Interview with Alethea Kontis

May 3, 2012

Today, I am truly delighted to welcome the wonderful and talented Alethea Kontis to my blog. Alethea is the author of the AlphaOops children’s books (AlphaOops: The Day Z Went First and AlphaOops: H is for Halloween) and is now about to release her first young adult novel, Enchanted. Enchanted is a wonderful book that ties together several of your favorite fairy tales into something unique and utterly compelling. I read it in about two days, and it only took that long because I needed to pause for meals and sleep. Recently, Alethea and I were able to sit down for an e-conversation about her work.

DBC: Why don’t we begin by having you tell us a bit about Enchanted. What’s it about, and who do you imagine to be your core audience?

AK: Enchanted is a book I would have fallen in love with when I was a young girl reading my way through the juvenile section of the library. (This is when there was only a “juvenile” and “adult” section, before the internet, back when we all rode dinosaurs.) Enchanted would have been in my checkout pile along with Diana Wynne Jones, Robin McKinley, Tamora Pierce, Lloyd Alexander, Ellen Raskin, Edward Eager, and Orson Scott Card.

The premise of the world of Enchanted: All the fairy tales you’ve ever read (and many that you haven’t) all originated in the Woodcutter family. Enchanted is the story of the youngest daughter, Sunday Woodcutter. The main threads are “The Frog Prince,” “Cinderella,” and “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Ultimately, the more you know about the unexpurgated tales of Mother Goose, the Grimms, Lang, Perrault, and Andersen, the more fun you will have with Enchanted.

DBC: The book is a marvelous mash-up of fairy tales — where did the idea come from and how did you manage to tie so many stories together in such an effective and innovative way?

AK: The idea for Enchanted began as a contest challenge in my writers group (Codex Writers). Our stories had to be inspired by at least one of four “seeds”: “Fundevogel,” “The Princess and the Pea,” the Irish legend of Cú Chulainn, and the nursery rhyme “There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe.” I couldn’t choose between them, so I chose them all…as well as all every other fairy tale and nursery rhyme that was suggested.

I’ve been reading fairy tales, folk takes, fables and legends all my life. The more you read, the more you see common threads running through them (like the fate of youngest siblings or the cleverness of elves). I pieced them all together in my own schizophrenic John Nash puzzle. Oh, that fine line between genius and insanity…

DBC: It seems as though fairy tales are “hot” right now. Grimm and Once Upon a Time are on television; Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman are in theaters (or soon will be); and a number of books have come out in the past couple of years that also draw on fairy tales for inspiration. What do you think explains this trend? Is it just a market tide, or do you see something deeper at work? Put another way, I suppose I’m asking “Why now?” What is our culture or society getting out of this return to fairy tales?

AK: J. R. R. Tolkien once said (and fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes agrees) that fairy tales were 100% guaranteed moneymakers. In these times of extreme economic crisis, doesn’t it make sense to bet on a Sure Thing? Even Mama wouldn’t disagree with that. J

I believe this is a trend that started once upon a time in sixteenth-century Italy. We’re definitely on the crest of a fairy tale tidal wave right now. I hope that wave continues for a very, very long time…or until we all live happily ever after. Whichever comes first.

DBC: I’ve noticed — and really it’s no great surprise — that so many of these fairy tale treatments have had to reexamine gender roles, and especially revise and update the portrayals of what it means to be a young woman. Your story takes a nursery rhyme about Sunday and her sisters and twists the meanings and implications in ways that the people who first came up with the nursery rhyme could never have imagined. I’m guessing that you enjoyed that. Can you tell us about that aspect of working on the book?

AK: I did enjoy that, thank you! I still giggle to myself from time to time, randomly.

My family tree branches are Greek and French: two old world cultures that carry with them a few old world ideas that never really go away. One of these ideas is the power of words–especially for the Greeks. Every word you say is a double-edged sword. It’s why you see them spitting all the time. If you say a baby is beautiful, you have just cursed it to grow up ugly, so you “spit” on the baby to counteract your good wishes and maintain the balance of the universe.

“Alethea” in Greek means “truth.” It’s a wonderful and horrible curse all at the same time. Whether or not my parents meant it, I’ve always found it much easier to tell the truth, for better or worse (and many times the latter). It’s tough for me when a situation occurs in which I need to lie–I have a really difficult time with that. (Acting is a completely different story. As is writing.)

I was also born on a Sunday. When I was young I thought the Mother Goose poem would have some brilliant insight into what my life would be…but that whole “bonny and blithe and good and gay” bunk is a crock. Who has a life like that? Who would want to? But is this the Happily Ever After all those tales elude to?

There is always more to what’s written on the page, just as there is always more to people than what we see on the surface.

DBC: Looking just at the Woodcutter family, the focus of Enchanted, it seems as though you have a huge amount of material still at your disposal, should you choose to write sequels. Is there an Enchanted II in the works? [If so] Can you give us a bit of a teaser? What’s going to happen next?

AK: There is an Enchanted sequel in the works, but if I share any of my brilliance, it will probably be edited out. [spit spit] The next novel will be about Saturday, of course! The goal is to work my way backwards through the sisters, all the way to Monday. (Monday’s story is awesome.)

I’m also working on many other things: short stories, essays, and picture books, as always — I can’t stay away from them. I’m super excited about The Wonderland Alphabet, that will be out next month. It’s a collaboration with my exceptionally talented longtime friend Janet K. Lee, who won an Eisner Award with Jim McCann last year for their graphic novel Return of the Dapper Men. The Wonderland Alphabet is an ABC book with Janet’s art and my poetic verses, all based on Lewis Carroll’s fabulous classic. And it’s a board book. Squee!

DBC: Are you an eclectic reader or do you tend to stick with a genre? What are you reading right now, and what’s on your To-Read pile?

AK: I am an eclectic reader just like I’m an eclectic writer, but I have far less time to read now than I used to and it makes me sad. I mostly read SF and Fantasy for my review column for Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show–but I’ll drop everything the moment a new Jude Deveraux book is released. Right now on my TBR pile are Wuftoom by Mary G. Thompson, The Taker and The Reckoning by Alma Katsu, and Thieftaker by D. B. Jackson.

DBC: What advice would you offer to aspiring writers looking to break into the young adult market? Do you think that the YA field will continue to be a driving force in publishing the way it has for the past decade or so?

AK: I do think the teen section in the bookstores is here to stay, and YA is a force to be reckoned with if you’re up for the challenge. Kids are reluctant (and often not encouraged) to graduate themselves into the adult section, but adults have far fewer qualms about walking into the teen section and picking up an armload. So if a book is YA-OK, why not just list it at YA from the start? It’s a bit of marketing genius.

As for new authors, I would say: be true to your voice. If you write young, write young. If your writing is more mature, go with it. YA runs the spectrum, and is very all-encompassing. If you are trying to force your voice to fit a market, you’re already starting off on the wrong foot. Write that book in your heart from the voice in your head, and let the marketing department worry about where to shelve it. WRITING will always be an author’s most important goal.

DBC: Last question: If you could spend a single day as any character you’ve ever read, who would you choose and why?

AK: I think I’d like to spend a day with Calcifer the Fire Demon and have a jaunt around the countryside in Howl’s moving castle. The follow-up question is whether or not I’m willing to pay the price for Calcifer’s company…but you didn’t ask me that one. J

DBC: Thanks so much for joining us today. It’s been great having you here.

AK: It’s an honor!

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