Re-Versioning, not Retelling

As readers of Writer Unboxed probably already know, fairytales are a big inspiration for me, and elements of fairy-tale creep into a good many of my novels. However, it’s been a while since I’ve written a novel that was very firmly in fairy-tale territory, based directly on a famous fairytale, and doing so has made me fall in love all over again with Once upon a time!  Moonlight and Ashes, which has just come out (Random House Australia, print and e-book) is based on what you might call one of the uber-fairytales: Cinderella, versions of which you find all over the world.

I’ve always been fascinated by the tale and particularly by the differences in the three versions I know best: the classic French  version Cendrillon, ou la pantoufle de verre (Cinderella, or the glass slipper) as written down by Charles Perrault in 1697, the English Tattercoats, collected by Joseph Jacobs in 1894, and the German version collected by the Brothers Grimm in 1812, known as Aschenputtel. Despite their variations, each of these consists of the basic Cinderella story of a young girl, oppressed, abused  and neglected, who, through magic of one sort or another, eventually triumphs over her oppressors and gets her happy ending.

Several years ago, I wrote a novel called Cold Iron that is based on Tattercoats, but for Moonlight & Ashes, it was Aschenputtel that provided the direct inspiration. I’ve always loved how, unlike in many of the other versions of Cinderella – including the French and English versions – Aschenputtel is not a passive character, but one who is independent and who takes her destiny into her own hands, albeit with the help of magical gifts. Using this as my inspiration, I worked on pushing my story and my Cinderella-figure, Selena, to go even further.

For though I was most inspired by the Aschenputtel version, I didn’t want merely to retell the story. One reviewer said it was actually a ‘reversioning’ of the story, a transformation if you like. Moonlight and Ashes is my story and I’ve made it very much my vision of the character, the story arc, etc. In fact, I believe the challenges that are involved in making a traditional tale your own are what makes writing the story so enjoyable, as you are constantly open to the unexpected that will transform familiar territory into surprising discovery.

The reinterpretation of the Cinderella-figure, in the shape of Selena, was of course especially important to me. I wanted her to be the heroine of her own story and, as you will see if you read the book, she is no meek or resigned character. Rather, she’s defiant and can be hard and steely when need be – though it is all borne from her sad fate. While she can be prickly and tough, even ruthless at times, Selena also possesses a real intelligence and great tenderness. Once I discovered Selena, I worked on creating a love interest that was interesting and strong, as well as a little troubled and enigmatic himself, and a whole cast of interesting characters.

There is a lot of room for invention and interpretation of other elements as well, since the basic elements of a fairytale can be rather vague. Setting, for instance: I decided to use a real place (though transformed with extra magic!) as inspiration for the setting of Moonlight & Ashes. With Prague and a late 19th-century Austro-Hungarian Empire as inspiration for the book’s setting of Ashberg and the Faustine Empire, the novel really took off, and I was able to create a world that feels richly-textured and believable, with echoes of the ‘real’ world, yet very much its own place and time.

I also very much enjoyed expanding on the genre elements in fairytale that don’t immediately strike people but which I think are part of their huge appeal. It’s not all just thrilling magic and deep emotional truths: suspense, mystery and romance all play their part, as well as comedy, horror and tragedy. And so Moonlight and Ashes became what you might call a fairy-tale thriller(is that a new genre?) with a strong romantic element and a big twist, and intensely satisfying to write.

And it’s certainly not going to be the last set in that fairy-tale world—right now I’m writing another, set in a different country, but at the same time and with allusions to the earlier novel. Scarlet in the Snow— inspired by The Scarlet Flower, which is the lovely Russian version of Beauty and the Beast, as well as another beautiful Russian fairy-tale, Fenist the Falcon—which features the irrepressible young aspiring writer Natasha as narrator and heroine, is taking me on just as exciting and unpredictable a journey as Selena’s  story.

Image by asialiv.

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About Sophie Masson

Sophie Masson has published more than fifty novels internationally since 1990, mainly for children and young adults. A bilingual French and English speaker, raised mostly in Australia, she has a master’s degree in French and English literature. Sophie's new e-book on authorship, By the Book: Tips of the Trade for Writers, is available at Australian Society of Authors.

Comments

  1. Bernadette Phipps Lincke says

    Love your take on Cinderella. Going to pick this up to read. Thanks.

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  2. says

    What a cool post, Sophie! I cannot wait to read Moonlight and Ashes! It sounds terrific! I adore “re-versionings” of fairytales! They are some of my absolute favorite books! I am going to put your book on my “To-Read List” right now!

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  3. says

    A thoughtful and interesting post.

    In a way all fiction is a re-versioning of something: fairy tales, family stories, historical tidbits, newspaper clippings, or just personal experience. The source material doesn’t matter; what matters is how it’s transformed.

    Weak storytelling results when, say, an historical novelist is focused on getting the history “right”, or when any novelist says “but my character wouldn’t do that.” The material is in control.

    When novelists free themselves to imagine, elaborate, change and shape source material to serve their ends, strong storytelling can happen.

    One of the smart decisions you made, I’d say, is to use the late 19th-century Austro-Hungarian Empire as the inspiration for the your setting. That literally took your story to a new place, making it necessary to re-version Cinderella.

    Thanks for this insight. Sounds like a great story. (Love the cover, too.)

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    • Sophie Masson says

      Thanks, Donald. I’ve very much enjoyed using that setting–it both gives a solid framework and yet also produces an unsettling mix, with the magical and traditional elements: exactly what fairytale does, with its mix of realism and fantasy.

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  4. says

    Moonlight and Ashes will definately be going on my TBR pile! Oh, and there’s just something about Russian fairytales that ensnares me. Sigh. I think it might be the women. They’re hardly even cut-and-dried evil witches or pure princesses. Baba Yaga is a good example. Have you read Vasilisa the Beautiful? I’m still not certain if she was meant to be a help or a hindrance in that one!

    I’m curious now; did you discover where the glass/fur divergence in the Cinderella canon come about? Also, your book cover is beautiful!

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    • Sophie Masson says

      Hi Allyse, yes, I agree with you re Russian fairytales–and yes I know and love Vassilissa the Beautiful–The Baba Yaga character is so fascinatingly ambiguous and unpredictable, isn’t she? I’ve used her as inspiration for an important character in my Scarlet in the Snow novel I’m writing now, under the name of Old Bony–which is one of the nicknames she gets in Russia–and I’ve had a deal of fun with her! The ‘vair/verre’ (fur/glass) thing I haven’t really looked at in Moonlight and Ashes–she has neither fur nor glass slippers–but in Perrault’s original, it does appear to be the case that it is glass he’s referring to, as being more magical and unusual than fur–though mind you fur slippers weren’t used for dancing either, it would have been satin–and old spellings are notoriously unreliable.

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  5. says

    Both this post and your passion for stories are beautiful. Thank you for sharing this . . . such a great reminder about how we as writers can re-envision (not reinvent or re-use) the wheel.

    Thank you, Sophie.

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  6. says

    I would love to know what other fairy tales you’ve brought to life so I can look into acquiring them.

    I hope Random House will bring this book worldwide. If it goes to the UK, I can import it from Book Depository. If it’s brought to the US, I can pick it up off the shelf of my local bookstore. I’m eager to read your books and will cross my fingers for an international deal!!

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    • Sophie Masson says

      Thank you, Bonnie! My publisher is definitely trying to interest US and UK publishers in the book–at the moment it is available online both in print and e-book editions. I’ve written many other fairy tale novels but a fair while back now so they may only be available in used-bookshops. Titles to look out for are Carabas, Clementine(these two might still be available in their UK editions at Amazon uk or Book Depository). Carbas is also called Serafin in its US edition. Cold Iron is another(Malkin in the US), also The Firebird(available as an audio book on Audible), The Green Prince, and In Hollow Lands(available maybe in UK).

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  7. says

    We always reimagine our myths; what are superheroes but “reversionings” of Hercules and his kin? Moonlight and Ashes looks like a fascinating take on Cinderella… downloading now.

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  8. says

    What a great post — I love how you bring us through your process of reimagining the fairytale, the different steps and decisions, like setting. I am also a huge fan of Russian fairy tales — I just read a collection of them to my daughters. As you say, there are so many elements of surprise and mischief and romance. Looking forward to reading your reinventions.

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  9. Sophie Masson says

    Thank you to everyone for all your lovely comments. It is such a wonderful genre to work in, very exciting and yes, enchanting!

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  10. says

    So that’s what I’m writing!

    I love the term Fairy Tale Thriller. (Though I’ve read that thrillers are essentially modern fairy tales/natural carriers of the fairy tale archetypes; does that make the term redundant? I hope not. It’s too perfect.)

    My only Real-life writing friend writes Transformer Fan Fic, and whenever I’m waxing detailed about my process (as you do in this post) she gets all wistful and says, “You’re so lucky your fan fic is legal.”

    Do you ever think of it that way? That retelling and re-versioning are essentially fan fic?

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