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.
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."
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.