Author Michael Cunningham is no stranger to retold tales. He reimagined Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Hours, and in The Snow Queen, he took a Hans Christian Anderson story as the novel's starting point.
His latest book, The Wild Swan, tackles some beloved fairy tales head on. The collection was inspired by questions that many of us glossed over in our childhood. Like, what happens after "happily ever after?" Or, why would you want to build a house made of candy deep in the woods?
And if you're looking for hero or a heroine to root for, you'll be surprised at who they turn out to be.
On what happens after the "happily ever after"
When I was a kid, my parents — God bless them — read to me every night. Because I insisted, I was like an addict. I needed a story or two, or three, or however many I could get. ...
l was big on fairy tales, and I was also one of those, oh, ever-so-slightly irritating children who ask unanswerable questions. A couple of my favorites were, one, the prince and the maiden go off to his castle together and lived happily ever after, and I sort of thought, "Well, go on!" And my mother and father would look at me and say, "That's the end." ...
It was unsatisfying to me, because I felt, OK, one part of the story is ending, but another part of the story is beginning. She's been awoken from slumber, she's been rescued from the tower, her foot fits the slipper — now what? So part of this collection is my attempt to think and write about the question, "Now what?"
On deciding what to include
There's no real organizing principle beyond the fact that these were my favorites, and I think they were my favorites ... because they were the ones that were the most baffling to me, the ones that elicited the most questions. Because not only was I big on, so what happens when they get to the castle, there are some of the stories in the collection where what the people were doing just didn't make any sense to me.
Like in "Rumpelstiltskin," which is one of the stories in the book, the miller's daughter is made to spin three rooms full of straw into gold — one, two, three — and each time, if she fails to spin the straw into gold, the king will have her executed. With the help of Rumpelstiltskin, she does in fact manage the trick and spins the straw into gold — and then the king marries her. ... And all I can do is say, "Why would she marry him?"
This guy was going to have her killed three times in a row if she couldn't perform the impossible! And then she says, "Great, let's get married!" What's that about?
In my Rumpelstiltskin, we get into a little bit of, "What's that about?"
On his take on Hansel and Gretel
My Hansel and Gretel is really about the witch ... about why would you want to build a house made of candy deep in the woods? What's that about? And of course, the original offers a perfectly plausible answer; it's about eating children. But I somehow wasn't quite satisfied with that. I thought, isn't there something sexual and desperate and more than just cannibalism going on here?
It's one of the writer's jobs to — how to put this — complicate the world. ... It's why we can be irritating. It's part of your job to say, "Oh, I don't think it's that simple. I think there is more going on than is immediately apparent." That's what we do.
On the morals to his stories — or lack thereof
I think that ... it's defending the outcast, which does have a certain moral aspect. But that, as opposed to the more traditional, straightforward meaning of a moral, which implies this — "you will be a better person for reading this story; you will learn a lesson from this story."
I don't have any lessons to teach anybody. I think of my readers as being a little bit smarter than I am, so I'm not here to improve you in any way. I'm here to tell you a story.