Tucker Leighty-Phillips interviews Ursula Vernon
Ursula Vernon is an illustrator, author, and graphic novelist who writes for children, and for adults under the pen name T. Kingfisher. Her work includes irreverent retellings of fairy tales, fantastic migrations between the human and animal worlds, and other healthy doses of imagination. She has won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story, the Hugo Awards for Best Novelette and Best Graphic Story, and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature, among others.
In October, she visited Phoenix to participate in the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing’s Distinguished Visiting Writers Series and was interviewed by HFR Associate Editor Tucker Leighty-Phillips to celebrate our upcoming Magic issue.
Tucker: A lot of the stories in your collection Jackalope Wives, had a narrative voice that sounded more like oral story telling than written. It felt like someone was passing down something or like a small-town gossip type of story. I was wondering what is the role of the oral tradition of storytelling in your work?
Ursula Vernon: I was an anthropology major in college and I’ve always cited this as a very formative influence. I learned a lot about how people talk in a class called ethnographic interviewing, where we would talk to informants, record everything and then we would sit down and transcribe it. It was brutal! That is not easy work and people who take dictation are skilled at it! I had never done anything like it before. So it was just hours and hours of stopping the recording, going back, writing and trying to edit. This taught me how people actually talk versus what our brain absorbs them having said, which are wildly different. So, I got much better, I think, at writing things that sounded more conversational just because I was steeped in it. This is an exercise I’d recommend for anyone who wants to learn how to write dialogue or the more conversational narrative. But it’s also just brutal work! The way people talk is nothing but um’s and uh’s and false starts on sentences and our brains filter out so much of that so smoothly and you don’t even notice it!
Tucker: Yeah, I’ve been there before! It makes you examine the conversation completely differently. So, are you saying that technique has ridden over not just into your dialogue, but into your narrative voice as well?
Ursula Vernon: Yes, I think my narrative voice became more conversational. And part of it is just how I tend to write. But, I don’t really know if there’s a way to change one’s authorial voice after a point. It’s probably like driving. You can learn to be a different driver, you can try to change how you’re driving, you can try to pay more attention to things, but to a certain extent, the voice isn’t representative of the skill. That’s just how you think.
Tucker: What initially drew you to fairytales?
Ursula Vernon: That’s a good question! I read a lot of them when I was a kid. I had these big fairytale collection things. They had the big book sets, but I only had like two or three books out of any given one. In my head, the fairytales were presented alongside the mythology, or the one about the rise of civilization. The fairytales were all sort of merging with Ancient Greece, dinosaurs, Egyptian mythology and more fairytales.
Tucker: Is that what drew you to anthropology? The connection between the two?
Ursula Vernon: Let’s just say I watched a lot of Indiana Jones as a kid, to a certain extent! I was fascinated the mythology and stuff like that. Various family members of mine said over the years: “why did you go into anthropology? You don’t even like people!” And I’m like, I like them once they’re dead. Archeology is fascinating and you don’t have to work with that many other people! And then, unfortunately, I went and took archeology classes and discovered that 9/10 of it was working with other people and doing paperwork and I was like, maybe this isn’t the field for me.
Yeah, I think that’s why I got into it in the first place. Lots of folklore and stuff like that in the background and lot’s of Indiana Jones movies.
Tucker: Since many of your stories feel like modern imaginings of fairy or folk tales, which have a long tradition of being used to teach lessons or moral codes to the readers, do you feel that your work carries a similar set of values embedded within it? Do you hope to use your stories to teach lessons?
Ursula Vernon: Yes and no. To a certain extent the author’s morality and politics come out. All writing is to a certain extent is political. The things you choose to value in a story are inherently political. If people say they don’t notice the politics in the story, it’s usually because they agree with them. The things you choose to emphasize and the people you choose to portray as the hero rather than the villain are all very intensely tied into one’s moral system. That said, particularly when writing for kids, if there’s a “this is the moral of the story” stamp on it, kids are very sophisticated readers in many ways and they’ll look at that with their beady little eyes and then look at you and be like “uh-huh”. I read much improving literature as a child and I was skeptical of it even then! While I’m sure it does teach various lessons and I hope it does convey certain things like “nature is really cool!” or “sea cucumbers are awesome!” (which was the entire moral of one of my books! That sea cucumber can throw their guts up and that’s cool!) I’m generally not trying to put a hard moral stamp on anything. And a lot of the messages that do come across by what I’m retelling I choose to change, like in the snow queen version I did, if there’s a moral to the story it was the dude chosen by Hans Christian Anderson was an absolute douche bag and you could do better. I guess that’s a moral.
Tucker: Yeah, that’s great! And I love what you said about the political nature of it and just from the role of reimagining the story from a different point of view often times can vindicate a character who has been vilified.
Ursula Vernon: I’m working on one right now that’s based on the goose girl and the servant girl that’s the uber villain and I’m like, no, I think she’s going to be super helpful and she’s doing a good thing! So, let’s see how we can make this work!
Tucker: I was wondering if you’ve had particular trouble reimagining a fairytale from a different viewpoint. Has there been one specifically that has given you trouble?
Ursula Vernon: I have not found a way to retell Beauty and the Beast from a different viewpoint because there are only two characters. Everyone else is basically window dressing. You either tell it from her perspective, or you tell it from his perspective. When you have a story where one of the characters knows what’s going on and the other doesn’t, it usually works better as a story if you’re in the head of the one who doesn’t know what’s going on, because then the reader learns along with them what the big secret is. If you’re riding around in the Beast’s head, all you’re getting is probably self-loathing and info dumps. So, that’s one I’ve found very challenging to find a different viewpoint on and I have not necessarily succeeded yet.
Tucker: Has there been one that you’ve completed and published that was particularly more challenging than the others?
Ursula Vernon: I had one, it’s been published as The Seventh Bride. It’s a Blue-Beard story. The big problem with the Blue-Beard story is you show up and all the other wives are usually dead. So, this again gets down to two people: Blue-Beard, who’s murdering everyone, and the latest victim. I got around that basically by having all the other wives still be alive. He’s just marrying them serially and keeping them locked up in this house so I could actually have some character interaction, dialogue and invent the various reasons why he’s got some magical polygamy going on. That one was much easier to write with an ensemble cast, than with just two characters because I could explain more, have long sequences of dialogue and other characters to bounce things back and forth.
Tucker: I’d love to return to the natural world and sea cucumbers! While reading your stories it’s very evident that you have a strong interest in the natural world. Your stories do a wonderful job of blending the natural and fantastical. I was wondering how your interest in nature and the natural world influences the fantastical element of your stories?
Ursula Vernon: Part of it is just setting. Jackalope Wives and The Tomato Thief were set in the desert of the southwest because I loved the place and I wanted to set the story there. Because I had that setting, that led to other elements. Since I knew this was happening in the southwest, I brought in the trains, because I knew there were trains there. Had I set it in Hawaii or something, we might have a very different story because I couldn’t necessarily bring in trains, which proved to be a major factor. There are other stories like Pocosin, which is set in the southeast, an area that has lots of carnivorous plants. Nature is less involved but the god, who shows up to die, comes as a possum, which are nasty animals for the most part. I’m actually kind of fond of them, but most people are not fans of possums. They’re sort of vermin and I wanted to bring out that this is a sort of tragic character who is both sad and kind of disgusting. Nature plays into that! There are things that are sad and disgusting in nature. Lots and lots of them honestly. And there are also things that are glorious and inspiring!
Tucker: I noticed while reading that there are a lot of weird blendings! I said there’s a blending of two natural things becoming something fantastical. There are a lot of shapeshifters or things that are seemingly one creature and then becomes something else; the possum being one of them.
Ursula Vernon: There’s another book in the works, someday I’ll finish it, I’m about halfway through, where there’s a priest who’s a werejavelina and I’m like, no one who has lived outside of the southwest will have any damn idea what I’m talking about! So this one may be a hard sell! The editor is gonna be like, what’s a javelina?
Tucker: I know that you’ve lived in Phoenix for some time, correct?
Ursula Vernon: Mesa, but close enough. The Phoenix metro has grown and absorbed everything.
Tucker: Yeah, I mean there’s so much space and it just keeps claiming it all. When did you live there, if you don’t mind me asking?
Ursula Vernon: Not at all! That was basically a good chunk of the 80’s. I went to grade school at Booker T. Washington Elementary and then up to junior high school. I moved back to Oregon and then as an adult came and moved to Tempe for a year because my dad lived in Queen Creek and I was visiting him relatively often.
Tucker: I thought that so much of this collection, Jackalope Wives, feels so distinctly southwestern because of the desert imagery, the coyotes, the javelinas. I was wondering if there was a connection between your time living here and the use of the desert landscape in a lot of your stories.
Ursula Vernon: Oh, definitely! I was right at the age where you sort of imprint on a landscape. I will always think that the art style and architecture style of Phoenix is normal and that everything else is sort of weird comparatively. If you show me stucco and the red hacienda tile roofs I’m like, yeah, that’s what normal looks like!
Tucker: Do you feel a difference in writing a story that exists in one landscape versus another?
Ursula Vernon: Definitely! There are things that lend themselves to one landscape rather than another. I can write witches set in the southeast with no problem! It’s all shapeshifters in the southwest. I don’t know why one seems to live somewhere and the other seems to live in the other place. There are certain things that a landscape gives rise to in your imagination. That’s probably why I write stories about one particular witch that is set almost always the southeast. Even though Grandma Harken could be considered a witch, she’s much more on the shapeshifter side of things.
Tucker: I felt the collection is loosely bookended between the two stories of Grandma Harken. I don’t think she’s first and last, but she’s doing work there. It gives the collection a really nice flavor with the presence of her return. It had me thinking about the world you’ve created in these stories and the other stories that may inhabit the same world. Are there other stories with Grandma Harken and what triggered the urge to bring her back?
Ursula Vernon: That’s one character I could definitely write another story about, but I don’t have any in the works. I have at least one editor going: “If you write a story about the train priests, I will take it!” And I’m like: “I don’t have it yet”. Then they’re all “I will shake you until this story comes out!”
I would like to do something more with that world, because there’s definitely some interesting things that even I don’t quite know where they are going, but I would love to get in there and dig and see where they are going. I want to know more about the train gods too. I don’t even like trains that much, but they seem interesting! I had to read so much about trains, most of which didn’t even show up in the story at all.
Tucker: There’s something so interesting about the nature of fantastical stories and as long as you’re confident, you can create whatever you want. But research still plays a role because you’re playing with tradition. How much leeway do you give yourself in sticking to the tradition of a lot of these stories and researching archetypes and characters or flipping it on its head and saying “No. I want to try something new with this”?
Ursula Vernon: It sort of goes on a story by story basis. With the Blue-beard story, The Seventh Bride, I had never read one where all the wives were still alive. With that one I was like “Alright, I’m in uncharted territory here”. A lot of the other ones, I will read many different versions. For Beauty and the Beast I read the original French version, which is deeply surreal and very, very long. And mostly about fairy court politics! There were elements in that version that often feel overlooked in retellings, so I wanted to use them. There were other parts that were easy to remove. But there were also some aspects, like the house creating anything she wants and whole libraries and what not. And it’s like, how would a house know how to write a book? There’s actually some pretty creepy books in there where the house has tried to write books and they’re just one word printed over and over again, because that’s what it thinks books are.
I usually read a lot of versions of any given fairytale to see if one has some elements where I’m like “Oh! I totally want to use that!” And others are like “Okay, we can just dispense with this whole bit.” In the Beauty and the Beast story I got rid of the dad completely, the one who usually gets trapped by the Beast in a snow storm and ends up selling his daughter. But I’m like, forget all that, she can get herself into all of the trouble. He only serves as an inciting incident, we’ll get rid of him. But some elements in fairytales you’re like nope, this has to stay. The rose is a motif in Beauty and Beast that I decided to keep.
A lot of research in writing genre and fantasy is going and doing a lot of grim work on “when were water closets invented?” “How far can the horse conceivably ride?” “Okay, now I have to go look this up and see if this is remotely accurate.”
When I did the Blue-beard one, she’s a miller’s daughter and I swear, half the research I did for that book was just me reading up on how mills worked. And I’m like, this is fascinating, but there will be one paragraph about the function of mills.
The problem is, if you’re a writer it’s probably because you’re easily fascinated by things. There’s so much research that I’ve found where I’m like, I’ve just got to find a way to put this in a story! I’ve been working on one recently where the heroine is a perfumer and I’m like, okay, now I’ll read about the history of perfumes! Next thing I know, I have like twenty books on the spice trade and I’m like, why are we not setting every story during the medieval spice trade? This is amazing! Why does everyone want gold? They should be going to find clove oil! Cloves were worth more than their weight in gold!
Tucker: It’s always bonkers how our internal logic is always so goofy and nonsensical in a story, gets stalled by the mundane logic of things like “how does a mill work?”
Ursula Vernon: Yeah and there are so many things that we would’ve taken for granted during the quasi-medieval settings that a lot of these things are written in. In that reality, that horse you just jump on and off of would be like 40% of your waking hours taking care of that horse. Things like that amaze me!
I want to do a whole tangent for a day just looking up medieval toothpaste recipes. One of them was salt and sage rubbed together and you rub it on your teeth and it whitened them and freshened your breath and probably also abraded your teeth away after a point. I was like, oh, this is fascinating! They did do some kind of basic dental hygiene! Who knew! You know, you have this image of unwashed peasant masses with no teeth and it’s like, no! They were doing all kinds of things! People weren’t stupid just because they lived 500 years ago.
Tucker: I think I always just imagined people eating porridge and going back to bed.
Ursula Vernon: Yeah!
Tucker: That’s like 600 years of history in my mind.
Ursula Vernon: Porridge, stew, sleep. When I did the one set in Finland I realized that I had no idea what the food was like. I was fortunate enough that I had a friend who was a Finnish folklorist and was like “let me go through and explain to you what they would be eating. Here, it should be salt fish, everyone should be eating salt fish all the damn time. Alright, and the bread? Yes, it’s made and it has a hole in the middle so you can string it from a rope and hang it from the rafters for storage.” And I’m like, that’s amazing! Alright, that’s going in! The whole anthropology of food is an entire other topic that people get into and they’re like: “Why does everyone eat gruel, stew and porridge?” And it’s like, no! 3/4 of the world was eating rice at this point people!
Tucker Leighty-Phillips is an Associate Editor at Hayden’s Ferry Review and first-year MFA candidate in Fiction at Arizona State University. His work has been featured in or forthcoming at Smokelong Quarterly, Hobart, Whiskeypaper, West Branch Wired, and elsewhere. He can be found on social media at @TheNurtureBoy.