Re-writing the story – an interview with Theodora Goss

Theodora Goss is  an author, poet, and fairytale professor. Cinders editor, Méabh McDonnell spoke to Theodora about heroines, fables and the adventures of her 19th century feminist series, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter.

1. Can you remember when you realised you wanted to be a writer’?

No! I must have been very young, though. Some writers always knew they wanted to be writers, and some come to it much later. I was one of the former–I always knew. I still have a folder full of poems I wrote in high school, and my very first publication was in the high school literary magazine. It was a poem on Icarus. I kept writing through college, but my family wanted me to have a practical profession, so I went to law school. After a few years of being a lawyer, I realized it would never give me enough time to write–so I went back to graduate school and got a PhD in English literature. Now I teach both creative writing and composition at the university level. It’s still a lot of work, but I have enough time to be a writer!

2. As a fairytale professor, can you give us any insight into why fairytales remain so popular and why they still are a natural part of our cultural language?

I think it’s partly because they’re about the most important things in our lives. Most fairy tales were originally told rather than written down–they were originally oral tales. Why do people tell tales? Because they are important not just to one person, but to entire communities of people. So fairy tales are about thing that are important to many of us: hunger, jealousy, revenge, justice, love. They are about the relationships within families, about marriage, about journeys into the dark forest.They are about very real, concrete things like bread, apples, shoes, as well as things that can be read metaphorically, like throwing frogs against walls. When you get into literary fairy tales, such as those of Hans Christian Andersen, they become more sophisticated–they can be about the soul, or the relationship between the artist and society. But the old oral tales collected by the Brothers Grimm and other folklorists were about our most basic needs and emotions.

3. Your blog series on the fairytale heroine’s journey struck a chord with a lot of people – what was it about the journey that inspired you?

I was surprised when I first noticed the pattern! I thought of stories like “Snow White,” “Cinderella,” and “Sleeping Beauty” as very different. And yet, when I started looking at them closely, I realized that they shared a series of common events. For example, in all of them, the heroines receive gifts, face trials, and undergo a real or metaphorical death. It was interesting to study and then try to describe an underlying pattern of twelve stages. What inspired me to explore and write about this journey was the way in which I could see these stages in my own life and the lives of my female friends. My hypothesis is that these fairy tales reflect real events in women’s lives at the time they were told and written down–they are symbolic representations of an underlying reality. And women’s lives often still follow the same pattern, although in more modern ways. But there are also fairy tales that provide alternate patterns–they’re just not as popular in modern culture. They haven’t been made into Disney films!


4. For readers who want to read about fairytale heroines they may not have heard of can you give us your best recommendations? 

I’ll give you three of my favorites! The first one is Vasilisa, in the Russian fairy tale “Vasilisa the Fair.” She has to confront the fearsome Baba Yaga, who lives in a house on chicken legs. Luckily, she has the help of a magical doll left to her by her dead mother. The doll helps her in Baba Yaga’s hut, but in the end it’s Vasilisa’s ability to weave and sew the finest linen shirts that wins her the hand of the Tsar. The second is the heroine of a beautiful Norwegian tale called “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.” She marries a white bear who comes to her at night in the form of a man, but when she tries to see his face and accidentally wakes him up, he tells her that he was under a spell, and if she had just waited a little longer, she would have broken it. Now he must go marry a troll who lives east of the sun and west of the moon. He disappears, leaving her alone–but rather than falling into despair, she sets out to find her husband and goes on a long journey to win him back. The third might not be considered a heroine by most people, but I would argue that she is one–the cat princess in Madame d’Aulnoy’s “The White Cat.” She helps the king’s youngest son bring home the finest linen, then the smallest dog, and then the most beautiful bride (herself, in her human form), so she is a sort of magical helper–but if you read the fairy tale closely, you’ll notice that she has her own story, in which she was turned into a white cat. She gives the king’s son what he needs in part so he can disenchant her and she can resume her human form. Each of these heroines works for her happy ending. I suppose that’s why I admire them so much!

5. Your fantasy stories take place in beautiful worlds that are full of possibility and myth- do you use any aspects of the real world to create these? 

Thank you! And yes, absolutely. In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien said that “Faërie,” which was his word for the world of fantasy and fairy tale, “contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.” I think all the fairy lands we can imagine rest on a solid foundation of the real. That gives them what Tolkien called “the inner consistency of reality.” In order to make you believe in an enchanted castle, I must show you the grayish stones of which it’s made, and the ivy growing up its walls to the arched windows. Fantasy is built out of reality, and in order to write it well, I have to experience reality in as much depth and detail as a writer of entirely realistic novels. But I will say that I see the possibility and myth in the real–I’m bringing it out, rather than spreading it on top, like butter. If you look at an average tree, for example, you will realize that it is an entirely magical creature, not average at all.

I started noticing that there were an awful lot of female monsters in nineteenth-century literature, and they all died! Well, I had to do something about that. So I wrote my own story.

6. The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is such an enjoyable- and unusual – story; can you remember the first idea you had that led to the novel?

It wasn’t an idea yet, but a particular passage–the one in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein where Victor Frankenstein, who has started to create a female monster, takes her apart again and throws her body parts into the sea. I thought, Hey, wait a minute! It was so unfair . . . He’s afraid that she and his male monster will mate, to produce offspring that may outcompete mankind. So he doesn’t even create her. And then I started noticing that there were an awful lot of female monsters in nineteenth-century literature, and they all died! Well, I had to do something about that. So I wrote my own story.

7. You took some very well known characters and re-cast them in your story, was it difficult to re-imagine them in your own way?

Not really! I think that was because they get so little say in their original narratives. Frankenstein’s female monster isn’t even created. Dr. Moreau’s Puma Woman does not say anything–she just kills him and is killed in turn. Beatrice Rappaccini does get some lines of her own, but her story is told entirely from the perspective of her lover, Giovanni. It’s not primarily her narrative. And I made up Mary Jekyll and Diana Hyde. I really just asked myself, knowing what we know from the original narratives, what would these characters be like? What would Catherine be like, as a Puma Woman created on Moreau’s island?

8. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the book is how realistically it portrays 19th century life – did you have a very rigorous research process? 

Yes and no. It wasn’t rigorous in the sense that I knew exactly what I needed to research, and then I went out and researched exactly those things. But I did go to London several times, specifically to walk the streets where my characters walked so I could figure out where the action of the novel would take place, how long it would take to get from one place to another . . . I went to Regent’s Park, the Royal College of Surgeons, even the Sherlock Holmes Museum because I wanted to see how large the average parlor would have been in one of the houses on Baker Street. More than anything else, I wanted to get a sense of where my novel would take place. I have a PhD in nineteenth-century British literature, so there were a lot of things I knew about the nineteenth century, but that wasn’t enough to write a novel with. I needed to see things, hear things, smell things, so I could describe them for my reader. I looked at a lot of photographs from that time period, and while I was drafting, I read only late nineteenth-century prose. The research process continued throughout the time I was writing the book. Sometimes, to write a sentence, I had to crawl around on my office floor, comparing a contemporary map of London with one from the nineteenth century, to make sure I knew where my characters were going . . .

I wanted to write about the women, and not just the monstrous ones. I wanted to make sure that a housekeeper like Mrs. Poole also had a voice. Honestly, if it were not for Mrs. Poole, I have no idea how the Athena Club would sustain itself.

9. The five members of the Athena Club are a refreshingly feminist crime fighting team – was this a response to the lack of women in 19th century science fiction and horror literature? 

Yes, absolutely! And when there are women, they tend to be killed off, as in Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla or Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan. The rare exception is Mina Murray in Dracula: she survives, but only because she does not become a vampire. Most of the nineteenth-century narratives I read for my dissertation were focused on the lives of male protagonists. I wanted to change that. I wanted to write about the women, and not just the monstrous ones. I wanted to make sure that a housekeeper like Mrs. Poole also had a voice. Honestly, if it were not for Mrs. Poole, I have no idea how the Athena Club would sustain itself. She is absolutely central.

10. Which of the girls would you say you are the most like? 

Mary, I’m afraid. All of the girls have something of me in them, because when you write, you’re always drawing out of yourself. But I’m most like practical Mary, who can be annoying sometimes–she could use some of Catherine’s imagination, Beatrice’s artistic sense, Justine’s sense of justice, and even Diana’s impulsiveness. But of course, if any of them were perfect characters, they would not be interesting–they all have their flaws. Mary has many of mine.


11. Can you tell us anything about what adventures the Athena Club will get up to next?

In the second book, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, Mary, Diana, Beatrice, Catherine, and Justine must rescue Lucinda Van Helsing from the evil machinations of her father, Professor Van Helsing. Summoned by Mary’s former governess Mina Murray, they travel to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where they meet new friends, confront even more dangerous enemies, and eventually face the fearsome Alchemical Society! Also, Mary learns to like coffee and Diana eats a lot of cake . . .

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is available in bookshops near you!

More than true – how fairytales defined me

For Cinders Editor Méabh McDonnell, few things have been more influential in her life than her love of fairytales. Here, she looks at why the stories she heard as a child became lodestones for her as and adult, inspiring and empowering her along the way.


A boy and a girl, a glass slipper, and a poison apple, a witch and a king, a curse and a ‘happily ever after’. Everything it takes for the perfect story. But is it really that simple? Is a few well worn ingredients all that it takes to capture our hearts and take these simple stories from childhood to adulthood?

It would certainly seem so. From Disney to sci-fi, fairytales are the stories that follow us around from our earliest bedtimes to modern day adaptations. They are the stories we learn the magic words from: once upon a time… far, far away…and happily ever after.

Everyone has their own relationship with fairytales. For me, fairytales carved me out and spun me into life. They are the first stories that I ever fell in love with.

Fairytales were an ever-present constant throughout my childhood. From the books that my parents would read to me at bedtime, to the movies that I flocked to growing up.

What child of the 90s didn’t have an animated heroine that she secretly hoped to grow up to be?

Fairytales have permeated the soft core inside me, being the first stories that I read on my own. Fairytales represented independence, something I could do by myself. They also represented the kinds of stories I have always loved most, ones that are steeped in imagination. Give me a pumpkin carriage, a cursed spinning wheel and a pair of shoes that will never stop dancing  over gritty reality any day.

I didn’t know the difference between Hans Christen Andersen and Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm as a child but looking back on the stories, Hans Christen Andersen’s were the ones that appealed to me most. The Tinderbox, The Princess and the Pea and most of all, The Snow Queen, captured my imagination and took me by the hand into another world.

Gerda boldly setting off into the dark to save Kai has  always captivated my secretly adventurous heart. The knives that torture the poor little mermaid’s feet,  were images that stuck with me and followed me around. I can still hear the descriptions of the dogs with ‘eyes as big as saucers’ and the lock of hair the goose girl’s mother gave her before she left home. These are stories that stick like glue and don’t let go.

As I grew older, my interest in fairytales grew stronger. I was fascinated by the scope of the different stories, of their many variations present throughout multiple cultures. I love that you can find the core tales of Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast throughout the world, with different beauties, different beasts and other princes, but all have the same core elements of the stories.

The hope and fear that permeates each one. The feelings of inadequacy, and of loneliness that so many of the heroes face throughout their journeys were so familiar to me. And the fact that they must fight it to get to the other side, well, that felt familiar too.

Every time I talk to a stranger, I answer a phone call I’m reluctant to, every time I voice what I’m thinking instead of keeping quiet,  every time that I can bring myself to ask for help, I feel like I’ve lifted my own sword and fought against my very own dragon. I don’t always win, but I try to fight.

And I truly believe that fairytales gave me some of that power.  These are stories that mean more to us than cautionary tales or stories to help children sleep. They have heartbeats throughout history and weave their way into our lives as adults.

Fairytales took me into the deep, dark wood, to the places where I was lonely and lost. But all the while, even though they realised my deepest fears: kidnapping, drowning, predators in the centre of the woods; in a fairytale, the heroine always makes it out the other end. She escapes the woods. She finds friends and she thrives. I never needed a guarantee of happily ever after, but I always wanted to know that, in the words of  fairytale professor, Theodora Goss, ‘this too will pass’. That the woods will reach an end and the moonlight would gather me out.

I was always a little braver entering my own woods because of that. Knowing that the fairytale heroine has to step off of the path to have her adventure always made it a little easier to take those steps myself.

I’d like to think that’s true for other people. Not just me. Fairytales are the best kind of magic.

Because they may not be real. But they are true.



To the waters and the wild – Interview with Deirdre Sullivan

Winner of the YA Book of the Year, Deirdre Sullivan, spoke with Cinders magazine about Tangleweed and Brine in October.

Deirdre Sullivan is no stranger to the Irish YA literary scene what with her fabulous novel Needlework, and her Prim Improper series. Her new collection Tangleweed and Brine is something different, a set of feminist fairy-tale retellings that is already well on its way to becoming a feminist classic. Tangleweed and Brine takes the stories that we thought we knew and looks at them through a new lens. It gives readers a fresh perspective on characters that they will have known all their lives – turning these stories on their heads and empowering the women whose tales they tell. Méabh McDonnell spoke to Deirdre about her inspiration behind the collection and why fairy-tales are still the stories that speak the loudest to us.

Author 3

What drew you to re-writing these classic fairy-tales?

I have always been drawn to storytelling, and fairy-tales in my fiction, which is true for so many writers. I have been rewriting fairy-tales for years and I think it’s an attempt to touch and name the things inside them. The truths and the lies. With Tangleweed and Brine, I got to explore the world of my childhood fiction more deeply, which was a demanding experience in the best possible way. I loved writing it, and I felt it very deeply.

Do you have a favourite fairy-tale now, or did you have one growing up? 

It’s hard, but I think the Little Mermaid holds a special place in my heart. I grew up near the ocean, and I was a lonely child. The sadness of the Little Mermaid worried me and spoke to me at the same time. It still does.

Did you find it challenging to re-interpret these stories, when they’re so embedded into our culture? 

Yes, and no.

The stories came to me little by little and one (The Tender Weight) that I was stuck on actually got sorted out in a dream.

I lived and breathed them for the year it took to write, I was constantly thinking about them and twisting the worlds around my brain.

The writing itself, when I sat down to do it, generally flowed. I work full time, and I think that focusing myself on other things sometimes helps what I’m working on to percolate.

I worked very hard on this book, and I have been getting ready to write it for over a decade, but the voice and the shape of it came very naturally. It felt like it was ready to be written, and I loved the process.

What do you think is so consistently appealing about fairy-tales, particularly to YA writing?

Story is such a powerful and human tool, and fairytales are the oldest and most potent stories of all.

They are tales from our childhood that follow us into adulthood.

As a writer for young adults, that’s a transition I negotiate in most of my fiction. You look at the original versions of fairy-tales, for example Little Red Riding Hood, you could argue that they are YA. Dark themes, warnings, young protagonists, striking out on their own.

When we are teenagers, we realise little by little how complex the world around us can be, and we have to decode the stories we have been told about the world and work out new stories to tell ourselves as we shape our identity.

And that’s what fairy-tales began as.

Stories told to help people make sense of the world around them. Rules and warnings, the things we think we want and how to get them….

Author 2

In some of the stories you write from an unusual perspective, such as the wife in Come Live Here and Be Loved, the witch in You Shall not Suffer and the servant girl in The Little Gift, was it difficult to decide who’s story you were going to tell in your version? 

This book came so naturally to me. Like, I worked very hard on it, but the voices flowed. I felt like I knew those girls or was those girls. The second person ones are, I think, related the the choose your own adventure books I loved as a young adult, like Secret Sorceress. They were full of magic and romance and peril, and I encountered “you” stories for the first time inside their pages. Weirdly I felt closer to the you women than the I women, more embedded…. I don’t know what that says about me.

“When we are teenagers, we realise little by little how complex the world around us can be, and we have to decode the stories we have been told about the world and work out new stories to tell ourselves as we shape our identity.

And that’s what fairy-tales began as.”

I loved the heroine of Slippershod, how her story is about taking power and independence back for herself. I also really enjoyed how the heroines of You Shall not Suffer… and Riverbed in particular use their agency to re-write their stories. How did you go about giving these women voices and independence in stories where most of the time they are just evil or good – tainted or pure? 

I didn’t think about it, it came really naturally. I don’t think I could have told them any other way. I mean, I could rewrite those stories again (and have- there’s another Snow White living on my laptop at the moment, and a few mermaids, I come back to fairytales a lot). We aren’t one thing. We have hearts. We have desires and we live in a world where we are denied agency in a myriad of ways. I’m aware of my privilege. I have a roof over my head, I’m white, cisgendered, but there are things the world takes from women piece by piece as they grow up. And I thought about what it would be like to live inside a fairy-tale. How would you claw back what you needed to feel like a person? And what that would do to you. The purity and taint of it is right. And everyone is both and all at once.

I really liked the connections from one story to the next, like the girls having heard of each other and witches being treated the same throughout the stories, did you set out to write them with that in mind  or did that develop as you completed each tale? 

I don’t think they’re in the same world, they’re like all these little snow globes that touch each other like a venn diagram. I think the links were as a result of them growing from the same brain rather than a thing I set out to do. It came organically.

Did you have to do a lot of research into the original fairy-tales to find out how you would re-write your own?

I had done a lot already. I ate up Jack Zipes, Marina Warner, Maria Tatar, Marie Louise Vin Franz and the like at college, when I was supposed to be studying Law. And I have always been drawn to fairy-tale retellings. The book is dedicated to two dear friends, one who first introduced me to the work of Jack Zipes, in the NUIGalway library, and another who edited the Writers Society journal when I was in college. The first thing I read of hers was a fairy-tale she had written and I thought to myself “friend!”

When I first got the contract for Tangleweed and Brine (Little Island commissioned it, based on their knowledge of the fairy-tale retellings I had already done) I felt like I should reread everything again, but I ended up dipping in and dipping out over the year and letting it flow out of me. I think that having that swathe of space helped the book. I wanted it to feel natural.

“I have a roof over my head, I’m white, cisgendered, but there are things the world takes from women piece by piece as they grow up. And I thought about what it would be like to live inside a fairy-tale.”

You mentioned Angela Carter as an author who influenced you, did you enjoy writing a version of Bluebeard that was so different to The Bloody Chamber

This is the one that came to me in a dream, which has never happened before and was really useful. Thanks, subconscious.

I am drawn to the story of Bluebeard, the darkness and the blood and the keys and the fear. It’s powerful.

But I was very intimidated when I came to it, because I love Angela Carter’s version a lot. Tangleweed and Brine is a little nod to her book The Bloody Chamber, as it influenced me as a writer. Her voice is fearless and poetic and her use of colour and imagery is something else.

Her stories are so different but so cohesive.

That’s another reason I was glad there was space left between reading around fairytales and writing Tangleweed and Brine. Such big boots to even try on, never mind fill!

“The things in these stories take place in fairy-tale worlds, but there’s a core of truth to all of them, at least to me”

The concept of ‘witches’ is woven throughout most of the stories, in some they are revered, in others feared, in some forces for good and in others forces that have done evil – was there a reason you referred to them so often in your fairy-tale universe? 

Yes, it was about power. How to get power in a patriarchal society, how to learn to value things that aren’t worth money. Plants, animals, the elements, yourself.

The witch is the transgressive woman, the other. And there’s a value to that and a price to pay. People punish unruly women- who do not look or behave properly. Women are still disfigured, burned, murdered and cast out for perceived transgressions in the world today. The things in these stories take place in fairy-tale worlds, but there’s a core of truth to all of them, at least to me.

Why choose earth and water as the key elements of the book? 

Initially I was going to do all four elements, but the stories kept coming out with Earth and Water strongly, so I went with it. Writing this was a very different process to writing my other books, it was more instinctual, and less planned. I think all the witches might have put me more in tune with my subconscious or something. The wagons.

Do you believe in magic?

Yes. but not the kind with wands. I believe in love and stories. Those are powerful.



Tangleweed and Brine is published by Little Island Books and available in all good bookshops.