Photo: Kyla McCallum

T. Kingfisher Wrings Hope and Drama From Fairy Tales

The master of fantasy writing holds a "funhouse mirror to the present"

T. KINGFISHER IS THE CELEBRATED AUTHOR OF Nettle and Bone, a fantasy novel inspired by the tone and wonder of classic fairy tales. In addition to works of original fantasy and horror, Kingfisher has also published retellings of Bluebeard (The Seventh Bride), the Snow Queen (The Raven and the Reindeer), Beauty and the Beast (Bryony and Roses), and more. Her upcoming release, Thornhedge, tells the story of Sleeping Beauty from the perspective of a toad. Orion’s Kyla McCallum caught up with Kingfisher to discuss writing inspired by horticulture, anthropomorphic characters, and the scary questions prompted by children’s stories.

Kyla McCallum: When imagining the natural world of your fairy tale retellings, what is the research process like? Do you draw on the fairy tale’s country of origin for inspiration?

T. Kingfisher: That… would actually make a lot of sense. Hmm. No, I’m afraid I usually write about landscapes that I know! Many of my fantasy novels, while they have the Ye Olde Quasi-Medieval Fantasy thing going on, have natural landscapes that more closely resemble North America. Though in Thornhedge, I specifically wrote about European birds, so it’s not quite so out of place!

KM: We know that nature provides a number of warning signs when danger is looming. In A House with Good Bones, the garden’s eerie lack of bugs unnerves the protagonist, Sam. As an avid gardener, does your fine attunement to nature aid in the descriptive writing of these warning signs?

TK: I certainly hope it comes through! Actually, I sometimes worry I go too far the other way—not every protagonist can be a gardener or an entomologist, right? (Right…?!) Often, I find myself writing horror about things that I personally would find scary. A total lack of bugs would definitely worry me! Having lived through years where we have fewer pollinators than normal, it’s very upsetting, so it was a natural jump to why Sam in A House With Good Bones would be troubled by a total lack of bugs.

KM: You recently wrote a hopeful comic about conservation after the apocalypse. What is the role of literature and hope in the pursuit for an ecological civilization, and how does your writing fit in?

TK: Science fiction is often lauded as anticipating the future. I sometimes think that’s a little overblown—so often we’re just holding a funhouse mirror to the present!—but there are works that stand out as… oh, not blueprints, exactly, but at least landmarks to a better future. Always Coming Home, by Ursula K. LeGuin, is one that often comes to mind.

I think there’s a lot to be said for showing futures where bad things have happened and are being fixed, not “and it’s all been fixed already.” (I love Star Trek, but it does handwave the bit where we solve so many problems.) My weird little comic was about being down in the low point after some great catastrophe and how nature starts to return. It’s a scary place to be, but there are also amazing joys to be found there. The first time I planted a host plant for a very specific butterfly, and that butterfly found it and laid eggs and suddenly there were pipevine swallowtail caterpillars where there hadn’t been any—that was a wild and crazy joy. I, personally, had done something that caused there to be more of a species than there had been before! I could point to those specific caterpillars and say “I helped!”

The comic is kind of about that, I think, and about all the people you meet along the way—the ones who are planting more plants and the ones telling you “So what, it doesn’t matter,” and all the shades in between.

KM: Bits and pieces of gardening knowledge often make their way into your books, with two stories (Bryony and Roses, A House with Good Bones) revolving around evil roses due to your self-proclaimed “anti-rose sentiment.” Do any particular plant species feature prominently in your upcoming release, a Sleeping Beauty retelling titled Thornhedge? If so, how has gardening influenced your understanding and/or description of these plants?

TK: There’s a sort of generalized thorny bramble in Thornhedge, though I don’t narrow it down to species! (I do occasionally wonder what the species of thorn is in Sleeping Beauty…maybe some kind of multiflora rose…)

Science fiction is often lauded as anticipating the future. I sometimes think that’s a little overblown—so often we’re just holding a funhouse mirror to the present!

KM: You’re well-known for anthropomorphic characters like the no-nonsense wombat in Digger. Is there a species of animal that you have yet to ascribe human characteristics to but really look forward to doing so?

TK: Heh! That’s a great question. There are just so many cool animals out there that I feel spoiled for choice. For quite a while, I wanted to write about toads. Then I wrote Thornhedge, which features them prominently, so now I have to find something else!

Maybe roadrunners. Roadrunners are absolutely terrifying little dinosaurs, they can be incredibly vicious, they eat rattlesnakes, but most people just think “Oh, meep meep!” and think they’re sort of weird cute mini-ostriches instead of horrifying velociraptor death-machines.

KM: In the author’s note for Nettle and Bone, you question why the prince from The Princess and the Pea would want a bride with skin so sensitive, an inquiry which reveals the dark side of a classic tale. If we place all of our fairy tales under a similar microscope, do you think many of them would prompt similarly uncomfortable lines of questioning?

TK: Some of them would, certainly. It’s a cliche now that if you talk about fairy tales, somebody busts through the wall like the Kool-Aid man to inform you that fairy tales weren’t always for children!!! But even given that, there are plenty that are fairly straightforward, if a bit more gory than they were before the Grimm Brothers got ahold of them, and then another subset that have *really* upsetting underpinnings.

What I find most interesting about The Princess and the Pea is that it’s one of the upsetting ones, but hardly anybody thinks of it that way. We all know that the original Sleeping Beauty is filled with sexual assault, we all know the Juniper Tree is dark as hell, but The Princess and the Pea is viewed a straightforward children’s story. And while tons of writers engage with, say, Beauty and the Beast and the abduction narrative—I’ve done it myself!–for some reason the pea gets a pass from nearly everybody, except maybe Terri Windling. I just find that sort of peculiar.

KM: Do you gravitate toward the tales with darker undertones?

TK: Oh heavens yes. I think it was Robin McKinley who said something to the effect that a lot of people seem to have one story they’re retelling over and over. Hers was Beauty and the Beast, but the moment I read that,  I thought “Mine would be Bluebeard.

(Of course, there’s also a lot to be said for the fact that darker stories are simply easier for me to write—there’s a lot of drama you can wring out of darkness!)

KM: I love the humor in your novels, but you also touch on troubling and important topics. How do you balance these heavier themes, like climate-related landmarks for the future, with the urge to entertain and uplift your audience?

TK: Heh! People ask this, and I still don’t know the answer because it’s not something I do consciously. My books are humorous because I can’t *not* crack jokes. (I’ve done a couple short stories that manage not to be, but it’s a particular headspace. I really can’t sustain that for a full novel.) It’s not something I’m choosing to do or a balance that I’m deliberately striking, it’s just how the words come out, I guess.

More broadly, though, I think if you want to make the world better, bludgeoning the reader with Heavy Themes doesn’t work if they go away feeling bludgeoned. We don’t actually need more people paralyzed by climate horrors—we’ve got plenty of those already. (I’m one myself on alternate Tuesdays.) But if a book can make you feel better and stronger and wiser, instead of paralyzed, then you can DO something with that.

Pratchett was the great master of this. His books are burning with rage at injustice, but you read them and you go away feeling better and wiser AND enraged at injustice too. Obviously I am no Pratchett, but if my books can give someone a safe place to rest for a few hours and then send them back out to fight the good fight with renewed vigor, that’s a book that’s made the world better.

(And if nothing else, I get paid and then I send money to Bat Conservation International or the Alongside Wildlife Foundation or whatever, so at least SOME good is gonna come of it, dammit.) 

T. Kingfisher writes fantasy, horror, and occasional oddities, including The Twisted Ones and Swordheart. Under a pen name, she also writes children’s books. She lives in North Carolina.

Kyla McCallum is a graphic designer and illustrator. She is a graduate student at the University of British Columbia, where she studies Library and Information Science. When not tinkering away in Adobe Illustrator, Kyla is probably reading. Visit her portfolio here.