Interview with Merrie Haskell

merrieMerrie Haskell is the author of The Princess Curse (2011), Handbook for Dragon Slayers (2013), and the soon-to-be-published The Castle Behind Thorns. She has also written several short stories. The protagonist of The Princess Curse is thirteen-year old Reveka, an herbalist’s apprentice. Reveka’s soldier father, convinced that she is an incurable liar, recently dragged her from the nunnery in which she was raised to work in Castle Sylvian, whose twelve princesses are under a mysterious curse. In Handbook for Dragon Slayers, Matilda is princess of Alder Grove, yet would much rather write than rule people who fear her for her club foot. Imprisoned by an usurper, Tilda escapes and runs away with her fearless maid, Judith, and best friend, squire and would-be dragon slayer Parz. Merrie Haskell’s website and blog can be found at http://www.merriehaskell.com/.

One of the things that struck me in each book was the distinct and convincing setting. The Princess Curse occurs in Sylvania, a fictional country wedged between Transylvania and other hostile neighbours. Most of the new or retold fairy tales I’ve read are set in western countries, often a vaguely British past or modern North America. Sylvania was a surprise and delight; what drew you to Eastern Europe? What elements of Hungarian folklore and culture did you keep? Which did you discard or recreate for the purposes of the story, and why?

            Well, it is Romanian folklore, not Hungarian, just to be clear. It’s funny, I was just looking over my very first draft of my first paragraphs of the first version of The Princess Curse, back when it was going to be a short story called “The Herbalist’s Apprentice,” and at that point it was set in Bosnia—largely because I had a co-worker in the early 00’s who’d fled Sarajevo during the siege and I was fascinated by her stories of the pre-war city.  But around that time, my cousin married a Romanian woman, and I no longer worked with my Bosnian friend, and I knew I would have better access to my new cousin for questions. So it was always going to be Eastern Europe, but the location certainly has changed. I did briefly consider Hungary, but what clinched Romania was reading a few dozen versions of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” and feeling a connection with the Romanian one—that version was very specific, even mentioning opinci (a  type of Romanian shoe http://www.eliznik.org.uk/RomaniaPortul/footwear.htm) by name. When I read that, it all clicked into place.

As for what I kept and what I changed or disregarded—I tried to be respectful of the cultures of Romania, and not just go in and pull things in that attracted me while throwing things out that didn’t.  At the same time, I felt challenged to make things simple enough to not do a thousand pages of expository folklore. One change: I consciously changed the name of the Romanian Prince Charming from Făt-Frumos to Prince Frumos because it seemed that the false cognate of “Făt” would be distracting.  The one thing I backed away from was trying to figure out how to depict the Romani people in the area at the time; they were reviled and enslaved, and they often show up as villains in Romanian fairy tales, and I felt that I should try to address that somehow. But that’s a big topic for a small book, and I elided over it in the final draft though I attempted to address it in early drafts. Other things more fully addressed in early drafts that (mostly) got left out of the published book: how vampires differ in Romanian folklore, Dacian gods from pre-Rome, broader swathes of Roman conquest history, relationships with Greece, and Byzantine cultural legacies in the area.  Ultimately, it’s a children’s book, and while my editor never urged me to gloss over anything, there were still length restrictions.

Although set in the (fictionalized) Germanic states instead of Eastern Europe, Handbook for Dragon Slayers, like The Princess Curse, deals with both local and international politics and explores what it means to be a good ruler. Clearly this is important to you. Would you care to speak on this?

            Wow, I never thought of that—but yeah!  It does matter to me.

I am an American writing about European monarchies. So many fantasy novels are about the Chosen One Becoming The King, but I feel that’s a problematic viewpoint for an American.  First off, I hate Chosen Ones and Destiny. (I mean, Reveka even says it in The Princess Curse: “Fate is for people too lazy to make choices.”) It’s not very egalitarian to have Chosen Ones. Second, I am very watchful of authority, including my own. When good people do bad things, it is usually because they have acceded moral authority to someone else, someone sociopathic. The vast majority of us have consciences; sometimes we are a little selfish, but all in all, we don’t want to actively hurt each other. But since our consciences take the day off when someone in authority tells us what to do, I worry about who’s in charge and their consciences.

The Princess Curse and Handbook for Dragon Slayers both mention Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, among other ancient Greek and Roman texts (including Xenophon’s On Horsemanship). When did you become interested in the ancient writers and how have they most influenced you?

            I’ve determined 99% of what I think and do comes down to what I read when I was 12 and 13.  So, Beauty by Robin McKinley, which I read about ten times those two years: Beauty studies Greek and Latin!  Therefore, when I got to college, I studied Attic Greek (never got around to Latin), plus took all the classical studies seminars my college (my specific tiny college, that is, not my whole University) offered.  All three of them.  But they were intensive, taught by an absolutely wonderful professor who linked texts with art with history—my first real knowledge of Romania came through one of those classes, in fact, in studying Trajan’s Column depicting the Dacian Wars—which is a chilling piece of state art.  The Romans erected one in Rome and an identical one in Dacia/Romania.

In any case, with regard to ancient writers, I find it comforting that there is this long intellectual history that reaches far into the past. I find it hard to say that any particular ancient writer influences me—I find them a great gateway into understanding cultures that I’m writing about, as well as a good reminder to everyone that humans have been sophisticated thinkers for a long, long time.

What medieval person intrigues you most? Which medieval manuscript is the most intriguing?

            Well, Hildegard of Bingen, of course—if it wasn’t thoroughly obvious already.  It used to be King Arthur, but that was a childhood obsession.  Hildegard indisputably lived, and made a huge impact; King Arthur has to be cobbled together from so much stuff, and there are all these fictive retellings which muddy everything…  So I’ll stick with Hildegard.

My favorite medieval manuscript…  tough question! Handbook for William A Carolingian Woman’s Counsel for Her Son (translated by Carol Neel) is a particular favorite, and part of the inspiration for Handbook for Dragon Slayers.  It’s hard not to love Anglo-Saxon poetry—”The Wanderer” has made me try to write three or four stories that evoke the same feeling of exile and loss.  Without success, I might add. 

Reveka and Tilda both have rather secular approaches to spirituality: they dream of becoming nuns in order to gain the freedom to pursue their personal interests (herbalism and writing, respectively). Is this an attitude you think was common in the middle ages?

            I have always felt this is a point of anachronism in my historical fantasies, actually. A deliberate one—I didn’t feel capable of writing a true medieval viewpoint on religion and keep true to the book in my head.  Is that a shortcoming on my part? Absolutely–that is a failure of imagination, which is probably one of the biggest sins a writer can commit.  It would have taken me four times as long to figure out how to write that well instead of writing what I did.  That’s a poor excuse, but it is a reason.

The weight of the setting or the story or the character has to carry a bunch of things forward—it gathers mass as it goes, like rolling a snowman. If it’s rolling downhill, the snowman builds itself; if you’re rolling uphill, it’s a Sisyphean task.  For example, I felt it was relatively easy to introduce my vision of how genders worked in Sylvania into the mix of The Princess Curse; I had all this nice historical evidence of how males and females worked together, about female apprentices especially after the bubonic plague, that helped me frame how I thought it would go without having to spend every sentence of the book implicitly defending my position to modern audiences and myself in the text.  That snowball rolled downhill just fine. But the religion snowball—I had to keep it less massive so it didn’t crush me or the reader.

That said: I think of Tilda and Reveka as less secularly-driven and more practicality-driven—if that makes sense? Likewise, I think that some people did use the church as a way to get around the indignities of life.  For example: divorce was not an option for most, as we know, but there were various grounds for granting annulments of marriage, including consanguinity. However, feverish genealogical pursuits weren’t likely to pull up the fact that your husband was actually your brother no matter how hard you tried. But consanguinity laws applied to godparents! So in a pinch, a sympathetic priest might make you godmother to your own child, and thus ease your path for annulment. As long as we’ve had oppressive institutions, we’ve had ways of working around them. And I think there are more practical women in our history than we know about.

Reveka and Tilda have dreams which seem unattainable and do not involve marriage, and during the course of their adventures both girls alter their hopes for the future: Reveka chooses to be queen as well as herbalist, and Matilda accepts being princess as well as pursuing writing. Both dreams involve specific skill, which both girls work hard to hone. Do you see changing one’s dreams as a necessary part of growing up? What advice do you have for young readers?

            “Changing one’s dreams as a necessary part of growing up”—no…  I don’t believe that, and if I did, I don’t think it’s as simple as that. But when we dream as children, sometimes we don’t know how to dream full lives. Reveka liked to believe that being a nun would be something she could ignore and concentrate on being an herbalist, but in fact her life as a nun would not have been something she could have ignored—becoming queen was in some ways a broadening of her world view. As for Tilda, I feel that her dream was a desire not to be hurt, a way to avoid the untidiness of other people and their emotions; in the end, she decided to live in the world because the world is too much to give up—it’s where you get to have a Judith and a Parz and a magic horse.  And more to the point, both of them do achieve a portion of their dream; Reveka is still an herbalist, and Tilda is a writer.

As for advice to young readers: I would say don’t give up on a dream just because it doesn’t seem to be going the way you anticipated. There are lots of ways to get to the same place.

What drew you to write for middle readers, rather than for younger readers or teens?

            Well, in truth, I thought I was writing The Princess Curse for teens or adults. I had no real notion of the middle grade market when I was writing that.  In part because I stopped reading middle grade books when I was about nine, because I didn’t find them complex enough. (I would have said “Interesting,” but I would have meant “Complex.”) I have since discovered some nicely complex and engaging middle grade, but my interests are very niche, and I am content to write for middle readers largely because I know my niche isn’t populous. But I would say it was less of a “what drew me” and more of a “what keeps me.”

While I loved the ambiguity at the end of The Princess Curse, I would also love to hear more of Dragos’s (and Thonos’s) backstory. You told The Book Rat that you were figuring out how to continue the story from Reveka’s perspective while staying at a middle grade level. How is that going? Any hints?

            I’m still noodling it.  I have half theorized that maybe Reveka is not the narrator…  maybe it’s Didina. Reveka still has room to grow as a character, but the other characters in the book still have their biggest challenges ahead of them, and hers is in many ways behind her.  So I was kind of thinking maybe Didina has some stuff to do—big stuff.  What is it like to come back from the brink of death? To discover your friend who saved you is the Queen of the Underworld? Dragos’s curse is big, but Reveka doesn’t have to be the one who breaks it.

In The Princess Curse you handled very deftly the tricky balancing act of Reveka’s relationship with Dragos, given the disparity in their ages and power. What was the most difficult part of developing that relationship?

            Honestly, the hardest part was throttling Reveka’s feelings, plus keeping everything low-key regarding her understanding of sex.  Thirteen-year-olds then and now know plenty about sex, as much as our culture tries to deny it.  I actually did cut a couple paragraphs of frank speculation on Reveka’s part.  She’d be curious for certain, as she is highly curious in general. As a thirteen-year-old, I was constantly crushing on boys.  I kept it deeply secret from the world, but I was as boy-crazy as any horrifying portrayal of boy-craziness you see on a sitcom.  Keeping that mindset out of Reveka was a challenge.

The second hardest part was portraying Dragos in a way that made it clear that he took the spiritual/legal aspects of marrying Reveka seriously–without making him a creeper. In my view (and I hope it’s on the page): He very much does not consider her of age, and he’s not crossing any mental lines with her. He does not consider her age to be the only barrier, either; he’s no longer human, and he has no intention of consummation since that would be a sin in his mind.

In Handbook for Dragon Slayers, Tilda unintentionally transforms. What was it like to write from the perspective of a dragon?

            Writing Tilda as a dragon was fun. I slipped into a kind of an Anglo-Saxon root-words/kennings dialect. It just came out.  It was hard to go back to Tilda’s regular voice. The hard part was polishing up so it was comprehensible to my editor’s standards.

Will there be a sequel to Handbook?

            I don’t see that as a front-burner item, though it would entertain me to go back and show what happens with Parz and Judith and Tilda.  Someone asked me once if Tilda marries Parz. I was like, “Of course not. Tilda has to marry for money and power. But Parz and Judith of course haze Tilda’s marriage prospects until they find one worthy of her, and they do fall in love, but it takes a while.” And while I will probably not write that book, I love imagining that.

There is a regrettable lack of novels that feature protagonists with a disability. How did you come to imagine Tilda, who understands that she is more than her club foot? Why did you choose that particular difficulty?

            My family has a history of walking problems.  My maternal grandmother was in a terrible car accident that gave her a severe limp and a great deal of pain; my father was born with a club foot; and I have dee-lightful bone spurs that occasionally hobble me by sawing at my nerves and tendons.  My issues are so minor in the grand scheme of things, but they did give me a greater insight into my grandmother’s life. Telling any part of my grandmother’s story, even obliquely, through Tilda, strikes me as a good thing.

Reveka and Tilda are active, strong, and intelligent, while many of the best-known fairy tale protagonists are comparatively passive girls. Did you find it difficult to subvert traditional gender expectations? Was this a conscious goal as you were writing?

            I don’t think I ever do any of that consciously, and anything I do unconsciously never seems very difficult.  It’s actually not hard to write strong, active, intelligent women when you are raised by them, work with them, and befriend them.

Librarians care deeply about knowledge, encouraging cultural and artistic expression, and serving their communities. Reveka and Tilda demonstrate some of these characteristics. How has working in a library influenced you?

            My mom is a nurse, and she was in school in some way or another for my entire early childhood. Somewhere in there I absorbed that books and learning were deeply important, while taking care people and helping them was also deeply important.  I think a library is a natural place to go if medicine or education isn’t for you but many aspects of those professions appeal to you.

I have certainly absorbed a library-centric worldview. I see any particular society’s success or failure based on their library system, frankly, and my first worldbuilding question is how do these people get stories and preserve knowledge?

Who were your favourite authors when you were a child? A teen? An adult?

            I started with Laura Ingalls Wilder, L.M. Montgomery, Beverly Cleary, Tamora Pierce, and Lloyd Alexander in childhood.  I marched on through Madeleine L’Engle, Anne McCaffrey, Charlotte Brontë, Cynthia Voigt, Gillian Bradshaw, and Robin McKinley in teen years, and as an adult, I have added Jane Austen, Sherwood Smith, Megan Whalen Turner, and Sharon Shinn. We’ll see who gets added in years to come!

What draws you to fairy tales? What do you think gives fairy tales and folklore their lasting appeal to both children and adults?

            We are always seeking the familiar, and yet we get tired of it so we seek variations on the familiar.  I think that answers both questions!

What is your least favourite fairy tale?

            The one I least like seeing retold is Red Riding Hood, but the one I don’t like re-reading in original versions is Cinderella.

What is the one question you wish people would ask you during interviews?

            I always enjoy “What’s the last thing you read that excited you?” In which case, for non-fiction it’s Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, which is so broad and encompassing an examination of the history and prehistory of human violence—I was just amazed. Even when I wanted to argue, I was amazed. For fiction, I really got wound up in Gail Carriger’s Etiquette and Espionage—truly good fun.

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