I’m a great believer in the idea that everyone has their own personal myth or, if you like, fairy tale. It doesn’t mean it’s your favourite or that you particularly admire it. It’s more the case that it speaks to you, possibly uncomfortably, about an aspect of your own character or personality, so that you think perhaps the originator of the tale knows you, or someone very like you.
|'The Fisherman and his Wife' Arthur Rackham|
For me this story is The Fisherman and his Wife. I have re-told it myself, in The Macmillan Treasury of Nursery Stories, which I was invited to write for the new millennium. (This was a huge treat in itself, let alone getting a chance to re-tell my “signature tale”). I went back to the original in the Brothers Grimm but then, as with all the stories, allowed myself to expand and embroider it a bit.
This is the basic story:
A childless couple – a fisherman and his wife – were so poor they lived in a pigsty. Every day the man would try with his rod and line to catch a fish in the sea; if he succeeded, they had a fish supper, if not, they went to bed hungry.
|From 'The Mammoth Book of Wonders'|
One day he caught a flounder who begged to be thrown back, because he was a prince under an enchantment. In my version, the fisherman says, “I wouldn’t eat anything that talked anyway.” He goes home fishless but tells his wife about the adventure. She upbraids him for asking nothing in return for sparing the enchanted prince’s life. “Oh of course we have everything we could wish for, living in a pigsty!” she rants and sends him down to the seashore to ask for a cottage.
The magic flounder grants her wish and the fisherman’s wife is contented for a while but soon wants a castle and gets that too. There is a progression from real estate to personal glory for the wife, who becomes in turn King, Emperor and Pope. Every time the fisherman has to ask the flounder for something grander, he feels more wretched and the sea becomes stormier and of a more livid hue.
Finally, the wife demands control over the rising and setting of the sun and moon – to be, in fact, God.
‘There was a huge clap of thunder and then the storm stilled and the sea was like clear glass.
“Go back,” said the flounder, “and you will find her in the pigsty, as before.”
And there in the pigsty the fisherman and his wife are living to this day.’
|'The Fisherman calls the Flounder' Arthur Rackham|
So, ambition, greed and an inability to know when to stop on the part of the wife and a certain supine biddability on the part of the husband. How could this be my personal motif story?
It’s about living in the moment, appreciating what you’ve got and not wishing your life away. All of us who write are hungry for a certain amount of fame and fortune. We want people to buy and read our books in large numbers; we’d be happy to be offered film deals; if people recognised our names and said “I LOVE your books – I have all of them!”, we could cope.
It’s not really about material goods and power (although I, for one, would not turn down a villa in Tuscany); it’s more about validation, I think. We pour our creativity and imagination into creating new worlds for readers to inhabit. If we are lucky, a publisher likes what we do well enough to launch it on the world in the form of a printed book.
And what happens after that is subject to vagaries of the market and of Marketing, the trends making up the zeitgeist, the whims of fortune and the lucky spin of the wheel. So we tend to crave more and more. Yes we have a lovely review in the Times or the Guardian but what are the sales figures like? We get short-listed for a prize but don’t win it. We have a publishing advance we feel happy about until we hear someone else has one twice the size.
Worse still, a fellow-author, whose work we think secretly (or not so secretly) is inferior to our own, gets loaded with plaudits and has their books turned into hugely successful Hollywood films. We smile warmly like an Oscar nominated also-ran but really inside we are like the fisherman’s wife: we want more!
And we forget that there are literally thousands – possibly millions – of would-be writers who would kill for just one contract, or to be represented by an agent. That, for the long-term published writer is about cottage-level in terms of flounder gifts.
So I try to go back into that little cottage, which I made as cosy and desirable in my version as I could, with an orchard of fruit to turn into jam and a flower garden in front. (I wrote this round about the time we left London and bought our present barn-conversion in Oxfordshire. It’s bigger than a cottage but it does have roses round the door and a plum tree whose annual crop gets converted by a kind of alchemy into something you can spread on a crumpet).
My lovely illustrator gave the couple’s cottage a thatched roof, which I wouldn’t touch myself, but I bestowed on them green and white crockery, of which I am inordinately fond, and a yard full of ducks and chickens, which I am not allowed.
Yes, a castle might be nice, but would I really want to choose all the curtain-poles and light-fittings for so many bedrooms? The fisherman, who is also me of course, feels very uncomfortable about the castle and all the servants and the four-poster bed.
I have several pacts with different friends about how we would not let success – I mean wild, ridiculous millionaire-style success – go to our heads and change how we behave to other people, especially other writers. We have seen it happen.
Not perhaps the desire to be Pope but a tendency to pontificate. Not a demand to stop the sun in the sky but perhaps a forgetting that we are poor creatures of dust, whose life on this earth is but a speck viewed in the context of eternity.
So that’s why The Fisherman and his Wife is my signature tale. It is a reminder to stop and enjoy the distance I have travelled from the scholarship girl who scribbled plays and stories in school exercise books, to bask in my cosy cottage stage of life and be excited by glimpses of distant castles but not to let ambition prevent me from living in the moment and taking a proper pride in my achievements without constantly hungering for more.
After all, in my line of work, next year could see one back in the metaphorical pigsty, even if one didn’t want to play God.*
*A little secret for non-writers: when you create worlds and people them with characters, you do have a certain Godlike power. Maybe that’s why most of us can stop short of going too far in our ambition. We have all we need in our heads and hearts and count ourselves kings of infinite space, even though we have had dreams – because we have had dreams.
Mary had her first book published in 1975, which would have provided her with a fish supper had she not already been a vegetarian. She and her husband have never lived in a pigsty, though it was a long time before they could afford carpets in the house they bought to raise their three daughters in.
She has now had over ninety books published, with more in the pipeline, including the successful but not quite castle-providing Stravaganza sequence for Bloomsbury, stand-alone historical novels like The Falconer’s Knot and Troubadour. She also writes picturebooks like Amazing Grace and its sequels, which are reputed to have sold over a million and a half copies, which you would have thought might be worth a turret or two.
She has never had a film deal or won a major prize but is not bitter.