cow is magic, too! When fed the right diet, this cow’s milk is like the fountain of youth!
- No wait, the cow is his true love, a princess enchanted years ago by an evil witch. (This might be the most plausible yet. Princesses, witches, and true love are hardly in short supply in these stories.)
Settling on a reason for the trade (none of the above, actually) was crucial in establishing the old man’s character, but once I had done so I mistakenly assumed that the cow’s part in this was over. After all, the story is about the bean-seller, not the the cow he bought. To my surprise, the cow continued to impact the story from start to finish. Her presence altered the direction of the plot, constrained the choices available to the protagonist, and illuminated the motivations of those around her. When the old man sits on a hill watching villagers steal from the giant’s corpse, the cow is grazing in the background. When he leaves the village, his interaction with the cow is a primary lens into his personality. When he seeks a path to the giant’s house, he finds himself severely limited by the need to bring the cow with him. And in the climax when he discovers more obstacles in his way, the cow gets to play a role yet again.
I set out to tell the story of the bean-seller, a background character from the original fairy tale. I found that in order to do his story justice I needed to include another background story, the story of the cow he bought. Letting the two of them interact ended up driving the creative process of almost every scene, and I love that a loose end I almost overlooked in the original fairy tale turned out to have such an immense impact. She doesn’t get to play much of a role in Jack’s story, but she forced herself onto the stage for the sequel. That’s why she’s my favorite bit.