You Mean Disney Didn’t Invent Snow White or Cinderella?
Thirsty caught up with acclaimed novelist Pamela Ditchoff at her home in Liverpool, Nova Scotia for a brief interview. Ms. Ditchoff’s third novel and latest work, Mrs. Beast, is the inaugural offering from Stay Thirsty Press which is cutting new ground by publishing literary works straight to Amazon’s Kindle platform (also accessible on iPhones and iPod touches). Ms. Ditchoff has a distinguished writing career and has received many literary awards, including the Chicago Review Award for Fiction. She was a Walter Dakin Fellow at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, a John Ciardi Scholar at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and she was named a leading author and poet by Who's Who in Writers, Editors & Poets: United States & Canada. A Michigan native with a B.A. and an M.A. from Michigan State University, Ms. Ditchoff now lives full time in Nova Scotia because she enjoys living “in” the weather.
Thirsty: Where did the idea for your novel Mrs. Beast come from?
Pamela Ditchoff: The idea sprung from a comment made by a student in one of my freshman university creative writing classes. The student had used “Cinderella” in a poem she had written. During the discussion of the poem, she made reference to the author of Cinderella being Walt Disney. No one in the class corrected her. Most of the students believed Disney had written Cinderella, and also Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Beauty and the Beast. I had to explain that these fairy tales were collected and published by the Brothers Grimm in the early 1800’s. Of course, this was in the late 1990’s, before the 2005 Grimm Brothers movie starring Matt Damon and Heath Ledger was released.
The authentic Grimm’s fairy tales, the original, not the sanitized, homogenized, edited versions reprinted in American collections, are often bloody, violent and dark. They were intended to teach children lessons in living and frighten them into good behavior. The myth of “happily ever after”, taken to operatic extremes in the Disney films, needed debunking, and I was really up for the challenge.
Thirsty: Is there a reason to revisit fairy tales today?
Pamela Ditchoff: Most definitely. There are many terrific modern fairy tales today for children that do not objectify women or set men on impossible quests to win the beauty - tales that do not exalt physical beauty as a prerequisite to winning the prince and the castle or a CPA in the burbs. However, it is important for adults to revisit fairy tales because many of us are not aware of how much Western culture has been influenced, and continues to be influenced, by the dual myths of “happily ever after” and the “makeover.” How many makeover television shows are out there? From plastic surgery to extreme home makeovers? Everyone loves a Cinderella story.
If you are a beauty, you are automatically entitled, correct? As I began Mrs. Beast, I was thinking of Janis Ian’s song, At Seventeen. The first line goes, “I learned the truth at 17 that love was meant for beauty queens, and high school girls with clear-skinned smiles, who marry young and then retire.” Check in on them ten or twenty years later. Janis Ian won a Grammy, is still touring, and just published an acclaimed autobiography. What about the high school beauty queens? Think about your high school reunions and who has succeeded in life, emotionally, spiritually, and financially. Are the majority of successful ones the beauties and princes of sports or the members of the debate team and Science Club? Mrs. Beast picks up after the fairy tale beauties have married their princes and we see that they are not living “happily ever after”, not even close.
Thirsty: Why did you choose such "grim" fates for the great fairy tale beauties like Beauty, Snow White, Rapunzel, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty?
Pamela Ditchoff: How could their fates be anything but grim when their happiness and ultimately success or failure was based solely on appearance? Snow White’s mother died the day she was born, her father married a harpy who tried to kill Snow White first by telling the huntsman to take her in the woods and cut out her heart. The evil stepmother tried to kill Snow White three more times while Snow White was spending puberty living in a cottage with seven men. Yes, they were dwarves who were supposed to be cute and cuddly and harmless without sexual drive, which is completely unrealistic. In the original Grimm’s, the prince who awakened Snow White insisted he must have her; that if he could not look upon her he would die. No mention of love, commitment, friendship, and a life together.
Rapunzel was given to a witch at birth and kept in a tower for fourteen years. Today, it would be headline news, camera lights blinding her as police bring her out of the tower, fourteen years without a bath, tangled hair dragging behind her. The witch would claim she did it out of love.
As for Cinderella, just read the original Grimm tale, and I believe Prince Charming had a foot fetish. I chose Beauty as the heroine of Mrs. Beast because she was the only princess who loved a Beast. Once you have a beast, you can never go back.
Thirsty: Which of the characters in Mrs. Beast do you most identify with?
Pamela Ditchoff: Elora the Enchantress. It is easier to be a cynic when you live in a Deco Palace with your faithful hound. I love my dogs.
Thirsty: Who are your major literary influences? And, how did they influence you?
Pamela Ditchoff: My strongest literary influence is Virginia Woolf. The first time I read her novels was the first time I could hear and feel a soundtrack. That’s too simple. Woolf’s novels are lyrical in language. The reader experiences not only the underlying psychological and emotional motives of her characters, but the auditory and visual impressions that encompass her characters. The Waves blew me away and I still return to it once a year.
Carson McCullers is another strong influence, especially in the area of adolescent loneliness and desperation, the existential angst—no one has ever written it with more grace and precision. She died too young, after writing only eight novels, gems every one. The Ballad of the Sad Café is my favorite.
William Faulkner is another strong influence, The Sound and The Fury, A Light in August, again, an experimental writer, as were Woolf and McCullers in their day. Also, for a touch of very smart sassiness and intelligent humor, I have to include Faye Weldon. What I have taken from these writers that influences my writing is getting below the surface, swimming to the bottom and coming up with lungs full of hope.
Thirsty: Did you find the Sewanee and Bread Loaf Writers' Conferences of value?
Pamela Ditchoff: I vigorously recommend a good writers’ conference, Bread Loaf and Sewanee are the best, to all aspiring and seasoned writers. It can be like a literary Hell’s Kitchen: Too much narrative in that story, fix it. Yes, Chef! Guaranteed you will come out of the experience a better writer. You are surrounded by your own kind, us social misfits with pale complexions and marks from reading glass on our noses, who spend long hours into the night at a keyboard. You will also be given the opportunity to hear amazing authors read their works, and to learn the craft and finesse of writing in workshops given by these same amazing authors.
Thirsty: Do you have any plans for a sequel to Mrs. Beast and, if so, what is that story about.
Pamela Ditchoff: I am currently writing Princess Beast, the sequel to Mrs. Beast. Since Mrs. Beast ends with the birth of her daughter, whom she names Rune, Princess Beast begins when Rune is fourteen and has fallen in love with Hans the Hedgehog. However, Hans is transformed, by the love of a princess, into the prince he was before he was a hedgehog. Rune seeks transformation, and to find it, she travels to Andersen Land, famous for transformations. There she meets The Little Mermaid, The Bog King’s Daughter, and Inchelina, among others, and learns of their transformations and the price paid for them. Eventually she will learn that her transformation is dependant on her mother’s secret and the price Beauty is willing to pay for her daughter’s happiness.