You cannot imagine my delight when award-winning Tasmanian author, Danielle Wood, agreed to be Book Birdy’s inaugural author interviewee! I adored her latest work, Mothers Grimm, in which she twists up traditional fairy tales into darkly funny stories of contemporary motherhood. Happily, the lady is as funny in interview as she is in fiction.
What gave you the idea to re-work traditional fairy tales into short stories of modern motherhood?
I have an earlier collection, Rosie Little’s Cautionary Tales for Girls, which is in the same sort of territory, but featuring coming-of-age stories rather than war stories from motherhood. And, I’ve been influenced by the wonderful tradition of fairy tale reinvention that includes the work of people like Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Emma Donohue, and, here in Australia, two of my personal goddesses: Carmel Bird and Margo Lanagan.
The stories in Mothers Grimm came to me one by one, and surprised me. For instance, one day I woke up somehow knowing that ‘Hansel and Gretel’ was the perfect vehicle for interrogating issues around childcare. We don’t (usually, these days) take our children into the woods and leave them there because we’re short on bread, but there are all kinds of financial imperatives driving women to drop their kids off, daily, in a childcare centre when perhaps they’d rather not. (Note: all three of my children went to childcare and I am very grateful for the wonderful care they got there.)
Traditional fairy tales are quite dark and sometimes gory – generally not the kind of fodder that contemporary society sees as suitable for children. Do you think this says something about how childhood, and thus parenting, has changed?
When I was growing up, in the 1970s, I don’t think anyone used the word ‘parent’ as a verb. And now that usage is inescapable, which might tell us a thing or two. These days there’s so much information and opinion being bandied around that it can start to feel as if parenting, rather than being quite a normal everyday thing to do, is some kind of exacting spiritual vocation, for which most of us mere mortals are unsuited and unworthy. And, since a classic way to sell things to people is to invoke their anxiety, the world of advertising is full of messages about how you’re not shaping up as a parent unless you’re buying toddler milk with Omega-whatever additives, or helping your 9-year-old cram for their Year 3 Naplan test. You would have to have a particular kind of imperviousness to the outside world if you were to be sure you were doing a good job as a parent, in the modern world.
That’s all at a bit of a tangent to your question, which was about the bloodthirstiness of fairy tales. I think how fairy tales are used and re-used is fascinating and complex. There’s the sanitisation style of treatment, as evidenced by a book I came upon at my children’s daycare centre: it was a version of ‘Hansel and Gretel’ in which the mother’s abandonment of her children was explained by her being ‘bewitched’. And then there are the big, blockbuster adaptations, which seem to me to be mostly about setting marvelous frocks, shoes, hairdos and cleavages to age-old plot lines. Then there are books, and films that embrace the darkness, or the potential back stories, of fairy tales and these interest me most.
Can you tell me about your writing process?
I would love to tell you that it’s organized and disciplined, but the truth is that it’s a messy roller coaster ride of confidence and doubt, productivity and pulling teeth. I work in a gypsy caravan in the back yard (lucky me), with my kelpie dog at my feet. I’m fussy, and slow. I’m not the sort to write 32 drafts, but I might write each sentence 32 times as I inch through a book.
I wrote Mothers Grimm in the hours between 4am and 7am, which may account for some of the grimness, but it took me six months to recover from that effort, because I am not naturally an early riser. It was just that 4am to 7am was a time of the day when I couldn’t be interrupted by lost school socks and slammed fingers and choking guinea pigs. But although I got it done, the cost was quite high.
There’s often conjecture over whether writing skills can be taught. You’re also a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Tasmania. What are your thoughts?
Some students are already brilliant writers and my (enviable) task is only to reassure them that other people can see their gift, and to help them on their way. Other students need the right kinds of provocation to get their talent to switch on. In my experience, there’s no lack of talent out there. What’s more unusual is the right combination of talent and will co-existing in the same person. I see a lot of students who are immensely talented writers, but who plan to be visual artists, or doctors, or musicians.
And yes, it is true, that there are some creative writing students who will never be writers. But it’s a mistake to think that everyone who enters a creative writing classroom at a university actually wants to be a working, publishing writer. Just because you took piano lessons when you were younger didn’t mean that you necessarily planned to be a concert pianist. Lots of people choose to study creative writing as just one of the many things they do in their lives.
What are you working on now?
I am in the Tasmanian bush with the Russian witch Baba Yaga, or, at least, one of her close relatives.
Read my review of Mothers Grimm here.
Purchase Mothers Grimm from Allen and Unwin