Thursday, April 27, 2023

Q&A with Ava Reid




Ava Reid is the author of the new novel Juniper & Thorn. Her other books include The Wolf and the Woodsman. She lives in Palo Alto, California.


Q: What inspired you to write this retelling of the Grimm story "The Juniper Tree"?


A: I was interested in the reception of the story as much as the content of the story itself. Unofficially known as “Grimm’s darkest fairy tale,” it has been the subject of bowdlerization and censorship for centuries. Even Tolkien wrote about it in his essay "On Fairy Tales," where he objected to censoring the story for the sake of “protecting children.” Eerily on the nose for the type of rhetoric we’re seeing today to justify book bans.


It became a literary exercise for me, trying to figure out what about this particular story evoked so much controversy and outrage. After all, the Grimm’s compendium treats us to many dark tales, several of which are typical fare for children (Hansel & Gretel, Red Riding Hood).


But “The Juniper Tree” has the perfect storm of fairy tale tropes that makes it uniquely disturbing: cannibalism, violence, and abuse—all perpetrated by family members. Violence in the domestic scene is always more visceral and distressing, because it upends our core beliefs and expectations that home is safe and family is loving.


Cannibalism, too, has a unique salience. It’s a near-universal taboo in modern culture, which makes it especially odious, but historically, cannibalism was often practiced not out of necessity but for ritualistic purposes. To bestow strength or supernatural abilities. Individual acts of cannibalism by serial killers usually have a sexual component, a desire to possess and dominate the victim in the most total, unequivocal sense.


Once I reached that conclusion, well, it made complete sense to reimagine this story as a gothic horror novel.


Q: The Booklist review of the novel said, in part, “Reid twists the familiar magic of fairy tales into gothic horror, telling a powerful story of surviving trauma that doesn't shy away from its ugliness, while giving Marlinchen the agency to create a better life.” What do you think of that description?


I’m glad people appreciate that this is a story about survival. As much as I do love a good majestic, Shakespearean tragedy, Juniper is not that book. It’s gory, gruesome, often repulsive (by design—it is horror, after all), but I think it’s threaded through with enough fragile, skittish beauty that it keeps audiences believing there’s a happy ending in store for Marlinchen. Or, if not happy, at least cautiously hopeful.


That’s the reason I used the excerpt from Ilya Kaminsky’s “Author’s Prayer” as the epigraph. “Yes, I live,” is a simple line, but it’s so evocative and powerful for me. It reverberates with hope.

Q: How did you create the town of Oblya, the setting of the novel?


A: Oblya is directly based on Odesa, Ukraine, at the turn of the 20th century. It’s a city with a fascinating history, a planned city with the explicit intention of creating a center for immigration, urbanization, industrialization, and international commerce. In the process, of course, it outmoded traditional lifestyles and, with the tsar’s abolishment of feudalism, left many petty feudal lords bereft.


The erosion of aristocratic power is a major theme in gothic literature—the decaying ancestral manor, the capricious master of the house, a paranoiac aware of his own slow downfall. These are all elements at work in Juniper & Thorn.


Also, more simplistically, I wanted to write a secondary-world fantasy with an urban setting, and I wanted to show the diversity of Eastern Europe, which is so often reduced to bleak, snowy landscapes and remote, forested villages. Beaches, plains, and urban sprawl are not what one typically associates with Eastern European fantasy, and I wanted to subvert those expectations.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?


A: I hope they can appreciate the spectrum of emotions that the story is meant to evoke. Shock, revulsion, stomach-churning dread, but also those fragile blooms of love and hope. As a writer, I always want to evoke strong emotion in my readers, be it positive or negative. A lot of the stories we remember the most are the ones that put us through the wringer.


It’s a bummer to see that terms like “trauma porn” and “misery lit” are being used increasingly to undermine and denigrate any type of fiction that explores these themes, any type of fiction that doesn’t exclusively uplift and provide a neat moral edict.


I also hope that people can appreciate that victimhood is a complex and dynamic state of being. Just because Marlinchen is abused doesn’t mean she isn’t an interesting character with her own elaborate internal world. Abuse doesn’t rob people of their humanity; it merely transfigures their bodies and minds as they find clever and quietly courageous ways to survive.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Right now I’m working on edits for my next adult novel, Lady Makbeth, which will be out next year. It’s a reimagining of Shakespeare’s play that gives Lady Macbeth a voice, a past, and a power that transforms the world that has been architected by men. Think Wolf Hall, but with magic.  


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Don’t let Juniper & Thorn prejudice you against Ukrainian food. I promise it’s actually delicious.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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