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Fairy tales. The genre shows up all the time, everywhere–in film, art, and literature. Consider films like M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water, and the very aesthetic of Shyamalan himself, across the body of his work. (Lady in the Water  is itself a treatise on the interpretation of modern myth in light of its historical distillation.) With regards to literature, I recently had the opportunity to discuss the use of the fairy tale genre in contemporary writing with Sandy Longhorn, someone who is thinking and writing about this very subject. Sandy is the author of Blood Almanac (Anhinga Press), which won the Anhinga Prize for Poetry.  Her newer poetry is forthcoming or has appeared recently in Cincinnati Review, New South, The Rumpus, South Dakota Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and elsewhere.  Longhorn lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, is an Arkansas Arts Council fellow, and blogs at Myself the only Kangaroo among the Beauty.


CR: Could you talk about your interest in fairy tales as a medium of interpretation in literature? What sparked it and what elements provide for the continuation of your interest?

SL: First, thank you for the interest in my work and for posing these intricate questions.

I started writing a series of fairy tale poems based on the Midwest after reading Mary Biddinger’s book of poetry, Prairie Fever.  Although not a book of fairy tales, I was impressed with the way Biddinger presented some of the darker undertones of living in the Midwest.

After I drafted the first poem “Midwest Nursery Tales,” I went back and read many of the iconic Western fairy tales as they are presented in the original Brothers Grimm books.  These are the non-Disneyfied versions where the ‘good guys’ are often injured or horribly transformed and the ‘bad guys’ often meet bloody ends.  There are versions that go back even farther, but I haven’t done the research yet to find those books.

The gender issues presented in both the Disney versions and the Grimm versions may be one of my primary interests, that and the social ethics the tales attempt to prescribe.  An education in literature gave me the skills to think critically about the tales, and from my first lit classes in college, I began to look beneath the surface of any media I absorbed and into the ideas of self-identity and social positioning, those powerful messages often at work without our acknowledgment.

 


CR: What are you doing in your own work in regards to the fairy tale genre?  How are you using it?

SL: My work in fairy tales is a bit different than what I’ve seen in the past when I’ve read re-interpretations of traditional tales.  Instead of building on the past, I’ve attempted to create new tales, tales that more accurately reflect my own experiences.  Those experiences are grounded in the landscape and the people of the rural Midwest.

In my reading of the Grimm tales, I was struck by the idea of transformation.  In many cases that transformation results from a spell put on a person by a witch or due to some other magical element.  However, in my reality, there was a rock-solid disbelief in anything but hard work and a pure heart.  People got what they deserved; we reaped what was sown, literally and figuratively.  Thus, each of my fairy tale poems is about a girl who is transformed not by magic but by the weather, the land, and/or the industry of agriculture around her.


CR: Going back to the original fairy tales–the gritty, unprettified versions where sometimes the characters get picked to shreds–do you think there is a need in the literary world for the censored (Disney) versions to be ousted?

SL: I don’t know about a need, but I do know that kids can take a lot more than Disney gives them credit for.  Even while I was happy as a child to watch the Disney versions of Cinderella, Snow White, and all the rest, I knew that they didn’t match my reality.

I’m not one to exclude much of anything, but I would argue for a balance.  In particular, when talking about the ‘censored versions,’ we are usually talking about books and/or movies designed for children.  I’m not a parent and I wouldn’t begin to impose my beliefs on those who are; however, we live in a perilous world.  Ask the children who survived Hurricane Katrina about terror, stress, and heartache.  Ask the children whose homes burned down in wildfires in California, Texas, and Oklahoma.  Ask the children whose parents have lost lives or limbs or mental stability to wars overseas.  Ask those who have suffered from domestic violence.  Perhaps the argument for the ‘censored versions’ is one for pure entertainment and escape.  There is a place for that, surely, yet that escape will not necessarily help heal the wounds.  Reality will be waiting when the book cover closes or the movie reaches the end of its run.  How will we prepare our children to return to reality?

 


CR: Do you think we are creating our own fairy tales in this day and age?  If so, how and to what extent, in your opinion?

SL: I do.  The first examples that come to mind are many of the Pixar movies (and the like) that appeal to both children and adults.  I think of Wall-E, Up, and Finding Nemo right off the top of my head.  There are truly scary scenes in each of these movies that expose the hard truths about danger in our world and how we navigate it.  Certainly, the Harry Potter phenomenon lends itself to the fairy tale and draws in modern issues of diversity and a global morality.  The idea of Voldemort as the embodiment of evil fits how overwhelming the bad things of the world sometimes feel.

I suppose some might claim the rise in vampire and werewolf novels for young adults is another foray into fairy tales.  I confess I haven’t read them, as I have a really low scare tolerance (I’ve always had trouble with the line between fiction and reality).  Stephen King’s novels might fall into this same category, in particular The Green Mile comes to mind, although I can’t read much of his work, either, for the nightmares his scenes induce in me.

At the root, a fairy tale goes beyond entertainment.  There is a cautionary purpose there, a moral lesson meant to build a stronger community.  Even though we no longer gather around the hearth, we still have folk tales, just in a variety of media.

 


CR: Do you think there is an aversion toward fairy tales in some literary circles, and if so, why would you say this exists?

SL: This is so interesting.  I’ve heard this question several times now, and I must admit, I wasn’t aware of any aversion to fairy tales.  However, since the question has been raised, I’m beginning to sense that others have felt this aversion.

My own poems are quite new and still making their way out into the world of lit mags and publishers.  I simply might not have felt any push back against the content yet.  I did have one editor email me a rejection with a note that the poems I’d submitted (four of my fairy tales) didn’t fit her journal’s aesthetic but she would welcome a submission with other poems.  I suppose that could be the aversion to which the question refers.

I’m guessing that there have been a lot of poems and stories written that are based on traditional tales that have not gone beyond the tradition and made something new.  In some ways, writing in response to fairy tales might be similar to writing ekphrastic poems.  The writer’s duty is to use the previous art and explore some new territory.  If that isn’t done well, it could lead to a negative branding of the genre, I suppose.

There could also be some gender issues at work here, although I have no scientific proof.  Fairy tales fall in the realm of the domestic.  The connotation of the words brings to mind a mother, grandmother, or nanny with her children gathered around her listening with rapt attention.  Many feminist writers have re-imagined the traditional texts as a way forward into empowerment and a new paradigm.  If anyone has a problem with fairy tales for those reasons, then I’d say it is his or her loss.  Everyone’s voice, everyone’s vision, should have a place at the table.

 

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Since my early 20s I have admired Woody Allen’s integrity and ambition as an American artist–especially one largely self-taught and working in a popular medium. That his ambition has evidently lessened in later years (no longer do his pictures attempt greatness–Allen now seems content to simply make movies, no matter their quality) has not affected my regard.

Most of these quotes are taken from Eric Lax’s excellent biography, Woody Allen, although others are gathered from that most obvious of sources, IMDB. Consider this a portrait of an artist in his own words:

“The vision of the audience is never as deep as the vision of the artist involved. They are always willing to settle for less than you want for yourself.”

“Almost all of my work is autobiographical—exaggerated but true. I’m not social. I don’t get an enormous input from the rest of the world. I wish I could get out but I can’t.”

“[My ambition] would be to make a film that when I finish I can say ‘This picture ranks with Bunuel’s best and Bergman’s and Kurosawa’s.’ That would give me a nice inner feeling of warmth. So far, I haven’t even come close. I think I’ve made some decent movies and a larger number of okay movies, but I’ve never made a great movie” while elsewhere he said, “I realize that is aiming high, but I think it’s not a very satisfying accomplishment for me to aim at a more modest goal and achieve it.”

“If they said to me tomorrow, “We’re pulling the plug and we’re not giving you any more money to make films,” that would not bother me in the slightest. I mean, I’m happy to write for the theatre. And if they wouldn’t back any of my plays, I’m happy to sit home and write prose. But as long as there are people willing to put up the vast sums of money needed to make films, I should take advantage of it. Because there will come a time when they won’t.”

“I can see it in the dailies when something’s wrong. But I don’t always know exactly what I’m doing. I just know when it’s not right. So I’ll say to an actress with a question about her character, ‘Just do what you’re doing at the moment.’”

“In the United States things have changed a lot, and it’s hard to make good small films now. There was a time in the 1950s when I wanted to be a playwright, because until that time movies, which mostly came out of Hollywood, were stupid and not interesting. Then we started to get wonderful European films, and American films started to grow up a little bit, and the industry became more fun to work in than the theatre. I loved it. But now it’s taken a turn in the other direction and studios are back in command and are not that interested in pictures that make only a little bit of money. When I was younger, every week we’d get a Federico Fellini an Ingmar Bergman or a Jean-Luc Godard or François Truffaut, but now you almost never get any of that. Filmmakers like myself have a hard time. The avaricious studios couldn’t care less about good films – if they get a good film they’re twice as happy, but money-making films are their goal. They only want these $100-million pictures that make $500 million. That’s why I’m happy to work in London, because I’m right back in the same kind of liberal creative attitude that I’m used to.”

“I’m going to try before my life is over to rise to the occasion and make one or two [films] that would be considered great by any standards.”

“I can’t imagine that the business should be run any other way than that the director has complete control of his films. My situation may be unique, but that doesn’t speak well for the business — it shouldn’t be unique, because the director is the one who has the vision and he’s the one who should put that vision onto film.”

“There are two things that bother me about [the Academy Awards] …. They’re political and bought and negotiated for—although many worthy people have deservedly won—and the whole concept of awards is silly. I cannot abide by the judgment of other people, because if you accept it when they say you deserve an award, then you have to accept it when they say you don’t. Also, it’s hard not to get a slightly skewed feeling about the Academy Awards because apart from the ads and the campaigning and the studio loyalties, it’s a popularity contest really, because if the picture is not seen well or didn’t do very well its chances are hurt….”

“Hollywood for the most part aimed at the lowest common denominator. It’s conceived in venality, it’s motivated by pandering to the public, by making a lot of money.”

“How can you have any positive feelings, or how can the whole thing [the Academy Awards] have any credibility? I find it hard to accept so much of what they extol and what they ignore.”

“Of course, I would love everybody to see my films. But I don’t care enough ever to do anything about it. I would never change a word or make a movie that I thought they would like. I really don’t care if they come or not. If they don’t want to come, then they don’t; if they do come, then great. Do I want to do what I do uncompromisingly, and would I love it if a big audience came?Yes, that would be very nice. I’ve never done anything to attract an audience, though I always get accused of it over the years.”

“Retire and do what? I’d be doing the same thing as I do now: sitting at home writing a play, then characters, jokes and situations would come to me. So I don’t know what else I would do with my time.”

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Funny, I believe we PLUMBers have a bit of a theme going here; funny too, because that’s exactly what I had in mind to write about this time around–film. Or, more specifically, Quentin Tarantino.

According to IMDb.com, Mr. Tarantino (oh, bosh, let’s drop the Mr.; I am after all, on first-name terms with the man) has a spate of new films due out in the next few years, some being written by Quentin (aw heck, sometimes I just call him Q) and some to be produced. That’s exciting news for someone like me, who cut her teeth on Pulp Fiction.

So I fudged a little… I’m not exactly on first-name terms with Q, but I am in an interesting position: I need to query his agent for a possible blurb, which if secured, would appear on the back of a forthcoming book. I can predict a few varieties of responses from this contact. The first being what can most reasonably be expected from Mr. Quentin Tarantino’s agent, i.e.,

1. Dear Ms. Reeser,

 

Thank you for contacting me. Unfortunately, Mr. Tarantino is unavailable to consider any publicity at this time from outside sources.

 

Best wishes,

Mr. Quentin Tarantino’s Agent

Or, at the opposite extreme, the response that would be a complete surprise,

2. Dear Ms. Reeser,

 

Thank you for contacting me. I am an avid reader of your journal and publications. Mr Tarantino is also a follower of your writing, and has expressed his desire not only to provide a blurb for the book in question, but also to help promote the book in one of his films. Mr. Tarantino has requested your presence at the next Academy Awards gala, and would like you to accompany him. If you are available, he would also like your assistance editing his current screenplay. Further details will be forthcoming.

 

Best wishes,

Mr. Quentin Tarantino’s Agent

 

P.S. Mr. Tarantino would like to kiss you.

Being a reasonable person, I would rather not enter into any messy agreements or compromising positions with anyone I have never met, or for that matter, with anyone at all. However, Q being Q, I suppose I would have to keep my options open.

This is me thinking of kissing Quentin Tarantino:

Contemplating kissing Quentin Tarantino
Contemplating kissing Quentin Tarantino

This is me thinking that kissing Quentin Tarantino might not be such a good idea after all:

Maybe not...
Maybe not…

This is me looking aloof and hoping Quentin Tarantino will find me fetching and want to hire me as his editor:

I do great work...
I do great work…

I wouldn’t say I’d snub a little friendly smooch from a man I consider a rough-edged creative genius, but I will confess that 99% of the attraction is to his intelligence. Well, right, I suppose those are far-flung scenarios and that I am probably wasting my time considering something that will never come to fruition, and would be better off doing something productive, like tending to the bottomless pile of manuscripts on my desk.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

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Speaking of American filmmakers, over at Fearnet.com, Mick Garris hosts a series of very enjoyable interviews with prominent horror filmmakers, including Roger Corman, John Landis, John Carpenter and Wes Craven.  Now, I know not everybody enjoys horror movies, and you freaks are excused from further reading, but the series “Post Mortem with Mick Garris” is worth a look.

The best of the interviews is a five-parter with Wes Craven (most famous for “A Nightmare on Elm Street”) as he talks about his transition from  Midwest academic to his early days in 1970s New York City, and discusses his thoughts on the role the horror genre plays in popular American culture.

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