As a mother of a daughter (and a son), I’ve long been aware of this country’s ‘princess problem’ – the cultural stranglehold of a certain franchise of princesses on our culture’s collective psyche. I’ve also been aware of resistance to this type of pink, tiara-ed narrative of girlhood — through organizations like princess-free zone or even this viral video of 5year old Riley sounding off about big business, the color pink, and gender marketing.
But much to my chagrin, nay, shame, I’ve really never given a second thought to this issue through the eyes of the concerned princes. I mean, what must it be like, as a fairy tale character, to be so completely overshadowed all the time by princesses like Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty? To be made essentially anonymous, stripped of your individual and autonomous identity, and lumped together with every other Prince Charming of legend and lore?
Luckily, the wildly talented Christopher Healy is coming to the rescue of neglected princes everywhere with his hilarious and imaginative forthcoming The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom (Walden Pond Press/HarperCollins, May 2012). I was lucky enough to read an ARC of the novel and interview Christopher; and one of you will be lucky enough – just by leaving a comment below – to win a signed hardcover copy of his hot-off-the-presses forthcoming book! (unless you have some kind of aversion or allergy or something to laughing – in that case, please DON’T leave a comment. Because this book will make you laugh – and laugh a lot!)
But first, the most awesome interview of this most awesome author, in which he reveals which Prince Charming he is most like, why he has a soft spot for witches, and what really “ooks” him out as a writer of fractured fairy tales:
Question: Christopher, your book has four main protagonists – Frederic, Gustav, Liam and Duncan — all former Prince Charmings (er, I mean, Princes Charming. As your character Duncan would remind me, the noun is made plural, not the adjective). Where did you come up with their off-kilter personalities? And tell us the truth – which one is closest to your own?
Christopher: Well, the original fairy tales don’t give us much to go on, but it was still important to me that my princes’ personalities made sense with what little we do know of these guys already. I asked myself, for instance: What do we know about Cinderella’s prince? He can dance. He’s sophisticated. And he’s got noble ladies swooning over him. But beyond that, we don’t know much. So I took what Charles Perrault gave me, and got creative with the rest. From that starting point, it’s not too much of a stretch to think that Prince Frederic is probably not very outdoorsy, perhaps a little too focused on his fashion choices, and (to put it mildly) not the most daring guy in the world.
I did the same for all the princes. Rapunzel’s prince wants to rescue her, but never thinks to get a ladder — so Gustav is the kind of guy who rushes into things without thinking. Sleeping Beauty’s prince actually rescues an entire kingdom in his story, and gets major kudos for it — so Liam bases his entire identity on heroics and has a bit of an ego about it. Snow White’s prince gets lucky by wandering through the forest and stumbling upon a bewitched princess to kiss — so Duncan is a carefree oddball who spends a lot of time walking the woods by himself, just waiting to see where life takes him next.
And while there’s definitely a little bit of Duncan in me, the prince who most represents me is Frederic. As a child, I shunned cotton candy because it I was afraid it would make my hands sticky. That says it all, really.
Question: Your book plays with the princess stereotype as well. How did you decide on your princess’ personalities?
Christopher: While I did work to make sure that my princesses were different from previous depictions of those same characters (especially their film incarnations), I crafted their personalities the same way I did the princes. I built them out of the original stories.
Cinderella worked hard labor for years, so she’s tough and strong. Rapunzel has the power to heal people with her tears (in the original tale), so here she’s got a bit of a savior complex. Sleeping Beauty was hidden away and catered to for her whole childhood, and has thus ended up somewhat spoiled. And Snow White, just like her prince, spends a lot of time wandering the forest and chatting with wildlife, so as it turns out, she’s actually a good match for Duncan.
But those were just starting points for the princesses. The ladies come into the spotlight a whole lot more in Book II, and the further changes you’ll see there should come across as a natural evolution for the characters.
Question: Usually, middle grade novels need middle grade-aged protagonists. But except for Liam’s younger sister, and a juvenile delinquent of a robber baron, none of your characters is kid-aged (and in fact, two are married). Was this a deliberate decision? Did you ever consider making them younger?
Christopher: The fairy tales I’ve based my book on all end with their protagonists being set up for a happily-ever-after wedding. And even if Perrault and the Grimms wouldn’t have had a problem marrying off tween characters, I was ooked out by the idea. So I went young adult-ish. I intentionally kept their ages vague, but yes, they’re definitely older than the average middle-grade reader. I think my characters will still be relatable to kids, though —they’re not exactly the most mature adults you’ll ever read about.
Question: The poor bards and minstrels of your story have it hard – they get captured and almost killed by a notoriety-crazed witch and then given a hard time for getting their stories ‘wrong.’ Tell us about your journey to publish this novel. Any similarities to those bards and minstrels?
Christopher: The bards deserve every bit of misery they get. They have no journalistic integrity. They pump out whatever kind of story they think their fans will want to hear and never bother checking the facts. I, on the other hand, went back over my manuscript and revised it about a zillion times before it was finished. Unlike the bards, it was very important to me to make sure I’d truly captured the personalities of these princes and princesses. Plus, before I could even turn the thing into my editor, I had to get it past my wife and daughter — and they are not an easy audience.
Question: Did you have a favorite fairy tale as a kid? Now?
Christopher: As a kid, it was probably Hansel and Gretel. It was one of the few where I was able to relate to the male protagonist. In so many of the others, the male heroes were personality-free, generic princes — which is exactly why I wrote Hero’s Guide.
Currently, though, I have to say my favorite fairy tale is one I discovered only recently: “Great Claus and Little Claus.” It’s a more obscure Hans Christian Andersen story and it is completely insane. It’s basically this little guy getting revenge on a bully in the freakiest ways, but all sorts of really absurd stuff happens along the way. My favorite part is when Little Claus meets a farmer with an irrational hatred of sextons. A sexton is a church employee who handles daily chores — why in the world would the mere existence of sextons inspire fits of rage in someone? I have no idea if it was meant to be hilarious, but it is. In a very, very dark way.
Question: How about a favorite fractured fairy tale? Now?
Christopher: Well, I loved the original “Fractured Fairy Tales,” the cartoon shorts on the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show that inspired the phrase. That was the first time I remember seeing classic stories being treated irreverently — and I thought it was awesome.
In terms of current entertainment, I’ve really enjoyed Michael Buckley’s Sisters Grimm series. It’s not technically a fractured fairy tale, but Buckley put some really fun, creative twists on characters we’ve seen a hundred times before.
Question: The humor in this novel is so over the top hilarious. Let me repeat, HI-LA-RI-OUS. How did you hit upon that hysterically funny voice? (And did you laugh while you were writing?)
Christopher: I’ve always had a rather eclectic sense of humor. I can laugh just as hard at slapstick pratfalls as I can at highbrow literary references and esoteric wordplay. To be honest, I was a little worried about how my humor would hit with readers. Could I expect the same person to chuckle at the hero face-planting in the mud and then also laugh at grammar jokes about pluralizing nouns? A person other than me, I mean. Because yes, I laugh. Not so much while I’m writing, but afterwards. I mean, as a writer, you’ve got to like your own stuff, right? If you don’t, why are you writing it? But I’m incredibly happy to hear you enjoyed it too.
Question: Ok, the hard part of the interview. A test! But luckily, it's multiple choice:
1. Glass slippers or combat boots?
Christopher: Glass slippers are utterly useless. I don’t think Cinderella actually lost hers; I think she kicked it off because she’d finally gotten tired of tiptoeing all night.
2. Swords or wands?
Christopher: Wands! Or anything that allows you to defend yourself while standing far, far away from your enemy.
3. Towers or Dungeons?
Christopher: I’ll say towers, because I am slightly less afraid of heights than I am claustrophobic.
4. Wolves or Witches?
Christopher: Regular wolves or werewolves? Never mind, I’ll go with witches. Thought both of them get a pretty bad rap in the fairy tale world. It’s not always very fair.
5. Poisoned Apples or Thorns in the Eyes?
Christopher: That might be the worst choice I’ve ever been asked to make. I guess I’ll say apple. I’d rather be peacefully asleep than painfully blinded. And maybe there’d be a chance that someone would come along and kiss me.
6. Life lessons or Frothy romps?
Christopher: Must the two be separate? I’ll choose frothy romp. Because if you give me a frothy romp, I’ll find some life lessons in it. But if you give me a straight up lesson, there may be no froth to be found.
Question: As a male author, writing about (mostly) male protagonists – what’s your take on the “boy’s don’t read” controversies? Did you write this book for a particular gendered audience?
Christopher: When I was a kid, I got more than a few scrapes and bruises due to foolhardy attempts at reading while walking. And my son, who is only five, just smashed into a doorframe yesterday doing the same thing. So, I refuse to accept the idea that boys won’t read. However, I know that a lot of boys aren’t reading. So, yes, I did want to contribute a piece of literature that I hope boys will pick up. I don’t consider Hero’s Guide a “boy book,” though; my goal was to create a story that had appeal across gender lines. So, while Hero’s Guide is a fairy tale, it’s also an action-adventure comedy. While it’s about Prince Charming, it’s also about the League of Princes. While there is talk of weddings and romance, there is also talk of troll battles and barroom brawls. I’m hoping that whichever elements bring a reader into the book, the rest of the story will appeal to them while they’re there.
Question: What do you like about writing for middle grade audiences? What are your biggest challenges?
Christopher: My daughter is in that middle-grade demographic right now, and she exemplifies a lot of what I love about that audience. She appreciates imagination in any setting. She’s open to just about anything from a storyteller — thoroughly accepting unreal, magical worlds just as much as she does slice-of-life middle-school tales. And by this age, she also has enough of a cultural vocabulary to catch literary references and analogies. When I write for a middle-grade audience, I don’t want to write down to them — I want to challenge them, because I know they’re up to the challenge.
Also, my daughter and her friends are all very outspoken with their opinions on the books they read. When they love a book, they LOVE a book. They talk about
it constantly, they re-read it seven times, they turn it into games that they play with one another. If they’re not into a book, though — well, they let that be known too. And that’s the potential downside in being a middle-grade author.
THANK YOU so much for your time Christopher, and for your delicious novel. It’s been a pleasure!
Please leave a comment below to qualify to win a signed hardback copy of The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom! Winner will be announced on April 12th!
(all images courtesy of indiebound publishers and microsoft office free clipart)
Sayantani DasGupta loves re-imagining fairy- and folk-tales, and has a middle grade novel on submission based on Indian stories of demons, princesses and, or course, awesome princes. Look for her story reimagining "Little Boy Blue" in Month 9 books' forthcoming Two and Twenty Dark Tales: Dark Retellings of Mother Goose Rhymes!