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Fairy Tales Still Inspire Modern Female Writers

Aimee Bender is the author of quirky novels such as The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and short story collections like The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and Willfull Creatures. Her stories often have the feel of modern-day fairy tales, but in her recent collection The Color Master she goes one step further, writing new versions of two classics, “Donkeyskin” and “Molly Whuppie.”

“For ‘The Color Master’ I wanted to think about what kind of tailors would make dresses the color of sky, moon, and sun,” Bender says in Episode 231 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “And with ‘The Devourings,’ how does a marriage survive if your husband eats your children?”

Bender has always been drawn to fairy tales, but as a young writer she feared that she wouldn’t be taken seriously unless she wrote realistic fiction. That all changed when she was accepted to an MFA program at UC Irvine, and saw that the program’s temporary director, Judith Grossman, had placed Andrew Lang‘s The Lilac Fairy Book on the recommended reading list.

“She happened to love fairy tales, and she had this moment, and she was the female director,” Bender says. “And she was flanked by wonderful [male] writers who probably wouldn’t have listed it. And that spoke to me in some deep way about the validity of these fairy tales.”

Bender belongs to a broad movement of newer writers who draw inspiration from fairy tales, including Kelly Link, Karen Russell, Judy Budnitz, Julia Slavin, Stacey Richter, and Helen Oyeyemi. And while the group includes some male writers such as Kevin Brockmeier, the majority are women. Bender says there does seem to be something about fairy tales that speaks particularly to women.

“In the olden days, when they would sit around and spin their wheels and tell their stories, those were mostly women, and they call them ‘old wives’ tales,’” Bender says. “So I guess I do see an echo from that.”

And while older fairy tales are famous for dishing out gruesome punishments to their villains, one trend that Bender finds heartening is how many modern-day fairy tales—such as Wicked or Maleficent—try to sympathize with the monsters.

“In this kind of scary era we’re in, maybe there’s something hopeful about the fact that people are interested in the full story, at least in these narratives,” she says.

Listen to our complete interview with Aimee Bender in Episode 231 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Aimee Bender on The Wizard of Oz:

The Wizard of Oz was on once a year, and we had a black and white TV until I was probably 12, so it was not that interesting when she would go to Oz. She’d open up the door of her little cabin, and then it would still be black and white. Then later, when I saw it on a big screen in Technicolor, it was so different, and I understood so much better why it was a shock to her, standing there holding Toto. But I would dress up as Dorothy, I had a whole ritual. … And there was a point where I felt like I really shouldn’t be doing this anymore, but it would be on once a year, and I would want to have a nightgown that was gingam, and I would enact this sort of movie worship.”

Aimee Bender on writing fantasy and science fiction:

“There are teachers who will tell their class ‘You can’t write fantasy and science fiction,’ which I’ve always found really odd. It’s not addressing what makes a story work—it’s not genre. Genre in my mind is not the deciding factor. … It’s a problem if you write a fantasy piece that just feels like a rehash of some other fantasy piece, but that’s true of realism too. In fact it’s more cynical when it’s realism. I feel like people who love fantasy and science fiction tend to be kind of earnest in their love, and if people are writing a ‘literary’ short story but it still feels not quite of them, there’s something bleaker to me about that than someone who’s writing a fantasy story that’s not of them.”

Aimee Bender on fantasy and science fiction readers:

“I have this novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, and it has kind of this light blue cover, and it’s gotten a really good touring of book groups who tend to do more realism, and they balk—there’s a couple magical turns in the book, and one of them was a risk, and a lot of the people who are used to more traditional narratives won’t go there. And I actually have longed for the sci-fi readership to find the book, but I feel like if they looked at it they would never think that that book would be for them, and I’ve wondered ‘How do I tap into that?’ Because I think they would get it. I think it would be a leap that a lot of sci-fi readers would be willing to take, that a lot of other readers won’t.”

Aimee Bender on her short story “The End of the Line”:

“I’m the youngest of three, and so I didn’t have a little sibling to persecute and adore in the way that older siblings, I think, can do, and so I think I was always obsessed because of that in the little people idea. What would happen? And then into adulthood, thinking of that idea of ‘What would really happen if you could actually go buy a little person?’ and then playing it out in terms of power dynamics. … It’s really fun to read aloud, but I can feel the moment where the audience feels uncomfortable, and it’s really interesting for me to be able to track that so closely. It’s funny up to a certain point, and then they’re like, ‘Oh, this isn’t funny anymore.’”

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