An Interview with Alethea Kontis9 min read

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Alethea Kontis is a certified enchanted Princess (with a capital “P” for Plucky, Pretty, and Perceptive, among other lovely adjectives), a best-selling author, and a fairytale maven. Her short fiction has appeared in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Shroud, Shimmer, and Realms of Fantasy, as well as in Apex Magazine and Dark Faith. She is also the beloved picture book author of AlphaOops!:The Day Z Went First, as well as the co-author of The Dark-Hunter Companion with Sherrilyn Kenyon. This May saw the release of her first YA novel, Enchanted, the first in a series which will follow the daughters of the magical Woodcutter family, from whom all fairytales originate.

Ms. Kontis shares her story “Blood from Stone” with us in this issue of Apex Magazine, and graciously allowed us to quiz her regarding the story, evil villains, reviewing fiction, her novel Enchanted, and—of course—fairytales.

APEX MAGAZINE: What first inspired you to tell this Bluebeard origins tale?

ALETHEA KONTIS: Though Perrault’s stories predated the Germans, I always knew the fairy tale as “Fitcher’s Bird,” which is the Grimms’ version. (I didn’t realize that Bluebeard was the same individual until I was in my early twenties.) Late last year, I was challenged by a friend to write a story about a serial killer. Horror is not my forté—being a child of fairy tales, Fitcher was the only serial killer I knew. In doing my research, I discovered that most discussions made the point that while the stories rarely differed in their retelling, none ever mentioned Fitcher’s first wife. These missing pieces are the gems in fairy tales that my mind clings to. These are the tales that beg me to tell them.

Also: Gilles de Rais? Wow! Whether he was really Bluebeard or not, every aspect of that man is a fairy tale in itself. He went from fighting beside Joan of Arc to killing kids with an Italian magician in an effort to summon demons while under house arrest. (Srsly!)

But really, this is a love story.

AM: There are so many little details that bring the environment to life in “Blood from Stone.” For example, the changing flavor of food when the magic spells nearly worked, or the raw pain of Henriette’s knuckles thanks to the Cook’s punishments. It brings the place to life in taste and touch in a way that seems so often overlooked by other authors. When you were writing your drafts of this story, is this something you actively tried to incorporate? Or are these kinds of details happy accidents that come out in the telling when the mood of the tale suits them?

AK: I discovered my talents for both acting and writing when I was eight years old, and I was deadly serious about them both. I was active in both school and community plays, and I often wrote stories while waiting for auditions. When I landed the lead role in an eight-part PBS educational miniseries, my training as an actor bumped up a notch, and so did my writing.

I think this is the reason I approach my stories the way that I do. I’m not just writing a character in a scene, I am the character in the scene. Is she hungry? Dirty? Barefoot? Do her muscles ache? Why is she here? What are her life goals? Has she ever been loved? Has she ever been hurt? What’s her motivaton? (All directors ask this.) The story just isn’t real to me unless those elements are there.

AM: Out of curiosity for the stylistic choice, why did you choose to have Lord Death speak in modern English, fresh with modern colloquialisms, compared to the rest of the characters in the story?

AK: Oh, Lord Death. I do love him. He’s such a fun character to write—but I’m sure every author will tell you that. I first fell in love with him in Tanya Huff’s The Last Wizard, and I’ve always wanted to make him my own. A godlike being with this much power must have so little patience for mortals and their strange fetishes. He’s seen it all. By the time you reach him he’s beyond ready for your judgment—even if you aren’t. The tone you read is the tone in which I hear his voice in my head. If it comes across as slightly brash and anachronistic, so much the better!

(PS—Lord Death and his Angels of Feathers and Fire will be back at some point in the Woodcutter series, you may be assured.)

AM: Tales told from the villain’s perspective are often fun retellings of fairy tales. Who would you consider the absolute best fairy tale villain, and why? What villain would you consider got short-shrift in their original tale and perhaps needs a retelling written about them?

AK: My favorite fairy-tale villain is the maid from “The Goose Girl,” but only because her comeuppance was so spectacular. (When the King found out she was an imposter princess, he asked her at dinner how she would punish a traitor to the crown…and then made that her punishment. It was pretty graphic.)

For me, one of the greatest things about fairy tales is not the presence of villains, but the duality and balance of everything. The basic message of most tales is usually “Put out into the world what you are prepared to get back.” Fairies that bestow blessings upon good girls are just as quick to make other girls spit snakes and toads, or fasten donkey’s tails to their foreheads, or send birds to blind them. The evilest person in the fairy tales is typically someone who has just as much potential to be good. That is where I got my moral compass as a child. (Well, that and the Goops.)

About Writing in General:

AM: What is your process like for approaching a short fiction project? Do you plan or plot before writing? Or does it evolve as you write? How much—if at all—do you typically rewrite after a rough draft?

AK: I’m what my writing friends call an “Athena Writer.” I do tons of research beforehand and tell myself the story over and over in my head until I have it down. Then I sit and write it as I might tell it to my family at the dinner table, complete with flourishes. I do some smoothing, but I don’t typically do a lot of rewriting.

(This is, of course, something I’m having to learn all over again as I rewrite large chunks of the sequel to Enchanted.)

AM: If you could go back in time and give your younger self one piece of writing advice, what would it be?

AK: Shut up and write. Seriously. Just keep writing. And don’t take that stupid birth control shot when you’re 20. It will make you depressed and you won’t write for six years, and you will spend the rest of your life wishing you had all that time back.

AM: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you’re mostly self-taught when it comes to writing (bravo!). Are there any specific resources that you feel helped you improve your craft the most?

AK: It’s true—there just weren’t a lot of resources for genius eight-year-old kids back in 1984. I loved books, but the only “real” authors I knew were Joan Wilder and George McFly. They were who I wanted to be when I grew up.

As mentioned in number two, I believe acting was a major writing influence. Having been born into a family of storytellers, tale swapping and joke telling were more performance-based than anything. The hardest thing for me was getting the words on the page to do what they did when I performed them in real life. I made terrible grades in English class, because I was so advanced in some areas and completely lacking in others. No one sat down with me long enough to suss it all out until I attended Orson Scott Card’s Literary Bootcamp in the summer of 2003. POV! Withholding information! It was like the heavens had opened up and the yellow brick road laid itself out before me.

AM: If you could have one magical item out of any fictional story, what would you pick and why?

AK: I am STILL thinking about this question. I honestly have no idea. Alice’s Looking-Glass? The Aurin from The Neverending Story? Hmm…maybe Dorothy’s slippers. Those would be exceptionally handy to have after really exhausting conventions. Completely cut out the long bus/plane/car ride home? Heck, yeah!

AM: Your YA Fantasy novel Enchanted is a mash-up of a whole slew of fairy tales and folklore, but with a very distinctive take on these traditional tales. Your heroine, for example, comes from a family from which all these stories originate. How is Sunday Woodcutter different from your typical fairy tale princess? And what endeared you most to her when you were beginning to write her tale?

AK: When I started writing fairy stories in middle school at the behest of my mother, I often wrote about Princess Casey, based on my best friend Casey Cothran (now an associate professor of fairy tales at Winthrop University). Sunday Woodcutter honestly began as an amalgam of Princess Casey and me—while I’m not the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, I am a Sunday’s Child, and I’ve always had quite the opinion about that.

I said before that the holes in fairy tales intrigue me—Cinderella was always one of my least favorite tales. Seeing a pretty girl across a room and asking to marry her is not true love. It’s lust, and a prince who gets his own way. Cinderella would only work for me if the hero & heroine had met before, and the ball was simply a ruse to bring them together in public. So what if they had met before…when he was a frog? Thus was Enchanted born.

AM: You’ve mentioned that you created all seven Woodcutter sisters off an old Nursery rhyme, and that Monday’s child is a story you’re eagerly looking forward to writing at some time in the future (working backwards through the sisters means Monday will be the final episode). Any hints as to what Monday’s tale might be like (even just a word or two)?

AK: If “Monday’s Child is fair of face,” it follows logically that her daughter would be “The fairest of them all,” doesn’t it? That’s all I’m saying. (But there are lots more clues on my website.) And it’s not as simple as you think.

AM: Besides writing, you also review fiction for Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show. Have you found that reviewing fiction has helped your own development as a writer? Why, or why not?

AK: After four great years of reviewing for IGMS, I just handed in my last column (October). It’s a position I hate leaving, but I simply need the time to write. Sad and bittersweet though it may be, it’s a good problem for an author to have.

I used to go through books like chain smokers go through cigarettes. Plus, I worked at a book wholesaler, so whatever I wanted, I got. (Like Willy Wonka’s without the edible dishes!) But when I started writing seriously after Bootcamp in 2003, the first thing to go was the reading. I missed it terribly. Taking the IGMS job was a way to force myself to stay abreast of popular fiction in the genre, which I believe is incredibly important for a writer. It also kept me to a deadline while also forcing me to be succinct (and quotable, whenever possible).

But after four years, I do look forward to reading Cold Comfort Farm, or the first book in Gail Carriger’s parasol series, or delving into my fairy tale research without feeling pressured to finish it by a deadline and collect my thoughts in 500 words or less.

AM: What can we look forward to seeing from you in the coming months/year?

AK: Expect more from the Woodcutter sisters, with Hero (Saturday’s story) launching in Fall 2013 and Beloved (Friday’s story) in Fall 2014. There will also be a novella in the middle about their brother Trix——format for that release is still being determined.

In the comic/picture book world, Janet K. Lee (the lovely, talented, Eisner award-winning illustrator of The Wonderland Alphabet) is currently getting the art together for Diary of a Mad Scientist Garden Gnome. This collaboration of ours was an illustrated Twitter serial in 2010. We will be launching it in book form at conventions in 2013.

Beyond that, there are always sekrit projects and short story bugs lurking in the wings waiting to jump on stage. You never know with me…but whatever is next, I assure you it will be stupendous!

Thank you so much, Ms. Kontis, for sharing Blood from Stone with us, and for letting us have a little glimpse into the life of a Princess!

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