It’s my honor and privilege to welcome author Angela D. Mitchell as a guest on my Bag of Good Writing Blog today. She is an accomplished author and she’s here to talk writing, author PR, “Falada,” fairy tales and her new novella, “Dancing Days.” Let’s get to it!
Q: Welcome to the blog, Angela!
A: Thank you! It’s great to be here.
Q: First things first, so please introduce us to your new fantasy novella, “Dancing Days,” and perhaps let us in on the genesis of your story idea.A: My novella Dancing Days was inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Red Shoes.” The original story is about vanity and punishment (especially female vanity) – Karen, a little girl, lies and schemes for the beautiful red shoes, and eventually finds that she can’t remove them – and that wearing them, she is cursed to dance without stopping, leading her to a brutal repentance.
In my own take, I wanted to go beyond the cautionary fairy tale and its spoiled little Karen and bring it into today’s world, to the urban fantasy niche, telling the story of a girl who is so warped by her own poverty and need that there is no price she won’t pay to escape them.
Enter the red shoes. But they come with a heavy price. And she continues to pay that price right into adulthood, hiding the curse of the red shoes because she loves them just as much as she hates them, and they have blessed her life just as greatly as they’ve cursed it. I also wanted to let her tell her story herself, in the first person, so that it reads almost like a confessional.
I was really excited by the possibilities of my new take on the story – I’d originally written it as a short story that was published in Fables Magazine years back, where I was very proud that it won the Reader’s Choice Award for that year, but the idea never left me, and over the last few years I kept thinking of my Karen, and I felt there was more to say. So I decided to really tell the story I wanted to tell, and expanded that original short into a full-length novella. I loved the idea that vanity and greed weren’t just there to curse Karen, but also to empower and drive her in her struggle to escape extreme poverty. Being able to explore those ideas in a novella allowed me to develop Karen as a complex and eventually sympathetic character, and her will, relentlessness, and yearning became the foundation for “Dancing Days.”
It’s a tragic and very gothic take on the story, but there’s also suspense, romance, and unexpected magic, and I really hope people enjoy it.
Q: ‘Gothic’ is always up my alley. You have also recently released another novella, titled “Falada.” Can you tell us a bit about that story as well?
A: Falada is directly inspired by the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, “The Goose Girl.” In that story, the heroine is set up to marry a distant king, but is victimized almost immediately by an evil maid. Everything that follows happens because she is unable to (or afraid to) speak up. I always loved the story (and especially the character of Falada, the talking horse), but I was frustrated with the heroine’s passivity.
So as with “Dancing Days,” I wanted to use some of the original story’s major elements, but spin them to create what I felt might be richer and more complex motivations for everyone from the heroine (named Géanna in my story, from the Irish for ‘goose’), to her mother (a powerful witch-queen), to the maid Marah, and to Falada himself. And most especially, to turn the original idea of simple cruelty and betrayal on its head, so that in fact it is actually ultimately a story of love and sacrifice.
Q: You certainly seem to feel comfortable in the wild, wooly and weird realms of fairy tales. Which fairy tales are your favorites and how did those lead to Dancing Days and Falada?
A: I was always inspired by fairy tales as a child, and alongside Tolkien and Lewis, they were my first real exposure to fantasy as a genre. I especially loved the combination of savagery and innocence, the idea of going into the forest to find the magic, and that a happy ending wasn’t a guarantee. I also loved that fairy tales are predominantly about girls and women, as heroines and as villains. As a little girl who loved Tolkien’s Eowyn and who kept looking for more fantasy heroines, fairy tales provided an unexpected glimpse of girls and women who faced danger and found strength and empowerment.
My favorite fairy tales tended to be the darker ones – in addition to “The Red Shoes” and “The Goose Girl,” I especially loved “Allerleirauh” (and the Perrault take on this same motif in “Donkeyskin”) “The Wild Swans,” “King Thrushbeard,” and “The Snow Queen.”
Q: As writers we all have our imaginary environments which haunt us and continually seem to demand that our story appear within their snowglobes. For you, what is the great attraction of writing inside the fairy tale realm, and have you written other stories in other genres?
A: My primary genre is fantasy, but I’ve also written some darker, horror-tinged pieces like “The Bridge,” (a gothic, twisted “Beauty and the Beast” exploration with a female troll at the center) or the story “Safe,” from my short story collection The Betrayals of Women., in which a little girl chooses to knowingly get in the car with a predator rather than sit there one more hour alone and waiting in the rain.
For me, the power of a myth or fairy tale archetype is the excitement of exploring why a certain aspect has remained so fascinating or powerful through the ages. It’s not so much wanting to retell a story we already know, as it is about my becoming inspired by a particular idea and then wanting to spin that idea into something new and original.
For instance, I was always frustrated by the common trope of the woman who is forbidden like a child from doing something (usually one specific thing), but who then always cracks, often leading to the ruin of herself and even of mankind as a whole. These kinds of tales include Eve and the apple, Pandora and the box, Bluebeard’s bride, Psyche and Cupid, and others.
So I began to think about these ‘betrayals’ of women, and what they were actually saying, and thought it would be interesting to weave them all together into my own tapestry, in which I gave the women what I felt might be more understandable motivations than sudden impulse – and that became the title story for my short story collection. In my take, Eve isn’t weak when she eats the apple, she’s actively choosing knowledge over innocence, and when Pandora opens the box, she does so in knowing retribution against those who shun and fear her. Meanwhile, in my version, Bluebeard’s bride never opens the door of the bloody chamber at all. He asked her for one thing, she agreed, and she sticks to the bargain (and so she never finds out who or what her husband may be capable of).
What’s great about these kinds of explorations is that they have become a whole subgenre in fantasy fiction now. So I was exhilarated when I reached adolescence and discovered wonderful authors like Angela Carter and Robin McKinley, who used some of those classic motifs to create brand-new stories, villains and brave heroines, and complex worlds. Carter brought a grown-up sensuality and horror to the fairy tale universe, while McKinley showed me complex and powerful yet vulnerable heroines who inhabited those worlds in brand-new ways, in gorgeous books like The Hero and the Crown, Rose Daughter, Spindle’s End, Sunshine, and others. McKinley also did a gorgeous novel based on the “Donkeyskin” fable in her story Deerskin, and as with Sunshine, it’s a great example of a fantasy story that’s as much horror tale as it is fairy tale.
Even just this year, Naomi Novik made the New York Times bestseller list by exploring a host of classic fairy tale elements (especially “Beauty and the Beast”) in her wonderful fantasy novel Uprooted.
So there’s always a new way to explore those old archetypes and ideas – they persist for a reason. While I do occasionally branch out into urban fantasy and horror, I’ll probably always sneak in a fairy tale or classical myth reference here or there.
Q: You have written a lot of plays. What is the biggest difference, as you first sit down to write your story, between attacking a play format and that of a novel/novella?
A: With me, I always know right away if it’s going to be a play because I’ll just hear the dialogue, the rhythmic back-and-forth cadence between specific voices. I’ll get the idea for the first scene or two simply because I can already hear the conversation in my head. I wrote my two-act comedy Aggro, for instance, because I could already hear the first conversation in my head – the one in which a woman tells her husband she’s just lost her job.
Plays are typically about revealing story and motivation through a kind of pure dance of dialogue, while fiction is really about getting that big idea and wanting to move in, explore it, paint the world, describe it, and bring it to life. And then live there awhile.
Q: As a full-time publicist and media expert, I’d like to zero in on a topic close to the heart of many indie writers: in this day and age of our indie-book-saturated internet, could you tell us a self-PR book strategy (outside of hiring you to do it, of course) that seems to be working well for indie authors an perhaps another one which is proving to be an ineffective waste of energy and time?
A: First off, one of the ironies of my 15 years as an independent publicist is that despite my experiences promoting wonderful creatives, artists, studios, festivals, photographers and musicians, I’m just really getting a feel for the world of literary and book publicity over the past year, so I’m not as much of an expert as I’d like to be. It’s incredibly complex and challenging, but also very exciting right now, because there are so many new opportunities for authors to simply get their work seen on their own terms.
I think the biggest challenge for most authors today – especially for indie authors – is that self-promotion can be a massive undertaking – it’s exhaustive and can easily become a full-time job that overtakes your writing time if you let it. But on the other hand, it’s so crucial – promoting your work is the only thing that’s going to build your audience and get you that readership that will continue to grow as your body of work does. Unfortunately, day by day, with the constant white noise of the web, all that self-promotion work is more important than ever, from blog tours, giveaways, and discounts, to social media and maintaining those constant review submissions. They’re all are just as important as that wonderful story or that perfect line of beautiful prose.
With that said, in terms of PR tools that can’t go wrong? Be prepared. You may not be a New York Times bestseller yet, but you ought to look like you are. This means that you should have a press kit that you keep up to date on a constant basis, and that includes one-page promotional pieces on each book or major work you’ve published. Spotlight the great reviews, promote accolades and awards, and use social media in a way that makes readers feel appreciated. Maintain connections with past and potential reviewers, and be respectful and appreciative of their time and attention. Promote each positive review you get on social media, and make sure you add mentions of them to the appropriate areas on sites like Amazon and Goodreads, etc.
In addition, it’s vital to have a clean, attractive and easy to navigate website (even better if you’re blogging about your work, or even generally about the kind of fiction you yourself like to write), and most of all, make sure your site, materials and releases always include a way for editors and reporters to reach you quickly and easily, even if it’s just via a dedicated Gmail address.
It’s always invaluable to quantify where you fit. Which authors would your book most likely sit beside on a shelf? And it goes beyond the literary — is there a television show, movie franchise, or band that has the same sensibilities, style, or storytelling approach? You can use that knowledge in so many ways to expand your own readership and fanbase.
Meanwhile, although I’m a big PR fan over advertising, I do think that savvy advertising can be useful and powerful, even on a budget, but you just want to be careful that you’re not preaching to the choir. Thus far, I’ve found that some indie ad promotions and services aren’t as useful as they might be because they’re really focused on reaching writers, not readers. This isn’t everyone, but it is a fair number, so it’s always best to really do your research, check out stats, and when in doubt, go with avenues that are dedicated to reaching wide reader bases, alongside very focused and keyword-centric Facebook and Twitter campaigns.
Q: Which social media platform do you think is working best for indie authors right now? Twitter? Facebook?
A: I think Twitter is incredibly valuable for staying in touch with your readership and for keeping the information flowing. But I actually think Facebook is more powerful for finding new readers and audiences overall. Facebook is a slower and more thoughtful environment that’s all about reading, scrolling, posting, etc., while Twitter is more brief and of the moment. We don’t tend to leisure over Twitter the way we might over Facebook.
Both Twitter and Facebook are great places to get your readers excited about helping get the word out about your work, so giveaways, special promotions and discounts always work especially well on those platforms too. The main thing is to build your brand while encouraging interaction and sharing – each share gets you in front of a new potential audience, a new potential reader.
Q: You (and I) are both fully participating in a new (2014) author publishing collective called Westmarch publishing. How would you describe your experiences with Westmarch so far?
A: Really remarkable – the best of all worlds. It’s a tremendous mix of writing, editing, and creative talent, and I’ve found it to be one of the richest and most rewarding experiences of my life as a writer. It’s been such a treat to work alongside some of the best and most dedicated authors I know (yourself included!), and to exchange ideas, strategies, support, appreciation, and more.
I think the best aspect of Westmarch for me is not only the continuous source of joy, fellowship and encouragement I’ve received, but also the ongoing and continuous exchange of ideas and strategies in today’s ever-changing world, on everything from literary sales, marketing, and promotion, to audience and readership development, and more.
Q: Thanks, Angela–it has been wonderful to get to work with you as well! Now, just a few of my Actor’s Studio questions you need to answer, and then you may escape back to your writing desk.
1) What is your favorite restaurant? Either Antoine’s in New Orleans, Agnanti in Astoria, New York, or Les Halles in NYC.
2) If you could be reincarnated as an animal, which one would you choose? A wild orca. Seeing them in the wild is one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve had while living in the Pacific Northwest, and they’re magnificent creatures. And they’re so connected – there’s such a sense of life, vitality, language, and connectedness among the wild orca families, it’s a really special thing. So yeah, that’s what I’d come back as.
3) If you could pick one line from one of your novels as your tombstone epitaph, what would it be? From Falada: “I was free—a creature of the wide world—and I could only be what I was.”
Richard: I learned a lot today–this was great! Thanks so much, Angela D. Mitchell!
Angela: Thank you – it was a pleasure and a privilege.
AUTHOR BIO: ANGELA D. MITCHELL
Angela Mitchell is a writer, columnist and playwright whose stories have appeared in FABLES MAGAZINE, ANOTHEREALM, TERROR TALES, and more. Her story “Until My Dancing Days Are Done,” received the Reader’s Choice Award from FABLES MAGAZINE and will soon be released as the expanded novella DANCING DAYS. Her book of short stories THE BETRAYALS OF WOMEN is available now, along with her story THE BRIDGE, and her just-released novella FALADA.
Angela has always been inspired by fairy tales and legends, as well as by authors like Robin McKinley, Angela Carter, Gregory Maguire, Peter S. Beagle, and others who found new magic in the oldest of stories. She brings to her worlds a delicate sense of dread and enchantment, and of beauty and beastliness around every corner.
Other works soon to be released by Angela via Westmarch Publishing include the novella DANCING DAYS, the novel VAN GOGH SKY, and a memoir of her childhood experiences in crossing the Atlantic Basin, entitled 1001 POTENTIAL CATASTROPHES AT SEA. Her plays include AGGRO, BETWEEN THE WISH AND THE THING LIFE, and MISSING THE COMET.