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06 October 2009 @ 11:13 pm
ICE: An Interview With Sarah Beth Durst  

Sarah Beth Durst is a fan of fairy tales. Her new book, Ice (available now from Simon & Schuster!) is a modern-day retelling of the Norwegian fairy-tale, “East of the Sun & West of the Moon.” Her earlier books, Into the Wild and Out of the Wild (Penguin, 2007 & 2008) are about Rapunzel and other fairy tale characters who escaped from their fairy tales. On her blog at http://sarahbethdurst.blogspot.com/, she regularly offers up renditions of obscure fairy tales, with tongue-in-cheek commentary.





Fairy-tale retellings seem to be consistently popular. Why do you think that is?

I think "once upon a time" is one of the most powerful phrases in the English language. Right up there with "I love you" and "free pizza." You hear that phrase, and a part of you is instantly transformed into a kid waiting to hear a story. Most of us grew up with fairy tales. Fairy tales helped define our view of what a story is. The stock characters, story structures, and tropes are stuck in our subconscious right next to 80s song lyrics and the dialogue to The Princess Bride ("My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."). So I think we're drawn both as writers and readers to that familiarity, to that power, to that feeling of quintessential Story-with-a-capital-S.

It seems like there are two kinds of fairy-tale retellings -- the kind that takes place in the "fantasy" world of the fairy tale, and the kind that brings the fairy tale into the modern world. You seem to prefer the second -- is that right? Why is that?

I love both, actually. I adore Beauty by Robin McKinley, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Goose Girl by Shannon Hale... But as a writer, I am drawn to stories that feature fantasy elements in the real world. I think this is primarily wish fulfillment. Growing up, I always wished for a unicorn in my backyard, a dragon on the playground, or a pet talking wolf/horse/cat/gecko. So I write stories where that kind of thing happens... where you walk out the door and meet a magical polar bear.

How was it different writing a "retelling" of a fairy tale, instead of mixing them all together as you did in Into the Wild and Out of the Wild?

Into the Wild and Out of the Wild are about fairy-tale characters who escaped the fairy tale and what happens when the fairy tale wants its characters back. The characters are aware that they are these famous archetypes. Gothel, for instance, is aware that she used to cackle ominously, eat children, and turn people into frogs. She's trying to move beyond that, though she still takes her broomstick out for a spin on occasion. In the Wild books, I deal with the stories and archetypes in a very direct way -- as plot elements themselves. In Ice... the fairy-tale elements are part of the underlying skeleton. They feed into the theme. Cassie is a budding research scientist who has no idea that this abnormally large polar bear that she wants to study is about to change her life forever.

 

Were there any details in "East of the Sun & West of the Moon" that were particularly difficult to transfer to a modern setting?

Honestly, I didn't really think of it as transferring.  ICE isn't a strict retelling.  It's more inspired by "East of the Sun & West of the Moon."  It's also inspired by Arctic adventure stories and polar bear documentaries and a few bits of Inuit legends.  Plus there are several major plot points that I invented just for ICE.  My goal was to create a new story, a modern story, that had the this folktale at its heart.  And also a talking polar bear at its heart.

I know from attending your talks at conventions that you've read practically every fairy tale in existence -- what was it about "East of the Sun & West of the Moon" in particular that inspired you to do a retelling?

Lots of things.  One, "East of the Sun" is essentially "Beauty and the Beast" where the Beauty kicks butt.  So it combines my favorite fairy tale with my favorite type of character.  Two, despite the strength of the heroine (she rescues the prince-in-distress), the original folktale has a seriously sexist ending that I was itching to fix.  And three, did I mention there’s a talking polar bear?

Into the Wild and Out of the Wild were set mostly in Massachusetts, where you grew up.  Ice, on the other hand, is set in the Arctic.  What kind of research did you do to get the setting right?  Did you get to travel there?  What were the challenges of writing in such an unfamiliar setting (unfamiliar both to you, presumably, and to the average reader)?

Tons of research!  I think I must have read A Naturalist's Guide to the Arctic (by E. C. Pielou) approximately three billion times.  I also have stacks of polar bear books, survival guides, books about treks to the North Pole, etc.  It was such a great excuse to immerse myself in this world that I have never been to (and most likely will never go to).  I think that's one of the coolest things about being a writer (and for that matter, being a reader): you can immerse yourself in other worlds.  You can scale a mountain, dive into a freezing ocean, and trek through a blizzard.  You can vicariously live other lives. 

What was your favorite of the books you read for your research?

My favorite non-reference book that I read for research was Walking on Thin Ice by by David Hempleman-Adams.  It’s not the kind of book I normally read (zero dragons, zero talking cats, not one sword-fight), but it was the closest I’ll ever get to trekking across the Arctic.  I am not exactly an outdoorsy person.  Don’t get me wrong, I love nature.  I just prefer to view it from a temperature-regulated, bug-free house.

Last but not least -- you've often stated that every novel can be improved by the addition of a talking cat.  Is there a talking cat in Ice, or has its place been taking by the talking polar bear?  (I think you may have mentioned a talking polar bear…)

Can I change that statement to say talking cat or talking bear or talking fox or talking whale...?  My Arctic is filled with magic.  Every story I write will always be filled with magic.  I think that's one of the wonderful things about being the writer: you get to fill your life (and hopefully the lives of your readers!) with magic.

Thanks so much for interviewing me!

Thanks for being interviewed! ICE sounds amazing – I can’t wait to read it.

 
 
 
Julia Karrjuliakarr on October 7th, 2009 11:02 am (UTC)
Awesome interview! ICE is going on my to-read list!
patesdenpatesden on October 7th, 2009 11:30 am (UTC)
Wonderful interview. And I totally agree about the talking animals, though animals in general work quite well to make me a happy reader.
annastanannastan on October 7th, 2009 12:05 pm (UTC)
ICE is based on one of my favorite fairy tales - I can't wait to read it!
P Sunshinep_sunshine on October 7th, 2009 01:22 pm (UTC)
Great interview! Happy Release Day!
pjhooverpjhoover on October 8th, 2009 03:19 am (UTC)
I love the necessity of a talking animal! That is perfect. And the cover of ICE is wonderful.
Great interview!
(Anonymous) on October 8th, 2009 04:04 am (UTC)
I appreciate the distinction Ms. Durst drew between allowing a fairy or folk tale to inspire a story and simply updating it. It seems to me the first really gets at the heart of why fairy tales never lose their power, and pays more homage to the oral traditions behind them, too. Adding ICE to my to-read, too...
Kate Milfordkatemilford on October 8th, 2009 04:05 am (UTC)
That anonymous was me
Because I'm an idiot and wasn't logged in. Sorry!
ebooraem on October 8th, 2009 01:57 pm (UTC)
What an entertaining interview! I, too, love it when fantasy intrudes on real life, or turns out to be secretly co-existing with it. And talking cats! Sarah Beth, have you read "Tobermory" (not sure of the spelling)? It's a short story by Saki about a guy who attends a British house party in the early 1900s and teaches the house cat to talk. One of my favorites. Can't wait to read ICE!
kikihamiltonkikihamilton on October 12th, 2009 02:49 am (UTC)
Thanks for the great interview. I love the idea of our normal every day lives having a twist of fantasy in them - like it's right there among us, if we can only see it. Can't wait to read ICE!