I spent the first thirteen years of my life on a slow-motion tour of the United States, following my father’s work in the telecommunication business, with a brief side trip to Jamaica. Settling down at last in Upstate New York when my parents purchased an inn, I spent a difficult year attempting to adapt to the small local school and the company of my agemates. Ultimately, my family made the decision to educate me at home. Some of my time came to revolve around the business, which grew to include a bookstore and restaurant; some of my attention went to the school textbooks from which I learned. Mostly, I read and wrote.
Fantasy, science fiction, myth, folklore—I favored the unreal in reading and told the same sort of stories as soon as I could articulate those ideas in words. This became an important tool when I developed several chronic health problems in my adolescence. Rather than using the world of fantasy to escape from these, I normalized them by creating disabled characters within the familiar landscapes of the fantastic. One o’ clock in the morning with an unruly mind and aching joints was best faced with characters whose hallucinations and missing limbs were oversized projections of my own difficulties.
I flew out of Upstate to California for college with one suitcase of clothes and ten boxes of books. I am now living with family while attending the University of San Diego, where I am pursuing an English degree, a Classics minor, and all excuses to write fiction.
I credit the fact that I finished my first novel, Sea Change, in part to the inspiration of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales.
I first hit upon fairytales as a young teen in a bookstore decorated with dragon statuettes and sticks of incense. This was already my natural habitat: my father introduced me to fantasy when he read my child-self Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, and I’d inherited the D&D Monster Manuals from his college days. As I browsed through the section on monsters and cryptozoology, I came across Russian Fairytales: decorated sparsely with stylized illustrations by A. Alexeieff, translation by Norbert Guterman, cover imprinted with a gold gilt pheasant. I wanted it terribly and my parents were (are) terrible at saying no to books.
Today, my library is double-stacked in a too-small bookcase and consists primarily of folklore and fairytales. I can’t say any one tale in that first Russian collection sparked this fascination, as I’d read my way through so quickly as to leave an impression of one continuous, if fragmentary, novel. The tropes and archetypes, the arbitrary magic and bizarre tasks, the brutality: these stuck with me. You can even prompt me to exercise my oral storytelling abilities by asking after some bit of folklore or fairytale. I pride myself on my rendition of “The Baboon’s Circumcision” particularly, which required three runs before I figured out who would best serve as the main character.
(Yes, I have told a story called “The Baboon’s Circumcision” to three different people. The reactions I garnered were, respectively, “I have no idea what actually happened in that story other than it was disturbing”, “Why did you tell me that?”, and laughter. This one has a punch line, and it goes “The baboon said, ‘Oh, brother, you’ve been terribly hurt!’ and fled.”)
Sea Change isn’t a punch line kind of book (there is one joke about testicles, granted). Rather, it nods to the pitiless side of the tales. I would not say that gritty means true, nor that there’s a greater interest in the old versions versus the later bowdlerized ones, or even—further back—what we dream of as the original oral tales. I went through a period of reading children’s books to see what they had done with the raw material, which I recommend to any author who works with fairytales. It’s instructive. I was upset at the alterations made to soften the stories until I reflected on the fact that I quite changed them.
For example: women have agency in Sea Change. Ugliness is not cured. Biological parents are not faultless.
I do credit myself with doing well by the original material all the same. Which is to say: it might be that an evil step-mother and her ugly daughter are not thrown into a barrel studded with nails and rolled into a river, but I’ve included my share of violence and sexuality. The main character, Lilly, is a somber young woman; her traits of industriousness, politeness, and self-sacrifice are all virtues of the Grimm heroine (excepting the trickster tales, like “The Three Spinners”). I’ve always liked the trope where a character gets bits lopped off—that’s here, though married with the ability to cut open a character’s guts without subsequent death (see “The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids”).
Looking back on the process, on the fairytales and folklore closest to my heart, and what they did for my writing, there is one that has kept with me for all the years since I first read it. The title is translated as “A Tale About the Boy Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was” by Jack Zipes. Once in a while, you come across a story with which you can identify whole-hearted, and the protagonist’s inability to feel the creeps, his social naivety and quiet acceptance of a world that doesn’t make that much sense—well. There’s quite a lot of him in Lilly, too.
And least to say this is another one I can be prompted to tell; at the end, after the wife has dumped a bucket of cold water and minnows down the back of the protagonist’s shirt, it’s with sympathy and satisfaction that I exclaim his final line: “Oh! So that’s the creeps!”
Thank you for joining us, S.M. Wheeler! I know I've enjoyed Lilly's journey in Sea Change, and I think any fan of dark fairy tales will do so as well.
Would you like to win a copy of Sea Change? The kind folks at Tor have provided 3 finished copies for a giveaway. Open to US/Canadian addresses only, please! To enter, simply fill out the FORM. Giveaway will close on July 7, 2013 at 11:59pm EST. Winner will be selected randomly and notified via email. Good luck!
The unhappy child of two powerful parents who despise each other, young Lilly turns to the ocean to find solace, which she finds in the form of the eloquent and intelligent sea monster Octavius, a kraken. In Octavius’s many arms, Lilly learns of friendship, loyalty, and family. When Octavius, forbidden by Lilly to harm humans, is captured by seafaring traders and sold to a circus, Lilly becomes his only hope for salvation. Desperate to find him, she strikes a bargain with a witch that carries a shocking price.Her journey to win Octavius’s freedom is difficult. The circus master wants a Coat of Illusions; the Coat tailor wants her undead husband back from a witch; the witch wants her skin back from two bandits; the bandits just want some company, but they might kill her first. Lilly's quest tests her resolve, tries her patience, and leaves her transformed in every way.A powerfully written debut from a young fantasy author, Sea Change is an exhilarating tale of adventure, resilience, and selflessness in the name of friendship.
Fine print: Sea Change blog tour organized by and giveaway prizes provided by Tor (Macmillan). I did not receive any compensation for this post.