Leife Shallcross is the author of several short stories, including Pretty Jennie Greenteeth, which won the 2016 Aurealis Award for Best Young Adult Short Story, and a graduate of the ACT Writers Centre’s 2016 HARDCOPY professional development program. Her first novel, The Beast’s Heart, will be published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2018. Ever since she can remember, she has been fascinated by stories about canny fairy godmothers, heroic goose girls and handsome princes disguised as bears. She is particularly inspired by those characters that tend to fall into the cracks of the usual tales. She can be found online at leifeshallcross.com and on Twitter @leioss.
1. What do new readers need to know about Leife Shallcross?
I was recently asked to describe what I do without using any kind of job title, and came up with the following: I create portals to magical worlds where readers can get themselves completely lost. I like books where the world itself is a compelling character. So that’s the kind of story I like to write. Especially where novels are concerned. If I’m going to spend that much time and effort in a story world, it better be good.
2. What was the inspiration for The Beast’s Heart?
I wanted to create a novel-length fairy tale in which I could completely immerse myself, and the Beast’s enchanted castle offered such a good opportunity to create that kind of world-within-a-world. Robin McKinley’s iconic Beauty and the Beast tale, Beauty, was absolutely an early influence, and probably provided the first spark. And I’ve always loved the core concept of a hidden garden a la Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. But there are so many other tidbits that have snuck in – Pride and Prejudice, Sleeping Beauty, Cupid and Psyche, The Princess Bride, lyrics from Lady Gaga songs…
3. What is your favourite fairy tale?
It changes. All. The. Time. The answer is probably whichever one I’m playing with at the moment (the Frog Prince). I have no shame in declaring my love of the really popular ones – like Beauty & the Beast, Cinderella, Red Riding Hood. They all have compelling elements that have clearly captured and held a secure spot in the collective imagination. But there’s a few less-well-explored ones that seem to sit in my peripheral vision, taunting me and daring me to do something with them. Tatterhood, is one of these. The spoon! The goat! The sassy fuck-it-let’s-go-sailing attitude. Catskin is another one. And Kate Crackernuts. *rubs hands*
4. Which writers have been your biggest influences?
Definitely Tanith Lee. It was her collection Red as Blood, or Tales of the Sisters Grimmer, that first taught me fairy tales could be sophisticated, sticky, sensual things for grown-ups. And her Flat Earth series is a jewel-box crammed full of the lushest mythic storytelling imaginable.
M M Kaye’s The Ordinary Princess was one of the first chapter books I ever owned, and taught me how satisfying it is to turn a fantasy trope on its head. I also learned a lot about humour from that little gem of a story. I have similarly fond memories of Joan Aiken’s short stories and retold fairy tales. A couple of years ago I read the collection All But a Few to my children. I must have read it a dozen times as a kid, and it was a bit of a revelation to rediscover her.
And I probably have to round it out with Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer. I feel like I came late to both – I didn’t read Austen until university and I probably only started reading Heyer five or six years ago. And I get that one is like good wine and the other like a Shirley Temple with a bendy straw and a maraschino cherry, but they each provide such rich pickings for my imagination.
5. Can you remember the first fairy tale ever read to you?
Nope. I tried, I really did. But I have so many memories of so many books full of terrifying, wonderful, magical stories. I remember looking at the Errol Le Cain version of Thorn Rose when I was very tiny – no more than 4. I remember the cover image of the fairies parading through the forest and not liking it because it was dark and gloomy (my sentiments have undergone a material change in the intervening interlude). I have an early memory of reading a version of Beauty & the Beast where her father steals a hazel twig instead of a rose. I also remember having a Gingerbread Man version of one of those record/book combos (you know, where Tinkerbell told you when to turn the page *sparkleTINGsparkle*). Stupid biscuit. How dumb do you have to be?
When I got a bit older – probably around ten or eleven, my mother gave up on trying to break my death grip on fairy tales and started feeding me a steady diet of feminist retellings and new stories, like The Practical Princess and Tatterhood and Other Tales. There were a lot of fairy tales in my childhood.
6. When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve always loved stories. I was a huge reader as a kid – the kind that took a book into the toilet with me and only emerged 2 hours later when my sister started banging on the door because she needed to pee. And imagining up my own stories and committing them to paper was really just an extension of that. So, for me, the “deciding to be a writer” part was more about deciding to put myself out there for publication.
For some reason, for most of my adult life I had it in my head that in order to be a real writer, I needed to be writing contemporary, literary fiction. I don’t quite know what did it, but in about 2011 I had an epiphany that actually writing fantasy and fairy tales was actually my thing, and I wasn’t going to grow out of it, and I really just needed to accept that that’s what I write and where my imagination lives. The follow up epiphany was that real writers write, but authors get their stuff published, at which point I joined the ACT Writers Centre and started doing some writing courses in order to work out how to do just that.
7. What’s your favourite film adaptation of a fairy tale?
Easy. Ever After.
No – Tangled.
No – Ever After. No. Tangled.
8. When you’re in the mood to read, who do you choose?
I’m currently trying to whittle down a massive TBR pile, which involves a very strict regime of reading unread books instead of re-reading old favourites. So, realistically, at the moment, it could be almost anyone. But in the interests of offering some genuine recommendations, I’m two books into V E Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy, and I can happily say I’ll pick up anything of hers in future. Other authors/series I’m currently enjoying are Angela Slatter’s Verity Fassbinder books (!!), Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London, and Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series. And Patrick O’Brien. Everyone should read him. One day, when I have dealt with my serious TBR problem, I am going to re-read the entire Aubrey-Maturin series.
9. You can take three books to a desert island ? what do you choose?
Oh hell. Just three? You evil woman.
Um. Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, Pride and Prejudice, and um, um, um… I’m gonna go Patrick O’Brien’s Desolation Island, because, let’s face it, I’ll probably only get to re-read it if I’m imprisoned on a desert island with no access to bookshops. Besides, it might contain some useful tips for getting myself off it.
10. What’s next for Leife Shallcross?
Firstly I’m about to launch into editing A Hand of Knaves, along with my partner-in-this-particular-crime Chris Large. This is my first stab at editing, so it’s a bit daunting. In my spare time (hahahaha), I’ve got two novel-sized WIPs going at the moment. One is a YA riff off Cinderella, only the protagonist is a McGyver-type character who’s faked her father’s death in order to investigate her horrible stepmother’s links to a plot against the crown. The other one is the first in a series (gulp) set in 18th Century London, involving a cross-dressing runaway heiress who can summon demons, and a dissolute Viscount who communes with angels, who have to join forces to solve a grisly murder. Maybe if I’m lucky I’ll also get time for a couple more short stories.