Monday, March 19, 2012

Author Interview with Adam Gidwitz

While I liked fairy tales as a little girl, as I grew into my ‘tween years, I became less interested in the the stock princes and princesses and their easy happily ever afters. In Adam Gidwitz’s A TALE DARK & GRIMM (Puffin), a collection of fairy tales for middle grade readers, the “happily ever after” for the complex Hansel and Gretel came with a hefty price. Only after much bloodshed, heartache, disappointment, and isolation did the two protagonists shed their innocence to become more adept at handling the challenges the world dealt them.  The darker nature of the stories allowed me, the adult reader, to interpret the well-told stories in more than one way. 

Adam Gidwitz was born in San Francisco and raised in Baltimore. On his web site bio, he writes that he spent his middle school years living in the principal’s office. He attended college in New York City to study English literature. A part-time teacher in Brooklyn, Adam had initially started A TALE DARK & GRIMM by sharing his adaptations of Grimm’s fairy tales with his students, and it just took off from there.

Do you have any childhood memories of growing up in Baltimore or even San Francisco you would like to share? Anything that could come out of a Grimm fairy tale?                          Oh, so many! Lord, my childhood was NOT like a Dickens novel, like other novelists. No, mine was a Grimm fairy tale. I had nose bleeds lot. So when I describe the color, smell, and taste of blood in A TALE DARK & GRIMM, it is from constant, intimate experience. I was constantly walking around with blood pouring down my face. I've never told anyone that before. Now I'm wondering if I should have.

How did you choose Hansel and Gretel to be the stars of your story?                                            Well, to be very honest, when I first started writing the book, they weren't in it at all. The kids were named Wolfgang and Eva. You can imagine how many kids would have read that book. But as I wrote the book, and as the theme of terrible parents started to take shape, I realized that who had more terrible parents than Hansel and Gretel? Their parents, after all, just ran out of cash, and so decided to abandon their children in the woods? That is a worse betrayal than any other in fairy tales, I think. So they became the perfect heroes for this book about the grimmest parents in the history of literature.

I like how your book shares lessons without being preachy, such as the warning of a predator’s charm or the threat of governing powers. (And correct me if these weren’t your intended lessons…hehe). Did you start with the lessons in mind first, or the stories?         
There are no morals in Grimm fairy tales. No one believes me when I say this, but I insist it. Rather, fairy tales tell a story that children recognize and can feel deep empathy with. When writing the chapter Brother and Sister, in which Hansel violates the rule of the forest, takes more than he needs, and consequently turns into a wild beast, I was not at all intending to write an environmental parable (though Greenpeace does deposit $5.15 in my bank account twice annually). Rather, I was trying to tell a story about a boy who had feelings and impulses that he could not control. There's no moral there--I'm not saying, "Control your impulses." I'm saying, "Have you ever felt this way? I have." In the end, the only lesson that fairy tales teach is, "Life will be painful. But you will triumph, somehow, someday."

What are some challenges of writing spinoffs or adaptations of well-known stories?                                                                                                          
You've got to write something worth writing. There are a lot of adaptations of fairy tales out there these days. Half of them are great, and the other half feel like the author (or screenwriter) just wanted an easily recognizable story to hook people. This second half doesn't really get fairy tales--what they're about, what they're style is. I don't like the name of fairy tales to be invoked in vain.

Was the present narrator of the story intended to soothe young readers or audiences, especially when the story took a bloody or violent turn? 
Sometimes soothe, sometimes frighten. When I first told a fairy tale to children, I interjected to explain, to calm when I thought the tension in the room was too strong and some little kid was going to burst into tears, and also to ramp up the tension when I could feel the kids starting to sit back in the chairs. The narrator is another way to reach out of the text and try to get the reader to feel what I'm going for in a given passage.

In your opinion, what elements of a story bring a fairy tale from picture book into middle grade and even young adult territory? That's a really good question. I'm not sure, but I have a few guesses. The most obvious is length. I really thought that this book would be a picture book when I first submitted Faithful Johannes to my agent. She hooked me up with the brilliant Julie Strauss Gabel, my editor at Penguin, who took one look at it and said, "Uh, no." First of all, it was too long, and no one wants to read a wordy picture book. They just don't inspire the way a text-restricted fairy tale does (and by "inspire" I mean "sell" of course). The other element that makes a fairy tale inappropriate for a picture book is the content, obviously. Not because five year olds can't take the real Grimm fairy tales-quite the contrary, five year olds need the real Grimm fairy tales the most-but because their parents can't.

Who were your favorite authors to read growing up?                                     
My favorite author is Roald Dahl. Was as a kid. Is now. His combination of hilarity and feeling and fright is what I aspire to. I wish, hope, dream, aspire, and doubt I will ever reach the level that Roald Dahl reached in his hilarious darkness. But I can keep trying, and I will.

Any upcoming projects you’d like to mention?
IN A GLASS GRIMMLY. This August. If you thought my first book was inappropriate for children, you ain't seen nothin' yet... IN A GLASS GRIMMLY concerns a little boy named Jack and a little girl named Jill, who are sent on a quest to find the legendary Seeing Glass. If they find it, they will be rewarded with admiration and love. If they don't, they will die. I will tell you no more than that they do, indeed, die. Maybe. IN A GLASS GRIMMLY weaves together fairy tales from Grimm, Andersen, and the English tradition--and even some Mother Goose nursery rhymes to reconstruct the true story of those legendary hill-climbers. It is funny (I hope), scary (I'm certain), and bloody (of course). I hope you enjoy!