Work on my pet project, a novel for 10+, has had to go on the back burner again as I need to focus on my latest project for Orchard. This is THE ORCHARD BOOK OF FIRST BALLET STORIES and is scheduled for publication in late 2012. Hopefully there will also be a spinoff series like the First Greek Myths and the Grimm’s Fairy Tales, also due out next year.
I wrote the first drafts of the stories in 2009 but then the project stalled as Orchard merged with Hachette, moved offices, and I had other commitments and deadlines to meet. Now it’s been greenlighted again and I’ve been asked to have a second look at the stories. And do you know, what? I…er….don’t like what I did the first time around. At all! Ok, perhaps that’s too harsh, I have kept in some of the stuff from the first drafts but I seem to have re-written every single story almost from scratch. I never seem to like anything I wrote a few years ago, in fact I cringe when I’m asked to read out loud from my own work and, when I have to a festivals, I tend to re-write as I am reading. I wonder if any other authors do this, or is it just me, or my ocd?
Adapting world myths and folk tales is a more complicated process than people think. First of all you’re competing with countless other retellings out there, many of them penned by really famous authors who’d shift millions of units even if they just adapted the yellow pages. That means you have to find an angle to your own retelling that has not been tackled before, without straying too far from the original concept and raison d’être of the fable/legend/fairytale.
In my case I have retold the same stories more than once, so when I do find a new voice for a well-loved fairytale, it’s a pleasure to work on. This week I am working on THE SLEEPING BEAUTY, which I have retold three times already. The first retelling was for THE SLEEPING PRINCESS, now reissued as THE ORCHARD BOOK OF GRIMM’S FAIRY TALES. It’s meant to be read aloud by adults to children, so I gave the story a very traditional feel, with quite long sentences and some challenging words.
The second retelling was called THE GLASS PALACE, and is the Arabic version of the story, adapted from Scheherazade. The princess in this avatar of the story is called Sittukhan. She is cursed by a witch, who predicts that she will die if she were ever to touch cotton. When she does accidentally brush against the fabric, she is interred in a glass palace until restored to life by a prince. Sittukhan is much more proactive than Sleeping Beauty. She makes a big mistake and sets out to set it right. Before marrying the prince, she puts him to the test to find out if he truly loves her. Like most Arabic myths, the story also features an evil caliph, a genie who grants wishes and lots of treasure.
THE GLASS PALACE was part of a series called ONCE UPON A WORLD, published by Watts but now sadly out of print, although you can still get hold of used copies on the net. My next retelling was only finished a few weeks ago and will be published in GRIMM’S FAIRYTALES series by Orchard next year. Aimed at very young children who have just started reading by themselves, I had to lower the scare-content and keep the telling simple without sacrificing any of the pathos. The word-count was a challenge. The Sleeping Beauty is actually a very long story and I had to rely on Cecilia Johansson’s illustrations to bring in details I did not have space for in the text. She’s done a marvellous job; the characters in the pics look like children acting out the stories.
The ballet retelling is undoubtedly the most challenging of all four. I’m basing my version on the original Petipa staging of 1890, which was based on the Grimm’s retelling of the Perrault version.
Ballet, of course, is a visual and musical medium; it relies on music and dance to retell a story. There are many things that cannot be transported to the printed page. Tchaikovsky’s sublime score, for example, sees Sleeping Beauty as a battle between the Lilac fairy, representing good, and Carabosse, the wicked fairy representing evil. Both have their own musical leitmotif.
The original staging had a lot of mime in it, which many ballet companies tend to omit nowadays as conventions have changed. There are also divertissments, set pieces that look wonderful on stage but only hold up the narrative in a book. My task is to peel away everything from the story that does not work on the page, but also retaining the immediacy, spectacle and narrative. Not an easy task, but an enjoyable one. I’ll keep you all informed on the progress of the book as it heads to publication.
Meanwhile, for those attempting to adapt fairytales, here are some points to keep in mind:
- Find an original voice/angle for your version
- Keep to the spirit of the original
- Stay true to the culture in which the story was created
- Only write from one character’s point of view
- Remember that folk tales are meant to be aloud.
- Resist adding a moral to the story if there wasn’t meant to be one