Feathers and Feminism: An Interview with Arielle K. Harris

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by Unsettling Wonder

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Arielle K Harris spent her formative years in Scotland, which has irreversibly confused her accent and spelling conventions. Lately she has returned to her hometown in Massachusetts, where she finished her first novel, Bestial, and is raising her young son. Arielle writes stories which focus on the human experience through the lens of fantasy, posing questions about reality through the means of unreality.

 

Bestial is your first novel: how did you come to the subject matter? 

I really wanted to explore things that I felt the original fairy tale hadn’t covered. Traditional fairy tales were more concerned with presenting moral lessons rather than understanding the motivations and emotions of their characters. I came to write this novel initially as a bit of an academic exercise in that sense, to simply explore one of countless possible true endings to the fairy tale trope of the animal bride. If a human were able to truly fall in love with another being in animal form, how would that love survive the being’s transformation back into human form? What if part of what inspired that love in the first place were animalistic qualities that the being subsequently loses?

 

Bestial follows the lives of two heroes, Beau and Yvaine, was it difficult to shift perspectives so radically half way through?   

Not particularly difficult, no. Throughout the first part, Yvaine’s voice was always the strongest in my head. Beau was less forceful, but his perspective was important in introducing us to Yvaine and her circumstances. Later, however, to understand the implications of her transformation back into a human we needed to see things more from Yvaine’s point of view. Her journey of self-discovery can be seen more clearly from this shift of perspective.

Through the narratives of my characters, seen through both their own eyes and those of those around them, I was also compelled to explore depression, self-loathing and isolation, themes not often found in fantasy literature. Too often we choose not to acknowledge mental illness; we fail to engage with it and those suffering. Only by discussing its insidiousness can we begin to fight its poison, and help those who may be afraid to start the conversation themselves.

 

Why did you choose to set the tale in France?   

I was drawn to writing the novel in the time period and environment that inspired its first inception (attributed, at least) by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and then later retold and abridged by Jean Marie Leprince de Beaumont in the late 1700s. Bestial’s fantastic elements were intentionally less obvious, a not-quite alternate history where magic happened to exist alongside normal life and where enchantments were just one way of changing your fortunes, for good or ill. Although considered the later version, I preferred de Beaumont’s account. Although abridged, I felt it has more complexities to it in the ways the family interact and had a bit more depth to it generally. I ended up using Beaumont’s name in my novel’s setting, for example, Beaumont castle and the village of Princemont. I dislike choosing random names without meaning or significance, so this appealed to me.

 

What drew you towards fairytales? 

Fairytales are already so familiar to all of us, something we grew up with almost alongside the development of language itself, so it’s a lot of fun to reimagine them in a new light. When you’re writing fantasy you’re asking the reader to take a leap of faith, to believe that the unreal could be real, and when using a familiar story the reader is already half in that world before you begin. You can take bigger chances.

What versions of fairytales did you draw on? 

I spent a lot of time with the “original” French Beauty and the Beast tales while writing Part 1, then read every Grimms Brothers fairy tale I could get my hands on during Part 2. There are lots of tales for readers of the Grimms to spot in the second part, as I made use of so many familiar tropes to carry along the narrative.

I feel that with fairytales you can’t stop at any one version of a particular story; in order to understand a certain trope you need to read as many different traditions as you can find. I tried to immerse myself in all the different perspectives of the story I was trying to explore, hoping to gain a better understanding of what the story itself was trying to say, as well as understanding what I was trying to say by retelling it.

 

What are your favourite fairytale versions you drew on in the book?

I loved Fitcher’s Bird, and that’s the version of Bluebeard I based my aptly named character, Fitcher, on. The third sister in Fitcher’s Bird, seeing her two sisters murdered and cut up in a bloody basin, pulls together all their body parts and puts them back together like a grisly jigsaw! A lot of these fairytales depict women as powerless pawns to be bartered and gifted to men, but this unnamed girl has the power to deceive her captor and save her sisters, to grit her teeth and get her hands bloody.

I also loved The Singing Springing Lark, which I feel is most reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast of all the Grimms animal bride stories, only it goes beyond the marriage of the, again unnamed, youngest daughter to an enchanted prince. I first read it while writing Part 1, and was caught by the extension of the story beyond the marriage of the main characters. This story affected me the most while I was writing, and the narrative of the bride needing to retrieve and save her animal bridegroom, only to discover him with another princess and forgetting who she was or the life they’d shared, deeply influenced my telling of Bestial.

 

What motivated you to change the beast character from a male to a female protagonist?

I am so sick of the tradition of a helpless female being caught in this world of dominating males. So many types of media are following that trend, and it deeply offends my feminist sensibilities! We want to see women who aren’t just dominated, who are their own people, and so many popular modern stories fail in that respect, particularly in the Fantasy genre. I really wanted Bestial to be about a woman who has this power and this rage and violence inside her, because we all have that inside us and it’s empowering to acknowledge it.

When I developed the relationship between Yvaine and Beau I really wanted it to reflect relationships I knew between humans and animals, and that is where my love of falconry came in. Particularly the way that men come to love and appreciate the nature of their female birds of prey, their aggression and hunting prowess, being larger and more powerful than male birds. I wanted to echo this in Bestial. The way that Beau falls in love with Yvaine is because she’s true to her power and rage and he loves her for those defining parts of herself. He doesn’t impose anything upon her as their relationship develops, only gives her his companionship and assistance, but becomes the catalyst for her to change herself into someone she no longer loathes. His compassion, honesty and humanity become attributes Yvaine chooses to emulate.

 

Why did you choose to focus on what happens beyond the happily ever after of these tales?   

It was the idea of what might happen next which inspired this novel from the outset, especially in the animal bride tradition of fairytales where there are still so many questions left unanswered. Traditional fairytales never troubled themselves to follow the narrative beyond the moralistic point they were trying to make. Modern readers and critics are more concerned with wanting to know the effect events have had on the characters, how they relate to each other in the aftermath of enchantments and transformations.

The second part of the novel took on a life of its own and went in directions I was not expecting. A lot of what happened in the writing of that was more of a catharsis than anything else. It changed from an exercise in curiosity into a story that I had to write. At the end, I think the story wrote itself and I was just the conduit.

 

What do you think about the idea of the “modern fairytale”? 

So much of modern literature, popular culture and films and television have borrowed considerably from the fairytale tradition. I’m only one of countless authors and creative individuals to see how effectively generations of humankind have been influenced by these stories and what that means for storytellers. Our imaginations are easily caught up in new interpretations of these familiar stories, and it’s likely we’ll never stop reusing those tropes while we still retain them in our cultural memories.

 

Do you consider yourself an American or Scottish writer?   

That’s a very good question! Americans are so concerned by their heritage that they’ll often proclaim their nationality as a sort of pie chart of haphazard DNA. Everywhere else seems to acknowledge that who you are is where you were born. So in that respect, I’m American despite my lengthy time as first a student and then a resident in Scotland and my Scottish son. I’ll always be an American writer, but my writing, and my identity, is affected considerably by my time abroad, and my authorial voice was certainly forged in the lecture halls and tutorial rooms at St Andrews University.

 

Are you writing anything just now?  

I’ve been writing a lot of poetry, but I haven’t had the time to devote to the kind of marathon sessions required to write another novel. I’m planning to begin writing another novel in the next month or so, however, once my son is enrolled in preschool and I have the time needed to devote to it. I aim to try and publish as often as possible, ideally a novel every year. Only time will tell if this determination is too optimistic.

Bestial is available in both paperback and digital editions, both can be purchased via amazon.com

 

September 26, 2016


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Unsettling Wonder

We craft and tell stories because we’ve stood on the uncertain edge between the waking world and our imagination, between enchantment and fear. And we remember other stories that help us build our own stories, scraps of lumber and fragments of narrative we gather together to make stories for ourselves.

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Artwork by Laura Rae