Interview: Sally Gardner on Fairy tales and Retellings
I was so excited when the lovely people at Indigo offered me the chance to interview Sally about her latest novel, Tinder, and her approach to retellings and fairytales. It was the first phone interview I have conducted so I was quite nervous, by which I mean very, nervous however Sally was absolutely lovely and I could have talked to her all day! Here is the interview, as transcribed by my notes and memory so hopefully I’ve not missed or misrepresented anything pertinent, however it is important to note that Sally’s answers are not word for word as she answered but paraphrased and recalled from my memory and notes.
After thanking Sally for holding the interview and introducing myself, my first question was about how she approached retelling The Tinderbox fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen:
Sally: I met several soldiers who had fought in Afghanistan and Iraq and heard their stories, one in particular had a really horrific story – it made me think about war as a universal experience and I thought I could use The Tinderbox story to talk about the trauma of war on the human mind and memory. In the original story, the solider is asked by the witch what he got from war and battles and his answer is “nothing”.
I thought about when to set Tinder and considered the 18th century, however due to the romanticism I didn’t think that was what I wanted. I then met Professor Peter H. Wilson who wrote the book “Europe’s Tragedy: A New History of the Thirty Years War” and I realised that this period (1618-1648) would work for the story as it was particularly horrific and not as well known as the other big European wars.
Me: I found that very interesting as I’ve never read anything about the Thirty Year war before and certainly, it’s not a war I ever covered at school and I’m not sure it is sort of taught now.
Sally: Yes, it’s virtually a completely untaught subject in England yet it involved nearly every country in Europe. It started with religion but by the end it was a war about land and it had a huge death toll.
Me: (At this point my mind just flaked and I spent a minute trying to remember what I was about to ask. Eventually I got there!) So fairy tales have recently seen a resurgence and in particular we seem to embracing that dark side more rather than the sort of Disney and childhood fairy tales we know as we grow up and as an author what do you think about this revival?
Sally: Yes, fairy tales have never been intended for children. They were a traditional coming of age story and they were often told to young girls about to experience menstruation, that’s why there’s a lot of blood in them, like Snow White. Fairy tales were a cautionary warning and a way of thinking about problems. They’re a great enabler and have a lot of power.
The original fairy tales were very spooky. Cinderella for example was a warning against incest – it started with a father who was told he could only marry the girl whose finger fit a specific ring but the only finger it fit was his daughter’s so she ran away and joined a merchant’s family to escape him, but you never really hear about that merchant in modern tales. Cinderella originated in China, which you can see with the bound feet parallels. Every country that’s told a fairy tale places their own slant to it.
Me: So why in particular were you interested in telling a Hans Christian Anderson tale rather than a more famous one or Grimm tale?
Sally: Hans Christian Anderson is a great author. His stories are full of angst and drama and often are so un-P-C (politically correct). In many ways The Tinderbox is impossible to tell today (particularly as someone shows him kindness and he steals their tinderbox and kills them) and I wanted to tell it for so long, but at the same time I didn’t want to water it down.
Me: On that note, Otto is a very complicated character and yet not exactly a hero according to the original fairy-tale, he’s much more of an antagonist probably. So how did you deal with that and create Otto in Tinder?
Sally: I wanted him to be much more traumatised than the soldier in the original story after researching the boy soldiers in Rwanda and I knew Otto couldn’t be a child as he’s seen so much of war and that gave me his voice .
When I knew more about the Tinderbox I knew what to do. I think my tinderbox is much more frightening than in the original and once I knew this and more about this box it really helped.
I also needed to explain why Otto is Otto and I didn’t want it to be a case of him eating an apple and his life flashing before him so I chose the dreams and I put them in the present tense for that immediacy.
Me: Yes and I think that immediacy definitely comes through and really helped me understand Otto more. What really struck me was the violence committed to Otto and when we read about his background and family, especially when we consider what Otto does in the original fairy-tale.
Sally: Yes, Otto’s grown up and never knowing anything but war. He wants peace and an end of the wars. He isn’t the murderer in Tinder, which would be too much.
Me: And that seems to like a good point to ask about the differences between your Tinder and Hans Christian Anderson’s and how did you did approach those?
Sally: Well I knew Tinderbox very well, it really fascinated me because it was so cruel and it seemed like a story where the bad guy gets away with everything. I’d read three versions of the tale including Grimm’s. For me, Tinder is calmer and I had to do my own thing and place my own slant on the story. I knew the arc I wanted my story to take. There was one problem with the adaption as there’s a part where he goes to town and has all these friends and parties, he’s very generous and he ends up losing his money. This just felt too long winded for my story so I cut it down to a robbery which has the same impact and result.
Me: How do you feel about your new version of Tinder bringing people to the original fairy tales and maybe even playing with their own versions?
I think fairy tales are very pliable and they beg for someone to play with them. I think they’re the heartbeat of the earth and they speak to souls in a very deep way.
If you lived at the top of a tower block and feel trapped there then you wouldn’t want to read a story about that as it could reinforce that feeling of no way out, but if you’re given the story of Rapunzel then there is hope.
I always say fairy tales offer a moat and safety, they give you a way to cross, but at the same time there is that safety and the story doesn’t stop being complete if you don’t cross it. Fairy tales can offer a great way of healing.
Me: Is there anything else you would like to say?
Sally: I think the one thing is I’d really love young people who read this to consider about war and the potential cost joining up. There’s no joy with war.
Again thank you so much to Sally for taking the time to take part in this interview and Hermione at Indigo for arranging it. My review of Tinder is going live on Friday so don’t forget to check it out then and keep following the rest of the tour.