Robin McKinley has won various awards and citations for her writing, including the Newbery Medal for The Hero and the Crown, a Newbery Honor for The Blue Sword, and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature for Sunshine. Her other books include the New York Times bestseller Spindle’s End; two novel-length retellings of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, Beauty and Rose Daughter; Deerskin, another novel-length fairy-tale retelling, of Charles Perrault’s Donkeyskin; and a retelling of the Robin Hood legend, The Outlaws of Sherwood. She lives with her husband, the English writer Peter Dickinson; three dogs (two hellhounds and one hellterror); an 1897 Steinway upright; and far too many rosebushes.
Open Road asked Robin McKinley to reminisce about winning the Newbery Award for The Hero and the Crown thirty years ago this month and about her writing career.
Open Road: Do you remember where you were when you received the call that The Hero and the Crown had won the ALA Newbery Award?
Robin McKinley: I was sitting at my desk in front of my beloved old-even-then IBM Selectric I typewriter drinking a very large mug of very strong tea (some things haven’t changed) and staring out the window. I was living in Blue Hill, Maine, it was, of course, January, and there was a lot of snow on the ground. The view was very pretty—my office window looked out on Blue Hill stream—but I was glad I did not have to excavate the large white car-shaped lump in the driveway and attempt to drive anywhere.
I had been aware Hero was on the short list, despite my editor’s best efforts to protect me from this information. She—Susan Hirschman of Greenwillow Books—knew I would not enjoy the suspense and told me firmly to forget it. I had, surprisingly, done so. At least to the extent that I had forgotten that ALA was this week and the Newbery announcement would be today. When the phone rang I just answered it.
OR: How did it feel to have The Hero and the Crown named as the winner?
RM: I burst into tears. After that my memory gets a bit hazy. . . .
OR: Are there any other awards you’ve won that are especially significant for you?
RM: I won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature in 2004 for my novel Sunshine. I was a slavish, drooling devotee of The Lord of the Rings when I was a kid, as I think a lot of my generation of fantasy writers were. Fantasy as a thriving genre hadn’t been invented yet and LOTR was very nearly all there was. It’s always nice to win something but I was extremely tickled by the idea that a modern urban vampire novel with a typical McKinley heroine—saving the world while protesting that it’s not her job and she can’t do it anyway—was selected as “best exemplifying the spirit of the Inklings” that year. When I was a kid I could roll with Tolkien’s lack of humour and sometimes-painful forsoothly-ness. The racism and classism troubled me without my really clocking what it was until I was older (I was a middle class white kid in a mostly middle class, mostly white society). But the lack of women doing anything but being beautiful and symbolic (don’t get me started on Eowyn) bothered me from first exposure. And is white-hot critical to the storyteller I grew up to be.
OR: When and why did you begin writing for young adults? What are some of the differences between writing for adults and writing for younger readers?
RM: I didn’t. I began writing stories and I wrote them the way they came to me. I sent my first novel, Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast, to what was then Harper and Row. They took it and decided it was young adult. This was the late ’70s and I barely knew what “young adult” was: the libraries I hung out in put A Wizard of Earthsea and Five Children and It in kids’ books and The Riddle-Master of Hed and The Last Unicorn in adult—cough cough cough—science fiction. I still write what and how the story comes; my stories tend to come YA/crossover and fantasy, but that’s not a decision I consciously make.
One of the additional benefits of Sunshine’s award for adult literature is that it makes a few more people register that it might not be suitable reading for their voraciously fantasy-reading ten-year-olds. I still have flashbacks of the seventh-grade teacher who came up to me on the Sunshine tour and told me cheerfully that she hadn’t read it yet but she’d already assigned it to her class. Some of her students were with her that night and had read it. Some of them may even have been ready to read it, but it’s not a kids’ book. I don’t myself think it’s even YA although I don’t have a problem with teenagers reading it.
Age ranges and categories are a necessary evil in a world where there are so many books available (note: YAAAY), but they are at best only indicators. (And you still have to pay attention to what they’re indicating.) Kids grow up at very different speeds and have very different lives. I was a precocious reader in terms of vocabulary and comprehension; socially and emotionally not so much. I wouldn’t have wanted me at ten or eleven (I was eleven when I first read LOTR) reading Sunshine. To parents, teachers, and librarians I say: I know you’re doing your best. Good luck.
But I also say to adults who feel they have outgrown kids’ books: You’re missing out. A good story is a good story. You have to make allowance at the younger end for vocabulary, knowledge of the world, and what provokes nightmares in a given reader—it might be bears or aliens when you’re four; I won’t read serial-murderer books—but if it’s a good story your four-year-old will grow into it and you won’t grow out of it. I still like the anarchic mayhem in The Cat in the Hat. And that one of the kids is a girl.
OR: How have you been able to remain connected to the mindset of that age group?
RM: Irremediable immaturity.
OR: In what ways can fantasy speak to reality?
RM: Pretty much from my first fairy tale I had a clue that fantasy could shed light on reality. Maybe I should say so-called fantasy and so-called reality, which is part of the light-shedding thing: there’s still an awful lot us humans don’t know, and some of it is, or will turn out to be, surprising. Reading fantasy necessitates engaging with a world different from ours; and that engagement obliges you to think differently, too. Prune-faced anti-fantasists say crushingly that fantasy is “escapism.” I’m all in favour of escapism—both the park-brain-at-door silly fun kind and the stimulating and invigorating kind. It widens your own life and frame of reference if you can bolt Middle-earth, Chrestomanci Castle, and—er—Damar onto your day-to-day world. The best fantasy isn’t necessarily more thought-provoking than the best straight fiction, but it does provoke thoughts that realistic fiction cannot.
OR: Why do you often choose to write stories about strong heroines? Could you tell us a bit about the role of women and girls in your work?
RM: I don’t choose to write stories about strong heroines. Those are the stories that present themselves to me to be written, for which I am deeply grateful—both that I get to tell stories and that I get to tell stories about strong women. Once my fairy godmother had whacked me with her wand and said “STORYTELLER” it doesn’t surprise me that this is the storyteller I turned out to be; it’s where my passion lies. If the stories that came to me started featuring Hannibal Lecter and Alexander Portnoy, first I’d go back into psychotherapy and then I’d look for another job.
OR: Could you tell us about any negative reactions your work has provoked? How do you respond to parents who take issue with your books?
RM: The overwhelming majority of my reader response is POSITIVE. Which is another thing I’m grateful for; there’s no point being a storyteller if you haven’t got an audience, and that’s aside from any question of earning a living by (you hope) selling copies of your books. But of course I get negative feedback, too, which is not a bad thing in itself; a book that nobody disliked must be pretty bland. The thing that bites me about the people that go to the effort to contact me to tell me they hate one of my books and why is that they are very rarely taking the book on its own terms. They’re mad because it didn’t succeed on their terms. I have zero sympathy for this attitude. If a book isn’t what you’re looking for, go find one that is. The one that isn’t what you’re looking for isn’t bad merely because it wasn’t what you wanted when you read it. This goes for the kids who write to me saying that my books are too hard or that there’s not enough mushy mooning around, um, I mean romance, or that the fairy tale I retold shouldn’t have been told that way but this other way. It goes as well for parents who also tell me that my books are too hard for children—well yes, they are, they’re not for children, although good readers read them—or that the subject matter is unsuitable. A breathtaking example of the last is the belief that all fantasy is “teaching children lies.” Um. No.
I am not saying that my books are flawless or immune to criticism. I am saying that you need to read any book on its own terms before you write to the author telling her what she did wrong. And the pro-censorship people who, for example, want to take And Tango Makes Three or Dragonhaven—in which one character comes out —off the shelves of their school libraries? Or who tell me Hero should be stripped of its Newbery and its YA rating because Aerin has an affair with one man and marries a different one? I’m appalled that these are even still issues.
OR: Could you tell us about some of the feedback you’ve received from young readers?
RM: One of my favourite fan letters was also one of my first. It reads in its entirety: “I liked your book Beauty very much. My favourite part was when the Beast asked Beauty to marry him and she said no.” I have this framed, and it hangs on the wall behind my desk.