A former academic and adjunct, Alix E. Harrow is a Hugo-award winning writer living in Virginia with her husband and their two semi-feral kids. She is the author of The Ten Thousand Doors of January, The Once and Future Witches, and various short fiction. Her latest book is A Spindle Splintered and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What was your inspiration for A Spindle Splintered?
See, with other books I haven’t known how to answer this, because inspiration is usually such a nebulous, erratic, subconscious thing. But this one has an actual, honest-to-god lightbulb moment, the way nothing ever does. I was walking out of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, thinking about how it was a perfect retelling in every possible sense, and I said, “oh my God, I want to Spider-Verse a fairytale.”
And lo: I did!
Are Zinnia, Charm, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?
None of them are based on real people, but the thing about retellings is that you’re already working with a set of characters, or at least an assemblage of familiar tropes wearing human suits. A handsome prince, a cursed princess, a wicked fairy. So I needed characters who subverted those attributes but still fulfilled their narrative roles. Instead of an innocent, virginal Briar Rose, I wound up with a sarcastic, sharp-edged bi disaster. Instead of a square-jawed prince, I made Charm, a hot butch with a hero complex.
How did the novella evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
This was the first story I wrote after my second novel, The Once and Future Witches. That book was big and dark and tangled and writing it was like cutting through a briar hedge with a crayon (hell).
This story is the opposite: short and sweet and clear as a bell. Writing it was like playing a video game the second time through (heaven). I knew all the major scenes ahead of time and was possessed of a baseless but powerful belief that I would triumph. Nothing I’ve ever written before or will write again will go this smoothly.
In A Spindle Splintered, the reflections on Sleeping Beauty are decidedly critical and unflattering. And yet, you took the time to subvert it. Do you share Zinnia’s love for Sleeping Beauty and is it your favorite fairy tale in spite of its faults? If not, what is your favorite?
Of course, I love Sleeping Beauty, and of course, it’s awful. The thing about growing up in the 90s as a gleeful recipient of the Disney Renaissance is that most of the things you love also have a certain unavoidable percentage of awfulness. I don’t blame my seven-year-old self for her terrible taste; the plates of her skull probably weren’t even properly fused. But I do spend a lot of time dissecting, reframing, subverting, queering, questioning, and remaking all the stories that shaped me.
Do you have a favorite version/retelling of Sleeping Beauty (novels, film, or television)? A least favorite? One that is so bad it is fun?
My favorite version of Sleeping Beauty will always, always be Robin McKinley’s Spindle’s End, and anyone with even a passing familiarity with that book will see its fingerprints all over my version. I love everything about it: the whimsical world, the magic, the unlikely friendship between two girls who don’t like their stories.
Same question if Sleeping Beauty isn’t your favorite or if you just have another great fairytale-inspired novel, film, or television show (or one that is so bad it is fun).
Look. It’s very difficult to adapt medieval European oral folklore to the modern screen, or maybe I’m just inordinately picky. But it’s my belief that you either have to go sincere, arty and fearlessly weird—I’m thinking of The Green Knight, which absolutely understood the assignment—or high camp, which gave us the best Cinderella adaptation to date: Ever After.
Do you have an idea or theory regarding why/how original/traditional fairy tales continue to be a source of inspiration to artists centuries after they were first written down?
I was actually listening to an interview with C.S. Pacat today, where he talked brilliantly about the role of genre literature in modern myth-making. And really, what is a myth except for a story that’s told enough times? I think the act of retelling itself assigns a certain importance to a narrative, by demonstrating its adaptability, its fluidity. That’s part of what made Spider-Verse so good: it’s a retelling about retellings. It was fully self-aware. It knew exactly how many times we’ve seen Peter Parker get bitten and how many Aunt Mays we’ve met, and it used that resonance to show us something new. Fairy tales are perfect for that process. How many times have we seen fingers pricked and poison apples eaten? When you tell a story that old, you have a rare and heady chance to use all the ancient, powerful elements to say pretty much whatever you want.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
I just moved two young kids across state lines; I’m sending my oldest to kindergarten during an ever-worsening pandemic; I have deadlines looming and travel plans collapsing. I’m tired, and scared, just like everybody else. So my nightstand right now is stacked high with the only genre that will never, ever let me down: romance.
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?
It’s The Green Knight, for sure. I don’t know that it “made sense,” or had anything so pedestrian as a “plot,” but it lit up the back of my brain like the 4th of July. It gave me the feeling I had as a child, reading fantasy books slightly too old and strange for me: an almost mystical experience, the sense that the unknown and uncanny could enter my life and crack it open like an egg. It’s awe, I suppose, in the old and terrible sense of the word.
What are you working on now?
My next full-length novel. I’m calling it a Kentucky Gothic, and it sort of is, but if you peel away the specificity of place and time you would find out it’s just a Beauty and the Beast retelling wearing nice clothes.