Friday, 8 October 2010

Fairytale Reflections (4) Mary Hoffman

Many people imagine that writing fantasy must somehow be easier than writing realistic or historical fiction. After all, you don’t have to do any research, do you? You just make it all up out of your own head, don’t you? Well, um, no. To be convincing, any fantasy world needs roots in reality – and Mary Hoffman’s wonderful books are an excellent example. A great deal of careful research goes into her fantasies, the well known ‘Stravaganza’ series – as well as into her YA historical fiction like the highly acclaimed ‘Troubadour’, set in the Languedoc at the time of the Albigensian Crusade.

The ‘Stravaganza’ series, beginning with ‘City of Masks’, is set partly in our modern world and partly in an alternate universe’s 16th century Italy: ‘Talia’, which can be reached by cross-dimensional travellers – ‘Stravaganti’ – who are in possession of certain talismans. Each book is set in a different Talian city, based closely on real Italian cities well known to the author. I love the blend of the modern and the exotic in these stories, which besides being magical fantasies also deal with strong emotional themes of illness and death, bullying and persecution.

I think my favourite of the Stravaganza books may be – by a squeak – ‘City of Stars’ in which the heroine Georgia, whose life is made all-too-believably unhappy by her bullying stepbrother, finds the talisman of a little winged horse which takes her to the Talian city of Remora where a dramatic horserace is run. (Anyone who has been to the real Italian city of Siena and experienced the crazy bareback horserace called the Palio will appreciate Mary’s skilfully woven mesh of reality and fantasy.) Here Georgia meets young Cesare – whose beautiful mare Starlight has just given birth to a foal:

The filly was not just dark with the waters of birth, but black, black as the night outside, where the bells of the city’s churches were striking midnight…

The stable door, left ajar by Paolo, moved in a sudden gust of wind. A shaft of moonlight fell across the stall. Cesare gasped.

The little long-legged filly, pulling at her mother’s teat, was rapidly drying in the warm night air. Her coat was a glossy black and she was clearly going to be a first-rate race-horse. But that was not all. As she tried her new muscles, gaining confidence in her spindly legs, she flexed her shoulders and spread out two small damp black wings about the size of a young swan’s.

Mary is an artist to her fingertips – and the most generous of colleagues and friends. Perhaps her choice of fairytale is a case of the attraction of opposites? At any rate, at the bottom of this post you’ll find a brief biography written by herself with characteristic grace and wit. You’ll see why it’s there (and not here) when you’ve read when she has to say about her Fairytale Reflection choice –

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.

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.

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.’

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 out there 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.


  1. A very apposite post for me, Mary - in my Abba post yesterday I very briefly touched on the always-wanting-more phenomenon. I suppose it's a condition of human nature, not just of writers - well, obviously, hence the fairy tale. I very much like the way you use the quote from Hamlet too - "I could be bounded in a nutshell, and call myself a king of infinite space - were it not that I have bad dreams..." I love that quote. There's such yearning and pain in it. Thank you - and thanks for the books, too, which will surely win you a prize one of these days, and have already won you lots of enthusiastic readers, which must surely be much more important!

  2. Yes, yes! Big chord touched here. Ah, those ever shifting goal posts... And in terms of "my" fairytale, the Little Mermaid does it for me for a number of reasons. Thanks for so many good reminders.

  3. Great stuff Mary, and I'm a fisherwife too! I had a cottage once, and even a glimpse of a small castle (when Disney read "Song Quest", wow) but now I am back in the pigsty again...

    Ah well, it's good to be hungry because it keeps you fishing!

  4. Excellent post, Mary! And how lovely to see my pal Linda Sargent in the comments box!

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  6. Sorry - accidentally deleted my own comment. Here goes again: thinking about the differences and similarities between fairytales and parables, as I was last week, here is a fairytale with an unmistakeable moral - 'don't be greedy', but perhaps even more strongly, 'don't be ungrateful'. I think maybe the flounder wouldn;t have minded if the fisherman and his wife had aimed higher at the start (though not as high as Emperor and Pope!) - it's the endless dissatisfaction with h
    its gifts that erodes its patience.

    But isn't it fascinating how much better stories stick in the mind than plain advice? The Fisherman and his Wife, the Boy who Cried Wolf, the Dog in the Manger, the Fox who Lost his Brush, Sour Grapes - you hear 'em once; the message is knocked in forever.

  7. The warmth and spirit of humility in this post will keep me going for a few days. Thank you.

    On another note, Amazing Grace is a favorite of my daughters and we have read it over and over and over . . .
    What a wonderful treat to hear from the author of this treasure.

  8. Blogger ate my comment too!

    Am in brief Broadband contact so wanted to thank Kath for hosting this post (she the hostess with the mostest) and for her kind words.

    And for all you commenters - I know you all except Cathrin, who is equally welcome.

    Sue, I have always preferred the variant reading "had dreams" to "bad dreams" as it makes an even more poignant sense to me.

    Kath R. you deserve that castle and a stable of crystal for the Great Horse with honeycakes in the corner.

    Linda - the mermaid! That makes sense. I loved the story too especially the walking on knives which the rotten prince didn't appreciate.

    Back on my travels tomorrow.

  9. I'll settle for the cottage - and enough to eat - because yes, the rest of it is there in my head any time I want it!

  10. What a lovely and characteristic post. I can think of few people less likely to be accused of hankering after glory than Mary. There is something distasteful about castles, anyway.

    My writing has given me more than a pigsty, and this is nice reminder to be grateful for that. Thank you.

  11. Fascinating and enjoyable piece, Mary! Thank you. This blog is becoming a must-see.

  12. I really needed to read this. I have always loved this fairytale because it is a reminder to me to enjoy what I have and not to constantly crave more whatever it is. I think Mary is 100% right that is validation that writers crave, more than the money, the fame and the castles (?).
    And I have found, now that I have a book coming out with a big publisher and an agent who is pulling for me (and says nice things to my ego) that it's easy to get swept away in the all the hoopla and the expectation. And then the subsequent disappointment when it all doesn't turn out the way I had hoped.
    I'm printing this interview out as a reminder.
    Thanks Mary and Lucy!

  13. Sorry, I meant 'thanks Kath!' of course. My daughter Lucy is wriggling around on my lap and insinuated herself into my thoughts and fingers.

  14. I love it, Jo! Thank Lucy, always.
    Kath x