In a world that loves to categorize writers – he writes horror, say; she’s a journalist – Jean Thompson is uncategorizable. In fact, the only consistent thing you can say about the author of several award winning novels and collections (my favorite: Who Do You Love?) is that she’s always interesting and good – and, yes, surprising. This month Thompson releases a new collection of tales that seem Halloweenish, The Witch: And Other Tales Re-Told, in that they’re inspired by fairy tales – grim and not so – of her youth. We asked Thompson to complete a specialized version of our Amazon Asks.
The Witch will be available September 25.
What’s the elevator pitch for your book?
I rewrote some classic fairy tales with ordinary people as characters. It's great, really!
What inspired you to do that?
I'm interested in what makes stories compelling, and what gives them staying power. Fairy tales reach so far back into our collective past, and new versions of them constantly evolve and surface. We seem to have a very human need for stories that end with the triumph of the good, the innocent, the brave, the virtuous, with obstacles overcome and the world set to rights. And often enough, only some kind of supernatural intervention can overcome the very long odds of this happening. There's a lot of wish fulfillment you can't get anywhere else.
Your books usually address the everyday experiences of ordinary Americans. Fairy tales almost always have magical elements. Can you talk about the juxtaposition of the extraordinary and the mundane in this book?
I'm a connoisseur of the mundane, in that everything I write comes out of closely observed ordinary life, and is grounded in reality. There are no fairy godmothers in The Witch, no amazing transformations, or rather, anything that might partake of the magical can also be explained by psychology or circumstance. And yet, if this doesn't sound too contradictory, I believe that the world we live in is the only real source of magic: of delight, of unexpected fortune, of second chances, new beginnings, of all that transports us.
These tales, as you’ve rewritten them, are quite subversive, politically and socially. (Cinderella has a drunken encounter; Hansel and Gretel deal with the foster care system) How do these stories reflect your own political views?
Thank you for introducing the word 'subversive', which I shall promptly add to my lexicon of self-description. Subversive sounds so much better than cranky and mistrustful. I guess I'm not inclined to take things at face value, or to believe official party lines. In politics, this probably stems from coming of age during the Vietnam war and later Watergate, when even the paranoid were a little shocked to discover the extent of official lying. In my fiction, I'm fond of characters, especially young characters, who see through cover stories and lectures to real motives. Yes, I suppose I was a difficult child.
What’s the last dream you remember?
I have a lot of fairly detailed anxiety dreams: forgetting appointments, not being able to find keys, and most often, being lost or trapped in some strange landscape or building with doors that won't open, endless staircases leading nowhere, and the like. Always happy to wake up.
What’s your most memorable author moment?
Giving a bookstore reading of a story where a character has a blind date with a man who had an unrequited crush on her many years ago in college, then afterwards, signing a book for a guy who once asked me out many years ago in, etc. Memorable, and not in a good way.
What superpower would you most like to have, not including invisibility or flight?
The superpower I'd choose, if invisibility is off the table: I'd like to be able to win arguments. With anybody, about anything. So there.