I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing A.C. Wise live on Instagram recently. We had great fun, or perhaps I should say *I* had a great time… I can’t speak for Alison! Don’t worry, you can still enjoy watching us be silly, talk about our literary crushes, pantsing vs plotting, and more. The interview is available on IGTV.
But if written interviews are more your thing, or perhaps you’d just rather avoid all the giggling, then read on!
The women in the original Peter Pan story are confined to very stereotypical roles. Wendy had to stay home playing ‘mother’ to the lost boys while her brothers got to go out and have fun; Tinkerbell was the jealous harridan; and Tigerlilly the exotic beauty. It’s about time women were given more space and agency in this narrative! What did you most want to address in your feminist take on this classic?
With Wendy, Darling I wanted to shift the viewpoint of the original Peter Pan story, and put women firmly at the center of the tale – specifically, Wendy and her daughter Jane. Doing so allowed me to dig into the idea of a mother going on an adventure, rather than the classic scenario from a lot of fairy tale and portal fantasy stories where mothers (and parents in general) are stuck at home, waiting, and unable to even see magic because they’ve grown up. I wanted Wendy, as a mother, to very much be an active part of the story, still connected to the magic of Neverland, but now seeing it with very different eyes.
Shifting the viewpoint to the female characters also gave me the opportunity to explore the question of how Neverland appears to different people, including at different stages in their lives. Neverland might be a pure paradise to Peter and the Lost Boys, since Peter gets to set the rules and the boys benefit from endless games and no bedtimes, but how does it look to Wendy who is told she has to cook for them and clean up after them and be the only one with any sort of responsibility? What about Jane, who didn’t have any choice in being taken there? And what does it look like to Wendy, coming back after years of having her reality called into question, because no one else believes Neverland exists? There were questions around whose voices are heard and believed, who bears responsibility and who is allowed to abdicate it (boys will be boys!), what it means to be a mother, and what it means to be the lone girl in a land of boys that I really wanted to explore.
Neither in Neverland nor in ‘real’ life did Wendy have an easy or fun time of it. Why was it important to delve into her struggles in both Neverland and the real world?
I wanted to explore the idea of consequences, both what happens after “the end” in a portal fantasy story, and the question of “ideal for who” when it comes to a paradise fantasy world. I’ve always been fascinated by what the ongoing impacts of a journey to another world might be on a character, and how they would cope (or not) with coming back to their “real” lives. There have been other authors, filmmakers, and even game developers who have delved into the story of what comes after, and since I’ve always enjoyed consuming those narratives, I wanted to try my hand at crafting one of my own.
At the same time, I also wanted to show Wendy’s struggles in Neverland as a way of looking at the idea that one person’s utopia is always going to be someone else’s dystopia. While Neverland isn’t quite a dystopia for Wendy, she’s certainly conflicted, and the more she looks at that world with adult eyes, the more she sees that it was designed with a very specific perspective in mind – one that excludes her and her lived experiences. Marginalized individuals and groups are often left out of various visions of “paradise”. Who is doing the labor in the idealized world where everything you want is right at your fingertips? Are the gorgeous, soaring cities full of shining spires and walkways accessible? Those were some of the questions I wanted to poke at in showing Wendy’s struggles in both of the worlds she inhabits.
Most children love Peter Pan, but it is difficult to read the story as an adult without seeing something more sinister at work. Why did you want to play up the darker aspects of this story?
I love exploring the elements around the margins and just behind the original text of stories. There is so much darkness under the surface in the original Peter Pan, and I wanted to bring it to the forefront to explore the possible “whys” and “what nexts”. Why does Peter’s shadow occasionally come unattached? Why doesn’t Peter grow up? Why does he serially kidnap children, and what happens to them once they’re trapped in a world governed entirely by his whims? I love horror and horror adjacent things, and so it felt natural to lean into those pre-existing hints of horror in the original tale.
We are seeing a lot of revisionist fairytale and traditional retellings that give women and girls more agency. What are some of the most irritating tropes in these kinds of stories that you’d like see new takes on?
One of the most irritating tropes in fairy tales is the way women over a certain age don’t get to go on adventures. I understand that many fairy tales are designed to be instructional allegory for how young women should behave, so it’s natural that they would be centered in those stories. However, that frequently leads to any female character not of marriageable age being reduced to an idealized dead mother, a crone whose only purpose is helping or hindering the hero, or a villain jealous of their youth and beauty. These older women have already either fulfilled or failed at a woman’s sole purpose – getting married and producing heirs, so their stories are over. I’d like to see more women of all ages going on fairy tale adventures, including mothers and grandmothers. I’d also like to see characters of all genders having different kinds of journeys through fairy tale stories, and dealing with obstacles in different ways – through domestic skills, and means other than picking up a sword and fighting, with rewards other than ending up as royalty or the ruler of their chosen realm. I want stories about what happens after “happily ever after” or before the story began. And I’m always up for a story that delves further into traditional fairy tale villains – not necessarily a redemption arc, but at least making them a fully-realized and three-dimensional character.
Pitch us Wendy, Darling! Why should we read it?
The slightly silly, but also true basic pitch for Wendy, Darling is “what if the movie Taken was also Peter Pan?” Wendy Darling has a very particular set of skills that will let her return to Neverland to face Peter Pan and save her daughter. It’s also a dark, feminist take on J.M. Barrie’s classic that centers female characters and deals with themes of trauma, survival, female friendships, mother-daughter relationships, queer identities, and found and chosen family.
A.C. Wise is a writer of speculative fiction and her work has appeared in various publications, including Uncanny, Tor.com, Shimmer, and several Year’s Best anthologies. “Catfish Lullaby” was nominated for the 2020 Nebula Award for Best Novella, and “How the Trick Is Done” was nominated for the 2020 Nebula Award for Best Short Story. She tweets at @ac_wise.