In “The Goosle,” you revisit a classic tale, likely familiar to many readers. What drew you to “Hansel and Gretel”? Are there any other stories you’d like to retell?
What drew me to “Hansel and Gretel” was a Yiddish word, “gunsel,” that I happened upon in the dictionary. One of its several definitions went something like, “a youth, particularly a homosexual one, kept by a tramp.” So there’d been a time and place in which tramps commonly kept boys for sexual purposes—so commonly that there was a word for it? I immediately wanted to set a story there, and to tell it from the point of view of a gunsel.
From there I jumped to Hansel and Gretel simply because “gunsel” sounded similar to “Hansel.” Most of the energy of a short story comes from the challenge of fitting two disparate things together, and the idea of cramming a gunsel into the structure of “Hansel and Gretel” certainly gave off sparks for me.
I can’t say that there’s an array of traditional tales that I’m ticking off one by one as I retell them—although so far I’ve made over “Snow White and Rose Red” (in Tender Morsels), “Rapunzel” (in “The Golden Shroud”), “Red Riding Hood” (in “Titty Anne and the Very, Very Hairy Man”), selkie legends (in Sea Hearts/The Brides of Rollrock Island) and a few others. Generally it works the way it worked with “The Goosle;” a cool half-idea comes along, demanding some kind of structure and drive, which a particular fairy- or folk-tale then steps forward to offer.
The world Hanny describes is as visceral and disturbing as any I have read, and I say that as a compliment. Did you have this in mind when you started writing this story, or did it evolve as you wrote it?
Thank you—disturbance was what I was after.
Probably the most disturbing element, the unwholesome relationship between Grinny and Hansel, was there at the start; the whole “gunsel” thing and the world in which that operated. It had to be permissible, so times had to be fairly lawless, so I set the story in the time of the Black Plague, when child welfare was not really high on anyone’s agenda. That made sense of the Hansel and Gretel setting, where a few people had chosen to live very isolated lives in a trackless forest; it made sense of the witch’s choice to do so, to avoid the marauding gangs of survivors who were roaming the country.
I had that much in mind when I made Hanny and Grinny front up at the witch’s cottage. And I knew that in the end Hanny was going to gain some kind of victory over the witch and over Grinny. The rest worked itself out as I went, from the basis of those first few decisions about the heartless, dog-eat-dog-and-worse world in which it was all going to happen.
Does the eating of earth have significance beyond the contextual reference to the cottage made of sweets in the original tale?
I wanted to make the edible house credible in the way that the gunsel-keeping was credible. And I wanted to show that despite his reassuring himself that all was well in his world, Hansel was needy in peculiar, private ways that indicated the damage that had been done to him.
Also, I wanted to get those sensations into the story—the mouthful of grit, the compulsive, unhealthy feeding. Looking back, I guess I was trying to make people literally gag, in the way that I hoped they’d be morally gagging at the world being laid out before them. At the time it just felt right, that Hanny was fulfilling the requirements of the older story while exhibiting something quite different from Hansel’s and Gretel’s innocent gingerbread-theft.
Without giving too much away, this is a tale of redemption, of sorts. Do you agree that this story marks a turning point in the life of the protagonist?
Oh yes, he goes in puzzled and doubtful, trapped into being someone’s accessory, and he comes out a free man, literally in his own territory, fulfilling his true responsibilities. And in the very last sentence his unwholesome appetite is transferred to an object outside himself. He’ll be fine from now on—compromised by what he’s seen and done, but no worse than any other person in that chaotic world.
We love this creepy, horrifying story. What else do you have in the works?
I’m writing a historical fantasy novel set in Ireland and Australia; that’s the most I should say about that. I don’t have a contract for it yet, and I’m really not sure how dark I’ll go, whether it’s going to be young-adult or just straight adult. We’ll see.
And I’m booked to write a Christmas novelette in 2013. I’ve made a couple of false starts with that, and I’m not really sure what direction I’ll take, so I can’t be very specific there, either, about the degree to which it’ll be creepy or horrifying.
Beyond that, it’s refreshing to be able to tell you that I have no other plans. I’ve had a few years when the story deadlines were coming thick and fast, but next year’s looking wonderfully clear, and I’m hoping to keep it that way as far as possible. A novel and half a day job is plenty to fill up my days with, at least for the next six months.