Here are my thoughts about this upended, fractured fairytale (review first published in Aurealis).
Cinderella is Dead
Cinderella died two hundred years ago. Now an entire society lives by the most extreme misogynistic interpretation of her legend.
Sixteen-year-old Sophia, like every girl in the land, must attend the annual ball. At this event, men choose women to marry, perhaps to replace a wife who now bores them. Girls have three chances to entice a suitor. If they do not succeed in attracting an offer of marriage, their lives are forfeit to the crown.
Slavery, exploitation, degradation, even death:
the lot of the unwed woman in this sorry kingdom.
Hardly the Happy Ever After (HEA) ending that Cinderella’s name evokes.
The story’s promising set up includes Sophia’s impossible same-sex love for her friend Erin, in a world where women are completely subservient. For their families’ sake, they must marry—the higher up the social rank, the better.
Sophia’s having none of it. When her plans to thwart the choosing ball fail, she escapes to the forest and finds two allies. Their mission is to overthrow the toxic patriarchy, and restore the rightful female heir of the kingdom.
As a concept, the retelling of Cinderella’s fairy tale by foregrounding
a dark-skinned, feisty, lesbian teenager is brilliant.
It’s a shame that the promise isn’t fully realised. The world-building is superficial, the romance thin, and the plot gapes with holes—what DID they do with that horse overnight, the one later eaten by wolves?
The writing is engaging, but the book leaves the reader wanting more.
This story could serve as an entrée to a more detailed re-rendering of Cinderella that looks harder at the many dark places hidden within the original fairy tale.
As it stands, Cinderella is Dead plays a single card trick by over-simplifying the battle between the genders. Suited to the younger end of YA, the book deserves a wide readership for its innovative take.
Australian author Mark Smith lives on Victoria’s Surf Coast, where he writes novels and stories, and runs outdoor-education programs for young adults. His first novel, The Road to Winter (2017), attracted the attention of many literary judges and has since been adopted as secondary school reading here in Australia. Its themes of a dystopian future, survivalism, compassion and the struggle against injustice in its many forms are deftly packaged in a gripping and sparely written tale, with not a word too many. It’s almost poetic in its emotional intensity.
Mark’s second novel, Wilder Country, won the 2018 Indie Book Award for Young Adults, and the final book of the trilogy, The Land of Fences, was published to acclaim last year.
Hi, Mark, thank you so much for speaking with me today. Here’s a tricky question: what would readers never guess about you?
I hated reading when I was young! I know a lot of authors are brought up in houses full of books or they are turned onto reading by a sympathetic librarian, but at the age of fifteen I’d never read a book. I knew how to read, I just didn’t have the inclination. I was very much an outdoors boys and I always associated reading with being closeted indoors. Then, when I was fifteen, I had a horse riding accident that left me with a badly broken neck – so suddenly I had to spend a lot of time indoors. My mum was an avid reader and she got me started on books like Storm Boy and I Can Jump Puddles. Discovering reading could transport into other worlds and other people’s lives, I progressed quickly to Catcher In The Rye, Steinbeck and George Johnston. By the time I returned to school six months after the accident I had read about twenty books and my outlook on learning and reading had changed completely.
That’s a very extreme version of book love! Do you think that creative writing courses are valuable?
Writing courses are hugely valuable. Though I have never studied writing at a tertiary level (a Victorian university rejected my application to do a PhD in Creative Writing last year because they didn’t consider twenty published short stories and three novels adequately met their selection criteria!), I have completed a number of short courses at places like Writers Victoria. As much as anything, I think they help expose the areas you need to work on in your writing. They are also valuable in creating writing networks that can support you through your successes and inevitable rejections!
Good grief! That uni needs to take a good hard look. I also love the Writers Victoria courses and have found them very helpful in practical ways, while my degree was helpful in craft ways – a good supervisor is worth a few thousand rejection letters! What words of advice would you give an aspiring author?
No one wants to hear it, but there is no silver bullet, no secret to success other than hard work and perseverance. When I started writing I had stories rejected for twelve months before one was accepted. Other than that, my own mantra for writing is: “Don’t let the words get in the way of the story.” If you are writing to impress, you are probably not writing well. Also, draft and redraft until it is the best possible piece of writing you can produce then – and only then – send it out into the world.
I love that, thank you Mark. Very happy to hear it! You talk about perseverance – do you have a go-to routine for writing?
I like to get up early – about sevenish – and write for at least two hours before breakfast. I can generally bang out a thousand words, if not more, and it gives me time in the rest of my day to do other things I love, like surfing, riding, reading and planning for appearances and workshops. I am more clear-headed in the morning but I use the rest of the day to mull over what I’ve written. I do a lot of what I call writing away from the desk. This is just thinking through scenes and descriptive passages, considering how I might improve on them. I can do this while I’m riding my bike, surfing or walking the dog on the beach. When I get back to the desk the next morning, I know what I have to do to improve what I’ve written the day before.
I agree; a lot of writing happens inside your skull. What’s the best response you’ve ever had to your writing?
Because my first book, The Road To Winter, is taught in schools around the country, I love hearing from students who have discovered reading through my books. I like to tell them about how I was also a non-reader until I was fifteen. I also like the fact teenagers are brutally honest. On a visit to a large boys school a couple of years ago, a student waited back after my presentation to talk to me about The Road To Winter. I asked him what he thought of it. He replied, “Well, it’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but it’s not the worst!”
That’s high praise from a teenager, I suspect. How do you feel about reviews?
I know some authors say they don’t look at reviews and that they don’t take them to heart, but I think most do. Good reviews are great and bad reviews – of which there will inevitably be some – can wound. The best advice I ever got regarding reviews was that I should never take them personally. The reviewer is criticising your work, not you. And, in the end, it’s just one person’s opinion. This is particularly true of Goodreads reviews. Most are not from professional critics, just readers with an opinion. My favourite one star review from Goodreads was a short and simple one for The Road To Winter: “I hate it!”
Goodness, that is succinct. Has your work been compared to other writers?
Because I’ve written a YA dystopian series, my books are most often compared to John Marsden’s. To be honest, I am honoured to be mentioned in the same sentence as him. I was lucky enough to interview John at a festival last year and I found him to be a very humble and engaging man. He read my books in preparation for the interview and was very complimentary of my writing. My favourite comparison though comes from a review of my third book, Land Of Fences, by Fran Atkinson in The Age that said “…there is almost a Winton-esque lyricism when Smith writes about the big blue and the coastline that features regularly.” I am a huge Tim Winton fan and his writing has influenced me more than any other, so that quote now sits on the pinboard by my desk, for easy reference whenever I doubt my own abilities.
I agree with her – there is a very Australian lyricism to your books which is reminiscent of Winton. Can you tell me about the time you decided you are a writer?
I started my career as an English teacher and I always had this little inkling in the back of my mind that I could maybe try writing. But, like most people, I didn’t do anything about it for years. I was in my fifties before I enrolled in a short story writing course taught by Emmet Stinson at Writers Victoria. Melanie Cheng was in the same class and we’ve been friends ever since. After lots of rejections, I began to get my stories published in a few journals and anthologies. But I still didn’t dare call myself a writer. Then I was lucky enough to win the Josephine Ulrick Literature Prize for a short story called Manyuk. With prize money of $10,000, it was one of the richest short story prizes in Australia. I didn’t realise at the time, but that’s as much as a lot of first time authors get as an advance on a novel. But, having won the prize and banked the cheque, I very tentatively started to call myself a writer. A three-book deal with Text Publishing confirmed it three months later.
Wonderful! How do you get feedback about your story, before it’s published?
I don’t show my drafts to anyone until I’m convinced I need a different set of eyes to read them. For each of my novels I have sought the advice of my local bookshop owner. I took a risk and did this with my first book because I knew she would be a speed reader (and therefore get back to me quickly) and she knew the book trade intimately so she would be able to tell me whether the novel had legs or not. As our friendship has grown, I’ve also encouraged her to be utterly ruthless in her feedback. Her instincts have been spot on every time!
She sounds a treasure indeed. Is it easy for you to meet other writers?
The best thing about becoming a writer is meeting other writers. We are a pretty small community in Australia and we need to encourage and support each other. I go out of my way at festivals and gigs to introduce myself to the other writers and I try as much as possible to attend their launches and events. Social media also facilitates this interaction – follow your favourite writers and let them know you like their writing. I have “met” a large number of fellow writers on social media, some of whom I’ve yet to meet in person. Following them also keeps me updated on their new releases and the events they have planned around them.
I completely agree. The Australian writing community seems to be very supportive and I love interacting with fellow writers online … like right now! Did you have a big break in writing? What happened?
This is an easy one to answer because my first manuscript was picked up off the slush pile at Text. I knew nothing about publishers so I simply chose the one who published my favourite authors and sent the manuscript to them. Text have a house policy of all its employees reading off the slush pile on Friday afternoons. One of the senior marketers picked mine up, loved it and the rest is history!
That’s wonderful, and a great practice by a publishing company. I’m so glad that your book was plucked out of the slush because it’s marvellous. Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Mark, and more power to your writing.
Eleni Hale’s stunning debut novel, Stone Girl, burst onto the scene in 2018, and was instantly recognised for its outstanding quality and its direct emotional engagement with a difficult topic – society’s forgotten children. Published through Penguin Random House, Stone Girlwon the prestigious 2019 Readings YA (Young Adult) Book Prize , and has been short and long listed for a number of other awards. Stone Girltells the story of one child’s journey through institutional care.
Eleni describes herself as a survivor of the system, and she campaigns for the recognition and rights of children who are in, or have now left, the care of the state.
My review of Stone Girlis forthcoming. I can’t wait for the book to arrive!
Welcome, Eleni, and thank you for speaking with me today. I know you have quite a background as a writer across different media and genres. You’re now working on your second novel. Is writers’ block ever a thing for you?
Eleni: It’s not really a ‘block’ for me. I think it’s a message that something isn’t right in the work. It took me years to figure this out but it’s completely changed the way I approach that horrible moment when my fingers are suspended over the keyboard and I have nothing to say.
Writing isn’t just about writing. it’s about thinking and dreaming and problem-solving and that ‘block’ moment is when I step away from the keyboard to go for a walk or take a shower or clean the car.
I think about where the story is and how the characters feel about it. That’s how I figure out what to write next. And sometimes that means going back and deleting what I never should have written because those characters would never do that or it was leading the story to a dead end.
Sometime deleting sections is the kindest thing you can do for a work in progress, I agree. What would readers never guess about you?
I am addicted to documentaries, especially true crime. In another life I would have liked to be a criminal psychologist.
Never too late! And there’s always your next reincarnation. When did you fall in love with reading?
I discovered the escapism of books when I was about nine or ten. My mum let me read whatever I wanted and once I devoured all the Sweet Valley High series I quickly moved onto Judy Blume. Then, at about twelve years old, I discovered Virginia Andrews and Anne Rice.
Books opened up new worlds up for me. I was no longer living my life and grappling with my difficulties but sharing in the troubles of my characters. It was magical and empowering.
Always, I was attracted to dark-subject books.
Yes, I see that. Dark stories can be very affirming, in strange ways. Do you think that creative writing courses are valuable?
Yes. Writing course offer parameters and structure for the creative mind to build upon. I remember starting Stone Girl and my brain was the wild wild west. I had no idea how to write a book, what the elements were or the structure required to hold it all together.
Courses teach a novice writer the tools and secrets of those who’ve been writing for years. This is a fast-track method to enlightenment. Obviously, some courses are more valuable than others so do your research.
That sounds right. I learned so much from my creative writing studies, though I had been writing for a lifetime already. What words of advice would you give an aspiring author?
From my personal experience (I can’t talk for others), writing appealed to me because it was a way to express an active imagination. The world around me was shrill, triggering and inspiring. I wanted to capture it and, in this way, find some control.
Aspiring authors are told ad nauseum to read lots and write constantly. Create a character, find the plot and the voice and set it in a place. I concur that this is all vital.
However, don’t forget your imagination. It is completely unique to you. Don’t constrain it too much in rules and structure or worse, trying to write like someone else. Particularly with your first and second draft, allow your writing to be free and trust the muse. After that, apply the theory.
Imagination is the basis of each writer’s own voice, I think. Do you have a go-to routine for writing?
I enjoy writing in the morning but since I’ve had kids, I am an opportunistic writer. Pre kids I wrote for about six hours in the morning before university or when I worked as a journalist, I’d write on the train on the way to work.
Now, my husband and I negotiate terms and times and I inform everyone I’m working and to only interrupt me when it’s absolutely urgent. But, as I have a three and a five-year-old ‘urgent’ can mean pretty much anything! Yes, I’ll get you a snack/peel your banana/give you a hug. I’m starting to insist though that they understand this is important. Being a mother and a writer has taught me to be pretty great at shutting out distractions.
And excellent practice for pandemic lockdowns, too. Are there any secrets hidden in your writing?
I’m not sure about ‘secrets’ but I hate being bored. My writing needs to involve a level of emotional intensity and a constantly progressing plotline to keep it interesting. I often need to go back and stretch out the action to make sure it’s not too much too soon.
Pacing is important, but I’m sure you have that down pat. Congratulations on the great reception for Stone Girl, and many thanks for speaking with me today, Eleni.
Stone Girl is available through all good booksellers (the link at the start of this sentence is to Booktopia), and many bookshops are providing free postage during the COVID-19 restrictions. Or buy an e-book – guaranteed germ free 🙂
Michael Pryoris a Melbourne author who writes in many veins: from literary fiction to genre sci-fi to slapstick humour, depending on his mood, and very successfully too. Over fifty of Michael’s short stories have been published in Australia and overseas, and he has been shortlisted nine times for the Aurealis Award for Speculative Fiction. His short stories have twice been featured in Gardner Dozois’ ‘Highly Recommended’ lists in The Year’s Best Science Fiction and The Year’s Best Fantasy. Eight of his books have been awarded CBCA (Children’s Book Council of Australia) Notable Books status, and he’s been longlisted for a Golden Inky (YA book award) and shortlisted for the WAYRBA Award (Western Australia’s Young Readers Book Award).
He has also twice won the Best and Fairest Award at West Brunswick Amateur Football Club (Australian Rules), so I know he’s a fully rounded person!
Hi, Michael, great to talk with you. What project are you talking about today?
Oh, that’s so cool! Is there one aspect of The Graveyard Shift that you relate to most – a favourite character, scene, effect? Can you tell us more about that?
The book is set in Melbourne, my home town, and it’s a bit of a love song to a city I love. After years of writing stories set in imaginary locations, it was fun to write in a setting that I knew well. Instead of trying to work out how far it was from Imaginary Castle A to Imaginary Desert B, I could just use my local knowledge.
What do you think drives you to pursue your creativity?
I’m driven by the fact that anything else I could be doing would be a whole lot less fun and wouldn’t suit me nearly as well. Besides, I want to be part of the ranks of storytellers that stretch back to the dawn of language, because storyteller is such a human activity, part of who we are.
So true! Many writers have described their processes using analogies – the famous Hemingway one, for example, in which he says that writing is simply a matter of sitting in front of the typewriter and staring at a blank page until you start to sweat blood. Others speak of stitching scenes together, following characters on a journey, immersing themselves in a storyline. What can you say about your process?
I liken it to using stepping stones to cross a swiftly flowing river. The stepping stones are well thought out ahead of time and are in place, nice and solid. Between, though, it’s fluid and changeable, able to take you anywhere.
That’s perfect. A plan with flexibility, I like that. Finally, what five words would you use to describe yourself as a writer?
LJ Evans, my guest on today’s Last Word of the Week, is an award winning author who lives in the California Central Valley with her husband, daughter, and the three terrors called cats. She’s been writing compulsively since she was a little girl and will often pull the car over to write when a song lyric strikes her. While she currently spends her days teaching 1st grade in a local public school, she spends her free time reading and writing, as well as binge watching original shows like The Crown, Victoria, and Stranger Things.
If you ask her the one thing she won’t do, it’s pretty much anything that involves dirt—sports, gardening, or otherwise. But she loves to write about all of those things, and her first published heroine was pretty much involved with dirt on a daily basis. Which is exactly what LJ loves about fiction novels—the characters can be everything you’re not and still make their way into your heart.
LWOTW: Welcome, LJ, it’s such pleasure to meet you! Can you tell us about when you first realised that you are a writer?
LJ Evans: This question always has me stalling out. I mean…I’ve written since I was a little girl. Stories by myself. Stories with my sister. Novels. Screenplays. I published my first book, MY LIFE AS A COUNTRY ALBUM, because my sister “made me.” It even won an award, and the first 3 books in the series were nominated for and won some awards, and yet I still didn’t feel like a “writer.” I didn’t feel like I deserved that “tag.” Then, I joined a group of other writers online in December who were talking about all the same things as me. Plot problems, inspiration problems, publishing dilemmas, and it finally clicked. I am a writer. I am an author. It doesn’t matter what happens with the books I write (even if no one reads them). I love to create worlds and characters and stories, and that’s all it takes to be a writer.
You are SO a writer! Do you rely more on dreams, imagination, and planning?
Imagination. I get a LOT of inspiration from music. I’ll be listening to a song and the lyrics and I’ll see a whole scene or a whole novel plot including the characters and sometimes even their names. Is that a little bit of dreams and imagination? I don’t know. I do know that I’m not a planner. I don’t plot out stories before I start, so sometimes that means I have to start over or do more rewrites, but for me, I have to just learn the characters and the story as a I go. I’ve also learned that this is okay. To not plan. There is no one way to write just like there is not just one book that fits everyone. Be you as you write, and that will shine through.
All my books have playlists…in fact, music is so entwined in my books that each chapter starts with a song title. My latest book has over 30 songs tied to it.
That’s completely inspirational. I love it, thank you! What’s the highlight of your writing career so far?
Having my first book win the Independent Author Network’s Young Adult Book of the Year was pretty cool. Having no idea, but being nominated for an UTOPiCON Award was huge. But really, the true HIGHLIGHT of my career has been when people I don’t know reach out to me and tell me that my book impacted them in some way. I’ve had lots of parents of Type 1 diabetes children reach out to me, and it makes me realize that I’ve brought attention to a disease that is often overlooked because a lot of people don’t get that Type 1 is NOTHING like Type 2 diabetes. People don’t understand that Type 1 can kill you in a heart beat or slowly and painfully. I love that my story has reached a community of people and wound its way into their hearts. That for me, is the best gift that I can ever have been given back.
That is wonderful. To touch other lives in such a positive way must be very rewarding. Congratulations! What are you most looking forward to at the moment?
Summer. With time to cuddle the cats, time to see my girlie who is on her own creative writing journey at college, and time to read and write.
Oh…did you mean writing? 😉I’m definitely looking forward to writing some spin offs to my last book with characters that people have been asking for. Mac Truck to the rescue!
Well, writing and life are intertwined, aren’t they! If you could say one thing to aspiring writers, what would it be?
Don’t get hung up on how others are telling you to write. Write your way. Write your thoughts. Let “you” shine through. But do it a lot. Practice a lot. Write a lot. That doesn’t mean it has to be every day or a certain word count. It’s okay to ebb and flow in the volume of your writing and what you write. Just do it with your own authenticity. Then… TAKE THE RISK to put it out in the world. It’ll be worth it. I promise.
And finally:Who would you be if you were a fictional character?
I WANT to be Jenny Weasley. She was cool, quiet, and powerful. If I can’t be her, then I’ll be Veronica Mars. Do you have the Veronica Mars show in Australia? It has been “off” for several years, but has a new season coming out on Hulu in July! Veronica is played by Kristen Bell, and she’s like a modern-day sassy, bada$$ Nancy Drew. I’m not sure I’ve ever been that sassy, and I’d love to be.
Great choices there. And isn’t it wonderful how writing allows us to let out our sassiest selves?
Thank you so much for speaking with me today. A truly inspirational interview. Plus music! What could be better?