[Interviewer’s Note: This is a series of interviews featuring the contributors of The Beastly Bride: Tales of the Animal People edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling.]
Steve Berman’s writing has been a finalist for the Andre Norton and Gaylactic Spectrum Awards, and his editorial efforts earned finalist nods for the Golden Crown Literary and Lambda Literary Awards. Young adult anthologies featuring his short fiction include The Faerie Reel, The Coyote Road, and the forthcoming Teeth, all edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. His novel, Vintage: A Ghost Story, made the GLBT-Round Table of the American Library Association’s Rainbow List of recommended queer-positive books for children and teens.
Charles Tan: Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, what is it about the Swan Lake story that interests you?
Steve Berman: The authors of the book should be thanking you, Charles, for your efforts.
Well, outside of the Nutcracker, Swan Lake is arguably the most well-known ballet. Not too long before I received the invitation to submit to The Beastly Bride, I treated my mother and me to our first professional ballet, Giselle, at the Academy of Music here in Philadelphia. I found it enthralling and knew I would be writing some story that involved, or was inspired by, ballet. My first thought after reading Ellen & Terri’s guidelines was Swan Lake. To me, Swan Lake is fascinating because it has all the elements of both a fairy tale and a romance. However this very traditional path, while comforting to some, can be stifling to creativity. But with Matthew Bourne’s all-male rendition, it’s easy to see that a well-established ballet can be tweaked–like a classical myth or legend–and viewed through a variety of cultural lenses.
CT: What made you decide to focus on Odile?
SB: In most versions of the ballet, the part of Odile, the sorcerer’s daughter, is performed by the same ballerina as Odette, the lead. While doing research on the ballet, I read several fascinating articles that delved into Odile’s motivation: some considered her a dupe for her father’s machinations, and others a willing participant. But the consensus was that, despite her grace, the “Black Swan” was often vilified by not only the audience but directors as well. I came to see her as a more tragic figure.
Because I’m gay, my default orientation for my protagonists is homosexual. Such an Odile would be torn between duty to her father and her own needs. This line of thought soon spiraled into inner dialogs about perceptions of beauty–von Rothbart is obsessed with birds and the males of most species are the colorful, attractive ones, so he’d be biased against human feminine beauty–and, more importantly, gender roles. Odile doesn’t just want another girl to love. She feels trapped… caged might be a better word.
SB: It was a bit of a game for me. One I hope readers share. A couple are wordplay such as the “Black Swain.”
CT: What were the challenges in writing Thimbleriggery and Fledglings?
SB: This was, to date, the hardest story for me ever to write. I agonized over so many elements. I wanted it to be perfect–and no story ever is, but when an author chases perfection it becomes a “chase the tail till exhaustion” situation.
In the first version, I became swept along by the despair I’d written for Odile. Broken-hearted, she commits suicide in that version. And that depressed me terribly. I found myself sullen for days after the ending. I realized that I couldn’t tell a story that involved a lesbian teenager killing herself… it was counter to my ethics and was based on self-loathing and homophobia. Plus, how would any queer reader of a YA anthology feel about herself/himself after reading such a story? A massive rewrite with the goal of “saving Odile” and giving her the ending she deserved really saved the story itself.
I had some excellent advice from trusted readers. Kelly Link induced a paradigm shift in my head by asking me why there had to be any villains at all in the story. That made me realize there are few villains in real life and, too often, their role in stories is a crutch. So I endeavored to make the characters in the story multi-faceted.
CT: What is it about the Beastly Bride concept that appeals to you?
SB: Shape-changing is a wonderful attribute. It involves questions of the loss of self, identity, and adopting new perceptions. It’s an ideal theme for teenage readers who are going through the metamorphoses of adolescence. And part of the “Beastly Bride” is the idea that one is transforming the self to romance another. While this may seem like a terrible thing (Polonius is turning over in his curtain-lined casket), it happens all the time in real life. Whether it’s going to the salon to make ourselves look extra pretty to telling lies about our past to engage a date to plastic surgery, people rarely remain static while pursuing the affection of others.