Interview with Jane Yolen (FINDING BABA YAGA)
Jane Yolen is the author of over 365 books. She has written an incredible range of stories, from children’s picture books through young adult and middle grade to books for adults. Throughout her career she has retold and reworked fairy tales in bold and exciting new ways, from Snow In Summer (2011) which imagines Snow White in West Virginia, to Briar Rose (1992), her entry in the Fairy Tales series edited by Terri Windling, which transposes Sleeping Beauty to the holocaust. The Devil’s Arithmetic (1988) and Mapping The Bones (2018) also use the lens of Fantasy to explore the horrors of the holocaust, whilst Cards Of Grief (1985), which won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, is a powerful science fiction novel. Her short story collections The Emerald Circus (2017) and How To Fracture A Fairy Tale (2018) are out now with Tachyon, and her verse novel Finding Baba Yaga (2018) is out now from Tor dot com. She also writes poetry.
Jane Yolen was in Edinburgh for Shoreline Of Infinity’s event this June, and was kind enough to talk with The Fantasy Hive then.
I wanted to talk to you in general about the way that you adapt fairy tales. To start off with, you have a novella coming out with Tor.com: Finding Baba Yaga…
It’s actually a verse novel, I call it. “Well, it’s really a novella,” they said. I said, “It’s got eight or nine distinct chapters in it.” “We’ll bring it out as a novella,” they said. As long as they bring it out, I’m happy!
What is it that drew you to write about Baba Yaga?
I’m Russian Jewish, and my ancestors came from the Slavic countries. But Baba Yaga for my mind is the most important female character within that cosmos. So from the very beginning, I loved her, when I heard the stories. She likes young women. They have to be feisty, they have to talk back to her, they can say damn and hell. The boys, she just eats. They’re useless except for food. That sort of worked for me. I’ve done Baba Yaga in graphic novels, and a Baba Yaga children’s picture book, I’ve retold Baba Yaga’s stories in story book collections. But this is the first time that I’ve really made Baba Yaga the superstar that I think she is.
And why in verse?
I began as a poet. I’ve done a lot of poetry. I’ve been published both in science fiction and fantasy magazines but also literary journals. I have collections of poetry out. So it’s not the poetry that’s the leap. Verse novels in America for young adults and middle grade – they’re very big now. Most of them are not poetry. They are broken lines. So I stepped back from the idea of doing a verse novel, even though some of my poet friends were actually doing what I would consider verse novels. So I heard about and then read a woman online who was doing the persona of Baba Yaga as a lonely hearts columnist. And I thought it was so funny. I read her stuff and it was really witty. And I started thinking about that. I write a poem a day, which I send to about a thousand subscribers. So I started writing poems about Baba Yaga. There was a poem about Baba Yaga’s cousin, who was the witch in Hansel and Gretel, and she says she doesn’t leave her house, and in the end she eats the help. And then I wrote a poem about Baba Yaga meets Koschei the Deathless, who is another Slavic/Russian folklore character. And he comes calling, he’s her gentleman caller. And he’s called the Deathless cause he can’t be killed. And when he leaves, he kisses her on the cheek and the last line of the poem is, “It leaves a scar.” So you wonder how many times he’s kissed her and how many scars she has. And I did a few more, just about Baba Yaga, and then I went, wait a minute, there’s a story. I’m telling a story, but I haven’t figured out the story yet. I have bits and pieces of it. It’s like any time you’re writing a novel. You get an idea; you don’t get the whole idea, you get a piece of it. I went, oh my god, I’m writing a verse novel. And then I thought to myself, I don’t want to do it!
But I knew if I was going to do it, I had to have a main character who was not Baba Yaga. Who would come into Baba Yaga’s life. So I decided, almost on a whim, that I would make it a modern girl, who’s having trouble at home and runs away. And from there, I suddenly had a skeleton, and then I started filling it in. I had such fun with this. And then the second or third editor who saw it bought it. And just as he was putting together a proposal, he contacted my agent and said, “I’m changing jobs.” And he went to a publishing house that was the wrong publishing house for it. He kept the book for an extra year, trying to find a way, but they wouldn’t publish it, they didn’t want to, and finally we got it back, and I said right, we’re sending it to Tor. And I got a funny letter from the editor, who I’ve worked with before, Susan Chang, and she said, “I love this book. I can’t stand poetry, and I can’t stop reading! This is not a book that Tor Teens can do, but I have an idea. I’m going to send it to Tor.com, which publishes odd things, and publishes novellas. We’re calling it a novella.” So I said OK, but I wasn’t banking on it. And then I talked to my friend Patrick Nielsen Hayden, and he told me he loved it, and I went, OK. And then I was at a party with the woman who was the art director, Irene Gallo, and she loved it. And then I saw Patrick Nielsen Hayden again, and I said, “I know, I’ve been in publishing long enough, I’ve been an editor myself, I understand that you may love a book, but you can’t get it through a committee. It has to go up the big guys.” And Patrick looks at me and he says, “You don’t understand, Jane, I am now one of the big guys!” And he was, he had been elevated to like vice president, and I hadn’t known. So that’s when I went, Oh, maybe this is going to go through. And it did. There’s actually pictures, too. There’s one picture they use for all the chapter openings, and it looks very much like a Slavic papercut. So it’s really, really handsome.
When you’re adapting a traditional folk tale, how much of it do you decide to change, and what is the core of the story that has to remain the same?
The first thing is to remember that the stories we think of as sacred have been worked over by thousands and thousands and thousands of voices. So we know what earlier versions are, but we don’t know the first. It arose in some small village where someone told a story and it moved on from there. It may have been translated by slaves or by captives or by intermarriage within tribes, and gets changed so that it more clearly recognizes their customs. So bringing them into the 21st century, we have a different take on how women are portrayed, we have a different take about wolves, you know, the wolves aren’t always the bad guys. We can use the bones of a story that is familiar enough, and do a gloss on it. It’s a little like fanfic. How many people have written fanfic on the Arthurian tales? Multiple different places and people have told that story, written that story down – they still work. You can put Arthur in space, or put Arthur as a miner underground. There are all sorts of things you can do. So I don’t think that that’s the problem. The problem is – for me, anyway – are you violating the core of the story? How are you changing it? If you are changing it, sometimes you fracture it. I have a book coming out actually from Tachyon, the next book of stories, it’s called How To Fracture A Fairy Tale, where I talk about that. You might make the wolf the star of the show, and the seducer not the bad guy. You might make the girl the hero instead of the boy. You might think the old lady is the hero instead of the young pretty girl. So those things are possible, but you need to know as many variants of the story in order to do a good job. Otherwise you might as well just be retelling Tolkien. He knew the work. Tolkien knew the old tales, he knew the basic mythos. People who make cute little fairies don’t know what fairy is. They don’t know the fairy stories. Those were not nice guys. The elves were not your cute next-door neighbor. And god forbid you should live next to a Red Cap, right? I mean, you could play with that. You could maybe make a family of Red Caps trying to move into America and their children are sent to a…. actually that might make a good story. But you have to know the value of the stories before you can go make a mash of them. End of my rant!
In your short story collection with Tachyon Emerald Circus you have stories where you use not only characters from folklore, but Wendy and Peter Pan, or Alice, but also Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allan Poe. Do you find there’s a difference when you’re writing fiction about someone who really lived or someone else’s creation?
That’s an interesting question. I just recently wrote a poem about Sylvia Plath, who I just felt, if she hadn’t stuck her head in the oven, we wouldn’t be admiring her. I was in the same college, just right after she left. She’s one of the biggest whiners in the world. So, once you’re putting real people in, one of the problems is to make sure that they’re in the public domain, that they’re long enough gone so that nobody’s going to sue you. But I suppose you could do a fun book in which Philip K. Dick is a character. He’s dead. You can’t do it very easily with living people, unless they’re politicians. Realistically I think that has to be satirical. But who knows. One of the biggest hits on Broadway is Hamilton, and they’re doing rap with historical figures. You can do anything you want with historical figures. With characters, if they are out of copyright, they’re fair game as well. What gets tricky is if you’re trying to do something that’s not out of copyright. That’s the tricky part, only because legally you could be liable for libel.
Do you feel that the big corporations like Disney who keep pushing back the copyright on the stories they hold are doing a massive disservice by not allowing these characters into the public domain where people can play with them?
Well, you have to be careful about the mouse. But they can’t tell me that I can’t do anything with the Wicked Witch in Snow White. Even if she sounds a little bit like your Wicked Witch, your Wicked Witch sounds a little bit like the Wicked Witch in the story, and I can tell you I’ve gone back to the story. So they can only do so much. They’ve made, in a sense, a mockery of copyright, but they’re not doing copyright, they’re trademarking, and that’s different, that has no endgame as far as I understand. Copyright does 75 years after the death of the author, and you know, I feel that that’s my gift to my children, I have no other inheritance to give them. Though I do have so many unsold manuscripts. I said to them, “Every year for the next thirty-five years, you can say we just found mother’s last manuscript!”
I wanted to ask you specifically about Briar Rose and your other holocaust novels, The Devil’s Arithmetic and Mapping The Bones, in terms of using fantasy as a tool to allow us to speak to children about the atrocities that happened in the real world.
Two interesting things happened when the first two books came out. The first book came out back in 1988, and there was a hue and cry about using fantasy from some people who felt very strongly about that. And Elie Wiesel said something to the effect of, “We are ageing, those of us who saw World War II, those of us who are survivors.” And he said, “All there will be left will be the stories. It doesn’t matter how the stories are told. Let there be stories.” But I specifically made it a time travel novel because for me, children even twenty, thirty years after the Holocaust were asking questions like, “Why didn’t they fight?” And, “Why did they go like sheep to the ovens?” They’d ask those questions, and the answer would be coming from a modern girl who was sent back in time. Because she sees, at first through her modern eyes, and then she becomes more acclimated and they cut her hair off, she loses her memory and it slowly grows back as her hair slowly grows back.
But by the time I got to the second book, I saw what I was talking about is memory, in all its different forms. And the second book, based on Sleeping Beauty, had its own problems because the Jewish press ignored it because it was about the gay experience of the camps. The gay press picked it up and ran with it. But it still was about memory. It was about a girl tracking back her grandmother’s memory. The grandmother was not able to talk about it.
The third book, which really is based on Hansel and Gretel, is also about memory, but it’s about two types of memory. One part is the girl Gittel, who is telling the story in bits and pieces, which are memory pieces, long after the story would have finished. She’s living now in Israel with her partner, so we know that she’s escaped, we know that she’s going to get to the end if we’re reading the book carefully. But the other part is told through the boy who stutters so badly he doesn’t like to talk except when he’s reading his own poems, or reading poetry aloud. I knew a boy like that in college. So he’s memorializing everything through his poetry. You don’t know if he’s going to get out. There are four kids that we’re following together; the other two were also brother and sister, so you have two pairs of brother and sister together. When my editor said, “I love this book so much and I cried, but I didn’t cry enough, you have to kill one of those four kids,” I went, “Nooooo! I don’t want to kill anyone!” She said, “I want you to kill this one.” I said, “That’s the bad kid. If I kill the bad kid, it’s saying that all the bad kids get killed.” And that’s not what I wanted to do, so then I had to figure out what I was going to do. That was a hard decision. But the books are really not about the folk tales, not about the fantasy elements in them. It’s really about memory at the core. And when I sign them, that’s why I say something like, never forget, always remember, because that’s what they’re about.
When you’re writing about something as horrifying about the holocaust specifically for children, one of the powerful things about those books is that they don’t sugar coat the truth…
The very first book I wrote was nonfiction about lady pirates. And the editor gave me this advice. She said, “Yes you can show people getting killed, but you don’t have to do it finger by finger.” And I took that as a mantra, you know? It was the only smart thing that particular editor said to me. But it was very smart. Now, all my children write. And my son Adam has two adult novels out from Tor, but he also has eight or ten children’s novels with me, and has written some other adult novels he’s trying to get published now. I have 370 books out now. Including three holocaust novels. And a holocaust picture book. The family joke is that Adam has killed off more people in his books than I have in all of my books. He has twenty books out. And of the twenty, twelve of them are music books. So, yeah, it’s that whole, “don’t do it finger by finger.” I must say, I have also been on the shortlist for the World Horror Award, and I’ve had stories in Year’s Best Horror. You know, I don’t think of them as finger by finger. I think of them as frisson of terror. And in fact the third book we’re talking about, they haven’t actually said they wanted yet, is going to be called Ebony Circus, and it’s about the dark stories I’ve written. Nobody really gets brutally brutally dismembered. I’m not Stephen King!
You’ve written across all age books, from picture books up to books for adults. Do you find there are big differences based on which age groups you’re targeting?
The subjects may be different. The way you treat it may be different. But I hope that the writing is all as good as I can make it. Some are funny, some are serious, some are outrageous, some are scary, some are very lush, but always I’m trying to write at the top of my game. I’m going to be 80 next year, so maybe I’m slowing down. But I really think that people who just want to do the same thing over and over again – I could not write like that, twenty volumes of something or other. I would be so bored. I may as well be in a factory somewhere, churning out stuff. But that’s me. That’s what I want to do. So to me it’s, I’m not consciously thinking, this is for little children. I’m consciously thinking, what is the story I’m telling? What is the best way to tell it?
I also want to talk about your science fiction. Cards Of Grief was your first novel published explicitly for adults…
Yes, and also my first really explicit science fiction, although I don’t think I really knew how spaceships worked! But like I’d always wanted to write more about the Anthropologist’s Guild, and I never did, and I’m not sure why, except that I went off in a different direction. I think if the book had been a huge hit I might have been almost forced to do it, so in a sense that gave me leeway to do something really up my alley. And every once in a while I think maybe I’ll write another one. But I think at 80 I’m done with big books. I think I’m sticking from now on to small books. Verse novels and picture books and shorter novels. I just have to think about concentration, and what kind of concentration I still have.
When you start something, do you always know this is a novel, this is a short story, this is a poem?
Well, with Baba Yaga I didn’t even know I was writing a poem, the next thing I knew I had a verse novel. Snow In Summer, that was a short story at first. Very short short story. And in the end she hits the Wicked Witch up the side of the head with a frying pan. And my husband was a West Virginian, so I had been in West Virginia quite a bit, but I talked to his three brothers to find out what would they call skunks there, what are the phrases from that period, but that began as a short story. And I have four or five novels that were first published as short stories, and then grew into something else. So, that sometimes happens. When I start writing something, I may not know until it’s finished what it is. I have a little book I started just recently, it’s called The Missing Prince, and I thought I was writing a picture book, and suddenly it had a chapter, and suddenly it had fourteen chapters, but still written as if it is for a younger audience. Maybe it’s a verse novel. I don’t know what it is, and I said to my agent I’m not sure if you can sell this because I’m not sure what it is myself, either it’s brilliant or I am definitely losing my mind. So, she hasn’t read it yet so I’ll find out soon if I’ve lost my mind or not!
You also wrote the Great Atla series, starting with Sister Light, Sister Dark (1988)…
It began as one book, it became two books and then suddenly there was a third book. It never was meant to be a trilogy. It’s just that as I wrote it, I kept finding more things I wanted to write about. Same thing with the Pit Dragon books (1982-2009). It was a short story first in a Scott Card anthology, then I wanted to know more about these people, I wanted to know more about these dragons. So then I wrote the novel, and my husband was reading it, and he said, there’s more here. And I said, I am not writing a trilogy! He said, all right, try a second book. And then at the end of the second book I said, I’m not writing a trilogy! And then I did, and then for twenty years I had kids writing in saying, is there more? And I finally wrote a fourth book. And it killed it. So that’s it.
What’s next for Jane Yolen?
Well, The Ebony Circus, if they’ll take it. And then Tachyon and I have been talking about printing all of my fairy tales. There are something like 80 of them. And the question is, do we do it in three different volumes, and then after I’m gone they would have the right to put them all in one volume, you know, The Complete Fairy Tales? I’ve got a bunch of picture books that are coming out, one I was asked to write, a picture book about the Puritans stepping on Plymouth Rock. And I said, you know that never happened? And the editor said, didn’t it? I said no, they actually stopped first in two other places, and then left everybody there while they sailed to find a better harbor. I said I’ll write it, but only if I can find a way to tell this. So I have the rock telling the story. And the rock is making himself big. And there’s a kind of professorial character who comes through history saying, “Well, Rock, that’s very interesting, but you know this didn’t happen?” So that’s coming out. And I have about 25 books under contract that will be coming out over the next few years. Those are already written so I’m not paying attention to them as much. I’m paying attention to the new stuff I’m writing.
I’ve just been working with a friend on a picture book about Robert Louis Stevenson, all of whose relatives thought he was a failure, because he wasn’t a Lighthouse Stevenson, and eventually I think they finally got it. I’m working on The Missing Prince, which is totally written, but if my agent says “I don’t know what it is either” I may have to totally rewrite it. It’s really toys, the prince is a toy. And they’re all toys, including the Nutcracker, who is called the tracker cause he can sniff out where the prince is. And a group of thieving squirrels who carry away the Nutcracker who they think has promised them nuts. They’re wrong. And so it’s really bizarre. It opens with two pencils and a notebook coming in to the chamber to report that the prince is missing. And one is a graphite, longstanding, and the other is just a very sketchy character. It’s full of puns like that. And tin soldiers go out looking for him and take the Nutcracker with them, because he can’t walk on his own. And they have to carry him in Cart, the capital city. And Cart is obviously a red wagon. Cart doesn’t speak but everybody else does. Endlessly. So that’s what I’m working on. I just started working on a picture book today while we were at something at the Fringe called Mrs Noah’s Doves, in which before the rains come, she keeps birds in the cages, and so she’s the one who has the doves to go look for land. We’ll see, I don’t even know if this is happening, it’s like the first four or five pages of the picture book, it hasn’t gotten very far yet. Needs a plot.
Thank you for speaking with us Jane Yolen!