I’m happy to introduce you to our first interviewee, T.R. North! Her new chapbook, “Of Witches & Wolves,” can be found on Sword & Kettle’s Etsy page. For a more in-depth look into her chapbook, please visit Sword & Kettle’s Bookshelf. T.R. North can be found on Twitter (@northonthegulf), and on her blog. Let’s get some insight into her writing process and what went into “Of Witches & Wolves!”
How did Of Witches & Wolves come together as a chapbook?
I had a few pieces that I’d placed with Corvid Queen, which is Sword & Kettle Press’s journal for feminist fairy tales. When I sent in a third, the editor looked at it and asked if I was interested in putting something together in a more mindful way, as an integral work.
I’d never considered a chapbook before–most of the ones I’ve read have been poetry collections, which isn’t a medium I work in — but I’d just gotten through Helen McClory’s The Goldblum Variations and I thought, “A fairy tale chapbook would be absolutely perfect!”
We arrived at a rough number of stories that we wanted in the finished project, and an emotional arc for the book, and after that it was a bit like assembling a puzzle by touch. What should go where? What doesn’t quite fit? Where are the rough edges that still need a little bit of sanding? It was amazing to watch the collection go from a teetering pile of stories to a tight, coherent whole as we went through it.
Of Witches & Wolves is riddled with nods to fairy tales, myths, folklore, and even some classic jokes. Are these subjects what inspired you to start writing?
Looking back, I think finding different versions and adaptations of fairy tales and myths was the first time it occurred to me that stories could be changed, if they didn’t fit the teller’s needs. All my life, I loved reading, and I loved stories, but when you’re very young it’s easy to look on them as received wisdom, that this is how the story goes, and that’s that.
But if it turns out that there are four different versions of Cinderella, why not a fifth? If Rapunzel’s happily ever after with her prince really happens after a year or two of wandering around the wilderness, why couldn’t that time have been full of adventure? She was raised by a witch, spent most of her life in a tower, and has a birth family she’s never met — it’s hard to imagine she just trudged around feeling sorry for herself and doing nothing of interest until she ran into the prince again.
That feeling really crystalized when I started studying classical mythology, though. Once you add marble statuary and togas to the mix, people have a habit of assuming things are serious business. It turns out that there’s astonishingly little difference between the things people scrawl on the walls in modern subways, Pompeiian graffiti preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius, and personal messages inscribed a hundred years ago on the leaves of Peruvian cacti. Time passes, but humanity endures. Just like there were dozens of different versions of more modern fairy tales, everyone had their own take on the adventures of Herakles, a local girl Zeus had lusted after, and a lot of confusion over the final roster of the Argos’s crew.
If ancient historians could argue over how many Odysseuses were running around causing trouble for Troy, and ancient playwrights could decide that Athena didn’t really go in for human sacrifice and just hand-wave a whole new post-Aulis life for Iphigenia, then there really isn’t a right way or a wrong way to relate to myth and folklore as fiction. You can construct a narrative out of these shared cultural pieces that speaks to your own experience, or the future you hope to see, or the fears you need help facing down. If everybody from Euripides to Disney has been out there doing it for millennia, there’s certainly nothing stopping anyone else.
What’s your favorite fairy tale, myth, or piece of folklore?
I have an abiding and very deep soft spot for the fairy tales where a childless couple adopts something supremely inappropriate and treats it as their child. Of course eventually it turns out to be an ensorcelled prince with a bunch of magic powers, or something transmutes it into a real boy who grows up to be the greatest hero in all the land, and it all turns out all right in the end. But in the meantime, there’s a couple going around town introducing a talking pig or a huge snake or a literal block of unfinished wood as their kid for years, and none of their neighbors seem to question it. It’s such a very human thing to do, to accept this peculiarity that isn’t hurting anyone and seems to be working out for the family.
It takes several pieces to put together a chapbook. Do you have a writing routine?
My schedule can be a little hectic — Florida is a very seasonal place, in more ways than one. It can be difficult to carve out time every day to sit down and write when catbrier’s taking over the garden, there’s a new playwright festival going on downtown, and the state fair is just around the corner.
What I’ve found to be enormously helpful on days when dedicated writing time just isn’t in the cards is to spend as much time as I can plotting out how something needs to go, or trying to get the rhythm of the dialogue worked out, or considering how to weight the structure of a story. In the case of this chapbook, there was also a bit of research on the history and evolution of some folklore to mull over in quiet moments.
If I don’t let a story slip through my fingers, if I keep it at a good mental simmer even if I can’t get words on the page right that second, I find that it comes a lot more easily once I can block out the space to dig in and write.
What’s your favorite place to write?
I appreciate peace and quiet while I’m writing, so my favorite place to write is definitely the spare room in my own home. There’s space to spread out if I need reference material while I’m working on a scene, my style guides and music library are ready to hand, and there aren’t many distractions.
I know other writers who’ve tried dragging everything outdoors for inspiration, but honestly, where I live it’s hard to keep writing instead of paying attention to your surroundings. The most beautiful spots to sit and write are also the most beautiful spots to sit and watch.
If you could share one piece of advice for other writers, what would it be?
This one’s a tricky question, because there’s so much good advice to out there! If I had to pick just one bit of it, though, it would have to be this: Develop and nurture a critique network that really gets what you’re trying to accomplish with your writing.
Practically anyone can help you fix your grammar and catch your typos. All mindful critique has value, but if you have someone who loves exploring the same literary footpaths as you do, who’s sensitive to the conventions you’re working within, who knows the genre well enough to tell you when you’re being derivative or muddled — their advice is worth its weight in gold.