Here is a name for you to remember and for you to remember well. There’s a fellow out there by the name of Adam Gidwitz. He penned a novel of such extraordinary quality, that the buzz has been circling it since it first hit the advanced reader galley scene. The book goes by the moniker of A Tale Dark and Grimm and today we host its author, Adam Gidwitz himself. A schoolteacher and debut novelist, Gidwitz knows how to discuss everything from whether horror writers are actually writing fairy tales to what’s next on the roster.
Fuse #8: First off, congrats on your very positive New York Times review! Pretty dang good for a middle grade debut, I must say. But for those folks out there unfamiliar with your book, can you give me a bit of a your own personal summary of the plot?
Adam Gidwitz: In the very first chapter of the book, Hansel and Gretel have their heads cut off. By their parents. (Don’t worry—they get put back on). Well, little Hansel and little Gretel believe firmly in their hearts that families should not do such things to one another, so they go out into the Kingdom of Grimm to find parents who are worthy of their children. And while nowadays all parents are good and kind and never do anything to hurt or disappoint their kids, Once Upon a Time this was not so. Hansel and Gretel meet a cannibalistic baker woman, a handsome but dangerous stranger, the Devil, the creepy moon, a dragon, and, most harrowingly of all, their own parents again. It’s just as bloody and gruesome as the original Grimm fairy tales—but it’s also funny. At least, I think it is.
F#8: Me too. How’d you come to write it in the first place? And for that matter, who were some of your influences?
AG: I wrote A Tale Dark and Grimm because my students told me to. You see, I’d been asked to sub in my school’s library one day, and I needed a story to tell. So I opened up an old, musty copy of Grimms’ Tales for Young and Old and flipped around. I fell upon a tale about two children getting their heads cut off by their parents. It was a darn good story. I thought, “Will I get fired for this?” And then I thought, “Let’s find out.” (Actually, I knew I wouldn’t get fired; my principal once recommended I do King Lear with my second graders; no joke). So I read the story to a group of second graders and a group of third graders. I changed a few things as I went, because the translation I was using was pretty confusing, and I kept stopping and talking to the kids and asking them things and explaining things and making jokes, because I’m about as mature and focused as they are (i.e. very and not at all). At the end of the story, with each group, there was profound silence. And then the kids would erupt. “That was amazing!” “Tell it again!” “You should make that into a book!” I remember that one very clearly. One third grade girl said it, and then a bunch of the others took up the cry. And I thought to myself, “Yeah… Yeah I should…”
So those kids—and all of my hilarious, brilliant, awkward, growing students—are my Number Two influence. My Number Three influence is the Brothers Grimm. All but the last three chapters of the book are based on a little known Grimm fairy tale (except for the second chapter; everyone knows the ones with the greedy little kids and the cake house). Some of the chapters are quite faithful to the original tales, while others are total departures. But throughout I tried to create the feel, the strangeness, the simplicity, the beauty, the matter-of-factness, the mystery, and the awesomeness of the Grimm tales. Because, say what you will about the Brothers Grimm—they knew how to tell (and retell, and transcribe) a story. But my Number One influence is my own life. Because all of the strange, dark things that happen in the book also happened to me. Really. I mean, no, I didn’t get my head cut off by my parents, nor was I tempted into a dark house by an evil stranger, nor did I go to Hell. At least, not literally. But they all happened to me. They really did.
F#8: Now I’ve sort of seen this book as falling into what I see as a kind of middle grade horror genre. The original horror genre for kids, if you want to get technical about it. Would you have ever characterized the book as horror? Do you have any thoughts on horror for kids, for that matter?
AG: You know, it never occurred to me that I might be writing horror for children until you categorized my book that way in your review. It’s funny. For the longest time it never occurred to me that I even liked the horror genre. I’m still too scared to pick up a Stephen King novel. And I only started watching horror films a year or two ago. What’s interesting about horror films, and what I had never realized until I started watching them, is that horror films are fairy tales for adults. Horror films, the best ones, frequently take one fear, a deep fear, or a deep anxiety, and they multiply it out into events. They create events around a protagonist that make the fear or anxiety real, exist in the world. So, in The Shining, the main character is a writer. His frustration is that he can’t get quiet and space in order to write. This frustration becomes an obsession. It dominates him, it controls him, until he starts taking out his anxiety, his anger, on his family, through murder. Terrifying. Would never happen—well, maybe once in a long while it would happen, when my fiancee’s banging pots and pans while I’m trying to write; yeah, I know how he felt… And that’s exactly the point. What Stephen King has done with that book/movie is that he has identified a deep anger or anxiety and made it real in the world. He has created symbols of it, realizations of it, that are tangible and not just emotional. Which is exactly what fairy tales do. Fairy tales take a daughter’s feelings of under-appreciation, turn them into Cinderella’s mistreatment, and then have her triumph over those who don’t get her, don’t appreciate her. They take guilt about how a child has treated his siblings, and they have a little girl cut off her own finger to open a door in a crystal mountain to set her brothers free (The Seven Ravens). What does cutting off her finger have to do with guilt? With “I made my little brother cry and I feel terrible,” for example? It’s a real world embodiment. It’s a physicalization. It takes a child’s tears and turns them symbolically into blood. And blood happens to be the realm of horror. So, it never would have occurred to me, ever, that I write horror. But you are absolutely right.
Or maybe you’re wrong. Maybe I don’t write horror. Maybe it’s just that horror writers, the best of them, write fairy tales.
F#8: There’s been a lot of talk out there about narrators and whether or not they can be deemed “intrusive” or not. Some folks simply loathe that phrase, by the way. Your narrator is very much a part of the book, directly addressing the reader, even going so far as to inform them on what they should do at a given moment. What do you see a the role of narrators in works of children’s fiction as a whole?
AG: You had a really good debate about this kind of narrator on your blog a couple of months ago. Laura Amy Schlitz chimed in and said that she thought “intrusive” was a pretty laden term, and that she preferred the more technical and neutral “direct address.” I agree. As should be clear from what I’ve said above, this narrator is not some stylistic gimmick, attempting to capitalize on the success of Lemony Snicket and Pseudonymous Bosch. Rather, it is a literal and direct transcription of what I said to the students as I read these stories. And, as opposed to Snicket’s and Bosch’s wonderful and funny narrators, mine is not a character. He is me. I am talking to my reader, holding her by the hand, walking him through the dark woods. It generally works like this: when I write the second draft, I tell each chapter aloud, and I literally picture my students seated before me. I tell them what I think they should know, I pull back with some humor if I think it’s too scary, I try to ratchet up the tension by previewing some bloodletting, or I raise a question that I think they might profit from thinking about. Now, my readers are children. Not everyone will want or need the narrator to do these things. Some people will want to skip over the bolded narration as intrusions into their experience of the story. Good! You do NOT have to read every word of my text. Does anyone read every word of the Bible? Of Moby-Dick, even? Does that make those books any less good? Many of us have a very rigid idea of literature—that narrators should be transparent, that one should read every word of the book, that an author should show and not tell, that certain topics or events or narrative choices are “inappropriate.” I don’t buy any of that. Books are merely black squiggles on a series of pages. Their goal is to make the reader laugh, cry, sigh, and grow. If the book does that, if, in the case of literature for children, kids are reading the book and loving it and becoming deeper and more complex children because of it, it has done everything its author could have dreamed of. No matter what the narrator is like.
F#8: All right. The dreaded last question. What’s next?
AG: More Grimm! But not Hansel and Gretel this time. I very much wanted to make A Tale Dark and Grimm its own book, complete and self-contained. I think it’s much more satisfying that way. But the form—taking obscure fairy tales and tying them together with two brave but imperfect children—still holds a lot for me. So I’m working on another one. Again I will explore my emotions and the emotions of my students through fairy tales. And again it should be funny and dark. But this book is not just Grimm. There’s some Hans Christian Anderson, some of Joseph Jacobs’ English fairy tales, and even some Mother Goose. We’ll see what my students think. If they like it, I’ll give you guys a crack at it.
F#8: It’s a plan! Big time thanks then to Mr. Gidwitz for joining me today. Be sure to check out his book before the award season. I’m just sayin’. . . .