Thursday, January 1, 2015

Fairy post #2: dates & Interview

Wishing you a winged New Year!

Dates for fey calendars:

Wednesday 14th January 2015: Myth and Reality - the magic and realism of “The Mabinogion” (collection of 11 of the earliest Welsh oral stories, first committed to writing in 1350) with visiting UK storyteller Christine Willison at Ballarat Art Gallery (short walk from station), brought to you by Storytelling Australia Victoria at Ballarat. 10am workshop: fees apply. 3pm story-share: free. Info & Bookings here

Sunday 18th January 2015: Golden Owl Events are holding a Midsummer Faerie Rade through Melbourne and fairy enthusiasts are welcome to participate in costume. Assemble 1:30pm Treasury Gardens, Spring St. 
Info (no bookings required, but spirit of goodwill & creativity essential)

antique fairy bellows
Interview with Fiona Price, contemporary Melbourne fairy tale author who agrees to speak at a future ring gathering about her fresh spin on Rapunzel: Let down your hair:
new fairy retelling by Fiona Price
(With a puff of fairy bellows, gift from an antique dealer, to fan the magic of our curiosity...)

Author: Dr Fiona Price
Book title: Let Down Your Hair
Mode: Novel
Genre: Fairytale adaptation/Women’s fiction/Coming of age
Publisher: Momentum Books (digital imprint of Pan Macmillan) Publisher’s website
Blog: Dressing the Salad

Plot, setting & characters:

Let Down Your Hair is a modern retelling of the Rapunzel fairytale. I relished the challenge of adapting the plot, symbols and archetypes for a present-day setting while keeping the scaffolding faithful to the original. I took the liberty of adding a second tower, ruled by a different wicked witch, but otherwise events in the novel parallel the fairytale closely. Not the sanitised versions of Grimm and Disney, but the earlier, darker story! First part is set in a university, where I draw on the concept of the “ivory tower”, where academics live in lofty seclusion. Presiding over this first tower is Andrea Rampion, unhinged hardline feminist and Professor of Womyn’s Studies. Her daughter Emmeline went off the rails in her teens, and left her baby girl Sage in Andrea’s care. Andrea blames patriarchal messages for what happened to her daughter, and is determined to keep her granddaughter away from them. She home-schools Sage, and vets the company she keeps and everything she watches, hears and reads. At 22, Sage moves into her grandmother’s top floor office to start a PhD in Women’s Studies. She looks out the window, and below her, through a skylight, sees a completely naked young man. Andrea is angry, and marches off to Buildings to complain about indecent exposure. But he waves up at Sage, and his grin is the warmest thing she’s seen in her strange, isolated life. She rushes down to warn him that Andrea’s on the warpath, and begin a secret romance that prompts Sage to begin asking questions about how she was raised and what happened to her mother. She and Ryan start looking for answers to those questions, and find more trouble than they could possibly have foreseen…

Education & background:

Where have you studied? At which institution? What was your PhD topic?
I did a BA at Adelaide University, majoring in Psychology and Chinese. After completing Honours in Psychology, I won a scholarship to study Chinese at Xiamen University, where I studied Advanced Mandarin for a semester before heading to the University of Melbourne to do a PhD in cross-cultural psychology. My doctoral research was on how taking part in a international exchange program shapes students’ knowledge of an attitudes towards other cultures. And yes, like Sage, the office where I wrote my thesis was in the tallest building on campus.

How are your studies relevant to your creative interests?
In the intercultural field you gain insights about how people’s values and judgments are shaped by their culture and upbringing. In my studies and career I look at what happens when people from different cultures work together, and teach people how to manage challenges. For example, in November 2014 I ran workshops for Monash about how the Chinese education style differs from the Australian one, and the implications this has for the Australian academics who teach students from China. Understanding friction between people from different cultures is useful for a fiction writer. Writers like Zadie Smith and Amy Tan have built careers on exploring how cultures intersect, and the friction that occurs between them. The next two novels I’m working on will have a more cross-cultural flavour. For these, I’ll be drawing on insights from my career and upbringing in a bicultural family (Anglo-Australian and Malaysian Chinese). The world of Let Down Your Hair is essentially a white Anglophone monoculture, because I wanted to focus on gender. Even so, I explore value clashes throughout the novel... clashes between subcultures rather than cultures. I throw Sage, who grew up in a closed world of hardline academic feminism, into a series of different subcultures, each with their own values and code of conduct. The Handsome Prince, Ryan, is a classic tortured artist, who rejects all things mainstream and commercial. She also encounters suburban ‘slut culture’, corporate high flyers, fashion models, women working in adult entertainment, inner city intelligentsia and mountain dwelling new age types. Through escaping Andrea’s influence and moving in different circles, Sage figures out who she wants to be.
Why did you choose this particular fairytale for your adaptation?
I’ve always been a great fan of hair. Wonderful stuff, especially the way it comes in a range of different colours and textures. The symbol of the young woman imprisoned by a stronger personality is also one that resonates with me. I always wanted to be a writer, and while writing my thesis, I too felt like the ivory tower was a prison!
What else have you published / written and can you share with us any future plans?
So far, most of my significant publications have been professional rather than fiction. In 2007, Allen and Unwin published my non-fiction book Success with Asian Names, a guide to structure and pronunciation of names from 15 Asian languages. I was also a co-author for the 2014 HarperCollins International Students Guide. On the creative side I published poems and short stories, including ‘Happy As Lari’, which won the 1999 Tom Howard Short Story Contest. I spent some years having children, writing and recording songs (both lyrics and music) before I turned my attention back to fiction. At the moment, I’m working on the first of a high fantasy trilogy tentatively called Pictures in the Sand. In this, I’m looking at issues of religion, culture and colonisation. Doing this in a made-up setting with made-up cultures gives more leeway to explore these things without treading on toes. Once I’ve written the first book, I plan to move on to a modern retelling of Snow White.
Which other roles or opportunities have you enjoyed, that might interest fantasy buffs? (e.g. weren’t you in some kind of committee for a Harry Potter cyber fan-base?)
About twelve years ago I was a Moderator on the Harry Potter For Grownups (HPFGU) mailing list, to which I posted several times a day. What I loved about that list was being able to analyse stories and characters with clever people who didn’t think they were above popular fiction. I made a lot of great friends there, and visited them overseas; they’re all still on my Facebook.

Viewpoints on aesthetics, philosophy and the relationship between academia & society:

I once read (in World Tales by Idries Shah) that there are 300 versions of Cinderella around the world, from Oriental to Amerindian. There are, it seems, scholarly reservations about imposing too much universality upon fairy tales; that we risk imperialistic appropriation, loss of contextual distinction, or over-simplification. Nevertheless, I suggest that renowned anthropologists such as Joseph Campbell, Jungians, and folklore collectors like Shah, made genuine attempts to foster harmony between the world’s peoples by focussing concerns that we hold in common. There are many ways to express curiosity and respect. Where do you stand on this issue?
Like most things relating to cultural differences, it depends on what level you’re looking at. On a biological level, human beings of all cultures have the same basic drives and needs. It’s the way people manage those needs that differs. What one culture considers appropriate ways to secure food, sex and shelter may be ineffective or considered immoral in another. The cosmetic elements and props you see in well-known Western fairytales will differ from those you might see in non-Western societies. Things like apples, and cottages and long blonde hair are obviously culture- or region-specific. When you pare fairytales down to basic themes, however, most can cross cultures. The need to protect vulnerable and desirable young women (as in Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood) is managed differently in different cultures, but it’s a theme that would resonate across them. The same goes for rags-to-riches of Cinderella, and ageing beauty resenting a young beauty in Snow White. The thing writers and theorists need to be careful of is assuming that characters in all cultures behave according to values and social structures that are in fact specific to modern-day Anglophone cultures.
What are some of your most memorable literary influences? Some artists try to liberate themselves from influence in order to become “truly authentic”, claiming that mentorship is a stifling hindrance on artistic development. Others prefer to rove widely, believing that authors who write without reading might as well be talking without listening and that poor cultivation leads to arid vocabulary or reliance on platitudes. Scientists, by contrast, seem quite happy to reconcile innovation with tradition: “standing on shoulders of giants”. How much merit do you find in the popular notion of total originality?
As with culture, I think there are different levels on which a writer can be original. I’m not sure whether “total” originality really exists in fiction, and suspect any work which approaches it would appeal to a small, elite audience at best. Novels are written to be read, and most readers like to identify with at least some familiar elements. In retelling Rapunzel, I’m not aiming for an original plot or characters. What’s original in Let Down Your Hair is my interpretation. Setting an old German fairytale in a modern-day English-speaking country takes a fair bit of creativity, especially if you want to avoid all magical elements. At the core of my retelling is tying the main symbols to the idea of the ivory tower, and links people draw between women’s politics and sexuality and how they wear their hair. I’ve also updated the archetypes in the story and drawn on more recent ones that people will recognise from US popular media—The Humourless Hairy Feminist, The Alpha Girl, The Frump Turned Beauty Queen, The Rich Man Who Dates Blondes—and fleshed them out, giving them personal histories and inner worlds of their own.
What I love about Belinda and Rebecca-Anne at the Monash Fairy Tale Salon is that they welcomed me as a layperson, and trialled a conference format of presenting academic papers between oral storytelling and music. How did you come to hear about the Salon, Fiona?
I discovered the Salon on the night my agent emailed to tell me Momentum wanted to publish Let Down Your Hair. I was really excited, and went online in search of people interested in fairytale retellings. When I found out there was a Fairy Tale Salon, I immediately decided to get in touch.
Which other groups in Australia, China, or elsewhere, have caught your interest in recent years? E.g. Writers Victoria, book clubs, blogs, or a journal to which you subscribe?
My recent years have been very full; I doubt that I’d know of any groups of interest that the Salon don’t already know about! If I discover any, I’ll definitely let you know. 
I’m keen to develop links between academia and grass-root folk community across the arts. I’ve attended festivals overseas where book signings occurred in the midst of pageantry. So, thanks for agreeing to speak at future fairy tale event. This would be in conjunction with related groups including Storytelling Australia (Vic) and Australian Fairy Tale Society. Publishers of fantasy and fairy tales might benefit from such interdisciplinary gatherings. Would you like to recommend a fellow author for a future fairy festival? 
Again, no-one specific comes to mind at the moment, but I’ll let you know if someone does!
Thanks for your time, and please let us know when / where / how to buy your book.
Thank you for asking me to do a Q&A! It’s been interesting, with far deeper and more intellectual questions than the ones I’ve answered elsewhere. Let Down Your Hair is available as an ebook through Momentum Books and Amazon, iTunes and Kobo. If it sells over 500 copies, it will be available in hard copy as print-on-demand and Momentum will do a print run if it sells over 2,000. I’ve started a writer’s blog, and I’m now on Twitter as @FionaSLPrice.

I wish everyone at the Fairy Tale Salon & Fairy Tale Rings a wonderful 2015.

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