An interview with Carolyn Turgeon

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Dear Readers: Today I'm happy to present to you an interview with Carolyn Turgeon, Author of GODMOTHER: THE SECRET CINDERELLA STORY

1. What was it about the Cinderella story that inspired you to revisit this fairy tale?

I think the initial inspiration for Godmother was just that I wanted to do something simpler than I had done in my first book, which was a struggle and took many years to complete. I just wanted to work with something wonderful—a fairytale—and play. To me, Cinderella is about the most glittery gorgeous fairytale I can imagine, with its glass slippers and fairy godmother and moment of transformation, its pumpkins turning to carriages and its mice to coachmen, the wonderful dress, and, of course, the ball. As a child I was as enchanted by the story and the movie as any other girl. And at its base it is a tale about being saved. This is a big theme for me: how people can save each other, and how they can't. So it made sense to me to tell the story from the perspective of the one who is supposed to be doing the saving. Not the prince, but the fairy godmother who swoops in to give Cinderella a new life.

At first I intended to tell the story pretty straightforwardly, using the most lush, vivid language and detail I could. But once I started really getting into it, and into the psychology of the godmother and Cinderella, I knew that it was impossible to ignore the story's dark heart. I mean, what really happens to Cinderella in that house with her stepmother and stepsisters? Is she really able to just leave it and step into the world? Can she be saved? And who is this godmother exactly? How does Cinderella's pain affect her? What does she want?

2. Are there other fairy tales that have interesting back stories that you've thought about or would like to one day explore?

Yes. Right now I'm working on a retelling of the original Hans Christian Andersen little mermaid story. I'm telling the story of the princess—the one the prince falls in love with and marries instead of the mermaid, and who only appears briefly in the original story—as well as the mermaid. It's in the vein of Godmother, though in this case the original story is already very dark. I like the idea that the princess and mermaid might have their own relationship. The novel opens with the princess witnessing the mermaid pulling the prince to shore after rescuing him from shipwreck. It's a moment that will change her life forever.

In general, I have always loved retellings, loved plucking out the minor or unknown character and telling their tale. Like in Wide Sargasso Sea, or Girl with the Pearl Earring. In the future, I'm interested in doing this not only with fairytales, but with myths and with history. I studied Dante in graduate school, and am writing another novel that tells the "real" story of Beatrice Portinari.

3. Why did you choose New York City as the setting where the abandoned fairy godmother is outcast to?

I wanted Lil's human life to be as gritty and real as possible, and I was living in New York when I wrote the book. And New York is a great setting. I was working at a non-profit in the Garment District, and on my first day at that job my boss Julius said something about how the Garment District was the only part of New York left where you can really feel what it would have been like in the 19th century. It made me see that area in a new way, and so I had Lil living there, right around the corner from my job, on 36th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. New York just seems the perfect place for someone like Lil: she can be almost anonymous there, live in the same building for decades, be surrounded at all times by the past, and eke out a living at a little bookstore downtown. And, occasionally, come across magical creatures like her friend Veronica. Plus New York is a hard city to live in, and would present Lil with plenty of challenges that spur her need to rectify her mistakes and return to her own world.

4. One of the strongest themes in the novel is redemption. How did you explore this in GODMOTHER?

Godmother is more about never being given the chance for redemption. That is, never being able to get someone back once they're gone. Which is the most awful thing about being human and what makes Lil imagine so vividly that she can make things right, when she can't. She can't undo what she did to her sister/Cinderella. She can't bring either of them back, once they're gone. She has to deal with the loss and her own culpability, and she uses a fairytale to imagine her way out of it, imagine a happy ending. Which to me is totally life affirming and beautiful, as well as deeply sad. That is: what stories can do for us, and what they can't.

5. What research did you do about fairies for the novel?

I actually didn't do a lot of research. I got some books about fairies, but decided it would be best just to make it up. I think many of us have some pre-conception of what a magical world might be like, what fairies are like, ideas and images that we've read or seen or heard, and I drew on those memories. But I had to do it in stages, and my editors really pushed me to give this world as much shape and detail as possible. I was tentative about describing this world too much—and in my first draft, in fact, I just started with Lil visiting Cinderella and barely described Lil's own world at all. I was afraid of making all the fairy stuff corny, but was finally convinced that the more clearly this world was delineated, the less corny and more real it would be. I did look through enough literature to know that some fairies came from the water, and I liked that idea.

Also, from the beginning I knew Lil had to have big white feathered wings, like the trapeze girl in Wings of Desire. The black-and-white image of Solveig Dommartin swinging back and forth on the trapeze partially inspired both Godmother and Rain Village, in a way. It's so beautiful and so sad, this fleeting ecstatic moment before the girl has to come down and take off her wings and her glitter and the circus goes away. So I always described Lil as having these white-feathered wings, and then later was told very vehemently and more than once, that fairies do not have feather wings. They have wings like insects. Eventually I was convinced, and I added in the detail that Lil has these wings only because she's a godmother. All the others? Have wings like insects.

Thank you for that interesting insight, dear Author! Readers, your thoughts / comments are most welcome.

*** Posted with permission of Random House ***
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1 People said

  1. I just recently heard about this book and immediately put it on my TBR list. Thoroughly enjoyed the interview with the author, and I am glad she is working on more retellings of fairy tale classics.

    Mstermind1 at gmail dot com


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