We spoke to author and editor JJA Harwood about the enduring power of fairytales – their darkness, their happy endings, and why they work on such a universal level.

The Shadow in the Glass is described as a fairytale retelling. And fairytales, in their original forms, were very dark indeed. Have we finally left the idea of the sugar-coated fairytale, popularised by Disney, behind us? Or do we still have a tendency to equate fairytales with happily ever afters?

I don’t think we’ll ever leave the idea of the sugar-coated fairy tale completely behind, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. There’s a lot of comfort in a familiar story, and speaking as a reader I’ve really enjoyed seeing how many writers have been using this to give happily ever afters to characters whose stories don’t always get told. A happy ending should apply to everyone who wants one, and I think there’s something very powerful in showing that to a reader who might not have seen themselves reflected in fiction before.

That said, I do think there’s a certain appeal in returning to the darkness in some of the original fairy tales. The element of fear is what I think makes a lot of classic fairy tales so compelling – if you take the wicked witch out of the story, Rapunzel is just a story about a girl with really long hair, for example. In a fairy tale context, fear can be recognised, but it can also be managed, and the darkness is held at a safe distance. With The Shadow in the Glass I wanted to get a little closer!

What makes these stories so enduring and able to be transplanted into almost any setting / time period?

I think because they’ve been retold so often and by so many different people it’s not so much a question of being transplanted into any setting or time period, but them appearing there naturally! The cores of so many of these stories can be told with such a light touch that, as a storyteller, you almost have to add something of your own. But fairy tales also have a way of quickly connecting with a lot of universally human experiences – the desire to see the good rewarded and the evil punished, the hope that everything will turn out all right, the fear and the appeal of the uncanny. It’s very easy to get swept away, no matter what the setting, because of that deep emotional resonance which fairy tales can tap into.

Is gender inequality baked into the heart of every fairytale? Can gender stereotypes be useful tools to subvert the usual story?

It depends on how you tell the story. Cinderella going to the ball and marrying the prince can be told as a woman going down a very traditional path and doing what is expected of her, or it can be told as a woman using all the tools she has available to get out of the control of her wicked stepmother. Whether that is portrayed as resourcefulness or following social norms all comes down to the storyteller. Of course there are some gender stereotypes which are always going to be hard to shake off, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be used.

One of the things I tried to do in The Shadow in the Glass was to give my heroine some fairly traditional goals – both because this would have been a bit more likely for the nineteenth-century setting, and to resonate with the original fairy tale. However, while Eleanor might want traditional things she goes after them with some very unconventional methods, some of which get pretty horrifying. This casts her conventional goals into a very different light – one which I hope will make the reader stop and think about whether they were really worth it!

You’ve described your journey to publication on your blog. Did becoming an editor make it easier or harder for you when it came to redrafting your own novel? Does working in publishing give you any insights as a writer? 

It varies! Working in publishing made me a lot more familiar with the editorial process, so when I first got my book deal I already had an idea of what to expect in terms of timescale, the editorial process, and a rough idea of what kind of publicity stuff might be on the table for me. I was expecting some redrafting going in, so that wasn’t a problem at all – I’ve never been one of those writers who can knock out a perfect first draft, so even before I became an editor revising my own work was already something I was very familiar with. It did get quite difficult to switch off my inner editor some days though, and sometimes it could be a real challenge to put down the red pen!

Pitch us The Shadow in the Glass. Why should we be reading it?

The Shadow in the Glass is a dark retelling of Cinderella set in Victorian London. The story revolves around Eleanor, a young housemaid who makes a deal with a woman with all-black eyes and receives seven wishes that she can use as she pleases – but those wishes come with a price, and soon Eleanor has to decide if it’s one she’s willing to pay. If you like your fairy tales dark, and have always been a little bit suspicious of those fairy godmothers who go around handing out magic for free, then this is the book for you!

JJA Harwood is an author, editor and blogger. She grew up in Norfolk, read History at the University of Warwick and eventually found her way to London, which is still something of a shock for somebody used to so many fields. When not writing, she can be found learning languages, cooking with more enthusiasm than skill, wandering off into clearly haunted houses and making friends with stray cats. The Shadow in the Glass is her debut novel.