Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Fairy Tales and Tomfoolery

What's been going on and what's coming up at O Beauty Unattempted?

  • The House of Strangeways
  • Will return (after I finish directing Macbeth! The Scottish Play requires quite a bit of attention as we near the showdate!)  In the meantime, you can read all of the chapters here to catch up with the first volume in preparation for its return!
If you're an author interested either in a Teatime Ten interview or - better! - a guest blog, please contact me at webmaster (at) christianfantasy (dot) com and I'll be glad to chat with you. We're looking especially for fantastical or Austenesque works to feature. (No erotica, please.)

Do check out the links and I'll see you back here at O Beauty Unattempted!

Friday, February 24, 2012

You Make Me Strange! & Other Macbethery

Macbeth at the banquet scene,
said to Lady Macbeth:
"You have made me strange!"

I've been immensely grateful to have directed quite a lot of Shakespeare this year (for those of you keeping score, we're coming up to number three of the four back to back directing Shakespeare plays this year: As You Like It, The Tempest, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night's Dream).


Howsomever, Macbeth is really one of the Big Five, when one's considering Shakespeare tragedies.  (I'd say it's Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo & Juliet, Othello and Lear.  Put on any one of those, and folks will come...and criticize.) 

The most intimidating of his plays, for my money though, is still Hamlet.  To quote Tolkein: one does not simply walk into Elsinore.  But right behind Hamlet is definitely the Scottish Play.  And one does not simply walk into Dunsinane, either!

When I first started getting my thoughts together on Macbeth, one of the things that struck me was that this was Such A Ridiculously Male Play.  The testosterone of it daunted me, actually.  It was just so full of...war...and more war and more war...and a bunch of grim faced guys talking about war and making war and going into war and coming out of war and...

I didn't really feel that I had a way in.

(For the record, I don't mind male plays, and I'd hate to be called feminist, just I don't get excited about the prospect of mindlessly hacking away.  If I'm going to kill someone on stage, I want it to hurt me emotionally, too.)

The script, too, was weird.  Oh, the story is straight-forward enough:
  • Boy gets prophecy
  • Boy pursues prophecy
  • Boy gets killed by prophecy

By "weird" what I mean is that there are a ton of characters who either:

A) Have no name and pop up for one scene to say some direful things and then are never seen again (Old Man, A Lord, etc.) or;

B) Have a name but you've never heard it before and they do stuff at the end and die so you could really care less but you're supposed to care at all (Mentieth, the Siwards) or;

C) Have a name, and you even hear it, but you can't seem to quite register Who The Hell They Are (Lennox, Ross, Angus) or;

D) Have a name, and you know it, and then they just disappear for forever...even though they're really important to the plot (Malcolm, Donalbain, Fleance) or;

E) You know who they are (the Macbeths).

Even when things go very badly for the Macbeths,
they're still in it together!
Another thing that troubled me was that, tonally, the show can become one long string of horror, like a Greek drama, that loses its power because of repetition.  I'm always about finding grace in any tragedy - and Shakespeare is typically a willing partner in such ventures - but from watching other productions of Macbeth, I couldn't find it initially.

What I can do is human drama.  What I can do is interior war.  What I can do is come to a play with a female perspective which, especially when working with a male playwright, can help compliment his worldview.

So I focused in on that line of Lady Macbeth's, that she had "given suck, and know what 'tis to love the babe that nursed me," and that she would, "while it was smiling up at me, have dashed the brains out."  It's not a statement you make lightly.  And yet, it never seems to be addressed at all in all these manly manly productions.

I began looking at the death of children and the rape of innocence.

If Lady Macbeth did indeed kill her child...wouldn't that have upset their marriage, which seems evident from the start?  And if she can get Macbeth to join her in killing the father (Duncan in our case) wouldn't that "alleviate" - even absolve - or at least spread around the guilt?  And if the guilt is spread around, then they don't have to be guilty, right?

But death begets death.  And we've found beautiful moments, not of Macbeth pushing away Lady Macbeth, but attempting to make her innocent again ("be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck") by taking on all the collateral deaths (Banquo/Fleance, the Macduffs, etc.) without her knowledge.

Our teachers have always said that Macbeth is an example of a tragic hero - which always seemed absurd to me.  Macbeth seems to be just a monster.  It doesn't seem to take much to get him to kill; there's nothing heroic about him!  But...

But what if there were?  What if, in fact, Macbeth does have to be talked into the first murder, and the second, and the third, and then it gets easier, and so on and so on.  Looking at the text, it's all there - the curses and reverses, the time for a million decisions and revisions, as T. S. Eliot says in his Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.

Lady Macbeth in her mad scene
Goes terribly sane, instead
"There's a knocking at the gate"
I have to thank, as always, my brilliant cast - particularly my Lord and Lady Macbeth who go throughout the play together.  That, too, was something important to me.  So often, the story begins strongly with them and then the pairing just peters off.  In our production, whether they're working in concert or against one another, there is a constant association.

I've been amazed, too, and how the entire cast has help to keep focus on the deaths (or attempted deaths) of children.  It can get pretty brutal - especially the massacre of the Macduffs - but all the actors are fantastic at keeping me on track regarding their characters' reactions to each death.  I love how our Donalbain has even added a grace note to the deaths of children with a new child...and how our two child actors (Elizabeth Macduff, and Fleance) are just phenomenal!

I love how the lords, who could just blend into one another, individualize themselves.  I love how the witches (played by Duncan, Ross and Donalbain) switch in and out of their characters.  I love how the Macduff family tugs at my heartstrings...and how ambiguous the royal family is...and how it hurts to see Macbeth try to kill Banquo and his son.

Likewise, our Banquo is no avenging ghost, but he offers something that Macbeth (by the end) fears even more: grace.  Mercy and grace.  I keep thinking of that song, "Aldonza" from Man of LaMancha:

You have shown me the sky,
But what good is the sky
To a creature who'll never do better than crawl
Of all the cruel bastards
Who've badgered and battered me
You are the cruelest of all

Can't you see what your gentle
Insanities do to me
Drive me from anger
And give me despair?
Blows and abuse
I can take and give back again...
Gentleness I cannot bear.

Macbeth is, at its heart, a cautionary tale.  Like the Bearenstein Bears: This Is Something You Should Not Do.  But cautionary tales are only helpful if they provide a way out.  Otherwise, you leave the audience in confusion and despair and hopelessness.  Although I'm all for rightfully unsettling an audience, I feel that it's important to provide an alternative, a solution, an exit from No Exit as it were.

It's important that in the midst of hopelessness is a glimmer of hope.  I guess I'm just with Samwise Gamgee on this one.  So, although we're going dark dark dark in some places - or rather, not dark, not GRIMDARK, not dark for no purpose - but rather although we go agonizingly real in the play, I think we're still holding on to the thought that there's good in this world, Mr Frodo, and it's worth fighting for.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

For the Love of Fairy Tale Adaptations (Guest Blog)

UPDATED TO ADD: We'll be choosing the winner of the giveaway on Tuesday, March 6th!  So there's still time to comment here, or on Jessica's Teatime Ten (see below) to enter to win!

Today, Jessica Grey returns with a guest blog: For the Love of Fairy Tale Adaptations.

And there's more!  Jessica will also be giving away a free copy of her new book, Awake: A Fairytale!  To enter to win a copy, just leave a comment either here or in Jessica's Teatime Ten interview!

For the Love of Fairy Tale Adaptations
Guest Blog by Jessica Grey 

“When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” 
- C.S. Lewis
Illustration by W. Crane
Fairy tale adaptations are everywhere right now.  In the movies, on television, in popular fiction.  It’s a trend that seems to come around every decade and a half or so.  As a child I was lucky enough to grow up with Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theater and a Beauty and the Beast remake on prime time television.  As a young reader I was able to read books like Beauty and Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley.  Of course whole generations of children grew up with Disney adaptations, and Disney Animation revived the fairytale tradition in the early 90s.  Adapting fairy tales is nothing new, and I would bet a whole nickel that the writers of Once Upon a Time and Grimm probably are close to my age and grew up with many of those same influences.  Fairy tales have a way of getting into your mind and soul and changing the way you look at the world and the way you write.

My early exposure to fairy tales (we had the most amazing collection of books when I was a kid) and adaptations has definitely affected not only the way I write but what I write.  My first novel, Awake: A Fairytale, is an adaption of Sleeping Beauty.  In my story Sleeping Beauty is awakened in modern day Los Angeles by a kiss, but the curse isn’t truly broken.  Instead, the sleeping spell transfers to the boy who kissed her.  My main character, Alexandra Martin, is a childhood friend of the kisser and is stuck trying to figure out a) how to wake him up, and b) what exactly to do with the awakened twelfth century princess. 

There are people that love fairy tale adaptations, but you also often hear people saying they prefer the original version of a particular tale.  While I am all for authenticity, and for fairy tales and folk stories being read in their earliest written forms, the fact is that so many of these stories existed as oral traditions before they were ever written down.  Even the Grimm brothers, as dark as their stories are, were accused of sanitizing some of the original tales.  In some cases, stories that we consider as part of the fairy tale lexicon were written by an author (Hans Christian Anderson is one of the biggest examples of this), and certain critics might be more justified in their distaste for modernizing or changing those stories.  I think it speaks to the power of Anderson’s stories, though, that they get included along with the iconic fairy tales.  They have become a part of the general consciousness in the same way as the earlier stories.

Illustration by Gustav Dore
The tricky part about stories that come from an oral tradition, like so many fairy tales do, is they are hard to pin down.  The story shifts and changes from teller to teller.  And as anyone who has ever heard a really great story teller knows, even when telling a known tale, they somehow make it their own.  Great stories tend to travel which results in many cultures that have similar stories.  If you are ever researching a fairy tale it is so much fun to check out the similar tales across cultures on Sur La Lune Fairy Tales.  Beware, it is a total time suck.  I could spend hours on that site reading versions of various stories. 

I made a conscious decision to have the main characters in my story actually research the fairy tale they were caught up in.  Alex and Becca are both really smart, college-bound girls.  When confronted with the fact that the Sleeping Beauty tale is true, and not only is it true but they’ve been saddled with the recently awakened star of the story, it makes sense for their characters to try to learn as much as possible about what they are dealing with.  So they research it.  It’s what I would have done, I would hope it’s what most people would do, although often YA novels especially have their main characters act before thinking in a way I find unrealistic.  When the girls start researching the origins of the story they run right up against this “pinning it down” problem:

A half ream of printer paper later, Alex wasn’t feeling any more in control of the situation. Becca was cursing quietly under her breath as she surveyed the haphazard stacks of papers on Alex’s bed and desk. “This is frustrating. None of these stories seem to match.”
Alex leaned back and sighed. “Yeah, there are elements that pop up in each one, but nothing that’s really feeling strongly like Lilia’s version of events. They certainly all have the prince she keeps harping on about.”
Lilia looked up from the bean bag chair in the corner, where she was flipping through a version of the story called Little Briar Rose from Grimm’s Fairytales that Alex had already perused, taken notes on, and abandoned.
“See, it is as I said. A prince should have kissed me awake. My true love; not this peasant boy.”
“You’re lucky you didn’t wake up in labor like the princesses in some of these stories,” Alex commented drily. “Being woken up by a peasant might be slightly preferable to being impregnated while unconscious by a prince, true love or not.”

Illustration by Breakspeare

While the sometimes murky origin of these stories may present problems for a historian or recorder (or two eighteen year olds trying to figure out how to break a curse that seems to have transferred), I believe it is this subtle obscurity that gives fairy tales much of their power and their ability to be adapted.  As adapters we can take our place in a long line of storytellers who have added their own personal flair to these famous stories.  We aren’t aiming to change how the story is passed on to future generations (although as an adapter of tales Disney may have managed just that), but to add another way of looking at a tale, a new thread, however small, in the grand story telling tradition.  We want to give the audience around our personal campfire a story that will inspire their imagination and get them thinking about these old stories that still hold so much power and meaning in our lives.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Teatime Ten: Jessica Grey (Awake: A Fairytale)

Today, the Teatime Ten returns with an exclusive interview with Jessica Grey!  For those who may not know, Jessica is one-half of the brilliant team behind (who've let me guest blog a time or two) and the lovely lady known as NarniaMum.

Now Jessica has published the first of her fairy tale retellings, "Awake: A Fairytale" - and was kind enough to join us here to tell us more about it!  Today's offering includes your choice of fully caffeinated Irish or English Breakfast tea and a Mardi Gras array of pancakes!

Welcome, Jessica!

Thanks so much for featuring me ;)

Tell us a little bit about "Awake."

Magic spells and enchanted beds are the last things on Alexandra Martin's mind when she sees Luke Reed on the first day of her summer internship. But when Alex finds a real Sleeping Beauty she discovers the truth hidden in fairytales and that a fae's ancient evil still holds power. Can Alex and her friends defeat the curse and finally realize it takes more than true love's kiss to bring you fully Awake?

To sum up: Magic. Gems. 850-Year-Old Princess. Hot guy. 
What drew you to the story of Sleeping Beauty?

Well, she is my favorite Disney Princess.  Actually, Prince Phillip is my favorite Disney Prince and I've written a whole treatise on why.  But even though I love the story, I hadn't given it much thought as something I might want to write. Then one day an image just dropped into my head - this amazing metal and gem bed with a sleeping person on it.  That image eventually became Awake.  While I didn't set out to write a Sleeping Beauty story, I was drawn question of whether we are powerless to affect our fate - it excited me to think of the roles being reversed - how fun it would be to have the heroine realize that she was more powerful than she knew.

Recently, we've had a slew of modernizations of fairy tales.  Why do you think this trend has caught on?  What do fairy tales tell us today? 

The fairy tale modernization trend seems to come around every decade or so with varying degrees of popularity.  I was lucky enough to read authors like Robin McKinley when I was young and now I am thrilled to see some of these stories once again getting the recognition they deserve.  It's either feast or famine, though, I can't believe there are two different Snow White movies coming out this year. It kind of boggles the mind, but I'm prepared to give them each a chance!  I think the t.v. shows Grimm and Once Upon a Time are both brilliant.  Although they are extremely different takes, I think they are both valid and well written and I'm thrilled they are both on at the same time! 

There is a reason that these stories have remained popular for so many centuries.  The serve to condense good and evil, along with every possibly human character trait, into easily identifiable and relatable stories.  We can understand them as children, and as adults we can see the subtleties that we may have missed when we were younger.  I do think that the popularity of fairy tales is cyclical, but I also think it has to do with uncertain times.  Fairy tales offer glimpses into the human condition but still allow us to have good and bad guys...even when the roles are reversed or tweaked in fun post-modern stories, they always seem to retain a measure of that battle of good versus evil.

What did you find was the most challenging aspect of writing this novel, and why?

Starting!  I usually get a really strong visual image of a specific scene and then build my whole story around that.  In this case, it was the image of Sleeping Beauty's bed, actually the scene I am including at the end of this post.  The image was so strong it was burned onto my brain and is described in the book just the way I saw it first, probably at least six years ago.  It sat in my head for years before I finally started working a bit on it in November 2010, but I didn't really get started writing the book until March of last year.  Things that kept me from working on it - working, doing infertility treatments, then having two babies within 14 months of each other and moving across country...basically life!  However, once I got started it poured out of me.  I was done with the first draft in about two and a half months.

What were five discoveries or surprises you made on the road to independent publication?

a)  The fact that most people think you chose to self-publish because your manuscript was rejected by everyone and their grandmother.  I've never even submitted a novel TO be rejected.  Self-pubishing was something that spoke to my annoyingly independent "I'll do it the hard way and reinvent the darn wheel if I want to" personality.

b)  How amazingly supportive the self-publishing and indie/small press publishing community really is!  We see examples of this all the time on IndieJane and it's fabulous.

c)  Knowing people who do stuff is really handy.  I already knew this, but honestly guys, make friends with other artists...graphic designers, musicians, etc.  It's enriching in general, and it honestly makes it easier to get stuff done when people around you know what they are talking about and share your passion!

d)  I'm not going to lie, sometimes there is a stigma attached to self-publishing.  I always thought it wouldn't bother me.  But whenever the issue is brought up, or someone says something derogatory about self-publishing, I have an instinctive, and luckily internal, defensive reaction.  I've learned to not beat myself up over the reaction, let myself have it, and then move on to being awesome and positive.  

e)  I already knew that I was kind of a control freak, and that I would rather do most things myself (any experience in college group projects will convince most decent students that doing it yourself is the way to go), but it is surprised me how much I've enjoyed it!  The resources are out there, putting out a quality product is easier than it ever has been before.  

You're a Mom, a blogger, an author, and a publisher!  How do you balance your home and literary life?  What suggestions do you have for other Moms?

Um...balance? Moi?  It can be really hard.  When I'm up to my eyeballs in potty-training disasters I sometimes wish I could just hide away in a  corner with a coffee and my laptop...and when I head out to the coffee shop to write and my two year old looks at me with huge, fat tears running down his face and says "Mama, don't go do writin!'" the mom guilt is overwhelming.  Luckily, I know he's fine after about three minutes so I don't have to wallow in the guilt (although some days I do!).  In a weird way, the fact that I can't write every day helps motivate me.  I can think over a scene in my brain for days while I'm at home (I find it is best if I actually leave to write), and then once I actually do get to sit down with it it flows better because I've thought it out so much.  It also helps me not waste a lot of my writing time, so I get a lot done in a short amount of time. 

My advice for other moms is: If you want to do it, do it!  You can't wait to "find the time" cause there will always be something else you can fill your time with.  You have to take the time, forcibly.  And sometimes that means letting something else go.  But even if you can only find an hour a week it is still an hour a week you weren't spending on writing, or whatever your chosen art form, before.  It's amazing what you can do when you are motivated....which I keep reminding myself when looking at my dusty workout dvds.
The Trailer for "Awake"
You may be best known for your work on IndieJane.  But "Awake" is not Austen paraliterature!  Would you say there's any overlap between the two genres?

It's kind of cool to think I'm "known" for anything at all!  My mother claims I'm best known for talking through movies, so it was fun to tell her "no, I'm known for Indie Jane, Emily said so."  I love working on IndieJane and I adore Austen paraliterature.  My next novel actually is Austenesque (although I have to put my own postmodern spin on it of course, too many watchings of The Princess Bride when I was young!), but I have always loved fairy tales  - both the originals and adaptations.  I do find that there is some overlap when writing something that is fantasy based and something that is Austen based because to me at least, they are BOTH fantasy!  Although, Austenesque novels are usually set in the Regency era, an actual historical time period, they are focused on a world that we are so far removed from that it might as well be magical.  The difference is, if you're writing your own fantasy world you make the rules, whereas in historical novels the rules are made for you.  Either way, it is important to honor the rules - to keep your world true to itself.

Let's say you're spending a night out with one of your favorite characters from "Awake.  Who is it and what do you do?

I'm going to have to cheat and pick two characters!  My heroine, Alex, is wonderful, but (at least at the start of the book) she might be a little bit too shy and reserved to really make for a fun "night out."  Her friend and fellow intern, Becca Ward, however, is spunky and a bit snarky.  I think they compliment each other well, and with Becca along Alex would definitely have a better time.

Would you care to give us a 2-3 paragraph sample from "Awake"?  Lead us into and out of the scene, please!

So our intrepid heroine has just arrived at the museum she interns at, looking for her advisor and the artifacts they are supposed to be  receiving.  She doesn't find her advisor, but she does find an amazing gem encrusted four poster bed that has just been uncrated...
A soft sound interrupted Alex’s rapid thoughts. She wasn’t alone. She had been so entranced by the bed itself that she hadn’t noticed there was someone actually on it—sleeping on it, in fact.
At first Alex thought the sleeping figure, like the bed, was covered with fine cobwebs. As she looked closer she saw that it wasn’t cobwebs draping over the figure but hair – foot after foot of sandy-colored hair streamed from the sleeper’s head and over its face and body, moving gently as the figure breathed in and out. The hair wasn’t growing just out of the sleeper’s head, but from the face as well–a beard that would have done Rip Van Winkle proud flowed down to well past the knees. And that is when Alex figured out that she didn’t have a sleeping beauty on her hands, but an enchanted sleeping man.
As Alex stared at the figure in shock, trying to calculate how long it would take for that much hair to grow, the sleeping man emitted a soft snore. Alex jumped back at the quiet sound, trying to stifle her slightly hysterical giggles. She may not know much about fairytales, but she was pretty sure that enchanted sleeping princes weren’t supposed to snore.
And coming out of the scene...she figures out who is on the bed! And it's someone she knows!

You can actually read a bit more of this scene on the site  I've got several samples from Awake available there.
What's next for Jessica Grey?

Hopefully quite a lot!  I am currently completing Attempting Elizabeth, a novel about a grad student who finds she can jump into characters in Pride and Prejudice.  I hope to have it out in September of this year.  I also am right in the middle of a sequel to Awake (although each book is stand alone) called Atone: A Fairytale, that features Becca Ward and is a retelling of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale.  I hope to have that one out by this time next year.
Thanks so much for joining me!

Thanks so much for having me for your Tea Time Ten, Emily!
 Jessica Grey is the author of "Awake: A Fairytale" and the editrix of  You can learn more about her at her official site.

You can also connect with Jessica via Twitter and Facebook. "Awake" is available through Amazon.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Turn, Hellhound, Turn!

And just for kick and giggles - here's the latest publicity poster for Macbeth presented by Theater906 and directed by yours truly.  Macduff in the final moments of fighting (and winning against) Macbeth.  If you're in Massachusetts - or even if you aren't - you should definitely make plans to come and see this production!

You can actually buy tickets now!

A History of Words

In the beginning...

 I've been writing ever since I can remember.  My mother even wrote down poems that I created (on the highly original topics of "Red" "Blue" and "Colors") before I could write

Red is a color
Blazy and bright
Red is feeling strong
With all your might


And when you get angry
Red is in your head
(Actually, I like "Red" which either goes to show that there was a spark of something there at four years old, or that my sensibilities have not improved by thirty-four.  You can see the poem, right.)

Curiously, though, I was a late reader.  From nursery school through second grade, I was in the slowest of all the reading groups - the sort that read See Jack Run when the other kids were reading War and Peace (or so it felt).  I remember in Kindergarten, other students were reading and so, to fit in, one day I grabbed Dr. Seuss' Hop on Pop which was a staple at the Snyder household, and which I had memorized down to the page-turn.  I announced that I would read it (aka perform it) out loud, which I did perfectly to nobody's interest...and besides which, I wasn't reading it at all.

Then, in second grade, while I was supposed to be working on a math problem (I remember I was something like the fourth row back from the teacher, second row in from the wall, near the end of the alphabet which hung suspended from the front door to the back door of the classroom), I overheard the story that the "smart group" was reading.  It was a fairy tale, along the lines of Cinderella meets the three fairy godmothers from Disney's Sleeping Beauty by way of the Norns, and it included a picture.  Now, I've always loved fairy tales and being denied the reading of one because I was in the See Jack Run group was tantamount to a crime.  I ditched math, snuck the reading textbook onto my desk, found the fairy tale and zipped through it.

I became a reading fiend.