Last week, I shared my review of the fairy tale inspired YA fantasy Girl, Serpent, Thorn. This week, I have the privilege of sharing a short Q&A with the author Melissa Bashardoust!
Q) You are a lifelong lover of fairy tales and their retellings. Your first novel, Girls Made of Snow and Glass, was a feminist retelling of “Snow White,” and in Girl, Serpent, Thorn, you reference fairy tales such as “Sleeping Beauty” and the Persian epic The Shahnameh. What about fairy tales makes them so ripe for retellings, and how do you go about updating classic tales for 21st century readers?
A) In terms of retellings, what makes fairy tales so appealing to me is that they have such great bones but also a lot of room for exploration. The basic story structure is there for you to use or change as you wish, but the psychology of the characters is only hinted at, which allows you as the author to dig deep and try to ground fantastical events in relatable human instincts and emotions that are still relevant to modern readers. Fairy tales deal with a lot of universal themes and hopes and fears that translate well to almost
any setting, so I like to find those themes and bring them more to the forefront.
Q) Can you talk a bit about the stories and fairy tales that influenced Girl, Serpent, Thorn and why you wanted to draw inspiration from the myths and legends of your own cultural background?
A) In the beginning, I was very interested in doing something that combined “Sleeping Beauty” with “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” I had been thinking about both of these stories for a while and realized that part of what drew me to them was the juxtaposition between a seemingly powerless or harmless young woman and something dangerous surrounding her. “Rappaccini’s Daughter” initially presents the unassuming image of a girl in a garden until you find out that both the girl and the garden are poisonous. “Sleeping Beauty” has a sleeping princess whose castle is surrounded by deadly thorns and briars. In both cases, I love that contrast of a character who seems passive or docile but is actually deadly. At that point, I had already started to read a little about Persian mythology and folklore and explore some of the stories in the Shahnameh. Growing up Persian in the US, you’re bombarded with so much negative news and media coverage, and so I wanted to remind myself that there is actually much to be proud of in that heritage. Stories have always been how I connect and relate to anything, so when I knew I wanted to dig deeper into my cultural background, my first instinct was to look into myth and folklore, which led me to the Shahnameh. I think writing this book—combining my cultural background with the Western fairy tales I grew up with—was my way of bringing together these two influences that have played such important roles in my life.
Q) All her life, Soraya has been told that her poisonous touch is a curse, something to be ashamed of and something to keep hidden away in the shadows. Throughout Girl, Serpent, Thorn, she wrestles with the question of whether she is, in fact, more monster than princess, and part of her journey involves discovering that what she’s always thought was her greatest weakness may, in fact, be a source of empowerment. Where did the idea of a princess who may be a monster come from, and why did you want to explore the tension between the way the world sees Soraya and her struggle to determine her own sense of self?
A) The initial idea of a princess with monstrous qualities came from that contrast in “Sleeping Beauty” and in “Rappaccini’s Daughter” between apparent passivity and actual danger—between a sleeping princess and the thorns that surround her. There’s an interplay there between power and vulnerability, isolation and protection, and autonomy and the loss of it, that fascinates me. I love playing with archetypes, and so was drawn to the idea of taking an archetype that we usually associate with being more docile or defenseless, like the fairy tale princess, and giving her something that makes her dangerous—in Soraya’s case, not only literally but also in the sense of giving her destructive emotions that she struggles with because they go against the idea of the kind of girl she feels she’s supposed to be. Soraya finds it isolating and painful to be outside the role made for her, but she also starts to question whether it can be liberating to exist and define herself outside of that structure altogether—and whether these needs for both belonging and self-determination can be reconciled without losing a piece of herself. Is it acceptable to have the qualities of both a princess and a monster—and what do you gain or lose by having to choose one over the other?
Q) Without giving too much away, there are two characters in the novel who seem to see and celebrate Soraya for who she truly is, and Soraya, for her part, is drawn to each of them for different reasons. Was it fun to play with those dynamics, and why did you want to have two very different characters potentially vying for Soraya’s heart?
A) I love some drama, so it was definitely fun to play with those different dynamics, especially as they change and shift over the course of the novel. Soraya sees herself in both of those characters, and so it becomes a choice of which parts of herself she wants to protect and cultivate. But at the same time, she still has to acknowledge and come to terms with the parts of herself she doesn’t like. Being confronted with both of those characters—the choices they’ve made and the resulting consequences—allows her to
ultimately get a more complete picture of herself.
Q) Within all the thrills and magical adventure of Girl, Serpent, Thorn, there is a very human story about a teenaged girl who is fighting with her mother and feels misunderstood by her family—a girl who wants nothing more than to spread her wings and leave the nest, so to speak. Can you talk about the role of family in Girl, Serpent, Thorn and why you wanted to ground such a sweeping narrative in something so real and relatable
A) This is something that became present more and more with each draft, exactly because it’s real and relatable and so allows the more fantastical elements of the story an emotional grounding. I think figuring out your role in your family—however you choose to define it—is a fairly universal journey. Soraya is often presented with an all-or-nothing choice—to be swallowed up by her family’s needs or to reject them completely—and part of her journey is trying to figure out if there’s a middle ground, a space for herself among her family and her people where she can exist freely. The book also contrasts the stories we are told by our families with the way those stories come undone—and what we learn about ourselves and our families in the process.
Q) We have to ask—what are you working on next? Are there any more fairy tale retellings that readers can look forward to, or will your next book take you in a new direction?
A) Coming out next year, I have a short story based on The Winter’s Tale in Dahlia Adler’s anthology of Shakespeare retellings, That Way Madness Lies. (And while Shakespeare’s play isn’t a fairy tale, it’s definitely in the same neighborhood!)
Order your own copy of Girl, Serpent, Thorn here!
*Special thanks to Claire McLaughlin of Flatiron Books for providing this Q&A.