Tanith Lee is one of the finest writers you could ever have the joy of reading. Her accolades and achievements are legion – and you can read about them here in the Lair of the Evil Drs Brain. Today she’s been kind enough to talk us through how she has taken inspiration for her work from fairy and folk tales.
AT THE POINT where the trees parted, he saw the tower. It seemed framed in space, standing on a rise, the pines climbing everywhere towards it in swathes, like blue-black fur, but not yet reaching the top of the hill. A strange tower, perhaps, he thought. The stone was ancient and obdurate, in the way of some old things – and these not exclusively inanimate. He could remember an old woman from his youth, that everyone called a witch, crag-like and immovable in both grim attitude and seeming longevity. Someone had said of her that she had never been younger than fifty, and never aged beyond seventy – ‘But in counted years she’s easily ninety by now’. The tower was like that.
1. What is the fairy tale you remember most from your childhood ? the one that made the biggest impression on you?
Probably two – the first of these being Snow White, and that I confess, because of the impact of the Disney film. Yes, it has dated ()most things do). But as a – I think then six/seven year-old – the Wicked Queen Step-Mother terrified me, and left a lasting impression very obvious in my own several subsequent re-takes. The other tale that had a huge affect on me was my mother’s own re-telling of the Task-Setting Process – seen in so many versions, including the wonderful opera Turandot. In my mother/s version a prince seeks help from a charming local witch in order to succeed at said tasks – then falls in love instead with the witch, forgetting the (demonstrably unwilling) princess. My own Prince Amilec is a direct steal – graciously condoned by my mother. It was she who introduced me to myth and legend, and to fairy tales generally. Though it was some school, when I was about fivish, who made me suddenly scared to death my maternal grandmother might, at any second, turn into a wolf! Her rage at the school when said granny learned, convinced me she was on the level. Luckily.
2. Is there a natural link, do you think, between fairy tales and horror?
Most of the original tales are downright horrible – pretty Grimm, in fact. Severed limbs and heads, evil magic and murdered children everywhere. They tap into basic truths about human cruelty and bestial ignorance under certain circumstances, and so into the Id. And tale-tellers have always in turn plumbed this source, back then, right now, possibly always.
3. Does your work usually play with fairy tale elements or is this a first for you?
Consciously only when deliberately telling them – as in my collection Red As Blood and my novel White As Snow. But then again, they are so fundamental to some of us, as to me, and on occasion I do spot elements of them elsewhere in my work. For example, I noticed, some while after its writing, there was a definite Cinderella moment in my Victorian Steam-Punk dark Fantasy, Reigning Cats and Dogs, or a couple of bizarre compressions of (1) Sleeping Beauty in section in the first volume of my Lionwolf Trilogy, and (2) Snow White in the second volume of the same sequence. But several forms are very likely scattered throughout a lot of my work, as indeed through many works – and these not all fantasy either – by many writers.
4. What do you think the fairy tale form offers to writers and readers?
I can only speak for myself. Like everything else that excites and inspires me, they too do just that. I’ve never analysed why. Analysis, for me, doesn’t really come into it. I just have a wonderful ride.
5. What is your favourite fairy tale trope/motif/element/character with which to work?
Whichever one I’m working with in that instance. Though I’m aware I do returned (again like many writers) to certain themes and types. The pull, for me, is always significant, and fresh. As I find with Vampire stories, there always seems, in Fairy Tale, some other avenue to explore, other door to open:
Once Upon A Time, there was …?