Top Authors Take On Fairy Tales

Notable writers including Michael Cunningham and Joyce Carol Oates have revamped old fairy tales for a new collection called My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me. Guest host Lynn Neary speaks to writers Kate Bernheimer and Neil LaBute about the new book.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

Twelve enchanted brothers, 12 boys who became swans, received magic cloaks that returned them to human form - except for the youngest brother. His cloak was missing a sleeve, so hes stuck with one human arm and one arm that's a swan's wing. You might recognize that story, "The Wild Swans," a tale by Hans Christian Andersen.

In a present-day retelling by Michael Cunningham, this brother develops a dark, dry sense of humor about the unfairness and randomness of life. He's a solitary fellow but also an entertaining drinking buddy. Michael Cunningham, Joyce Carol Oates and dozens of other writers revamp old fairytales for a new collection called "My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me."

One of those contributors is playwright and screenwriter Neil LaBute, and he joins us from our studio in New York. Welcome to the program, Neil.

Mr. NEIL LABUTE (Contributor, "My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me," Playwright, Screenwriter): Thank you very much.

NEARY: Also joining us is Kate Bernheimer. She's the editor of this collection. She joins us from member station KUAZ in Tucson, Arizona. Good to have you also, Kate.

Ms. KATE BERNHEIMER (Editor, "My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me"): Thanks for having me.

NEARY: So, why wee you interested in putting together this collection of contemporary fairytales, which really give a contemporary spin to very old stories?

Ms. BERNHEIMER: As a writer, I've been, for such a long time, dedicated to this incredibly artistic tradition. I began to notice that fairytales were perhaps the greatest influence on a lot of contemporary writing but hardly ever mentioned in reviews or criticism of those works, except perhaps as an aside. I felt that it was high time to restore fairytales to their literary place as probably the broadest influence on writing over the ages.

NEARY: Did you pick writers based on a feeling that they had been influenced by fairytales or that they had some kind of connection with the fairytale tradition?

Ms. BERNHEIMER: Absolutely. You know, as a reader, coming to my reading as a writer immersed in fairytales, I can't help but notice in so many stories, plays, poems that I read, the sort of breadcrumbs of fairytale techniques, so I'm very excited when I notice that. And some unusual suspects - Neil LaBute is a great example of that - have always felt that his work had a very intimate relationship to the tradition of fairytales.

And I selected writers basically just with a goal to having a diverse range.

NEARY: Neil LaBute, have you thought of your writing as being influenced by fairytales?

Mr. LABUTE: Oh, of course. I mean, my life was, so I would think my writing would be. As a child, you take in what you're given and I think a lot of your morality is created not just from, you know, going off to church but going back to those stories that you hear over and over. I think a lot of these stories, there's great pleasure in going back and trying to find the originals that a lot of these have been filtered for our own good, apparently, and made to be happier than they might have originally been.

NEARY: Now, your story is based on the "Rumpelstiltskin" story. Maybe you could remind us of that story quickly, first, for those who may not have read fairytales as children.

Mr. LABUTE: Well, there's a great exchange given there. There's someone who's going to weave gold out of straw and the king tries to get out of paying Rumpelstiltskin for his work and he exacts a price and takes a child and only his name is the way in which Rumpelstiltskin can be foiled.

NEARY: Yeah, what did you want to explore with that particular story in your own writing?

Mr. LABUTE: Well, for me, I think the thing that's always fragile in stories or, you know, what they - connect on such a simple level and because when you're a child you're often hearing these things for the first time, is that they prey on the notion of children and a child the risk here, its as simple as that. So, the idea that I could take that story and bring it absolutely up to the moment, a story of a child who's in danger and prey on that as a writer as it preyed on me as a reader.

NEARY: I wonder if you could read from the story, just the very beginning of it. Has a very threatening feel and I wanted to hear you read that.

Mr. LABUTE: Happily so.

(Reading) I'm back. I am back and you knew I would be. You knew it, didn't you? Yes, you did. You give me that look. You knew exactly what was going to. It doesn't matter. I'm here now so we should get started, get this thing all started and going. Go ahead. You can throw up. It's not going to stop me, make me feel bad. I promise you, it's not. You're getting exactly what you deserve here. You are. You deserve it and that is what's going to happen.

NEARY: And, of course, what you're playing on here, you're talking to a mother and you are her worst nightmare because you are threatening her with her worst fear, the loss of her child.

Mr. LABUTE: Well, and protectively for Rumpelstiltskin himself, I think that she was this character's worst nightmare.

NEARY: And you feel a lot of sympathy for Rumpelstiltskin.

Mr. LABUTE: I do feel a certain sympathy. I guess, I don't know if it's, you know, a desire to always throw in for the underdog or, you know, a problem with authority. It's probably a little bit of both. I try to see, as a writer, you don't want to judge and you want to see as many points of view as possible.

NEARY: You know, Kate, I was fascinated by the many different directions that writers went in with their stories. Neil stuck very close to the idea of the Rumpelstiltskin story, whereas other writers seemed to leave the story way behind.

Francine Prose, for instance, in her story based on "Hansel and Gretel," it took me a while to sort of see, well, what's the connection between this story and "Hansel and Gretel"?

Ms. BERNHEIMER: I really wanted to represent in this collection the stylistic variety among writers of fairytales. Because I think that that diversity really is remarkable in literature that these sort of false divides of realism and non-realism. Fairytales themselves reject that binary.

And Francine Prose's story is a good example of that. The story sort of feels like narrative realism, but when you get to the end, you feel that you've been transported.

NEARY: Part of me was just sort of surprised by which characters writers chose to focus on. Like, for instance, Neil, you focused on Rumpelstiltskin, not on the woman that he helped. One of the writers said that she was really more interested in creating her own innovative fiction. Is that how you thought about it, Neil?

Mr. LABUTE: Not for me, no. I, in the same way, you know, when I direct, say, somebody else's play or screenplay, I try to keep my fingerprints off it. In a certain way, I mean, there's going to be - it's filtered through my sensibilities, it's going to have my take on it, my rhythms even, but I'm trying to get something of the original. I want people to be able to call back to that and, you know, relive it, re-enjoy the pleasures they had the first time they heard that story or they thought about it since.

NEARY: You know, it's funny, because the way you can go through this book, you can either go through it looking for your favorite writers or you can go looking for your favorite fairytales, which is sort of what I did. I know I'm a big Hans Christian Andersen fan and so I went through right away looking for the stories that I really loved as a kid to see what somebody had done with them.

Ms. BERNHEIMER: I arranged the book specifically with that exact kind of treasure hunt in mind, that a reader could look at the annotated table of contents and fasten upon a place of origin, a contemporary author, a beloved or reviled story from childhood, any particular tradition or even just a line from their tale, because one line or a passage from each story appears in that context. I wanted people to sort of go through the book just as they wish, sort of make their way through that woods and find some beloved space in there that could comfort or help them.

NEARY: Kate Bernheimer is the editor of "My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me." It's a collection of 40 new fairytales and she joined us from member station KUAZ in Tucson. Playwright and screenwriter Neil LaBute contributed to the collection. He joined us from our studios in New York. Thanks to both of you for joining us.

Mr. LABUTE: Thank you.

Ms. BERNHEIMER: Thank you.

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