R.L. Stedman is an award-winning author whose recent release, Ghostly Melodies, is Book One of The Dancing Princesses – a new series of fairy tales set in the present day. She lives in Dunedin, New Zealand with her husband and two children. If she’s not got her nose in a book, she’s on Instagram or twitter (@rlstedman) or at her local library. Her website is RLStedman.com… and she is also the interviewer’s older sister!
AS: I really enjoyed the book! It was full of ideas and complexity and characters, yet it felt simply a pleasure to read. You clearly had some fun interpreting this classic Brothers Grimm tale. Why did this one appeal to you?
RLS: I’ve always enjoyed the story because it’s one of the few fairy tales where the princess saves the soldier.
AS: One of my impressions of this novel was how dark some of it was (yet it had its share of light). Then I went and looked at the original and immediately saw that had some really interesting darknesses that had clearly escaped my notice as a child!
RLS: Fairy tales can be dark, sure – but real life is far, far darker. But you’re right, at first reading we overlook the somewhat fantastical darkness in fairy tales, perhaps because it’s a bit over the top. But I think it’s about character development, and to a lesser extent setting. If you really care about the characters in the story, you care when bad things happen to them. And once those characters are placed in a setting that’s familiar the bad things become relatable. For example, aspects of The Hunger Games feel very similar to Theseus and the Minotaur, but no one mentions the darkness in Greek myths. (Besides, you probably read sanitized fairy tales as a kid!)
AS: What were some of the early choices you made about how you’d approach this adaptation?
RLS: To tell this story I needed three core characters: a king who was prepared to sell his daughter; a soldier returning from the wars; and the princess who took pity on him. So then I had to come up with their backstories. This took ages. Here’s how I came up with my three MCs:
Riccardo King, the king in the original, is an illegal immigrant-made good. He has to have some backstory to explain why he’d be so happy to sell off a daughter – and that backstory had to be sufficient for the reader to empathize with him. Years ago, I’d listened to a podcast about the mortuaries that surround the desert where so many illegals die, and more recently I watched Siccario – that gave me the idea of the immigrant backstory; how life becomes so cheap that so many folk can vanish and no one even cares. Then I watched a documentary about record producers in Hollywood, who have this insane wealth and crazy lifestyles, and thought, wow, wouldn’t it be interesting to combine these worlds.
Jubilee Johnson was a name I loved too (I love alliterative names). In a way, he’s the most developed character in the original fairy tale, so I just popped his story into a modern context. I read a story about an art installation on Venice Beach: a series of white crosses representing all the dead and wounded from the Iraqi campaigns, which is partly why I began Jubilee’s story at Venice Beach.
But although Jubilee was easy, his clothes were not! In the original story, the soldier is given an invisible cape. I felt that I couldn’t have something magical without providing a modern context. I mean, this isn’t Harry Potter! I disappeared down a massive cape-shaped rabbit-hole, and by the time I’d emerged I’d invented CAMO tech.
The tale is called ‘dancing princesses’ but since I know next to nothing about dance, that was going to be a problem. But you dance to music, right? And I used to play flute and piano and sing. So Zoe, the princess, became a singer songwriter. I love rags to riches Cinderella-type tales, and that lead me to talent shows. I watched heaps of You Tube videos: America’s Got Talent! Britain’s Got Talent! – etc etc.
AS: Who was the audience you wanted to speak to?
RLS: In terms of audience, I was writing for people in their late teens to late twenties who like to dream that fairy tales might come true! But also, I was writing it for me. Because I wanted to see what would come next.
AS: Where was it most important to you to stay faithful to the original story, and what was most important to challenge?
RLS: I wanted to keep the main plot points: the soldier, the cape, the witch (or witches), the king, the daughters. And the strange, mysterious place that the princesses visit at night. But I wasn’t interested in having white, gorgeous princesses with perfectly formed teeth. That’s already been done. I wanted to have characters that felt real.
Zoe is mixed race, her sisters are all from different mothers – this is a blended family, complete with the normal tensions and issues. One of the princesses, Belinda, is in a wheelchair. Jubilee has PTSD. Some of the witches are dirty and poorly behaved.
The biggest problem with Ghostly Melodies was the number of princesses. The original fairy tale had twelve princesses, but no way could I ever manage that number of characters. Writing that dialogue would drive me insane! So I planned six characters – but still they got away from me, and the story went nowhere. So I ended up settling for three princesses (plus Alice), and that was a lot easier.
AS: I was really interested by the narrative structure, which switched between places and characters chapter by chapter. Even though it felt quite seamless, it must have been complex to weave together?
RLS: It was actually easy, because the story was really only written for the three characters. I had to balance it out a bit and watch the timing of events in the dance scenes, but it was nowhere near as tricky as other stories I’ve written. I really enjoyed writing Riccardo’s pieces in the present tense. I think I’ll try that again.
AS: I also loved the slow reveal of the mysterious villains and the equally mysterious angels in this piece. How did you feel about these characters as you created them, and how did you want your audience to feel about them?
RLS: Do you mean ‘angle’? Evan is certainly not an angel! There are mysteries in this story; I wanted Ghostly Melodies to feel like a fairytale, even though it’s set in the present day. I’ve been influenced a lot here by other urban fantasists, like Neil Gaiman, Charles de Lint and Erin Morgenstern’s Night Circus. Also the movie The Prestige – if you’ve not seen this yet, I really recommend it.
In terms of villains, I love the idea of the charmingly unpredictable villain – is he really bad, or just misunderstood. Evan’s world will be an ongoing theme for this series. (I haven’t quite figured out how this will develop, but Evan’s such a strong character that I’m sure he’ll let me know!
AS: There’s a strong focus in the novel on family relationships in all their complexity, and you dedicated this book to us kids and our parents. (This is, by the way, still one of the more exciting things that has happened to me.) I was interested by the different kinds of relationships presented in this novel and it felt like you were grappling with a lot of questions about the nature of family. What was important to you to get across in the end, particularly for your protagonist, Zoe?
RLS: I wasn’t aware I was grappling with family until I reached the last line of the epilogue and then it was – oh, of course. That’s what it was all about.
Why families? Because families are complex and challenging and important and beautiful and heart-wrenching. On our death we return possessions to our family, and family keep our memory alive through stories. And also because Ghostly Melodies is about three sisters, so obviously family was going to be important.
But sometimes I think I used family as metaphor. As I was drafting this story, I kept thinking of walls: specifically the Berlin Wall and Trump’s wall. Do we (that is, the collective ‘we’: all of us) see humanity as a family? Or do we see others as less deserving because they are different? I think Ghostly Melodies is really about acceptance of difference.
AS: There were times when I felt like I could see a more mature Wrinkle in Time-like style coming through in this novel. Do you think this book, which is primarily inspired by a fairy tale you were first exposed to in childhood, reflects some other childhood influences of yours?
RLS: Oh yes, definitely. A Wrinkle in Time was amazing for me, as a kid! But the idea of three old women with secret powers is much older than Wrinkle in Time, and there’s a lot of safety in repeating the trope of The Three Graces. (Also, from a writing perspective, it’s a lot easier to write three characters than two or four!)
AS: We grew up in a family that just read and read and read. One of my earliest memories is getting told off for throwing a book, because that is something that is Just Not Done, and I suspect most of us probably wanted to be an author at some point or another. What about you – did this environment help you out when you decided to take writing seriously? On the other hand, has it held you back at all?
RLS: You can’t write if you don’t read. So yes, obviously coming from a book-loving family helps. But you’re right, family expectations can hinder too. I mean, I’m nervous about what Dad might say about some of the steamier moments in some of my other stories! Please don’t tell him about them!
AS: You’ve written a few genre-bending novels now and it seems like your preferences have shifted a little over time. Is this an accurate perception? How would you describe what interests you now, as opposed to the start of your career as a writer? And what is still the same?
RLS: Yes, I began my writing career with an epic fantasy – although my first real story was sci-fi – but now I’m writing fairy tales!
I’m always fascinated by speculative fiction, so I can’t see myself moving outside that genre, but I like trying lots of different sub-genres: in fantasy you’re only limited by your imagination. Right now, I’m more interested in present-day settings, partly because tech is moving so fast that the line between ‘magic’ and reality is becoming increasingly blurred.
AS: I’ve always admired how committed you are to producing your work – whether that’s through traditional publication methods or trying different avenues – and working hard to keep communicating with your audiences. I imagine this has been somewhat of a story arc for you in its own right. Where are you at right now – and is there anything you would advise yourself when you were starting out? What surprised you?
RLS: Advice to myself: stop procrastinating and just write! What has surprised me: the helpfulness of other writers. It’s a very supportive community. I’ve been so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had.
AS: What’s next for the Dancing Princesses series?
RLS: Belinda, the second sister, is the main character for the next book in the series: Pictures in Time. PiT will hopefully be a retelling of Aladdin, but I’ve gotten so bogged down in the plot that I’ve had to take some time away from the story. So at the moment I’m working on a series of short stories (paranormal romance this time – more genre hopping!) called DreamScapes.
Alison Stedman is a fiction editor at Halfway Down the Stairs.
© 2019, Alison Stedman / R.L. Stedman