Saturday, August 29, 2009

Interview with Amy Morgan of The Fairy Tale Factory

Today we are talking to Amy Morgan, creator of the Fairy Tale Factory. You can find out more about the factory and the exciting workshops Amy has going in our previous post HERE.

This is a long interview post - but it's an interesting one, I promise!

Fairy Tale News Hound: Hi Amy! Welcome to Once Upon A Blog... and thank you agreeing to this interview.

Why do you love fairy tales? (You're in good company here on Once Upon A Blog!)

AMY: Oh, gosh. I love fairy tales because they speak equally powerfully to my conscious and my subconscious. They remind me that the world is far more fluid than I generally suppose, and that people are more powerful than we generally allow ourselves to be. Fairy tales remind me to trust myself. And they're beautiful. I love them for that, too.

FTNH: How have they influenced you personally?

AMY: On a personal level, fairy tales have kept me going through many a dark and dreary time. Something about reading fairy tales and stories inspired by fairy tales gives me a tremendous sense of hope and comfort.

On a professional level and as an artist, fairy tales have inspired some of my best work. That bit about trusting myself applies double-strength here - reading fairy tales has helped me trust my intuitions and inspirations.

FTNH: What was/were your favorite fairy tale/s when you were younger?

AMY: When I was a child I loved Rumplestiltskin. I had a collection illustrated by Tasha Tudor, and I was so fascinated by the fact that Rumplestiltskin [spoiler alert!] tore himself in two at the end. I would get my friends to act the story out with me - we'd use mustard-yellow yarn for the gold (this was the 70s - mustard-yellow yarn was plentiful) and we'd act out the whole thing.

FTNH: What is/are your favorite tale/s (or types of tales) now and where are they from?

AMY: My favorite tales now are the really long, weird ones from Italy and Germany. I've only recently started exploring the Russian tales, and then plan to move on to Chinese and Japanese.

There's a Grimm story The Two Brothers in which two brothers get separated, and one of them ends up traveling with a menagerie. At some point in the story, the brother with the animals gets his head cut off, and the animals have to put it back on again. Okay, here comes my favorite part: they accidentally put his head on backwards! He notices pretty quickly - as one might, so they rip his head off again and stick back on the right way.

Seriously. That is solid gold right there. The mishap with the head doesn't further the action of the plot in any discernible way. You don't learn anything about anyone's character from this little episode. It's just ... extra. A little gratuitous surrealism to help you on your way. Marie-Louise von Franz has actually written about this story and explains it in deep, meaningful, fascinating ways, but my enjoyment is more shallow than that. I just love how weird it is.

I also love The Juniper Tree - another violent, macabre Grimm tale.

FTNH: Why do you think this changed?

AMY: First reason: exposure. I only had that one collection of Tasha Tudor's Fairy Tales when I was a kid. I was so shocked and delighted when I discovered this whole other world of stories out there.

Second reason: I'm a grown-up now. The little Amy and the grown-up Amy need different stories - we're dealing with different life challenges.

FTNH: Why did you start the Fairy Tale Factory? What prompted the idea?

AMY: I was taking a sabbatical from work (aka - unemployed) and decided I was sick of the job market telling me what I could do for a living. I looked long and hard at the places where my passions intersected with my abilities, and decided that teaching a class about two of my favorite things (writing and fairy tales) could be a cool way to make money, meet interesting people, and justify my book allowance all at the same time.

I also hope, in my more optimistic moments, that this class will give people some new tools to cope with hard times. I hope to inspire people, to encourage them to trust their own voices, and to help them connect with beauty in the world and in themselves. I especially want to help people find beauty in the parts of themselves that seem dark and scary. Like that Rilke quote about all our dragons really being princesses just waiting for us to be brave.

FTNH: Who is the Fairy Tale Factory for? What sorts of people have expressed interest so far? What types of people do you think will benefit from attending the workshop/s?

AMY: The Fairy Tale Factory is for anyone who needs it. All ages, all experience levels, all cultural backgrounds. If someone feels inspired to come to my class, I will do my best to help them express whatever it is they came to say.

So far my students have been grown-ups with day jobs who still feel a connection to that playful, curious, magic part of themselves. They're intelligent, articulate, funny (so funny), clever, and stoked about the material. I really like my students.

I think anyone who likes this kind of thing will benefit from the workshops. Professional writers get a great workout - you wouldn't believe what this format does for your writing. Novice writers get to stretch their wings and explore in a safe, supportive environment. And the subject matter is great for working through creative blocks, regardless of your experience level or even your preferred medium. I keep the classes small so that it's easier for me to meet students on whatever level is right for them.

FTNH: So what was it about fairy tales that prompted you to use them as a teaching tool for writers?

AMY: My own experience. Some friends and I were playing with the format and I was shocked at what a great workout it was. Plot, language, tone, structure - it's all there. It's easy for modern writers to be soft when it comes to structure - modernism and post-modernism, while awesome, make it hard to resist the temptation to write 500-page novels in which nothing happens but a lot of Clever Words. Fairy tales don't mess around. You know almost immediately whether your story succeeds, and there's no bluffing. It's kind of like reading your work to kids: You find out real quick whether those jokes are as funny as you thought they were.

FTNH: I love the illustration for the Fairy Tale Factory homepage, complete with little iconic fairy tale symbols woven into the climbing rose border. Can you tell me about the illustration? How did it come about? Why did you choose two crows for the center?

AMY: The homepage showcases the work of everyone on my insanely talented design team. The crest is based on one that my designer (Angie Jernejcic) found in a book of heraldry. She designed the logo and it seemed like the best idea in the world to put it into that shield, flanked by those two crows. The crows chose themselves - all I did was say 'YES!' The climbing roses are from an illustration that Jeremy Eaton did for the site (he did all the illos). He drew each of the elements first (pumpkin coach, etc.), then wove them into the border of roses. My web designer (Kelly Davis) turned it into a recurring motif - she took one little section and turned it into those gorgeous climbing ribbons as a sort of wallpaper.

FTNH: There are quite a few retellings of fairy tales available and more being published all the time but not many original fairy tales. Putting aside the purist idea that true fairy tales are oral and collective in nature and can't be 'created' by one author, why is it that you're focused on creating new tales as opposed to retelling? Can you define the difference between retellings and creating new ones?

AMY: I am so much more interested in what's going on inside people now than what's already been written. I think fairy tales are kissing cousins with dreams. It's an interesting an exercise to say, "Write Snow White, but in modern times in a Chicago housing project." (FTNH: eg. Donald Barthelme's "Snow White") But it's so much more compelling and personal to ask, "What image has been tickling the edges of your consciousness lately? What story is waiting for you to tell it?"

Retelling is a good intellectual exercise. But it's easy to hide behind cleverness there. Ideally, writing your own personal tales will engage your emotions first, then your intellect. I think the stories have more juice that way.

FTNH: Would you mind explaining how that's different from writing normal fantasy?

What's different (and this is the technical workout part) is that you have to hold to the traditional fairy tale forms and conventions AND write a new story. This means that you are (a) groping around for the truest, most powerful and resonant images you can muster, and (b) coaxing those images into a form that is intensely limited. So you're engaging your subconscious and your conscious mind at the same time, like trying to stand on two boats at once.

Modern fantasy is quite different, technically, from the traditional fairy tale. In the traditional form, there is very little character development, dialogue, or description. It's little more than a fleshed-out outline. So bare-bones word choice, sentence structure, and plot become your essential tools - that's all you have.

Elmore Leonard has this great quote in his essay:
WRITERS ON WRITING; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation points and Especially Hooptedoodle:

There is a prologue in John Steinbeck's "Sweet Thursday", ... He says: "I like a lot of talk in a book and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's tlaking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks... figure out what the guy's thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that... Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle... Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That's nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don't have to read it. I don't want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story."
My students laugh at me because I am obsessed with this concept: hooptedoodle. In my classes, I feel I have a holy mission to wean them off of hooptedoodle. At the last reading party I overhead some of my students shouting, "Hooptedoodle!" then laughing their heads off. I couldn't have been more proud.

So that's the big difference between modern fiction and the fairy tale form that I teach: 85% less hooptedoodle!

FTNH: How do the skills differ for each type of writing? How are they the same?

AMY: For me as a writer, I'm doing something very different when I'm retelling a well-known story than I am when bringing out something new. In retelling, I'm in dialogue with my culture. For instance - Wicked uses our knowledge of the Wizard of Oz tale to explore cultural perspective. It's still a good story if you never read or saw Oz, but if you're saturated with Oz then you are a witness to the author riffing on all the ideas that Baum initially advanced and on all the things our culture has done with them between inception and present day.

As an author, you can't help but do that when you are riffing on a classic. You start playing with feminist perspectives, like Jane Yolen's Snow White. Or any other perspectives, depending on who and where you are. The point is that you are using the warp and woof of the story's cultural context to further your storytelling aims.

When you are writing an original, it's a much more internal, personal process. You're groping around and wrestling with images that are more slippery because they're unique to you. You can't build on the framework of what's already been done. You are making new characters and new plot devices, even if you're using the same old hero's journey structure that Homer and George Lucas and the ancient Sumerians did. You have to feel your way, asking at every juncture, "Is this it? Is this the best possible answer to the question, 'What happened next?' "

FTNH: Who are some of your favorite modern fairy tale writers? (either those who write retellings, originals or use fairy tales as a base for their stories) Any favorite fairy tale books you recommend (fiction or non-fiction)?

AMY: Hm. I feel woefully Behind the Times - there are so many authors out there in this genre whose works I haven't read yet. That said, some of my favorites are Diana Wynne Jones, Charles DeLint, Patricia McKillip, and Neil Gaiman. I love young adult novels for some reason. Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising series is amazing. Garth Nix does some cool stuff in his Abhorsen books.

Non-fiction: I encourage everyone who's interested in fairy tales to read everything by Marie-Louise von Franz, who was one of Carl Jung's primary disciples. She's written scads of books about fairy tales and they are all great. Women Who Run with the Wolves is a great read, too - more Jungian perspective. I love the psychoanalytical treatments of fairy tales - am a total sucker for them.

FTNH: You mention on the website that in the workshops you study fairy tales from around the world as well as the classic cannon.

AMY: I'm not as inclusive as I'd like to be. I need more Latin American and more African tales. I am starting to get into Hawaiian stories, but only just. The main bulk of the stories I read in class are obscure European tales. I try to dig out the truly bizarre and exciting ones so my students can broaden their understanding of what fairy tales are and do.

FTNH: You have a few original fairy tales available for us to read online. I personally love The Owl and the Maiden. Can we look forward to more? Do you have any plans for a collection/anthology and having them published?

AMY: Thank you, that's so nice! I'm working on a new one right now, and will hopefully have it up on the site in the next month or so.

I'm planning an anthology of all my students' stories from this past year and I might throw my own in there, too. I'm not hot and bothered to get published in any big way. If someone comes a-courting and wants to publish some of my stories, I'll definitely think about it. But I'm not chasing the dream of Making It Big Time as an author.

FTNH: I'm hearing rumors of a 'reading party' for the workshop you held in June - can you tell me more about that?

AMY: We do a reading after each class. It gives the students something real to write for. Nothing like the fear of reading your story out loud to a room full of strangers to sharpen your authorial edge! The readings are really fun. We drink a lot of wine and eat good food beforehand, so it ends up feeling more like a party than a reading. Students from different workshops show up to cheer each other on, friends and family come out. It's a nice way to wrap up the class.

FTNH: It sounds like many people would enjoy and benefit from the workshops. Has anything about starting the Factory surprised you? Do you have any stories/anecdotes you'd like to share from your experiences in running the workshops so far?

AMY: The thing that's surprised me the most is how fun it's been. (Knock on wood.) I love my students, I love the material, and I love teaching - surprise! My crazy idea worked! That's the big shocker, the thing I'm still digesting: This wacky idea I had while sitting around in my back yard one summer is actually HAPPENING. And it's cool! That just blows my mind. I'm so grateful.

The best stories, for me, are the actual stories that the students write. Those stories are way more interesting than any personal anecdotes.

FTNH: What other plans do you have for the future of the Fairy Tale Factory? Anything online for those of us who can't travel to Seattle?

AMY: If I could figure out a way to give online students the same depth of experience I can give them in person, I would do an online class. Sadly, I haven't worked it out yet. My classes are really interactive - I work hard to build strong group relationships, which seems to be an important part of the Factory's success. When I figure out how to do it online, I definitely will.

I might build another module in which people can play with retellings and other, more modern tropes. Students would have to go through the Intro and the Intensive before they could do it, just to make sure we're all on the same page. But that's just an idea. A twinkle in my eye, as it were.

I'm also scheming to get involved with the illustration community and have a heavy art component to the Factory. I'd love to have one illustrator assigned to each story in the annual anthology, then to have a group show to coincide with the book's release. My dream is to work with artists like Jay Ryan, Milk, Julie West, Ray Caesar - pop surrealists, people coming from the graffiti world and the poster art world.

FTNH: Thank you again for agreeing to this interview! The Fairy Tale Factory sounds like a wonderful combination of education and fun and we look forward to seeing what you and your students do in the future.You can find out more about Amy, her Fairy Tale Factory and the workshops HERE.
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