an imaginative life, part 2 of 3

a conversation with Claire Massey

(c) Jonathan Bean (litfest.org)

The conversation continues, as Claire Massey discusses the harmonies between hospice, fairy tale, and healing, and we ponder the bewildering, glittery world of Disney Princesses.

PARADOXES: Another unique feature of New Fairy Tales is that, rather charging a subscription fee, you have an affiliation with Derian House. How did you settle on doing the donations to a children’s hospice, and why did you settle on Derian House?

CLAIRE MASSEY: I was uncomfortable—as much as I love the internet for the fact that you can distribute to everybody—I was uncomfortable with the idea of just giving stuff away for free. And I was conscious that as a writer, when you submit to some magazines they can pay you some kind of nominal amount, and that’s really nice. I want people to be able to make a living writing, and as illustrators.

But at the same time, I knew that without setting up as a business I wasn’t going to be able to pay anybody. So, to me, asking for donations to charity is a way of kind of raising money for charity, and of valuing it. It’s about valuing people’s work, and saying I can’t pay you to publish your story like this, but it’s an opportunity for it to be there online and also hopefully to raise some money.

Although the interesting thing is that hardly anybody ever donates. So I think that says a lot about society.

We have a band [in England] called Radiohead. They had an experiment a couple years ago where they put an album online and said to people, pay for it what you think it’s worth. And I can’t remember exactly what the statistics were that came out of that, but most people just downloaded it for free. They didn’t pay for it.

I don’t think there is a kind of satisfactory model for charging for things on the internet. So for me, rather than trying to fight that battle, I thought well, let’s try and do something good.

And Derian House. For me—even though I know there are lots of fairytales for adults with the literary tradition from France those and other literary tales—there’s such an affiliation between children and fairytales. So I wanted it to be a children’s charity. Setting up by myself here in Chorely, [Derian House is] my local children’s hospice that I happened to know about, because I was hearing about it in the local paper. So I thought it would be nice to try and raise money for a charity locally, and see what happened with that.

When we meet our target, eventually, I am going to switch to another charity and keep moving it round, and see who we can raise money for. When I was setting it up, I wasn’t really thinking about the international readership and that everybody has a local hospice, you know. And it’s very difficult to ask people for money because, obviously, the situation economically worldwide at the moment. Everyone’s stretched. I don’t know if I need a charity with a greater reach, perhaps, to try next time.

It is interesting though how many people read it but never donate. But the option is there, if their conscience pricks them. I hope it kind of means something to the writers and illustrators that they’re not just giving stuff away for free. Because I do think that’s a problem with the internet, definitely.

That was what clinched my decision to submit ‘Ragabone’. While I was considering New Fairy Tales, I clicked on the link to Derian House. And I thought, ‘Yeah, I want to be a part of this.’

What they do is amazing—what they do for children and their families. Sometimes it is nice as well to try and support a local charity, a charity that’s important in my own community here.

Exactly. They don’t have the publicity and the resources of the larger international organizations.

I think with larger charities there is always kind of that danger. And also, you’re not always sure where your money’s going and whose wages it’s paying or anything, with the real large international charities. And they get so much support as well already. So by finding smaller charities—that’s something I’m interested in, definitely.

At the Derian House website, they were using the motif of a fairy to introduce what they do—‘Once Upon a Time’ but not always ‘Happily Ever After’. How would you see the writing and the telling of fairytales, or the retelling, or specifically the new telling, as another side of that work of healing, restoration?.

I think it’s interesting, because they were doing that, using that same sort of ‘once upon a time’ when I was very first looking on all the websites of the local charities. And I was very struck by that.

I think it’s so common to use ‘Once Upon a Time’ and ‘Happily Ever After’. They’re engrained in our psyche, this idea. And obviously whatever culture you’re from there’s always that version, always versions of those kind of fairy tale openings and endings. They’re powerful because we grow up with them. And we do grow up with this idea that Once Upon a Time things will be better, and we’ll all live Happily Ever After.

The interesting thing, as an adult to go back to the tales, is that actually in most of the tales things aren’t that happily ever after. Or certainly not for all the characters.

Yet fairy tales are there, as you say, as this kind of healing. They’re a narrative that you can draw hope from. Because usually it’s the underdog who achieves, it’s the person who’s struggling or in need. And things are clear cut in fairy tales. There’s not time for messing about or blurring lines. People are either good or bad. The settings aren’t described in great detail; everything is quite particular. And I think that’s why they can communicate so easily to people, and so clearly to people.

You know most of them are so short, when you actually look to them. I always wonder when people can recreate an entire novel of a retelling based on such short [stories]. Because I think the power and that element of wonder that is the central part of a fairytale is there in that concise form. And that’s why I think they’re so important.

Also I think it’s important that we get different versions of them. I’m a bit worried by the whole Disneyfication of fairy tales, that just seems so prevalent still—Disney Princesses and everything, the corrupting of what the actual fairy tale canon is. I’m kind of going off on a tangent now, but I’m always interested in how can we look at fairy tales differently. People make assumptions about fairy tales, and they often don’t actually know what a lot of fairy tales are. They just know the Disney films. So, that can be a bit scary.

The Disney films do seem to play up ‘happily ever after’.

Yes, they do. And that kind of female stereotypes, you must marry the prince, and the prince does all the rescuing and stuff. Because when you go back to the older tales, so many of them were told or written down by women. And then you get the selectiveness of the male editors of the nineteenth century.

But then, even when you go back to the bigger Grimm’s collections there’s plenty of tales in there where the girls are perhaps more positive role models. But those aren’t the stories that get sort of retold for children. I think it tends to be the same sort of five of six stories again and again, doesn’t it, that we go back to.

Do you think New Fairy Tales is in some ways correcting that imbalance towards the male dominated, Disneyfied version of the fairy tale and restoring this proper—equilibrium, I guess we could say?

I don’t know—I suppose I don’t have a kind of agenda with it. But I like to think of it as being an open forum for all kinds of tales. We go for a diverse range of tales, approaching the idea of what a new fairy tale can be in very different ways. So we often find someone will say, ‘Well I just like those two stories out of an issue.’ And someone else will say, ‘Well, I just like that one’, or ‘I just like those few’. But that’s what it’s there for, to give a range, to ask the question, what can a new fairy tale be? And then find the most interesting answers to that.

But there’s lots of great writers that have done good things with trying to restore that imbalance. I think it particularly tends to be in the actual picture books for children and films for younger children that the problem tends to be more pronounced now. Little girls wandering around in their Disney Princess high heels and things. Which I see, because I have toddlers. So I know it’s alive and well. It was my birthday the other day, and my husband purposely bought me a card from my sons with the Disney Cinderella on it saying ‘Have a Magical Birthday!’— just to wind me up!

I don’t read tales with an agenda. But I am sometimes shocked by the stuff that comes in that feels like it should have been written fifty years ago, not right now.

Read the rest of the interview here:

an imaginative life, part 1 of 3

Claire Massey lives in Lancashire, England, with her husband and two young sons. She is the founder and editor of New Fairy Tales and she blogs about fairy tales at The Fairy Tale Cupboard. Her fiction, poetry and articles have appeared online and in print in an assortment of places including Cabinet des Fées, Enchanted Conversation, Rainy City Stories, Magpie Magazine and Brittle Star.

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One thought on “an imaginative life, part 2 of 3

  1. Fascinating conversation. I’ve got to admit, it’s a bit of a shocker to go from the Disney version of Cinderella to the Grimm brothers’ version. (The Drew Barrymore version, Everafter, may always be my favorite–I’m a sap like that –but at least she and the screenwriters interpreted the cinder girl as a brave young lady with a good pitching arm and the ability to take part in the rescuing business.)

    I’ll have to go back and read more Grimm. The name always seemed to fit, and I’ve tended to find their versions a little gritty for my taste, but it would be interesting to look at the womanly tradition involved. I read one of the color-coded Fairy books; the blue one, I think, and liked that; also Kate Douglas Wiggin’s translations of The Arabian Nights, which perhaps belong in the same category.

    Interesting thoughts from Claire on the importance of brevity to the fairy tale. Maybe that’s why I like those unexplained vistas so much. 🙂 At any rate, I consider my novel as having some faerie aspects, so this discussion bears some immediate relevance.

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