P.J. Brackston is the author of the new mystery novel Once Upon a Crime. She also has written Gretel and the Case of the Frog Prints, and, as Paula Brackston, has written a series of books including The Midnight Witch, The Winter Witch, and The Witch's Daughter. She lives in Wales.
Q: How did you come up with the idea of having a grown-up Gretel (as in "Hansel and Gretel") work as a detective, and how did you invent Hans and Gretel's respective personalities?
A: I had been thinking about writing a crime novel for a while and wanted a protagonist who would bring something new to the business of detective work. One day a grown-up Gretel just popped (quite loudly) into my head. I could hear her voice, see what she looked like, and knew straight away that I would have a lot of fun writing about her.
Once I’d hit on the idea of having her still living with her brother it made sense to me that she would be the clever one, and he would be, well, not the sharpest pencil in the box. To be honest, there is a lot of me in Gretel, although she is braver than I am, and I don’t wear heels. Otherwise she is pretty much my alter ego.
Q: Which are your own favorite fairy tales?
A: There are so many, it’s really hard to pick just one. I think I like the crueller ones, the ones that really send a bit of a shiver down your spine, or at least, they did when I was younger.
Of course, not all fairy tales were written for children. It’s quite a modern convention to sanitize and soften the stories so that they can be read by or to the very young. Most of the older ones are stark warnings of what can happen if you are stupid or reckless or even just plain unlucky.
I’ve always liked the versions of Hansel and Gretel that included real danger. The ones where the witch herself gets pushed into the oven, or sometimes the heartless step-mother gets her comeuppance, those have more power, I think.
And it is a story where the girl takes charge, which I like. In most tellings, it’s Hansel who comes up with the idea of escape, then gets them into trouble, then his sister gets them out of it. Gretel is doomed to spend the rest of her life saving her brother, I’m afraid.
Q: You also write under the name Paula Brackston. Why did you decide on a different name to write your Grimm mysteries?
A: The two series are quite different. While I’m sure some readers will like both, I wanted to be clear that these are not the historical-fantasies people already might know me for. The Detective Gretel books are new and something a little unusual, so I wanted to flag that up.
Also, it is sad but true, that it can be helpful to take a name that is gender-free. I’m happy for people to know that I am a woman, but I don’t want it to be the first thing they find out about me. It is easy to get pigeon-holed as a woman writer, or writer of women’s fiction.
So far I’ve had just about equal numbers of men and women reading the Brothers Grimm books, and I’ve really pleased about that.
Q: Do you know how your novels will end before you start writing, or do you make many changes as you go along?
A: Well, I like to think I know, but I often find out I’m wrong! When I’m constructing a crime story I am really building a puzzle, so it’s important to know which direction to take, when to take it, what clues to leave where, and so on. That all goes a lot better, I find, if I have a clear idea of where I’m headed.
But it’s great to be surprised while you’re writing, and I love it when a story gathers its own momentum. Gretel has a habit of charging off at an unexpected tangent. I like to follow her and see where she goes.
Having said that, I do have the main facts of each case sorted out in my mind before I start writing. I certainly know who committed the crime(s) and why, although the “how” can evolve a little more slowly.
I have a friend who is a very successful and experienced crime writer and she says of her own books that she doesn’t know “who dunnit” until about two thirds of the way through writing the first draft! I couldn’t do that.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: We are just putting the finishing touches to the next book in the series, The Fickle Mermaid — due out in January. Gretel gets to go on a cruise in order to take on a case. Of course, she has to take Hans…
And then I begin work on another of her adventures. I’ve got the title and the synopsis figured out and am now at the brainstorming stage.
I love this phase. I take huge pieces of paper and draw mind maps and make lists of characters, possible names, locations, clues, twists, etc. It’s great fun.
My family rolls their eyes when they see me doing this, day after day, as they don’t consider it “proper work.” Whatever that is. They prefer to see me hunched over my keyboard for months at a time, frowning at the screen. They think that looks more like writing. Truth is, every stage is as important as the next.
After playing around with ideas I’ll thrash out an outline, some more detailed character notes, a list of key scenes, and then go back to books and maps and films and do further research.
I need to tune into the nuances of 18th century speech. And I love browsing fashions of the time to get ideas for Gretel’s extensive wardrobe. And I always try to find a sub-plot for Hans. And to think of ways to develop Gretel’s will-they-won’t-they relationship with Ferdinand.
I love my job!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Gretel has her own Pinterest board (look for @paulabrackston)! I’d love for people to alert me to anything Bavarian or foodie or fashion-based that you think Gretel might like.
There’s also a trailer for the books on my website, which has "The March of the Trolls" as its theme tune. Hope you enjoy it!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb