Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Interview: Elizabeth C. Bunce

Elizabeth C. Bunce is the author of the newly-released A Curse Dark As Gold, which is a retold version of the fairytale Rumpelstiltskin. Read my complete thoughts on this magical book here. I was very excited to have the opportunity to interview Elizabeth, since I loved her book so much!

When did you first decide you wanted to be a writer?

I don't know that I actually decided, so much as realized. I remember being about twelve years old and wondering why I spent so much time daydreaming about imaginary people. Hadn't all the other kids grown out of their imaginary friends long before? But they wouldn't go away, so as a way to discipline them, I started writing about them. And, of course, I was an avid reader, and much of my imagining sent characters from the stories I loved into new adventures. When I was a sophomore in high school, I had this incredible (belated) epiphany: I realized that the books I loved were written by actual real people, as a job. And that I could do it, too.

I never looked back, and I've been writing seriously ever since.

Which came first: the general idea to retell a fairytale, or the idea for A Curse Dark as Gold specifically?

They came hand-in-hand, actually. I've always been a fan of Robin McKinley, Patricia McKillip, the Terri Windling-Ellen Datlow anthologies, and other writers who work with retellings. My first finished novel (conceived of shortly after the grand epiphany, but not written for another ten years) was a retelling of a Greek myth, and I worked with retellings in short pieces for years, all while also playing with some high fantasy and other things. CURSE was born not as an idea for a novel, actually, but as an exercise to combat insomnia. One night in the summer of 2002, I had trouble falling asleep, so I played one of my favorite games: "What if?" What if I were to retell "Rumpelstiltskin?" (chosen entirely at random, I should point out)--what would it be like? The first thing I knew was that the gold Rumpelstiltskin spins should be gold thread, and as a needlewoman, it was a natural development to set the story in a textile mill (instead of the grist--flour--mill of the fairy tale).

(Actually, if you want to know The Real Truth, my first fleeting idea was to set the story in the pulp and paper mills of Alaska during the 1980s, but I knew I wasn't the right person to write that story. But textile mills and gold thread? That was a natural fit.)

By the time I started fleshing out the details, I got pretty excited, and thought I might really be onto something--I might have the germ of a real book here. The next day I did something I'd never done before: shared the idea with my husband. When I saw his reaction, I knew I was right. Work on the book that was to become CURSE began immediately.

Were some of the prominent themes in Curse (such as gold, names, threads...
) apparent right away when you started writing the book or did they work themselves in later?

I knew straightaway that names would be important, as I mention in the Author's Note. In the fairy tale, the heroine doesn't have a name--she's known only as "the miller's daughter" or "the queen." So many familiar fairy tales are named for their protagonists: "Jack and the Beanstalk," "Sleeping Beauty," "Cinderella," etc. But "Rumpelstiltskin" is named for the villain, and the heroine is anonymous, which fascinates me. I liked the idea of playing with a world where names conferred destiny in a way, where names are literal. I think this theme got other themes layered and heaped over it a bit during the writing process, and it ended up forming more of a backdrop for the story than anything, but that's what I started from (in fact, the original title of the book was Charlotte Miller, for exactly this reason: I wanted to give the miller's daughter back her name and identity, and let her tell the story in her own words).

Gold as a theme in "Rumpelstiltskin" I think is almost inevitable, and especially in CURSE, where the plot hinges so heavily on the financial straits of the heroine, it just developed naturally. I needed a character to fill the role of the king--someone who had real power over Charlotte's life--but I find the idea of marrying someone who's just been threatening to kill you kind of distateful. Giving her a banker--who has power over her livelihood--seemed a more palatable alternative, and allowed me to make Randall a much more sympathetic figure than the king in the fairy tale is allowed to be.

And threads? There will always be threads running through my life and my stories; I've had a needle in my hand as long as I can remember. And, of course, Charlotte has that sensibility also, so it was very natural for her to see that metaphor running through her story.

What do you have in common with Charlotte?

Oh, mercy. This is such a hard question--where does the author leave off, and the character begin? I spent so much time inside Charlotte's head that I think she really began to rub off on me--her pet phrases, her mannerisms... I'm cautious, like she is, definitely--I don't have Rosie's gung-ho, take-no-prisoners attitude. I share her love for tradition and the old in our lives--it would be very easy for me to fall in love with Stirwaters and never want to leave. And I also probably share some of her sense of exasperation with the world. My husband says "determination," but I think that's one of the things I learned from Charlotte.

What was your favorite scene in the book to write?

Oh, wow. There are so many! Charlotte painting over the hex symbol, meeting Randall for the first time, Harte and the ladder, the crossroads, the last scene with Uncle Wheeler.... How do I pick one? I think my answer would change daily. Today let's say the scene where Charlotte goes to visit Biddy Tom. I liked playing with her (and the reader's!) expectations for that visit, and making Mrs. Tom both more and less than what's expected. She fulfills that archetypal role, but she's also very much herself, which made her a really fun character to work with.

What is your favorite fairytale (not counting Rumpelstiltskin)?

Well, actually, "Rumpelstiltskin" was always my least favorite fairy tale, which is why it's so strange that it clearly had such resonance for me! My favorite was always "Beauty and the Beast."

Favorite retelling?

Consequently, Robin McKinley's Beauty. Although there are some amazing ones I've read in recent years--Tracy Lynn's Snow, Juliet Marillier's brand-new Wildwood Dancing, Gillian Bradshaw's The Wolf Hunt. There's great work being done in the genre right now.

Do you think you'll do more fairytale retellings? If so, do you have any in mind right now?

Oh, inevitably, although I'll extend that to include other source material--myths, legends, ballads, etc. I have a collection of novellas based on Greek mythology in the works right now, as well as a graphic novel version of "Cinderella" that has some fun twists to it.

What are you working on next?

My current work-in-progress is a high fantasy novel called Starcrossed, about a sixteen-year-old thief named Digger who, while trying to stay unnoticed, finds herself in the middle of a religious civil war.

What is your favorite thing about being a writer?

Pyjamas. I'm only half kidding. But I will say that, when the work is going well, writing is like reading a brand-new book by your favorite author--with all the delight in the well-turned phrase and the delicious suspense of "what happens next?" (When it's not going well, it's an awful lot like an actual job, but that's not what you asked. :)) Knowing my own passion for books growing up, I'm really honored to be able to do this, and maybe get a chance to create some of those delicious moments for other readers. Maybe even some future writers, too--who knows?

Thank you ever so much, Elizabeth! I can't wait to read more from you.


cuileann said...

Man, from the blogs I read, this book's spreading like wildfire.

Sarah Miller said...

LOVE the book, LOVE the author, LOVE the interview.


Ink Mage said...

I so WANT to read the interview, but I don't want any spoilers and I think I'll get a lot more out of it once I've read the book. Apparently my library still thinks it won't be released until March 1st. :-(

~Firefly~ said...

I agree with both of the above comments! I loved this book, and it is spreading like wildfire! I particularly liked the author's answers to the fairy tale related questions :D Those are always fun to here! Thanks for the interview, Erin!

Anidori-Isilee said...

Great interview!

I adored this book. I so want to reread it.

Oh, and's a good thing I've realized that it's pointless to be jealous of all the ARCs you get, or else I would be ranting right now about how unfair it is that you're reading Out of the Wild. ;)

elizabethcbunce said...

Um, I kind of feel like ranting about that too, AI. ;)

Thanks, Erin! I really enjoyed our interview!


Becky said...

This one is coming up soon on my to be read list. I've heard such great things about it. And with an endorsement by both you and Sarah Miller how could it not be good??? I'll come back to read the interview after I've read the book :)

Q said...

I'll have to check this one out!

Q said...

...and I just saw what you're reading right now and I AM SO JEALOUS.

How come you have to be so influential?

Just kidding. I'm happy for you.

Sookie said...

Oh!!!! Thank you for posting this interview! I just finished CURSE and am still enthralled with it!

Polka Dotted Pickles said...

Awesome! Even the cover looks interesting.

Erin said...

Thanks, everyone, glad you liked the interview!

And, uh, sorry about the ARC. *backs away slowly* ;)

Maribeth Kayla said...

I'm getting this book tomorrow! I love the cover and Elizabeth seems really cool. :)

Traci said...

Her answer to your, "favorite thing about being a writer" question was really great!

Barrie said...

Erin and Elizabeth--very fun interview! Thanks!

Ink Mage said...

I just finished A Curse Dark as Gold late last night (stayed up to do it). Thank you so much for this interview! It's great and gives really interesting information about both the author and the book. I, too, am looking forward to more by Ms. Bunce.