Friday, March 27, 2015


At the end of summer in 2013, I took a long weekend to nest, write, and recover -- I'd had surgery, uprooted my family after buying a house far from all that was familiar, and we'd lost one of our clan, the famous rescue cat Chicken, whose passing left us all feeling as though our hearts had been ripped out of our chests.  During those Three Days of Heaven in Xanadu, I sipped coffee, took walks, read books, and wrote like a dervish. One of the stories completed during the surge was a modern, creepy retelling of the classic Grimm's fable, "Thumbling".  The gist of that particular tale involves a childless couple who wish themselves into having a baby -- a tiny child that rides around in the ear of their horse, among its other adventures.  I'd always found this fable unnerving, and already had put down a page or so about a woman who is part of a circle of social knitters who finds herself mired in shadows after one of the group announces that she and her husband are expecting a baby. The first draft of "Thumbling" dashed itself off over the course of the weekend, completed on my sun porch, a place that has become my al fresco office during the five months of the year when our new town isn't frozen solid and a vast, white wasteland. This past summer, the story's longhand draft came out of the file cabinet and was edited on my laptop during a spectacular August weekend visit from my good friends, those literary geniuses, the Sisters Dent -- I'd read a call for spooky, modern takes on the classics by the fine folks at Tacitus Publishing. I sent off "Thumbling" and, on its first time out, Editor James S. Austin (who also created the amazing cover and interior art) accepted it into the project, the wonderful It's a Grimm Life.

"As a small publisher looking for the proper start, I felt the need to launch a project that embodies Tacitus Publishing's desire to promote writing and writers.  Anthologies are one of the best opportunities for writers, both practiced and new, to get a piece published.  They give a writer the chance to explore new concepts and experiment with a different voice while not having to feel the pressure of writing a story that must appeal to a broad audience," says Austin.  "I have always been fascinated by the assorted stories from past cultures, especially the Grimms’ collection of fairy tales.  It was during my college studies in anthropology, which included an examination of folklore and oral traditions, when I came to appreciate their influence on the literary world.  Their simple but moralistic plot-threads are still alive in popular film and television today.  It’s a Grimm Life offers the reader a chance to once again enter these past fables but through a new perspective and in a modern setting."

Many of my fellow It's A Grimm Life authors shared the back-stories behind their stories.

E.M. Eastick on "Fiddler's Green":  "My house is full of musical instruments: a piano; a guitar; an accordion and clarinet, neither of which I can play with any elegance; a variety of whistles, and a funny-looking mini-violin made from chunky wood and screechy strings, which I purchased on the streets of Katmandu just to stop the guy from playing it in my ear (an effective marketing strategy, it would seem). It's not surprising, then, that I should choose the Grimms' fairy tale about a singing bone for my modern-day retelling. The character of Stephen and his tragic pursuit of greatness were inspired by my mother: whenever I got to thinking I was the universal champion of [fill in the activity], my mother would gently remind me, 'No matter how good you are at something, there will always be someone in the world who's better.' Tough love, perhaps, but, so far, it's managed to keep me grounded and out of prison."

Jessamy Corob Cook on "The Wicked Stepmother":  "When the Disney film Tangled came out my roommate at the time admitted she didn't know the Grimm's version of ‘Rapunzel.’ Shocking! I set out to do my bit for humanity -- I found the story online and read it aloud to her. As I read I realized that what made this such a dark and unsettling story was not the prince getting his eyes scratched out (though Disney did leave that out of Tangled) but the fact that all the witch's evil deeds have love at their core. She can't bear to see Rapunzel grow up and become a woman, and will do anything to keep that from happening. She wants Rapunzel all to herself -- even though Rapunzel was not her daughter to begin with. Part of why I love fairy tales is because they are able to pierce the darkest depths of human experiences, including the dark side of love, and specifically, in this case, motherly love. For the record I think Tangled is great, but it's only one of infinite possible retellings of this story: as is the Grimm's story; as is mine."

(James Austin's original artwork for my story, "Thumbling")
Richard Tasonmart on "Where the Damned Go":  "I had the pleasure of working in a bookshop once.  It was a nice job, until the man with the French horn started coming along every lunch time and made three hours of every working day a living, brassy hell. He started to gather small crowds, this man. Most of them weren't loving his take on 'Wonderwall' and "She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain' -- they were just amazed by his nerve. Some workers in an office above where French Horn Man liked to play complained to the local press about his music disturbing their work.  A legend was born.  Soon his crowds were huge.  Everyone wanted to come and see this nuisance in the flesh.  I watched from a window of the bookshop.  Being the horror-loving man that I am, I imagined the whole town coming to see him, jeering and telling him to shut up.  Only then he'd turn into a dragon, and incinerate them with his breath, or take them all into his giant jaws and gulp them down before moving on to the next miserable place.  Of course, in this scenario I was immune, and watched the whole thing from inside the bookshop, horrified.  The reason I was immune was because I wouldn't be able to hear the horn for some reason.  This was the first spark of 'Where the Damned Go'.  Afterwards, it was simply a matter of determining where my Hamelin was, and what debt had to be paid.  As a writer who always follows his sparks, I find myself more often than not contemplating my Hamelins and my debts.  Work these out, and I usually have a story."

Adrean Messmer on "Waxwing":  "I’ve always loved the Juniper Tree. It was the first of the Grimm stories to make me realize that fairy tales were not exactly intended for children. From the stepmother trying to pin the death on her daughter, to feeding the murdered child to his own father for dinner, there was some twisted stuff going on. It’s such an overlooked story and super creepy. I’d been playing around with the retelling for a while. I wanted to keep it just as disturbing without rehashing the same plot elements. And I wanted to focus on some of the issues that people face today. Self-mutilation, suicide, child abuse, and zombie birds. You know, just every day kind of stuff."

Zoe McAuley on "Fairy Tale Endings":  "For me, putting things in a modern setting implies facing up to the real consequences of the events in the story, rather than glossing over them. With fairy tales, it's not really necessary to put a dark spin on them -- they're pretty damned dark already if you take a clear look at them. I got thinking about how fairy tales would play out in the real world and quickly concluded that they'd result in some pretty messed-up kids. I wanted to showcase how these kids might end up, the damage done to them -- the trouble was in cutting the number of examples down to a snappy story! But three is always a good fairy tale number. I didn't have the ending when I started; that just clicked partway through writing. It was irresistibly circular."

Victor Hyde on "Kurt & Wolfgang's Final Show":  "I grew up in a small town where people who were nobodies took on quasi-celebrity status: an estate agent, a butcher, a hairdresser that worked in Johannesburg for a month.  One such person was an old man with a hand puppet. He made the rounds at most birthday parties and functions for children with an old hand puppet of a dead-faced boy with wide eyes and a nutcracker’s mouth. Everyone knew of him but nobody really knew him.  His audience was limited to children younger than six. From the faded clothes and rusted car it was clear that these gigs barely paid enough to keep him alive. One day he did not pitch up for a children’s party and a few days later he was found dead in his flat. The flat was home to two hundred hand puppets, some brand new, others ancient, that the old man had surrounded himself with. Yet he only ever used the one puppet. To me there is something of a sad insanity to the story. When It’s a Grimm Life came along, the memory jumped the queue and demanded attention. Kurt and Wolfgang’s Final Show is my answer."

(Tacitus Publisher James. S. Austin)
Carmen Tudor on "Cast Me Adrift on Birdsong and Ash":  "As an Aussie, it can be difficult to sell a non-American setting to an American publisher, and yet those are my favorites; endless Californian or Texan settings don’t really do it for me. My story ‘Cast Me Adrift on Birdsong and Ash’ is set in a small fishing village on the Kent coast. It’s not Dickens’s marshes of Great Expectations, or even anywhere near Australia, but that novel definitely pushed my story in a particular direction. Adding my love of Grimm’s fairytales was an easy addition and the tale of ‘The Fisherman and His Wife’ slotted in alongside the gray skies and smoky chimneys quite nicely. As with most Grimm tales, the endings don’t always inspire happy thoughts. I’m quite fond of letting the reader decide if a story is meant to be as macabre as it seems on first reading, and ‘Cast Me Adrift on Birdsong and Ash’ is no different. Have a read. Let your imagination take you away from California and the American Dream. Bundle up against the cold, salty sea air and take a ride with a talking fish. And if Grimms-style endings don’t work for you, feel free to use your imagination. The fish won’t mind."

Charie D. La Marr on "Snaps":  "‘Snaps’ is a story that is very close to my heart. I started it twenty-eight years ago when I was the new mom of a son named Travis -- on a very boring extended maternity leave. (It was a planned pregnancy!) I had just gotten my first computer, a state-of-the-art Leading Edge and I was using it to write newsletters for my mother’s travel agency. I have been writing stories since I was about six and I decided it was time to learn how to really use the computer to start writing fiction. Somewhere in my former office in the basement in my huge Steelcase desk is the original story on one of those 5-inch floppy discs. Of course I have no way to read that disc so I had to start over. It kind of sat in the back of my head for about twenty-seven years before I finally wrote it again. Yes, I actually counted snaps on more than one occasion. I have a little OCD in me. Okay, a lot. And the numbers in the story were the result of my research. It’s probably a lot different now with onesies and Velcro and stuff like that. But I was a ‘green’ mother who raised my son in cloth diapers and that meant old-fashioned rubber pants. More snaps.  I call this story a dark cyberpunk fairy tale because of the computer connection. Oddly, or maybe not, Travis grew up to be a computer genius before he was seven. When I originally sent the story to James, he suggested I increase the age of the computer genius upstairs. I did, but it gave me a chuckle. Because the original fifth grade genius and hacker actually lives with me. I guess it’s unusual, but in our house it was just normal. Add to that my love of offbeat fairy tales. Growing up, there was only one cartoon show I would watch and that was Rocky and Bullwinkle. And ‘Fractured Fairy Tales’ always cracked me up. I still have a stuffed Fractured Fairy on my bed. The original versions of the Grimm’s tales are just so bad-ass that it is fun to mix them up. And I just loved writing about that little twerp with the bad wardrobe. To me he is pure fairy tale."

Liz Crossland on "Black Rock":  "‘What if’ scenarios can lead to interesting stories. ‘Black Rock’ came out of an MA writing assignment where we were challenged to think of a modern twist on a fairy tale. The character of Rapunzel, hair tumbling down from the highest tower, was worthy of subversion: what if Rapunzel was not so innocent? What if she metaphorically let down her hair?  What if her hair was a weapon, as well as a means of liberation? I set the story in northern England where schoolgirl ‘Rapunzel’ is trapped in a damaging relationship. A strict word limit led to my idea of Rapunzel tweeting for help. So when I heard Tacitus Publishing was commissioning a Grimm anthology, I returned to my manuscript, eager to expand on the plot.  If you’ve ever visited the North Yorkshire moors, you may recognise the isolated setting of the story. Wander the Victorian streets of Whitby and you’ll see shop windows full of jet-black jewellery. The semi-precious stone Whitby Jet is a recurring image in ‘Black Rock’ and, for me, this symbolises the dark heart of the story: the flaws in the disfigured ‘Prince’, the elusive heroine and the obsession she has with her dark motorbike-riding knight."

1 comment:

  1. This was a fun project with some great authors. Thanks Gregory!