In his new book, A Wild Swan and Other Tales, Michael Cunningham delivers a deliciously refreshing spin on 11 fairy tales. The stories are a little more “adult,” a little more contemporary and far more creative. Subverting old stories has developed into something of a trend in recent years, but the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hours confidently guides the tales into new territory while remaining reverential of the source material.
Paste caught up with Cunningham to discuss his childhood fascination with fairy tales, the lasting power of these stories and what follows “happily ever after.”
Paste: Do you think there’s a unique power to these old fairy tales?
Michael Cunningham: Absolutely. They are, in a sense, our American myths, don’t you think? “Myths” in that, for many of us, they’re the first stories we’re told as young children, and then, when we’re a bit older, what movies are we taken to see? Disney versions of some of the same fairy tales our parents have already read to us.
I can’t, of course, speak for others. I know not everyone’s childhood included fairy tales at bedtime, but I know as well that I’m one of many. These are not only the stories that helped form my imagination when it was in its most malleable form, they were also my first experience of narrative—of beginning, middle and end.
Without fairy tales, child-life felt pretty random: play, get called in to dinner, fight with your parents at dinner over what you will and will not eat. Those are, of course, rich and essential experiences. They are what’s known as life itself. But (this may be particularly true of the rare kid who grows up to be a writer) the sense of cause and effect in the fairy tales, the feeling of suspense, of knowing that we were building toward a climax and then a resolution—that probably mattered to me at least as much as the fantasy did.
Paste: What have stories like these taught you, both as a writer and as a person?
Cunningham:I suspect I’ve partially answered this question already. I’ve probably been most affected, as a writer and a person, by the stories that didn’t involve such clear morals.
Like, for instance, Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf,” in which a vain little girl who’s bringing home a loaf of bread to her impoverished family uses the bread as a stepping stone to get across a mud puddle without spoiling her shoes, and is immediately snatched up by demons and taken to hell. I didn’t like that kind of finger-pointing story as a child, and I don’t much like them now, either.
Then, and now, I prefer the tales in which characters are caught up in some dilemma, often not of their own making, and then act either well or badly (yes, they act well, more often than not), but those stories, although they have moral dimensions, aren’t meant to “teach” anything overly specific to children, aren’t meant to “improve” them.
I prefer stories like “Snow White,” in which a girl is persecuted for her beauty (is the witch queen in that story much different from Halliburton, or Goldman Sachs?), or “Beauty and the Beast,” in which a calamitous series of events is set in motion simply by a father picking a rose to take to his daughter.
Paste: How did you decide these stories were the ones you wanted to retell? Were any other tales under consideration?
Cunningham: There was no organizing principle, I simply chose the stories I’d loved most as a child (well, one, “The Monkey’s Paw,” I didn’t read until I was older). I suppose they were the ones I loved most because, as previously noted, they weren’t too moralistic.
I could have added more. I certainly could have done “Sleeping Beauty,” “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” to name three.
Really, though, eleven stories seemed like enough. And—this was more intuitive than it was conscious—I didn’t think we needed too many variations on the distressed and oppressed girl, rescued by a man (be he prince or woodsman or whomever). There are, after all, a lot of those stories.
Paste: You give these stories a more, for want of a better word, “adult” spin. Do you think that’s a subtext that already existed in the stories?
Cunningham: I did my very best to work with subtexts I believed to be in the stories already.
My “adult spins” aren’t meant as dramatic re-interpretations, and they’re not snide or condescending (they’re certainly not intended to be). They’re homages of a sort. For the most part, I tried to bring to the surface emotions and motives that are more subterranean in the originals. Which, after all, a writer can do when writing for adults, not to mention the fact that one is writing in the 21st century, when we can take an adult spin and not find ourselves in court.
I can’t conceive of an improved version of a book like Madame Bovary but, at the same time, I’ve always wondered if there’s some parallel-dimension, never-to-be-written version of that book in which we see Emma having sex. Maybe that’s just because I’d so love to see how Flaubert would have handled sex scenes. One can’t help noticing, however, that he was put on trial for writing about adultery. Explicit sex for our poor Emma? Not likely.
One more quick thing: I did find—and this was a bit of a surprise—that in giving the characters more credible motives, and more complex emotional lives, the stories sometimes demanded different endings. Characters—be they miller’s daughters or princes or hobgoblins—who act out of legible (if extremely personal) feelings and desires sometimes take the story to a destination it didn’t reach when its population acts mysteriously, more for the purposes of the story than for the purposes of the characters themselves. Make of that what you will.
Paste: Is there a unifying thread throughout these stories for you?
Cunningham: When I was a child, and either my mother or father read to me the bedtime story I demanded (I was like an addict, I not only couldn’t go without my story fix but was always finagling for more), I tended to have questions about the stories, all kinds of questions.
For instance, when we got (as we so often did) to, “…and they lived happily ever after,” I’d stare at my mother or father in anticipation. Right, ok, what happens next? I was never placated by the answer, “Well, they lived happily. Ever. After. Go to sleep, now.”
It took me quite some time to fully understand that the stories were always going to cut away as the prince and maiden approached the prince’s castle. I couldn’t believe we were leaving them at that point. What happens when they get to the castle? What do they do there? What if the girl doesn’t like the castle? She’s supposed to live there but she’s never even seen it? You get the picture. Bless my parents for their patience.
The other most persistent question was, essentially, “Why did they do that?”
A miller’s daughter is threatened with execution by a king if she doesn’t spin three rooms full of straw into gold—three rooms, three death sentences—and then (with the help, of course, of Rumpelstiltskin), when she’s accomplished it, she marries the king, and has a child with him? The same guy who’d have beheaded her if she failed to perform not one, not two, but three miracles?
Or, in “Jack and the Beanstalk,” Jack, having robbed the giant of his gold, and gotten away with it, comes back a second time to steal the giant’s hen that lays golden eggs. Both times, the giant’s wife lets Jack in. Once, sure. Here’s this hot miniature dude, life in a castle on a cloud can get monotonous. But twice? She lets him in again, after he’s already stolen from her husband? What’s up with that marriage?
Those are possibly the two main threads that run through A Wild Swan: “What happened after happily ever after?” and “Why would anyone do that?”
Paste: Are you interested in following up this collection with any more retellings?
Cunningham: I’m rarely interested in doing the same thing twice.