From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Author Spotlight: Mari Ness

What drew you to retell Beauty and the Beast? What is your favorite part about the original?

I’ve always been fascinated by tales of animal bridegrooms and transformation, the idea that we are not so far away from magic after all, that what is seen is not always what is. The various retellings of Beauty and the Beast focus on the concepts of sacrifice, entrapment, and inexplicable love (and in the French salon fairy tales, which gave us our best known versions of the tale, considerable anger and fear about the restricted roles of women), but also hope.

But I’m particularly fascinated by the part of the tale where the bride is allowed to return home. Not all versions of the story include this, but those based (however loosely) on the literary tale of Cupid and Psyche do. And this is the part, it seems to me, that includes the real danger. The rest—the magical, crumbling palace or underground mansion or otherworld—is only dangerous on the surface. The real world, those visits home, is what truly stands between the happy ending. That is the moment when everything could go utterly, utterly wrong.

And so I started telling that tale.

The narrator shares the story with the reader like the town gossips whisper among themselves. Did you know from the beginning that you would use that narrator?

The narrator’s voice was apparent from the first sentence. I don’t often write this way, but I found that a distant narrator, knowing only the gossip, and not the truth, could allow for more supposition and less certainty, which is, after all, the essence of magic.

What was your favorite part to write in “Mademoiselle and the Chevalier”? Could you tell us a bit about your writing process?

This story actually arose from a completely different project, a series of flash fiction tales and vignettes based on fairy tales. In most cases, I wanted the viewpoint of a minor character in the tale, someone not even mentioned, or barely thought of—in this case, one of Beauty’s gossipy neighbors, wondering just what had happened to her.

It got ever so slightly out of control.

I ended up pulling the original ending into another tale, and part of the dialogue into yet another, meaning that from the original sentence and concept, I had three stories. This sort of thing does happen to me a lot. I’m rarely writing just one story or tale; even when I think I am, another tale seems to creep out through the cracks, and many if not most of my stories, particularly my flash fiction, grow out of sentences originally planned for other works.

And oddly, of those three, only one story fit the original project—and it isn’t this one.

I’m not sure I have a favorite part, but I like the bits about the sonnets and the champagne. (The champagne was based on a real incident, but I don’t know how much I’m allowed to say about that publicly! The sonnets, fortunately enough, were not, at least as far as I know.)

Do you have a favorite rendition of Beauty and the Beast? Would you, as the Facebook group says, marry Disney’s Beast for his library?

My favorite rendition is actually a Sicilian version, collected back in the late 19th century, where the bride disappears far underground, to a set of wealthy, luxurious rooms. She returns home twice, to be warned by her family that she is in far more danger than she knows—even as her family gleefully welcomes the jewels she brings to them—and after the second visit, decides to explore the rooms of the underground palace she has been warned not to visit. When she enters, she sees various people weaving and sewing her bride clothes—but she does not understand, and her mysterious bridegroom, in fury, sends her away from the palace to wander the land in rags. The next section, where she is silent and clothed in rags, bears more resemblance to tales such as the Six Swans, making it a marvelous mashup of different fairy tales. I particularly like that version since it begins with a woman who is not a princess, or even a middle-class merchant’s daughter, but genuinely, desperately, poor, and this desperate poverty both provides the motivation for many parts of the tale and helps explain how she is later able to survive.

My second favorite version is probably Cupid and Psyche, from Apuleius’ The Golden Ass.

I’m not sure if I would marry the Beast for his library. I would be very tempted to marry the library, though. Is that legal yet?

Thank you for your time. Before we conclude could you tell us what you are working on next?

Ooooooh, this always makes me nervous, since I’ll often find myself saying that I’ll be writing one thing and then end up writing something else entirely different. But I think—I think—I’ll be working on two longer works, one rather hush-hush for now, I’m afraid, and the other one a contemporary fantasy dealing with the various possibilities and endings that we might have had, those different stories that hide in shadows, that we might see if we push just a little harder. The same way that fairy tales, for all their magic and implausibility and impossibility, show us certain shadows that when illuminated, can show something quite surprising.

Jennifer Konieczny hails from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. An alumna of Villanova University, she now pursues her doctorate in medieval studies at the University of Toronto. She enjoys working with fourteenth-century latin legal texts, slushing for Fantasy Magazine, and scanning bookshelves for new authors to read.