I have always been interested in the use of fairy tales as an inspiration for fiction. Fairy tales are so rich that they can be mined again and again without losing any of their magic; and they are also so full of hidden depths that they can be interpreted in many different kinds of ways. I’ve used them myself repeatedly, in my fiction; and I love reading the work of other fairytale-inspired writers, such as Angela Carter, Tanith Lee, Kate Forsyth, Robin McKinley, Juliet Marillier, and many many more.
Interestingly, in recent times the theme of Rapunzel has come up several times: in the beautiful historical novel by Kate Forsyth, Bitter Greens; in one of the motifs in my own (YA) fairytale novel, The Crystal Heart; and most recently in a fabulous and clever modern adaptation of the Rapunzel theme, Fiona Price’s Let Down Your Hair. As the blurb for the book has it, it is a timely re-telling of the Rapunzel fairytale in the era of selfies and smartphones. And in this interesting guest post Fiona writes about how the setting she created helped to really focus the novel.
A big thanks to Sophie for inviting me to write a post for her blog. My name’s Fiona Price, and my novel Let Down Your Hair was published last month by Momentum. It’s a coming of age story based on the Rapunzel fairytale and set in the twenty-first century. I was inspired by the beautiful Russian building on the cover of Sophie’s latest book Trinity: The Koldun Code to write about the setting for my book.
When I decided to retell Rapunzel in the present, the first thing I needed was a tower. I considered a range of tall buildings for the job, and even toyed with making it a plane. But when I recalled the phrase “the ivory tower”, I decided I had to set Let Down Your Hair in a university. What better prison for Rapunzel than a place where scholars live lofty lives cut off from the world?
Setting ‘Rapunzel’ in a university worked on a couple of levels. For one thing, old-style prestige universities are built like storybook castles. Their buildings are made from ivy-covered stone, with giant libraries and halls lined with portraits. The other thing I liked was that it gave me an idea of who the witch was going to be. She’d be a senior professor, the type on a mission to change the world one conference at a time. A woman like the witch I created for my novel: Professor Andrea Rampion.
What would make a female professor lock a girl up in a tower? In the fairytale, the witch seems driven by the need to protect Rapunzel’s virginity. She locks Rapunzel up when she hits the age of puberty, and throws her out in a rage when she learns of Rapunzel’s affair with the Prince.
Protecting a girl’s virtue was never going to work as a motivation for Andrea. Most female professors would see dwelling on girls’ sexual behaviour as dated and patriarchal. I worked around this problem by shifting Andrea’s focus to something more progressive and intellectual: protecting her abandoned granddaughter Sage (my Rapunzel) from the sexist messages in the media.
Shielding a girl from all sexist messages wouldn’t be easy today. Sexualised pictures of women are on every smartphone, billboard and TV. Andrea would have to be ruthless about controlling everything Sage watched and read. She’d also have to monitor Sage’s company and movements, so she didn’t hear those messages anywhere else. Doing these things would cut Sage off from the world as surely as locking her in a tower.
What would Sage be like after twenty-two years of Andrea’s regime? With so few distractions and a dedicated teacher, she’d be brilliant at all things academic. Politically aware, with the ability to spot male privilege at seventy paces. But when it came to youth culture, technology and men, she’d be hopelessly ignorant and naïve. And both terrified and thrilled when she looks out a top floor window and a naked young man smiles up at her.
Once I’d found my tower and cast my main characters, I needed to think about the wilderness. In the fairytale, this is where the witch banishes Rapunzel when she learns of her affair with the Prince. When ‘Rapunzel’ was published, the ‘wilderness’ would have meant the forests of northern Europe. Presumably the witch hoped that Rapunzel would be punished for her sins by getting lost or attacked by wolves.
I let myself be guided by Andrea’s obsessions when choosing my modern-day wilderness. For Andrea, this would be a place where women are degraded and exploited by men: the red light district. Which is where Sage eventually finds herself, homeless, lost and surrounded by men on the prowl.
Retelling ‘Rapunzel’ as a present-day novel was a challenge I really enjoyed. If you’d like to take a look at Let Down Your Hair it’s available on all major digital platforms. Thanks again to Sophie, and I’d like to wish her and all of her readers a wonderful 2015!
Thanks, Fiona! And the same to you. (Sophie)
To find out more, check out Fiona’s blog: dressingthesalad.wordpress.com
Follow her on Twitter: @FionaSLPrice