From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Author Spotlight: T. Kingfisher

I find that writers often re-imagine the fairytales they love the most or hate the most. I hated Cinderella with a burning passion as a kid, and so I loved your re-imagining. What is your relationship with the Cinderella fairytale and has your relationship changed over time?

I am right there with you—Cinderella was never one of my favorites! I have a vague memory of watching the Disney cartoon as a small child and finding the “Bippity-Boppity-Boo” song sort of embarrassing. Many fairy tales have their own sort of logic and don’t hold up very well to scrutiny, but Cinderella’s particularly bad in that regard—can you imagine what that slipper would be like after it had made the rounds of the kingdom? Particularly if you have people hacking their heels and toes off to fit into it! (I know, I know, it’s supposed to be enchanted. Still.) And it also assumes that you can come in out of the scullery and walk right into a ballroom, and those are two entirely different skillsets. When would she have learned ballroom dancing in the first place?

I also felt the stepsisters got the short end of the stick. I had two stepsisters growing up, and they were both perfectly nice girls and we all just sort of lumped together and made the best of things.

I think you’ve written the best re-imagined selkie story I’ve ever read (“The Jackalope Wives”) and with Hannah we have a Cinderella who’s absolutely my Cinderella. Are there other fairytales you’d like to re-imagine?

Aw, thank you! Actually, there’s a lot of fairy tales I’d like to re-imagine—it’s one of my great joys. As much as I may grumble about some of the logic holes in fairy tales, there’s a real weight and mythic quality that makes them a lot of fun to work with. I’m currently working on a novel-length retelling of Bluebeard and I have a comic for kids coming out next year that’s about a hamster princess who is nominally Sleeping Beauty . . . except it’s a hamster wheel instead of a spinning wheel.

Did you pick tufted titmouse as the species of bird because it’s a terrific name? Or do you and tufted titmice share a more elaborate history together? Please say you have an elaborate back story!

Oh wow, now I wish I had a better one! “There I was, on fire, and the tufted titmouse pulled the fire alarm . . .” But no, they’re actually one of my common garden birds that show up on the bird feeder. They’re a really cute little bird, like a tiny gray and white cardinal, and a fairly brave one. There’s a park up in Cape Cod where the titmice and the chickadees are so used to being fed that they’ll land on your hand, and I’ve had one perch on my thumb for a few seconds. They weigh absolutely nothing. You can feel a little bit of scratchiness from the claws, but that’s all.

Plus, it is a great name.

Do you think Hannah ever gets an orangery?

It’s possible, but I think the Gardener is right—they’re a lot of trouble in a cold climate! The lengths to which people went to, growing citrus back in the day . . . even as recently as the Regency, people are pouring vast amounts of money into maintaining hothouses, and I don’t know if Hannah would think it worth the effort. Many of them were symbols of wealth as much as useful gardening.

That said, with a properly facing brick wall and some ingenuity, Hannah could probably grow some pretty exotic things. Gardeners have been keeping tropical plants going in less than tropical climates for centuries. I like to think she figures out how to grow oranges and pomegranates, at least!

Why nasturtium seeds? . . . I mean I know nasturtiums are beautiful and delicious, you have great taste in food and agriculture throughout this story. In my experience nasturtium seeds is a great hardy annual that enjoys poor soil that often self seeds, so it might not be too hard to get seeds once the plant is present in the region. Does the Duke control access to this exotic seed?

Well, nasturtiums are originally from Peru, and there are two varieties. The first one has an almost vine-like habit, and it’s actually pretty picky—the Spanish imported it, but it was apparently not that easy to grow. Then the classic round-leaf version we all know and love got introduced somewhere around the 17th century, and it’s a much sturdier plant. So there’s about a century-long window where nasturtiums would probably have been known as a rare ornamental, before the Dutch brought the other species over and those spread like wildfire. Most of what we grow today is a hybrid of the two species. (On a good year, they take over my garden. On a bad year, they take over my garden . . . and the deck . . . and try to come into the house . . .)

As a grubby gal who’s spent a lot of time in the garden or in an orchard I love all the agricultural details in this story. What sort of mix of personal experience and research did you use? Do you have any amusing gardening or agricultural anecdotes to share with us?

Well, the sorts of things that gardeners find funny might be a little opaque to non-gardeners—I mean, I think it’s funny when I have a cucumber grow into a lattice, so you find this gigantic bright-orange thing the size of a baseball bat embedded between the slats and you have to cut it out with a knife! (Do other people find that funny? I don’t think other people find that funny . . . .) But yes, I’m an avid gardener, which mostly means I kill a lot of plants every year and get very excited over manure. And I spend a lot of time muttering to myself about sowing beets and whether it’s worth putting down radishes or whether they’ll just bolt in the heat.

The closest I think I come to a genuinely funny gardening anecdote . . . well, I’m pretty bad with spatial measurements. So the first time I went to buy mulch from a garden supplier, I thought I wanted four cubic yards, and they’re used to doing really big bulk orders, so they said “Are you sure that’s enough?” And I thought, “Oh, hmm, maybe that’s not as much as I thought it was, that’s only like three feet by twelve feet, right? Maybe I should get more . . . It’s not like mulch goes bad, and you always lowball how much of something you need . . .” So I ordered seven cubic yards and went home feeling like I had been very responsible and proactive and completely forgetting that a cube has a third dimension.

And then the dump truck arrived. And I was left with Mt. Mulch in my driveway—it was nearly as tall as I was, and it was just me and a pitchfork and a wheelbarrow! It took me a good two months to get it all moved around. I mulched everything.

What needs destroying in fantasy?

Probably everything, at one time or another! But at the moment, I wouldn’t mind seeing—oh, less unrelenting awful people, maybe. I get very tired of horrible people doing horrible things for no apparent reason beyond wallowing in horribleness. I’m not asking for an end to conflicts or villains—we need plots to make stories, after all!—but I look at so many fantasies and the only characters I recognize from real life are the minor spear-carriers and the comic relief.

Perhaps I am just lucky to be surrounded by basically decent people who don’t kick puppies professionally. But it often strikes me that a lot of heroes in fantasy novels are people who, in real life, we would back away from going “Ooooookay, dude . . . I’m just gonna . . . go . . . over here now . . . .”

Maybe we’ve got enough dragonslayers for the moment, and it’s time for some people who are out doing environmental assessments on dragon eggshell thickness and dissecting griffin pellets to see what percentage of their diet is fish or something.