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[GUEST POST] Sarah Pinborough on Writing Fairy Tales for Grown-Ups

Sarah Pinborough is a critically acclaimed horror, thriller and YA author. She has written for New Tricks on the BBC and has an original horror film in development. Sarah was the 2009 winner of the British Fantasy Award for Best Short Story, and has three times been short-listed for Best Novel. She has also been short-listed for a World Fantasy Award. Her new novel is Poison, a wicked tale of Snow White.

Spinning the Tale

by Sarah Pinborough

The world has changed. We still love romance, and we all want a happily ever after, but the events of fairy tales aren’t exactly what most women are looking for these days. Most fairy tales end with a handsome prince riding in and saving a damsel in distress and whisking her away to life in a castle. Now, women may still occasionally dream of marrying a rich man and having an easy life, but we’ve learned that there is no such thing as ‘easy’ and actually what we want is mutual respect and a little adventure of our own. And we don’t need men to save us from them. And, to be fair, most men don’t want that either. They like women to be fully rounded individuals with hopes and dreams beyond ‘getting the guy.’

At first I wasn’t sure at all that I would be able to add my own slant to fairy tales – the stories I chose, Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty are so ingrained in my consciousness that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to retell them at all. They seemed too set in stone. I started researching and reading various different versions of the stories, some far older than others, and the first thing that struck me was how dark they were. Some bad things happened in those stories before they were Disney-fied, especially for the female characters. They were a warning against disobeying, or unbalancing the status quo. I actually found the old forgotten versions far more interesting than the saccharin stories that came from the memories of my childhood and musical films, and then I knew that although I wanted to include some fun and humour in my tales, there would also be some darkness. Because life is also like that.

I started with Snow White, (which became Poison) , because that story, even in the modern versions, has the dark elements that appeal to me – witchcraft, attempted murder, jealousies and passion. I first jotted down the key elements of the story and then listed the characters and tried to imagine them as real people to understand what drove them to their various courses of action. That might sound crazy given that they were fairy tale characters, but for the books to work they needed to be understandable and credible. They needed to be truly human. I stared at that list, next to the list of story elements of the fairy tale, and for a long time came up with nothing. And then I had that moment – the germ of the story that would unfold over the three books came to me. And, despite Snow White really being a story about two women locked in rivalry, it the was Prince who gave me the moment. The questions. And the questions were, ‘What kind of man falls in love with a comatose woman in a glass box? What kind of man thinks he can possibly know a woman well enough just from looking at her to want to propose the minute she opens her eyes? What kind of idiot would do that?’

From there it became a domino effect of re-thinking these well-known characters’ motivations. The handsome prince is an illusion (we’ve all been there, haven’t we, girls? The best looking man in the room is rarely the most interesting and so often a disappointment.) What if he was spoilt and foolish? What if the wicked queen had her own sorrows and secrets? What if Snow White was a proper earthy girl who liked a good time? What if the dwarfs were over-worked and under-paid and not so merry? What if these stories took place in a land of warring kingdoms?

Always, always, ideas fall into place after the ‘What ifs?’ What if I could take these three stories and link them – weave an arching arc through them so they could be read as individual tales, but also as one fuller story? And what if you could read them in any order and you’d get the same experience but see the characters differently because of where you started? What if I really could turn these stories into something of my own?

I suddenly knew that I could.

I wanted to keep the sense of the fairy tale in the written style, but I wanted to write fairy tales for grown ups. For those of us who still want our happy endings but know that life can be tough and are more cynical than we were in the first flush of youth. Those of us old enough to know that love isn’t easily won with a pretty smile and a perfect dress, or a castle and wealth and privilege and that kind of love is fleeting and fickle. For those of us who understand that sometimes hate and love can be inextricably linked and hard to untangle. But for those of us who believe there is still magic and humour and wonder in the world, if we look close enough. And that perhaps, true love, really does exist. Basically, I wrote fairy tales for someone like me.

And dammit, once I’d finished, I realised that maybe I do still believe in fairy tale endings, after all. They’re just never quite where you’re looking for them.

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