Thursday, June 21, 2018

Q&A with Danielle Teller

Danielle Teller is the author of the new novel All the Ever Afters, which tells the Cinderella story from the stepmother's perspective. She has written the nonfiction book Sacred Cows: The Truth About Divorce and Marriage, and has written columns for Quartz. She has a medical degree and has taught at Harvard University and the University of Pittsburgh. She lives in Palo Alto, California.

Q: How did you come up with the idea of retelling Cinderella from her stepmother's perspective?

A: When I became a stepmother, I was surprised by how difficult it was to get comfortable in that role. My stepkids and I had to slowly build trust and affection over time.

At first, they chafed under my parental rules and mourned the loss of freewheeling weekends with their dad. I felt as though my stepchildren didn’t want me around except to fulfill their various physical needs; I joked that I was a “ghost-servant.”

I worried that no matter what I did, my stepchildren would never see me as a net positive in their lives, and that got me thinking about the bad reputation of stepmothers in fairy tales.

What if those stories were inspired by real people who weren’t evil but struggling in a fraught relationship with other imperfect human beings? From that thought, the character of Agnes was born.

Q: What did you see as the right balance between your version of Agnes's story and the traditional version told from Cinderella's perspective?

A: The traditional fairy tale is morally unambiguous. We know which characters to root for and which ones to revile, and we can feel happily satisfied when Cinderella marries the prince and birds pluck out the eyes of the ugly stepsisters. This simplicity is comforting and fun, and, like many people, I treasure the versions of Cinderella I read as a child.

At the beginning of All the Ever Afters, the “evil” stepmother says that she will tell her own story and, “As for fables about good and evil and songs about glass slippers, I shall leave those to the minstrels.”

The implication is that the familiar fairy tale was inspired by true events, and Agnes’s memoir describes those events with the murky moral ambiguity of real life. The fairy tale and novel live side-by-side, not in opposition; my writing was inspired by Cinderella, and in my fictional universe, Cinderella was inspired by the lives of Agnes and her beautiful stepdaughter.

Q: The book is set in medieval England. What type of research did you do to write the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I began by reading books about life in medieval villages and castles, as well as an autobiography by Margery Kempe, a 14th-15th century English Christian mystic. The internet was extremely helpful; I took virtual tours of medieval manors on YouTube and read blogs by fanatical hobbyists who brew beer and cook food using strictly medieval methods.

What surprised me most was how little we know about the daily lives of the lower classes; there are virtually no written records other than legal disputes and the reckonings of tax assessors. Most of what we know about the lives of impoverished children comes from the examination of bones in graveyards.

Before I started my research, I worried about getting historical details wrong; I was comforted to realize that it’s guesswork even for historians!

Q: What do you think the book says about the role of the "wicked stepmother" in fiction?

A: We read many stories from the perspectives of stepchildren, and doubtless it can be frightening and problematic for an unknown and often unwelcome adult to enter into a child’s life.

Power is not evenly distributed in the stepparent-stepchild relationship, and our sympathies lean naturally toward the weaker party. If we hear about a child’s miseries, our tendency is to vilify the oppressor, not to wonder if there are mitigating circumstances, or if the child might be misinterpreting events.

Yet there is another side to the story. There are myriad reasons why a child may be unhappy with a parent or stepparent, and not all of those add up to the adult being evil. All the Ever Afters is about looking beyond simplistic explanations and trying to understand the human being behind the evil stepmother trope. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The novel I’m working on now is set in Toronto during the massive failure of the electrical grid in the summer of 2003. The book was inspired by the poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, in which the narrator despairs that he lacks the courage to change the course of his comfortable life.

The “Prufrock” character in the novel is a woman in her 60s who is preparing to celebrate her mother’s 90th birthday; her daughter-in-law has just abandoned her husband to be with another woman.

The story traces the parallel and then diverging paths of the two women’s lives until they each have an epiphany during the blackout and come together again for the 90th birthday party.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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