The Word Nerds are pleased to welcome our guest for the day, Erzebet Yellowboy.
I first found her through her book, Sleeping Helena, which I loved and reviewed here.
She’s a writer and artist and lover of fairy tale stories. You can find out more from her at her website.
1. What prompted you to rework Sleeping Beauty into “Sleeping Helena?” What was challenging about tackling a story that people think they know already?
First I should say that of all the fairy tales I’ve ever read, I never imagined I’d end up working with “Sleeping Beauty”–it certainly wasn’t one of my favorites. But then I read Sherri S. Tepper’s Beauty and was utterly smitten with her version. Tepper sort of redeemed Beauty as a character for me, but it was still years before the seed of my Beauty was born. I was looking through some old family photos when I came upon one, circa 1898, of my great-grandmother, her three sisters
and brother, and her mother. I began to ponder the intricate emotional weavings of my family — no strangers to plots and schemes — and suddenly the idea for my Beauty struck. What would happen if the fairies were sisters who all had a serious interest in Beauty’s well-being? Old sisters, ancient even, who’d had years to build up the kind of family drama that makes for seriously convoluted relationships. So that photo became the inspiration for a story that really concerned the fairy godmothers and how they might react to each other and in particular, to the wicked one among them. The
challenge was in deciding which familiar elements of “Sleeping Beauty” to keep and which to jet. Keep too many, and I’ve done nothing but retell the story. Jet too many and I’ve written an entirely different story. There are quite a few variants of this tale type, so I decided to stay as true as possible to the first half of Perrault’s popular version, but to twist it in such a way as to make it my own.
2. From reading your blog/website, it’s clear you have a love for fairy tales. Why do you find these stories so magical?
I have been asking myself that question for a long time. I could say fairy tales were my first stories, and so they’ve stuck with me through the years. But I think the real reason is that I find much of personal value in these stories. I was very fortunate not to be exposed to the Disney versions as a child, so my fairy tales were dangerous and quite bloody. They
revealed the darker side of human nature, so when I had to deal with it myself I was prepared — I had ways to process some of the nastier things that happened to me. But even more importantly, fairy tales are my touchstone, they never
3. You’ve been on the other side of the book industry as a publisher, starting Papaveria. How has that helped you as a writer? fail to leave me with a sense of wonder, and that is something I cannot get enough of.
I think of myself a book artist who dips into the more commercial side of the industry now and again, rather than someone who is deep in it and knows all of the ins and outs. My experiences with it have given me a broader understanding of the decisions a publisher has to make about a particular short story or novel. It has hardened me a little bit. I have learned to ask myself about my own work, “will this sell?” and to actually care about the answer. When I first started writing, that question never crossed my mind. This could be one of the reasons my “unsold” folder is so full! This is not to say that anyone should let a “no, this won’t sell” stop them–all writing is good writing. A craft cannot be honed without practice. More importantly, I’ve learned to deal with giving up control of my work and its presentation. It can very difficult to go from having almost complete control over how a finished product will appear, which is what I have with Papaveria, to having almost no control over it, which is what I have as an author. I have become very skilled in letting go.
4. You also make books as an artist. How does that kind of creativity influence your writing, or vice versa?
It’s funny how alike the two are: writing and book-making. With both of them, you start with a blank canvas. The writer has the white page, the book-maker has the pages full of words but starts with a blank binding. I build my hand bound books in the same way I build a story, beginning with the character of the book, moving on to the setting, and then finally, the actual construction of the book, which I think of as the plot. Even with book binding, you have to get from point A to point B, and you have to do it in a certain sequence. Sometimes when I’m in the process of binding a book, I’ll think about whatever I’m writing at the time. If I’m working on the cover of a book, I’ll let my mind drift to my setting of my story. If, for example, the color of the cover doesn’t work, I’ll look harder at the setting to find what isn’t working there. I really don’t separate the writing from the art; each one gives me a new way of looking at the other.
5. What are you working on next as a writer and/or as an artist?
My writing focus right now is my next novel, with a working title of Grandmother’s House. It is the story of a changeling girl who returns to fairyland, the old human woman who tries to lure her back, and the house that has captured them both. I’ve always been interested in stories about magical places (libraries, houses, cities) that have a life of their own, so that’s something I want to explore in this book. Papaveria has a ton of interesting projects lined up (some very overdue), including works by Adrienne J. Odasso, Yoon Ha Lee, Mike Allen, Lavie Tidhar, Jane Yolen, Berrien C. Henderson, and Theodora Goss. Some of these will be commercial editions, but most of them will be hand bound, limited editions. That is where Papaveria started, and while I enjoy releasing trade editions, my heart still lies with the paper and thread.