Many of us love fairy tales, but it’s hard to ignore how problematic some of them are. When an author like E.K. Johnston chooses to reimagine retellings with a feminist twist, all of us can rejoice. Her newest book, Spindle, retells Sleeping Beauty from a feminist perspective, weaving both a magical world and an active discussion of consent.
It has been generations since the Storyteller Queen drove the demon out of her husband and saved her country from fire and blood. Her family has prospered beyond the borders of their village, and two new kingdoms have sprouted on either side of the mountains where the demons are kept prisoner by bright iron, and by the creatures the Storyteller Queen made to keep them contained. But the prison is crumbling. Through years of careful manipulation, a demon has regained her power. She has made one kingdom strong and brought the other to its knees, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. When a princess is born, the demon is ready with the final blow: a curse that will cost the princess her very soul, or force her to destroy her own people to save her life. The threads of magic are tightly spun, binding princess and exiled spinners into a desperate plot to break the curse before the demon can become a queen of men. But the web of power is dangerously tangled–and they may not see the true pattern until it is unspooled.
Spindle is available tomorrow, December 6. Take a peek at what Johnston has to say about the series below + keep scrolling to enter to win the books!
After two contemporary fantasies, why did you decide to switch to fairy-tales? And how did you choose the ones you used in this series?
I actually started both A Thousand Nights and Spindle before I wrote Prairie Fire (and possibly Exit, too, although that timeline is a bit murkier, because I was taking a lot of notes simultaneously). Anyway, it was late spring of 2012, and The Story of Owen had just sold, and I was thinking about books I liked, and what I would want to do next. I love, love, fairy-tale retellings, so it made sense to try one.
I started Spindle first, because I wanted to write a story that looked at the importance of spinning in pre-industrial society (long story short: if you don’t spin, you starve to death, because you spend food money on clothing). I realized pretty quickly that I had some world-building to do, and Nights was born out of that.
All of this took forever, of course, and I wrote all of Exit, all of Prairie Fire, and the first bit of what would become That Inevitable Victorian Thing before sitting down to finish Nights in 2014, and then Spindle had to be re-worked to match it.
I guess to actually answer your question, I don’t consider it much of a switch. Girls and stories are my thing.
Did you pick any specific version of the fairy-tales to base your books on? Any really interesting research stories?
Not really. I picked what I liked from multiple versions. I wanted to write a slightly darker Sleeping Beauty, but had zero interest in the rape that’s present in some versions of it, so I decided to make the story about consent and power instead. I had to work on the curse a bit, too, to combine it with the world-building that was already there with Nights, but I like the end result a lot, for all its complications and messiness.
What was the biggest difference in publishing A Thousand Nights and Spindle compared to The Story of Owen, Prairie Fire, Ahsoka, and Exit, Pursued by a Bear?
Well, I mean, there’s a giveaway with a SEWING MACHINE, which is certainly new!
In total seriousness, though, I am writing outside of my culture with Nights and Spindle in a way I’m not with my other books. Even with my educational background and experience, and with what I’ve learned from friends online, it was still important to be considered with my approach to the stories.
How did you manage three published books in 2016?
I said “yes” to everything that anyone asked of me in 2014, after the initial reviews for Owen were so positive, and I started showing up on people’s radars.
Also I ate a lot of cookies.
A Thousand Nights is one of the most feminist books I’ve ever read. Why focus on the power of women and their words?
First of all: THANK YOU. I tried really hard to be incredibly feminist with Nights (and Spindle, for that matter), and it really, really means a lot to me when people say things like that.
I did it because we have all these stories, collected to promote community values and/or beliefs (Islam, in the case of the 1001 Nights, Catholicism in the case of the Brothers Grimm), but essentially stolen from old women. Homer, Anderson, Disney, all of those men. And here I am in a community full of incredibly brilliant women who tell stories, and it’s our turn now.
Is there anything that you hope readers take away from your books?
As I am fond of saying, YA isn’t Highlander: there can be more than one. More than one way to ensure a legacy. More than one way to love. More than one way to stage a rebellion. More than one way to be a girl. And, frankly, that your chances are better if you work in groups and exploit the differences you have.
What other myths, folk lore, or fairy tales would you want to put a feminist spin on? Any plans to write more?
So many plans. So many. And yes, I will write more. But I can’t say exactly what just yet.
What comes next for you?
Well, first I am going to take a nap. Three books in one year is not for the faint of heart! And then I’ll probably eat a lot of chocolate, because it’s Christmas. But in 2017 I’ve got That Inevitable Victorian Thing to look forward to, and I am really looking forward to it!
Want to win a copy of Spindle? Fill out the form below to win one of two sets of Spindle and A Thousand Nights by E.K Johnston. Giveaway prizes donated by E.K. Johnston. Open to the U.S. and Canada only. Void where prohibited.