Heather Dixon (aka The Story Monster) is the author of the 2011 novel Entwined, a retelling of the classic Grimm fairy tale The Twelve Dancing Princesses (click on the link to read it for free!). Unlike the Grimm version’s medieval setting, Heather’s work takes place in the Victorian era – that’s right! Swishy dresses, swords, horses, castles and a little bit of gothic, it’s great. It is a tale full of wonder and mystery. There are twelve dancing princesses, a few princes, magic, enchantment, some totally creepy and scary moments and of course a little romance.
She started writing the book while taking dance and animation classes as at BYU university student. During her time at college, Dixon won the Highlights annual fiction contest with her short story Rotterdam Christmas (it is very cute!), which was based on the experience of her great aunt, who lived in Holland during World War II. In 2010, she was a guest presenter at the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers Conference, a conference which gives new writers a chance to meet with established authors, editors, publishers, agents etc… It was at this conference that Dixon met her editor, which eventually led to the publication of Entwined by Harper Collins.
Heather grew up in West Point, Utah with a large family of four brothers and six sisters. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Animation from Brigham Young University in 2007, and she works as a freelance storyboard artist as well as being a writer. She lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, and her dance of choice is the Viennese waltz. She loves Mary Poppins, and her favorite authors include Roald Dalh, Sally Gardner, Martine Leavitt, and Terry Pratchett.
Heather is is currently working on a story tentatively titled Illusionarium, which we know will feature clowns…
Here is the interview!
1. As an author and someone who has working in children’s media and culture for a number of years, what do you attribute to the success of fairy tales among not just children but adults in contemporary society?
This sounds crazy, but I think it’s because of copyright. Fairy tales have been in the public domain for so long that it’s allowed for years upon years of different interpretations and retellings, which adds a lot of nostalgia to them. Walt Disney chose to animate Snow White because he had fond memories of the beautiful fairy tale illustrations when he was a boy. Adults now remember Disney films like Cinderella and The Little Mermaid, and encourage another generation of retellings. Having the financial and legal freedom to create more riffs on the theme has attributed to their success, I think.
2. When writing Entwined, did you consciously make a decision on which elements of the “original” tale by the Grimms you would alter or keep and which ones you wouldn’t? Why?
I did. The story started out quite close to the original fairy tale, with a dozen princes and drugged wine and all. But as the story developed–first with the theme, a story of a father and his daughters–a lot of elements had to be thrown out, and the focus revolving around their family. I realized that characters like the witch made it too dark for the theme, and you couldn’t root for snotty princesses who went around drugging princes. I had to pull back and create new elements, like mourning, in order to make Entwined’s story stand out.
3. Why did you choose this fairy tale? Did you read any other versions of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” (or “The Worn out Dancing Shoes”) and if so, do you have a favourite amongst the ones you have read?
Gosh. I like them all! I read as many 12 Dancing Princesses stories as I could get my hands on. The picture book illustrated by K.Y. Craft had stuck in my mind since I was a kid, and was a big inspiration. My favorite interpretation (I’m going to sound shallow) is the Barbie movie version. I love it. :D
4. Were there any other tales, myths, legends or stories that you were drawing from? I loved the idea of swearing on silver, can you talk about where you derived that? Was being a dancer and having a large family yourself a source that you to drew from? How, if at all, did your art influence your writing?
I don’t quite remember where the swearing on silver came from, except that silver is traditionally considered a repellent against monsters and witches (and werewolves too) and I felt there needed to be a “good” kind of swearing, as opposed to the High King’s oath on blood. I did study quite a lot about Queen Victoria’s childhood, and the childhoods of other royals in Europe during the Victorian era. Princess Alexandra of Denmark, I learned, grew up as a penniless princess (Parliament dictated how much the king would get paid) and reading about how she and her sisters served themselves at mealtimes inspired me to make the Wentworth princesses poor as well. It created a foil from the real world of mourning to the fantastical world below.
Both dancing and family was a big inspiration. I began the story in college, in the midst of a bunch of dance classes, where I learned that it’s a pain to dance with an unwilling partner and how it feels to have blood between my toes, but also the euphoria of dancing with someone who’s excellent. I pooled my experiences, too, of growing up in a large family of 11 children, sharing a large room with all my sisters, wearing hand-me-downs, all the banter and responsibility and fun of the dynamic. I’m right in the middle, number 5, so I think I got the best of it.
And you’re right, my art did play a part in the story. I’d always wanted to be able to paint like K.Y. Craft and those pictures embedded themselves in my head for years. Too, when the story poked me in the beginning stages, it came in the form of storyboards, each since playing itself out in my head via sketched and shaded pictures. Eventually it morphed into novel form, but I still turned to pictures for reference and inspiration.
5. The hustle and bustle and genuine affection of the Wentworth family is so believable and each girl is different and lovely, which one is the most like you?
Thank you for the kind words #^_^# I see myself in all of the girls. I can be sometimes bossy like Azalea, or as sarcastic and goofy as Bramble. I wish I could say I was most like Bramble, because she’s such a kick in the pants, but I find a lot of myself in Clover. We’re both blonde, and both dreadfully shy and inarticulate. So I sympathize with her.
6. According to a number of critical theorists, such as Bruno Bettelheim, fairy tales teach children to assimilate culture. As such, children learn to perform gender and differentiate between each other through these stories. How (if you do so) do you subvert traditional expressions of gender in your stories?
Wow, this is quite a question! In terms of Entwined, I didn’t want to let gender roles define the characters, plot, or theme, but rather, the other way around. Since Entwined is about princesses who stubbornly ignore their father to go dancing, it wouldn’t make sense to make them tomboys, but rather girly girls who love dancing so much they’re going to dig their own grave. Also, they love corsets. (In my research I discovered that corsets in the Victorian era weren’t exactly Cages of Doom, so I riffed a little on that.) (I secretly hoped it would be a sit-back-and-watch-people’s-heads-explode sort of thing. Hahahaha.)
7. What should we most look forward to in your upcoming novel The Illusionarium? Apart from the fact that clowns take over the government (awesome!) will there be any more fairy tale influence? Any more large families?
Illusionarium! Good gravy, the clowns. They’ve become casualties of the last few revisions (which is a good thing, I swear.) The story is more realistic now, at least as realistic as alternate-London steampunk can be, and is about a boy who is searching for a cure for his mother & sister’s fatal disease, and must navigate through a world of illusions and deceit to find it. There’s not a lot of romance or fairy-tale influence, but, I’m hoping, a lot of heart.
They’re shooting for a summer 2014 release, so keep your eyes peeled!
A huge thanks to Heather Dixon for this interview! ^__^