Julia Fine’s debut novel, What Should Be Wild, has been making almost every ‘what you should be reading now’ list in recent months. Those of you who are regular listeners of the podcast know that we have a soft spot for fairytales and fairytale retellings (especially Charlotte!), so Julia’s novel immediately caught our attention! We asked her about her favourite fairytales, problematic tropes of the genre, and how she developed her narrative.
What Should Be Wild is out now from HarperCollins. (And it is GREAT!)
Why do fairy tales inspire you? Do you have a favourite?
Growing up, I always had the feeling that there was more to fairy tales than what I was seeing on the screen or reading on the page. Even the simplest ones seem to bleed emotion and desire. They’re such an intriguing blend of allegory and social history and rebellion. I’m especially inspired by the way women have used fairy tales to subvert gender roles throughout history—from the Ancient Sibyls’ prophecies to old wives tales to modern women writers, storytelling has given women access to power that’s been otherwise withheld. As for my favorites—I’m a big fan of The Snow Queen and I also love Hansel and Gretel. Talk about interesting gender dynamics at play! Bluebeard is another favorite—so macabre and so brilliantly retold by Angela Carter, whose short story “The Bloody Chamber” is a masterpiece.
Are there any particular tropes or stories from fairy tales that you feel are ripe for retellings? How can we use them in modern takes to invert issues of today?
Fairy tales have always been social commentaries. Characters are set up as either role models or warnings and really don’t have any personality beyond their actions in the story. This makes them excellent for modern retellings, because every take is totally different, with different inner lives and desires motivating well-known characters. With this in mind, I think it’s important to see more YA and middle-grade stories that push princesses to set the feminist examples we wish we’d had growing up. There’s no stopping Disney and its marketing team, so we might as well push kids to dig deeper into the characters they already love. There’s a lot out there already: I always love the stories that explain Cinderella’s obedience from a modern perspective, like Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted. I’d like to see a Snow White story that does the same—she’s such a passive character and so much has been done with her stepmother, but Snow White herself is generally a blank slate. Writers have done a pretty good job of taking fairy tale villains and humanizing them; I think the more ingénues we can show from a multi-faceted and nuanced perspective the better.
Why did you choose to have your protagonist cursed in a way that kept her physically apart from everyone? Did you choose the curse early on or did it develop out of the kind of story you wanted to tell?
I wanted to explore the way society views female power and female sexuality as simultaneously frightening and fascinating. Maisie’s power over life and death was the perfect vehicle—she’s kept isolated partly for her own protection, and partly for the protection of others. I was reading a lot of nature writing when I began working on What Should Be Wild and a lot of poetry that speaks to the life-giving aspects of death. It all seemed like an excellent metaphor for womanhood and female bodies. The curse came first, and then the ending of the book—the middle was all built around that inevitable last few paragraphs.
What would you like to see included more in storytelling for older women? Historically older women have either been relegated to horrible experiences (Red Riding Hood’s grandmother, for instance!) or completely written out.
I love this question! What Should Be Wild definitely falls victim to some of these tropes—I was writing a fairy tale from the perspective of a sixteen-year-old, so I guess it makes sense that Mrs. Blott and Mother Farrow fit into the usual portrayals of older women, but I challenge myself to do better next time! Mary Blakely was one of my favorite characters to write, because her story is really about the plight of women once they age past “desirability.” It’s just ridiculous to think that women’s stories aren’t worth telling after forty. Think how many “literary” men wrote about male mid-life crises and aging! Luckily, there are some women writing excellent female characters in realist fiction right now—Jami Attenberg comes to mind, because her characters are not defined by motherhood or youth, they’re well-rounded, sometimes unlikeable, real women. I’d like to see more of that in speculative fiction.
Why should we be reading What Should be Wild?
At its heart, What Should be Wild is about embracing and celebrating female desire. No matter how far we’ve come in our current cultural moment, this is a message that fights years of social conditioning and will probably never be irrelevant. It’s also an exciting adventure story with twists and chills and lots of juicy female characters!
Julia Fine teaches writing at DePaul University and is a recent graduate of Columbia College Chicago’s MFA program. She lives in Chicago with her husband and their son. Her debut novel WHAT SHOULD BE WILD published from Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. For more on Julia and her work, visit: https://www.julia-fine.com/