Zoe Marriott is the author of seven sterling works of fiction for young adults. She is known for her complex wordmagery and reimagination of fairy and folk tales. Currently based in The United Kingdom, Zoe is hard at work on her newest trilogy called The Name of the Blade which has a strong protagonist and some very sharp blades. The first installment of the trilogy was recently released in the UK and you can buy it on Bookdepository. You can find Zoe at her website or on twitter.
Your first retelling, The Swan Kingdom, was also your debut novel and it retold Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Wild Swans.” What made you want to retell that fairytale specifically? Were there any elements about the original tale that you subverted in your retelling?
My fascination with The Wild Swans dates from early childhood, when I was given a beautiful picturebook of the fairytale, illustrated by Susan Jeffers. I loved the art, and the story of the princess who saves her brothers was always my favourite of all the fairytales I knew. But as I got older the bare-bones nature of the narrative became dissatisfying. As with most classic fairytales, the Wild Swans tells us what happens, but not why. There’s a sense of ‘Because I said so’ which provoked me to question all the things we’re meant to take for granted. Why is the wicked stepmother so terribly evil that she will conspire to torture and murder children? The fairytale asks us to believe she’s wicked because she’s a wicked stepmother – hardly satisfying characterization! Why does the children’s father so easily discard and forget about them? We’re given no explanation at all for that, as if it was only too natural for a father to display complete indifference to his own family’s fate. Where does the princess find the internal resolve required to begin and complete her task in the face of pain, deprivation and persecution? The fairy story treats her strength as a simple facet of her virtue – again, hardly satisfying for a modern reader, especially Feminist one.
In my retelling, I wanted to turn these assumptions inside out, and question why the characters acted as they did. Their actions are extraordinary; there must be a reason for them. What was the stepmother’s history, where did she come from, what was her ultimate goal? If the father was willing to abandon his children, he could surely never have been a good father? If my heroine had the character to act this way, perhaps there was more to her than virtue – a strength inherited, perhaps, from her long-gone mother, who is referred to by Hans Christian Anderson only as regards her death. I tried to burrow into all the dark corners of the story that were glossed over in the Victorian-friendly version.
Many of your novels are set in Japan and feature Japanese protagonists. What is the attraction to Japan? How do you walk the fine line between cultural appropriation and appreciation?
Once again, my interest in Japan dates back to my childhood, when I was lucky enough to see Hayao Miyazaki’s Laputa: Castle in the Air on TV one rainy Sunday afternoon. It made a huge impression on me, and I never forgot it. At the time I didn’t have the ability to search out more of Miyazaki’s work, but a few years later my brother found a DVD of the film, which had just been re-dubbed and re-released in the UK, and gave it to me for Christmas. This restarted my interest. Firstly I devoured anime films and series, then live-action Japanese cinema and television, then manga and Japanese literature. I read up about Japanese history, folklore, and religion, became a fan of Japanese food, and generally became fascinated by the rich and unique Japanese culture which is so different from my own. I’m still learning about Japan and its people, and hope that I’ll continue to do so or the rest of my life.
For me, the difference between writing diverse fiction – which embraces non-Western cultures and offers up nuanced, well-rounded portrayals of a variety of characters – and cultural appropriation – where non-Western cultures are used as an ‘exotic’ painted backdrop and POC characters are exploited, othered and stereotyped – is respect. I don’t claim to be an expert on Japan, or on Northern India or Tibet (other real life countries which have served as inspiration for fantasy settings in my work). When I incorporate elements of these cultures and landscapes and histories into my work, I approach them from a place of humble interest. I don’t just write what ‘everybody knows’ about these places and their people and assume that’s enough because no one who matters (ie., no white Westerner) knows or cares about the details. I don’t assume that my privileged Western perspective is the correct one, or that my normal is the baseline of normal. I do my research, I ask questions, and most of all I accept that what I’m doing is important. If I get it wrong, I will hurt people, and contribute to a long history of Western Imperialism which marginalizes and oppresses other cultures. And I also acknowledge to myself and to my readers that even with all this, I am still quite capable of getting it wrong – completely wrong – so that I’m always willing to listen, to be corrected, and to apologise and learn from mistakes I’ve made.
Tell us about Shadows on the Moon. It has been described as a loose retelling of Cinderella. Would you agree with that statement? If so, what elements of Cinderella have you focused on and what elements have you not included in the novel?
I set out to write Shadows on the Moon as a Cinderella re-telling. This was mainly based on my lifelong dislike of Cinderella, both as a story and as a character. She’s completely flat. A one dimensional ideal of Virtuous Womanhood, as defined by unthinking obedience and inhuman passivity. She makes no attempt whatsoever to escape her her life of suffering and servitude, and when she’s granted a miraculous chance – a visit from her fairy stepmother, who has the ability to grant wishes – instead of asking for help to leave her dismal life once and for all and build a new one for herself, she wastes her wish on attending a fancy ball so that she can see the fancy prince. It always seemed the height of injustice to me that such rank stupidity was actually rewarded with the escape and the new life that Cinderella didn’t even have the guts to ask for.
One day it occurred to me that Cinderella’s actions made so little sense, it was almost as if something was missing from the story. As if we’d all been looking at it the wrong way around all these years. What if Cinderella’s motives were completely different from the ones traditionally associated with her, and looked at from this different perspective, her choices actually did make sense? Assuming that she was a real person, with real thoughts and feelings, rather than a Virtuous Woman, she must have a good reason for sticking around in the house of her step-family and working as their drudge. She must have a good reason for throwing every resource she had at a single chance to attend the ball and get within sight of the prince. So what would her motive be? And as if the answer had been waiting to be discovered all along, it came to me: revenge.
Inverting the tale this way turned it into a story of transformation that followed Cinderella from a gently bred, pampered young girl, to a the lowest of menial servants, to a glorious, mysterious woman who won the prince’s heart… all fuelled by internal rage, by a quest for a justice that, as a female, she couldn’t seek any other way. She was no longer a powerless and passive girl, but a flawed and yet immensely strong character with agency in the story, a person who was capable of shaping her own fate and making choices that would change not only her own life, but the lives of everyone around her. Other story elements, such as the fairy godmother, the ball, and Cinderella’s legendary beauty, now became simple trappings, negotiable extras that I could rework and play with. This is why it’s usually called a ‘loose’ retelling, I believe. But personally, I feel I stuck quite faithfully to the fairytale. It’s just that a Cinderella with a backbone makes everything else about the familiar narrative feel completely changed.
As an author, how would you account for the continuing popularity of fairytales? Do you believe that fairytales are strictly children’s tales or do you think adults gain as much if not more pleasure from them?
Well, fairytales weren’t originally for children at all – hence how incredibly perverse and gory the earliest versions often are. Fairytales or folktales were part of a common oral storytelling tradition, dating from a time long before the novel or even the book as we now know it existed, and long before anyone thought to invent forms of these entertainments strictly for children. I’m sure kids enjoyed listening to the stories as much as anyone, but folklore was not for them. It was a part of everyone’s everyday life. Which is why I think fairytales and folktales and mythic stories continue to be a part of most people’s everyday life now – simply because they always have been. This is why every culture has folk and fairytales, why the same motifs and characters repeat themselves across the whole of humanity, throughout cultures which had no contact. I believe they’re a function of the human race’s need to place themselves in a narrative in order to understand their place in the world, part of the fabric of human consciousness. Fairytales may evolve or even completely transform, but they will never go away.
What is your favourite fairytale? Are there any tales you would want to retell at some point in the future?
My favourite fairytale is still The Wild Swans! The runner up is Beauty and the Beast, although I’ve never been sure if that’s about the original fairytale as much as it’s about Robin McKinley’s Beauty, which I first read when I was eleven, and which has had more influence on my writing than any other book I’ve read, with the possible exception of Tamora Pierce’s Lioness Rampant. When I’ve finished my current work in progress – the final book in an urban fantasy trilogy – I plan to revisit Tsuki no Hikari no Kuni (the Moonlit Lands) which was the setting of Shadows on the Moon, in order to attempt to re-tell Beauty and the Beast. I’m very excited about that. So excited that I’ve stopped giving people any more details about it, because I want to hug the story close to me. After that I have no specific plans for more re-told fairytales, but I’m sure they will come; I’m too much of a folklore geek to leave well alone. I might give Western fairytales a rest and search for inspiration elsewhere for a while, though.
In this fast paced world, children’s literature continues to grow and evolve. What tropes would you like to see gain more prominence in children’s literature, YA novels, etc and which trends do you wish would disappear soon?
This is, in a way, a trick question. So I’ll give a tricky answer. There are no tropes or trends that I would wish out of existence. What I’d wish for is that writers think more deeply about the tropes they use or the trends they write within, and how they might be better explored or thoughtfully subverted. I think it’s quite fashionable to bemoan the prominence of certain trends within YA, but that has a reek of snobbery for me. There are well-written YA books and badly written YA books, and both those will inevitably exist regardless of trends. The YA shelves in the local library or bookshop will not miraculously fill with nothing but high quality literature if [insert current pet peeve here] is finally stamped out of popularity. I get quite tired of seeing people – often not young people, the readers themselves, but librarians or agents or writers – getting hot and bothered about trends. Condemning this genre, proclaiming that the world is ‘over’ that one, begging for something different only to go off the something different in turn within a year. Young readers are the same as all readers: when they find something they like, they want to keep reading that something. I lately discovered the historical/timeslip novels of Susanna Kearsley, and am now working my way rapturously through her entire backlist. No doubt when I’ve finished I’ll search out other books of the same time by different authors, and will be lead eventually to reading straight historical fiction, and from there some historical crime fiction, and then maybe straight crime fiction, and from there to romantic suspense… this is the natural path of a reader. We meander about reading what catches our attention right now. If someone snatched my Susanna Kearsley novel away from me and plonked one of the classics into my hand instead, ‘for my own good’, I would not be grateful. Trying to artificially steer young people away from what they want to read right now does not make them wide-ranging, open-minded readers. It puts them off reading altogether.