Today I bring you an interview with author Kelsie Engen, whose story The Bear in the Forest will be published in From the Stories of Old: A Collection of Fairy Tale Retellings by members of the Just-Us League writing group.
Kelsie Engen grew up in North Pole, Alaska, where the winters are harsh but beautiful. Those winters may or may not have inspired those in Canens and “The Bear in the Woods.” She can be found at kelsieengen.com, and Instagram @kelsiengen, or hunched over her laptop working on her current fairy tale inspired by the other “Snow White.”
What can you tell us about your retelling and what inspired it?
You know, funny story about that. A group of us writers had agreed to rewrite some fairy tales for an anthology, and I had narrowed my choices down to two stories. I’d been on a fairy tale kick anyway, recently having polished off Grimm’s fairy tales, a few of Andersen’s, and then some others as well. In late 2015, I had started writing a series inspired by a trio of some of the most popular fairy tales, a series I’m still polishing up. But for this anthology, I wanted something a little lesser known.
So I’d narrowed it down to two stories: The Psyche, and Snow White & Rose Red. I had seen someone already mentioned Snow White & Rose Red, so I swear when I put in my choice, I had chosen The Psyche, which I was getting really excited about writing. As I was gearing up to rewrite that, I decided to double check the list and found I had written down Snow White & Rose Red!
I kind of had to change tracks after that, and as the two stories are vastly different, one with a happy ending, the other without, I actually had a tough time getting started. But overall, this story perhaps stretched me more and I’m happy I stuck with the “surprise”!
Well that worked out well! What aspects of writing it did you find challenging?
I think the biggest complaint about Snow White & Rose Red–and one of the problems I’ve always had with it–is how convenient the ending is. I mean, endings are difficult enough, but fairy tales tend to either really nail it or really flop. And SW&RR is frustrating on a few levels, which I think is why it’s been a less popular version of Snow White. So I felt challenged in making the ending work while also being true to the original tale. All too often fairy tales seem to offer limited types of cardboard cutout characters in order to expound upon the moral that the authors wanted to teach, and to make matters worse, they just add a last minute ending that hasn’t been properly developed or foreshadowed. So for me with this particular tale, the ending always felt way too convenient, and I had to really work to figure one out that made more sense and kept the story true to itself.
So do you like happily ever after endings? Or do you think more complex or bitter sweet endings are more interesting? Even though that might not please all readers.
I don’t know that an ending will ever please all readers. Readers are such a diverse group, it’s impossible to make everyone happy at once, no matter how good a writer you are or how happy your ending. But very rarely do I write a plain, old fashioned, happily ever after ending. While I do sometimes read them, and they have a place in every reader’s life at some point, I much prefer the complexity of a more realistic resolution. In life we don’t get happily every after endings, which I’m sure is why some people love them, as they are a sort of ideal that we all wish for at some point in our lives. But mostly, I find them too simplistic and unsatisfying when I read–or write–them. I like endings that turn expectations on their heads a little bit, and so I try to write stories that may be dark at times, but offer hope out of that darkness. I fully believe that a good ending to a story is more complex than good winning over evil, or the guy getting the girl. We always have to sacrifice and compromise, and we either find happiness in that compromise, or else we start off on a new journey to find that happiness again.
The Bear in the Woods, however (my version of Snow White & Rose Red), is quite traditional and true to the story, so it was a fun challenge to write a different sort of ending, where nearly everyone got what they wanted! I can’t say it will start a new trend with me, but it was actually a challenge for me to write an ending that resonated with the story and within me. In the end, while I rewrote my ending several times, it was a fun process to figure out how this version of “happiness” worked out.
What is your writing process and do you have any writing habits or quirks?
These days, my process is to wake around 4:30 a.m., feed the cats and dog, make myself a pot of coffee, and start writing until my son gets up at 6:30. I can usually push out a thousand or so words that way–more if I’m focused–or get a significant amount of editing done without distraction. Other than that, I’m working nap times and after my husband comes home, or while the two-year-old plays. I’m lucky that I don’t work outside the home, so I get to spend my day with my son and fit in writing where I can. I like to set goals and keep lists of tasks so I know where I’m at in a project. I try to be quite organized, setting personal deadlines and whatnot for myself. I feel quite guilty if I’m not writing or editing on something every day. Writer’s guilt, I guess.
As for writing quirks, I don’t think of myself as particularly quirky. But I do like to try out different writing software. I currently own Ulysses, Scrivener, and Storyist, and some weeks I’m working in all three programs! I find that different projects work best in different programs. But my go-to program is definitely Scrivener. It’s most versatile and can do everything. Other than that, just give me coffee and my computer, and you’ll find me typing away on one project or another.
When did you first start writing?
I started writing in 5th grade. I remember because we were given a short story assignment for class and of course mine turned into some epic piece. But ever since then, I was always scribbling stories underneath my notes during class. I was one of those students!
Vox audita perit, litera scripta manet.
How have you found the collaborative process of creating an anthology as a group?
Overall it’s been a great process. Being able to get feedback from a group of writers all working on similar projects, all with the mindset of improving each other’s work as well as their own is a special place to be. Writing is challenging no matter how you go about it, but sometimes it’s really nice to have that encouragement from a group of writers when you’re feeling discouraged by your work or when you don’t know how else to improve it. And the writers in this anthology are all talented and creative individuals that went out of their way to help one another make this project amazing. Even though it was a challenge, and there were times I contemplated backing out for some personal reasons, working in a group like this was extra special.
What are you working on outside of the anthology?
I’m currently working on a fairy tale series inspired by the other Snow White. In my story, she is sold into slavery by her evil stepmother the Queen, and brought to a Manor where she is trained alongside other slaves in many jobs. After several failed attempts at escape, her master decides to teach her a lesson she won’t forget.
Quick fire questions!
Favourite genre to read: Ugh… too many to pick from! Lately I’ve really gotten into YA fantasy and fairy tale retellings (understandably). But my personal, go-to favorite is literary fiction.
Favourite genre to write: is fairy tale–is that a genre? No? Okay, fairy tales for adults! Fantasy?
Favourite writing spot: is the living room chair by the fire. Preferably with the fire lit! With a cup of coffee.
Favourite reading spot: Same chair, fire lit.
Favourite book: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.
Favourite film: The Odd Couple.
Favourite character: I actually LOVE Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series. Kindred spirit.
Writing or editing: Can I say both? I spend more time editing, and I’ve learned to love it, but I also love putting new words to the page… It’s a tie. Can’t choose. I love it all.
Thank you, Kelsie for answering my questions!
And here is the georgous cover!
Check out The Bear in the Forest and all the other retellings in From the Stories of Old, due out on 7th December.