I’ve been asked, as all novelists are at some point, where do you get your ideas? Some stories have vague beginnings, but I have a specific answer about the thought that first lit the idea for The Cracked Slipper in my mind. It wasn’t so much a flickering thought, but a conflagration.
I was driving ballet carpool, and my daughters, then roughly six and four, were listening to an audio version of the Cinderella story. They were, as usual, transfixed from once-upon-a time to happily-ever-after. As the narrator, she of the soothingly canned, Fairy Godmother-ish British accent, came to that predictable finale, I had a simple thought: “Yeah, sure. Cinderella probably died in childbirth.”
These two mental sentences opened up a whole new angle on Cinderella for me. Wait, here we have an abused, orphaned teenager marrying a man she hardly knows. A man from a completely different background. She’s then thrust onto the national stage with no means of coping with the pressure.
This is the path to eternal bliss? Sounded more like a potential carriage wreck to me.
The mental questions kept coming, as if that precarious carriage had somehow come detached from its team of four white horses, and started careening downhill on a cracked axle. Cinderella has whole life before her. Life goes on beyond the wedding vows. This is a young woman living in a pre-industrial, patriarchal society. Who will explain the nuances of sex and childbirth? Of courtly loyalties and politics? How will the trauma of her childhood losses affect her personality? Will her dysfunctional family relationships follow her? In regards to Prince Charming, history hasn’t exactly provided us with many examples of exemplary moral fiber amidst those assigned the Divine Right of Kings…is he a noble savior or a privileged despot? I added a twist that sprung from my love of Jane Austen’s feisty female characters…what if our Happenstance Princess is highly educated and has been taught to express her opinions?
Maybe she has more in common with Elizabeth Bennett, the heroine of Pride and Prejudice, or possibly Anne Boleyn, than she does with my daughters. The little girls of today who internalize her fortuitous snaring of a special boy as the means to their own happy endings.
I’m a sociologist. I’ve been trained to examine the things we take for granted as the truth, or common sense, and see the reality behind the everyday. At the beginning of each semester, I tell my Sociology 101 students that my ultimate goal is to make them see the world as a little less black and white. How outside forces work on the individual, and how the individual in turn works on the greater social whole around him or her. In re-examining the Cinderella story in the context of women’s lives within the constraints of patriarchy, the possibilities of happily-ever-after look more grim…but more realistic.
This is the great beauty of fiction to me. It’s not only about the happy symbiosis of a well-executed sentence, or the tickle of discovering just the right metaphor. It goes beyond the rush of dialogue that flows from your head to your typing fingers so quickly you feel as if you’re having a screaming match within your own brain. I write because I hope to make the reader look at something familiar in a different way. If I can package introspection…the wow-I-never-thought-of-it-like-that…within a story that sparks imagination and emotion, I’ve succeeded.
My books are high fantasy. They are meant to be an escape of sorts. A colorful world of things that could never possibly be, but seem weirdly familiar. If I can suck in the reader with a combination of familiar and bizarre, hopefully I’m teaching a lesson without anyone realizing it. I’ve recently reread Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and realized that few writers have ever captured the everyday, quirky exoticism that Lewis Carroll insidiously inserted into every page of a children’s story. It can be difficult to identify the absurd inside the obvious. As Alice so astutely puts it in a moment of confusion, “I can’t explain myself…because I’m not myself, you see.”
I can’t explain why some stories change the way we look at things we assume to be plainly understood, but I know those stories when I see them. And that’s my hope, as a sociologist and a novelist. Rather than passing out surveys to and running statistical analysis in an attempt to understand our most commonplace suppositions, I use my imagination as the scene of my fieldwork. Yes, it’s less scientific, but when we’re analyzing something as near and dear to the collective consciousness as the idea that a good girl will always find her happy ending if only she’s sweet and compliant and does as she’s told, maybe a more philosophical approach is better.
So that’s why I write. I adore the poetry of words, but even more so, I love the potential of a flexible mind.