So, out of all the fairy tales to retell . . . why Little Red Riding Hood?
As with most stories, you don’t necessarily set out to tell it, but the story finds you at a particular point in time when you’ve subconsciously accreted the necessary ingredients. These suddenly meld and almost will themselves to take shape. A key element in the gestation of “Red Hood” was a 2013 article by Jamshid J. Tehrani, titled, “The Phylogeny of Little Red Riding Hood” (bit.ly/1Nky1XZ). Tehrani analyzed fifty-eight different versions of the tale and used seventy-two plot variables to create an evolutionary tree that related all these different versions to each other.
This article was revelatory, as it made it suddenly clear that the same story template I knew so well from Perrault and the Brothers Grimm also has Asian and African analogues, and that the villain is not necessarily a wolf but might be a tiger, an ogre, or a crow. Anything, really. Moreover, as a scientist, I also just plain got a kick out of the idea that you can use evolutionary theory and computational approaches to characterize the relationships between all these alternative versions of the same tale which extend back for over 1500 years.
What do you think is the appeal of retelling fairy tales, and do you find it freeing or constricting to play with such a well-known story?
Fairy tales and folk tales seem to embody primal story templates—the Cinderella plotline has almost become a cliché—but they also lend themselves to constant reinterpretation. Children still love Little Red Riding Hood although few will ever encounter a truly wild and dangerous wolf. That was true even when Perrault retold the story, and so he included a final clarification, warning that there are various kinds of wolves and that “well-bred young ladies” should never talk to strangers.
Also, when considering Little Red Riding Hood, there are the many awesome reworkings by Angela Carter, exploring and indeed reveling in the sexual undercurrents of the tale. The fact that she was able to retell the tale in so many different ways, rather than restricting interpretation, suggests how each teller can make the tale their own. That possibility is further reinforced by Emily Carroll’s recent and beautiful collection, Through the Woods, a “graphic novel” for lack of a better term, which is composed of five stories inspired by Little Red Riding Hood.
Some of the descriptions—especially of the skin suit—are particularly visceral and realistic. How does your background as a biologist affect your choice of details and plot elements?
Even though I’m a plant biologist—my victims only bleed green—my father is a zoologist. I grew up with firsthand knowledge of predators and prey. I saw dead animals from a young age. I pickled mice and bats in formaldehyde. And I don’t shy away from graphic detail if it makes the story come alive in some manner. I strive for accuracy when writing, but I don’t necessarily think of the reader’s response to such descriptions in an initial draft. I just try to get it down in a compact but sensory manner. It’s only later, with some distance from the story, that I can respond more like a reader and edit from that perspective.
That being said, I’ll add that the priorities of scientific writing don’t necessarily align with those of fiction. Science is more about finding the elements that repeat, an average response in a population, rather than what is unique to the individual. Science establishes reproducible patterns such as Tehrani’s seventy-two plot variables for LRRH. I do care a lot about these patterns, and I strive for a satisfying structure in a story. But this is more like a skeleton, and I need to flesh it out if I want to give the story life.
The skin suit preparation, to get back to the specifics of the question, comes from the ancient practice of brain tanning hides, as practiced by the Ojibwa and other Native American tribes. Brain tanning derives from the concept that every animal has sufficient brains to tan their own hide, and is a method by which one can achieve a soft and supple hide without the use of chemicals. I learned about this practice from my wife, who documented craft traditions in northern Wisconsin, and so it was one of those elements that was there in the back of my mind and fell into place when the story took shape.
In this story, the characters seem to accept the horror as an everyday occurrence and don’t react to it except out of necessity, yet that same indifference makes the horror pop all the more for the reader. Is that a conscious choice in telling the story? Why or why not?
I’ve always loved fairy tales and folk tales, but it’s only with the recent passing of Richard Adams and in responding to your question that I now wonder how much of an influence his novel Watership Down had on me as a storyteller. I first read it in high school, but I’ve reread it many times since then, including right after his death. I was struck by how Adams integrated folk tales into the novel’s narrative. Most significantly, these were rabbit folk tales, told by them and expressing their point of view. If you read these alone, you still understand a lot about the rabbit culture, their hopes, fears, and value system.
That’s an approach I’ve taken with several stories I’ve written: telling a folk tale, but not explicitly describing the narrator to the reader. In “Three Urban Folk Tales” (Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet) and “The Three Familiars” (The Dark), I created new tales that were primarily derived from our urban culture, although the latter story is told from a witch’s perspective and morality. “Red Hood” is actually the first time that I took an established folk tale and reworked it, evolving it to reflect the priorities of a dark future. Looking back over my initial notes for the story, I see that I listed the classic SF story, “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin, as one touchstone, so the idea for a brutally logical reaction to their world was present right from the start.
I listened to your recent interview where you talked about how, when you start a story or a piece of art, you don’t necessarily know what the end piece is going to be. Can you elaborate a little more on your creative process?
This varies a lot story by story. Paul Bowles once wrote about how he had written several stories with absolutely no idea as to where they would go. This is a freeing concept that I have sometimes employed, most recently when a fragment of a dream stuck in my head and seemed an interesting jumping off point. But most often, because a story arises from several interacting visions or ideas, and the friction from these interactions, there’s the suggestion of a story arc.
I think I know the story arc and start with this, but . . . I think the simplest way to put it is that I edit a lot and often the part that needs the most editing is the endgame. This is often because I have a preconceived notion as to how the final act will go. Thankfully, my wife Paulette, who is always my first reader, cannot hide her disappointment when, after building up her expectations in the first two-thirds of a story, I shatter them into abysmal shards by the resolution. And then, of course, I work to fix the problem area, all the while knowing that she can never experience the story fresh again, undergo the immaculate reaction of the virgin reader.
I’m never sure as to how much readers want to know about the burrs and bristles involved in the writing process for any particular story. And really, these are all different to some extent. With Little Red Riding Hood, there’s the immediate suggestion of a story arc, and the story is guided in some respects by the expectations that we come to when encountering that particular plotline. But even within the European variations of the story, getting back to the evolutionary variations I discussed earlier, the ending has a lot of possibilities. There’s the simple, brutal version, in which the tale ends with the girl eaten by the wolf: a powerful lesson that emphasizes how a single mistake can be fatal. Then we get the deus ex machina version, in which a huntsman or woodsman appears to kill the wolf, slice open its stomach, and reveal our heroine and her grandmother miraculously alive and well. This version is obviously comforting to the young reader and seems to be the most popular in children’s books, but I find it problematic due to the lack of agency by Little Red Riding Hood herself. That problem is solved to some extent by another version in which she, having survived and learned her lesson, encounters another wolf that she and her grandmother trap and drown, although that ending often feels like a tag-on, a hillock encountered after surmounting the airy peak of the initial story arc. So, although there is always a story arc, the ending is not preordained.
Where else can we find your work?
There’s my recent collection from Undertow, Meet Me in the Middle of the Air, which includes three new stories. I have another story just out this year in Black Static (“Smoke, Ash, and Whatever Comes After”), and I’ve also contributed a story to the upcoming Dim Shores anthology Resist and Refuse, the necessity of which is becoming more and more apparent with each passing day.
Spread the word!