For a writer so notoriously prolific (closing in on three hundred titles, according to Wikipedia) Jane Yolen is notable for maintaining a high standard of writing across many genres, including poetry, picture book texts, and fiction of both the realistic and fantastic kinds. Her latest novel, Snow in Summer, is a fresh blend of historical fiction and fairy tale, a “Snow White” set in 1930s West Virginia.
1. The world has probably forgotten more folktales than it remembers — what do you think makes the difference?
Jane Yolen: Three things really (don’t you love fairy tale conventions, like the rule of three!):
First, cultures are born, grow, thrive, and die. And if they die before developing a written language, there may only be shards of story, or corrupted bits of story left.
Second: some stories simply do not or cannot live outside their cultures. They are so culture-specific that they don’t travel well.
Third: some stories are intrinsically more interesting than others, and even added to and/or changed by different tellers (think Cinderella, think Disney), they still remain in the public consciousness.
2. Snow in Summer’s heroine Summer has the nicest fairy godmother–figure in Cousin Nancy. Was there a Cousin Nancy in your childhood?
JY: Good grief, I never thought of it like that. However, yes, there was, and I expect that means my cousin/aunt (by marriage, but she felt like a blood relative) Honey Knopp was who Nancy is patterned after. Not that my parents were like Stepmama and Summer’s father. Not at all. But Honey was the one who taught me about conscience and Quakerism, liberal politics, hootenannies, and who struck the flint of my poetry. Meanwhile my father said, “Your poems are nice, Jane, but you can’t make a living that way.”
3. How does a longtime fantasy writer feel about being in a publishing world that can feel like all-fantasy-all-the-time?
JY: Well, it’s getting harder and harder to make the unreal seem real. Or rather make the stories’ magical elements seem . . . magical . . . when we have things like faster-than-sound travel, e-books, bestsellers about telling your child to go the f**k to sleep, 3-D movies, multiple dystopian novels battling for top space on the bestseller lists, Avatar blue people running along tree limbs, Kindles kindling sparks, and sparkly vampires.
4.Do you believe in magic?
JY: I believe there are prestidigitators who can do card tricks and saw-the-woman-in half tricks. I believe there are politicians who can make us believe up is down and wrong is right. I believe there are preachers who try to sell us a mess of pottage.
And then I believe that an owl in flight, a hawk in stoop, an otter rising out of the duckweed, a triple rainbow over the Isle of May, the New Jersey skyline as seen from the Highline in Manhattan on a night of the full moon, the small greenings of spring, honeybees on a blossom, and a newborn’s finger curled around mine are small everyday miracles, another word for ordinary magic. And that I believe in.
Oh — and if anyone can show me a real fairy, or a ghost, or a unicorn, I am so there . . . .
5. If you could keep a single folktale or fairy tale in your pocket, what would it be?
JY: A single one? Impossible. But three, possible: “Brother and Sister” (a Russian tale); “Beauty and the Beast,” from the French (only I want the prince to remain older and seasoned); and “Iron John” from the Grimms.
From the January 2012 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.