eSpec Books interviews Kelly A. Harmon, contributor to Gaslight and Grimm: Steampunk Faerie Tales edited by Danielle Ackley-McPhail and Diana Bastine, http://tiny.cc/GandG.
eSB: What was your favorite faerie tale growing up and why?
KAH: I didn’t have a favorite faerie tale growing up—I read them all—from all over the world–many times over. I liked to read and re-read the faerie tales—retold by many authors—just to see how different authors played with the stories. I still have a lot of those books on my shelves and re-read them often.
eSB: What is your favorite faerie tale now and why?
KAH: Just like when I was a child, I don’t really have a favorite. But (of the European variety) I do like the Grimm versions the best. Their stories don’t possess wonderful, lyrical language you often find in retellings, and they’re dark and gritty–but I like those kind of stories the most! Also, the Grimms definitely had a handle on human nature—even if some of their story situations seem implausible. Evil stepsister cutting off her toe to fit into Cinderella’s lost slipper? Maybe someone wouldn’t go that far, but there are people out there who will do just about anything to get what they want. And the Grimm tales don’t always end happily ever after. That’s a good life lesson to learn early on.
eSB: Who would you say is your faerie tale role model and why?
KAH: I hadn’t given this much thought before you asked the question, so the answer surprised me when I came up with it: Gretel.
(I should admit that I’ve always gravitated toward the powerful Malificent—the Bros Grimm simply called her the thirteenth fairy—because she’s a strong, talented woman who makes her own destiny—but she’s evil, ya know? Still, I like characters who rely on themselves to fulfill their own desires.)
But if we’re strictly talking traditional faerie tales (and not including mythology, where many strong women abound) then Gretel is my choice. She seems like such a wimpy character when the story starts because she’s scared and afraid, and her big brother Hansel has to take care of her. But by the middle of the story she comes into her own: Hansel is locked up in a cage by an evil witch and the only person who can save him is Gretel. She also saves herself. Without the help of a fairy godmother (Cinderella) or a loyal group of minions (Snow White), Gretel outsmarts the witch—defeats her—and rescues her brother.
eSB: Tell us about your favorite non-European faerie tale.
KAH: It’s not non-European (it’s Italian) but it’s giving me quite a chuckle right now because it feels so blasphemous. It’s a wonderful Italian fairy tale called Godfather Misery—a “cheating the devil” story which I find rather clever. The set-up is that Jesus and St. Peter are wandering through the world to name the countries and come upon Godfather Misery who offers them polenta and his own bed to sleep in. In return, Jesus gives him money and grants him three favors! (Sound familiar?) Godfather Misery asks that whoever sits on his bench near the fire can’t get up, that whoever climbs his fig tree can’t descend, and finally (out of regard to St. Peter) asks for the salvation of his soul.
Of course, the devil comes to get Godfather Misery, who tricks him to sit by the fire and climb the fig tree. He doesn’t release the devil until he’s granted more years on earth. In the end, the devil never gets Godfather Misery, who still lives now, since misery never ends…
eSB: What is your favorite faerie tale retelling…and why?
KAH: Besides my own? <grin>
There are so many to choose from! And my favorite probably changes with each new book I pick up, but currently, I’d have to say that I like the 1948 re-telling of Cinderella by Richard Chase, called simply Ashpet (titled very similarly to the Grimm story it’s based on: Ashputtel).
Chase retells the story as an Appalachian folk tale, so, instead of going to the Prince’s grand ball, Ashpet wants to “go to meeting,” and instead of locking Ashpet in her room when company comes, the nasty step-sisters hide her under the washtub. What I like about this version is that Ashpet makes her own luck in order to win the prince: she does get help from the witch-woman (fairy godmother) in order to “go to meeting,” but she earned the witch’s help beforehand. (And the dress! No white confection, but red! With red shoes to match.) As Ashpet flees from the meeting, she’s followed by the prince, who detains her. Knowing she has to return home and “change back into her ashy clothes” as the witch tells her, she kicks her own shoe into the brush by the side of the road and tells the prince she must have dropped it. He gallantly volunteers to find it, of course, which allows him to find Ashpet later—exactly as she’d hoped.
eSB: What little-known faerie tale do you think is underappreciated and why?
KAH: As a whole, I think American Fairy tales and folklore are largely ignored. If we’re lucky, we get a little taste of Paul Bunyan, Molly Pitcher and Pecos Bill in grade school. If we’re really lucky, we get John Henry.
I think American tales are largely ignored because they’re “origin” stories (if you will) of the US. That’s anathema to a lot of people. American tales are larger than life. The characters are smart, strong and capable. The stories aren’t (generally) about morals and lessons: they’re all about bolstering ego and “can do” attitude. It might have killed him in the end, but John Henry was stronger than a steam-powered engine.
American folklore includes a lot of “Jack” tales, similar in flavor to European tales. I believe they get a lot more respect, due to their similarity. But we hear very little anymore of Brer Rabbit—who can trace his roots back to Africa.
eSB: What faerie tale did base your story on and what challenges did you face ’punking it up?
KAH: My story All for Beauty and Youth is based on Hansel and Gretel. The biggest challenge was re-inventing the culminating scene where the evil witch is subdued by the children. The easy route would have been to make the witch a baker with access to a very large oven. Sweets lured the children in the first time, right? But I didn’t want to just re-write the tale, I wanted to re-imagine it in a different time and place. So, the story takes place in Hamburg, with a slightly older Hansel and Gretel fleeing toward the Bahnhof—the train station—where they’re found by their stepmother before they can board.
eSB: What are some of your own works readers can look for?
KAH: Urban Fantasy enthusiasts might enjoy my Charm City Darkness Series. The first two books are Stoned in Charm City, and A Favor for a Fiend. The novels take place in Baltimore (hence the moniker Charm City) and feature Assumpta Mary-Margaret O’Connor, a woman who is a finder of things. She inherits the ability to douse with a pendulum from her Irish grandmother and spends time helping people find the things they’ve lost. In the first book, helping someone gets Assumpta demon-marked, and it’s all downhill from there…
Readers already familiar with the series might be interested in Charm City Darkness short story called, Giving a Hand, which can be found in the Hides the Dark Tower Anthology.
In the fantasy vein, I’ve written Blood Soup, a award-winning novella about a king who derides a prophesy. It’s all about what happens when he tries to circumvent it to get his own way. And, of course, I’ve had several short stories published.
Readers can find all these in the usual places: Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo (and more). Specific links can be found on my web site: http://kellyaharmon.com.
eSB: What projects of your own do you have coming up?
KAH: The third book in the Charm City Darkness series, A Blue Collar Proposition, should be available in May. I’m writing the fourth book now. The book is untitled yet, and features Jo Byrne who became Assumpta’s strong ally in A Favor for a Fiend.
And I’ll be editing another anthology this year for Pole to Pole publishing. The theme should be announced some time in March.
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