Sweet Sixteener Bridget Hodder recently spoke to Fearless Fifteener Sarah McGuire about her middle grade fairy tale retelling, VALIANT (June 9, 2015, Egmont USA).
Sarah McGuire loves fairy tales and considers them the best way to step outside of everyday life. They’re the easiest way, at least: her attempt at seven to reach Narnia through her parents’ closet failed. She lives within sight of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, where she teaches high school creative writing and math classes with very interesting word problems. VALIANT is her first novel.
Saville despises the velvets and silks that her father prizes more than he’s ever loved her. Yet when he’s struck ill, she’ll do anything to survive–even dressing as a boy and begging a commission to sew for the king.
But piecing together a fine coat is far simpler than unknotting court gossip about an army of giants, led by a man who cannot be defeated, marching toward Reggen to seize the throne. Saville knows giants are just stories, and no man is immortal.
Then she meets them, two scouts as tall as trees. After she tricks them into leaving, tales of the daring tailor’s triumph quickly spin into impossible feats of giant-slaying. And stories won’t deter the Duke and his larger-than-life army.
Now only a courageous and clever tailor girl can see beyond the rumors to save the kingdom again.
Sarah McGuire’s exciting new re-imagining of “The Brave Little Tailor”, VALIANT, is dangerously delicious: once you start, you can’t stop! McGuire deftly wields “Game of Thrones”-style intrigue (without the relentless cruelty), adds lyrical touches of Tolkein, and places a strong, sympathetic heroine at the story’s heart. The result is a compelling romantic adventure, complete with misunderstood giants, a spoiled, unworthy young king with a lesson to learn, and a hero who earns our trust as well as the brave tailor girl Saville’s love. An instant classic!
Bridget: Would you mind telling us what you think is the secret behind the unwavering appeal of fairy tales like VALIANT?
Sarah: Fairy tales appeal to readers in so many ways! I’m trying to think of how to describe them and am coming up with horribly clichéd terms like timeless, but it’s true. I can only say that for me, fairy tales represent a return to awe, to wonder. It’s my own doorway to Narnia.
Bridget: Well, your book took us right through that door along with you. And I noticed that VALIANT challenges many of the standard fairytale tropes–no passive heroines or cardboard villains! I found myself wondering how you accomplished this while still making it feel quite traditional.
Sarah: Just as you to know the rules before you break them, I think you need to understand the strengths of certain tropes before you upend them. For instance, I was very deliberate about making sure I knew and at least acknowledged stories about giants in Western culture.
I think there are quite a few active fairy tale heroines, so Saville was in good company. (I’m thinking of the lass in East o’ the Sun, West o’ the Moon.)
As far as villains … I was discussing villains with someone recently, and I realized that as much as I love a redemption story, I also like straight-up villains, people who really will take what they want at the expense of everything and everyone else. However, I think it’s also important to remember that every villain is the hero of his or her own story. And I think it was Terri Farley who once said to make sure there is one sympathetic or admirable trait about your villain. I think that’s important. It will let you have a true villain, but without the moustache twirling of more one-dimensional characters.
Bridget: Interesting. That bit about villains needing to have a sympathetic trait to be realistic makes me think of many successful bad guys who keep us coming back for more–from Jane Austen’s Mr. Wickham to JK Rowling’s Draco Malfoy. I don’t want to give your readers any spoilers, so I’ll just say: Sarah nails this in VALIANT!
Another thing I’ve wondered, Sarah, was whether your story’s rich level of detail was the result of a long revision process…or did this fairy tale world spring up fully formed in your mind?
Sarah: Oh, it was definitely revision. I’ve been told (and it’s true!) that I write amazingly thin first drafts. That first draft is all about working out who’s standing where and saying what— and not much more.
I remember someone in a writing class saying that in good movies, everything is deliberate: the camera angle, the lighting, whose face we see in a conversation, even the items on the mantel in the background. It’s all deliberate. I try to be just as intentional in my revision. I don’t want to direct the narrative lens towards people or objects that don’t mean something or enrich the story. (The oh-so-awesome reverse of this is that sometimes I’ll stumble across something in my story that already has emotional weight, but I don’t know why yet. If I can figure out why it’s important, it can absolutely sing.)
Bridget: Love it! Now we’ve just got to know: what’s next on your writing horizon?
Sarah: More fairy tales! I do love those stories, and until I lose interest, I’ll continue to retell them.
Lightning Round Questions
Which are your favorite screen adaptations of traditional fairy tales?
Ever After. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: He gives her a library, folks!)
What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome on your publishing journey?
Having my publisher (Egmont USA) close down was a big one. But I think the biggest obstacle will always be myself. I’m the one who can choose to do something other than write. I’m the one who can psych myself out. I think that’s true for most writers.
What’s your best piece of advice for writers querying agents right now?
Don’t give up. Don’t give up. Also, don’t give up. And while you’re not giving up, find that sweet spot of being able to encounter criticism without running from it— or being run by it. You don’t want to dismiss feedback, but you don’t want to blindly follow it, either.
Bridget Hodder is herself a writer of re-imagined fairy tales. Her work was twice nominated for the Golden Heart™ award by the Romance Writers of America. THE RAT PRINCE, her debut Upper Middle Grade novel, will be released by Macmillan/ Farrar, Straus & Giroux in Spring of 2016.