Melissa Albert pulls readers deeper into the world established in her YA novels The Hazel Wood and The Night Country with Tales from the Hinterland, a new collection of 12 original fairy tales. Illustrations by Jim Tierney accompany these metafictional tales, which form the backbone of the dark and magical world of the Hinterland, from which main character Alice must save her mother in The Hazel Wood. Albert spoke with PW about bringing original fairy tales to life, collaborating with Tierney, and the privilege of writing for young adult readers.
How did you come to write this companion work, and at what point did these stories take shape outside of the novels?
When I was first working on The Hazel Wood, I knew that I wanted to weave in glimpses of the tales, but I never anticipated sitting down to actually write them. It was a very daunting idea because, in The Hazel Wood, the book of stories [written by Alice’s grandmother] is not only a cult collection of fairy tales, it’s an actual magical object; it has world-dissolving capabilities.
One of my favorite things as a reader is invented culture. As a writer, you always want to find that balance of giving glimpses of the culture, but not so much that the reader’s imagination doesn’t fill in the gaps. Originally, The Hazel Wood included only a truncated version of “Alice-Three-Times,” but when my agent set out to sell it, she felt I should write one more tale. I sat down and wrote “The Door That Wasn’t There.” It was so fun and people ended up having a great response to it. I wanted to do it again. Then, when I wrote The Night Country, I included a couple more tales, including “Ilsa Waits.” In the novel the story is told through the mouth of Ilsa herself, which was such a fun writing exercise, especially when I got to go back and write it again from the perspective of a storyteller. So, I had dipped my toe into writing the tales for those two books and I often heard from readers that those elements were their favorite part of the books. When my wonderful editor Sarah Barley gave me the opportunity to create the entire collection, it was this high-dive feeling of could I? Should I? The chance to create original fairy tales using the building blocks of existing myths and tropes combined with the mythology created for The Hazel Wood was too delightful to resist. I couldn’t not do it.
In your opinion, what makes a captivating fairy tale?
When I set out to write the stories, I considered that there is a catalog of tale types, that I could sit down and learn about the building blocks and then structure the stories that way. But, when it came down to it, I just felt my way through. It’s like the magpie thing, taking little trinkets from other tales, combining the details from your head and dreams, and then making it all tick with fairy tale logic.
Every writer is a catalog of every book they’ve read, so I immersed myself in the sparer classic tales that I grew up with, as well as retellings. I would read these old tales and remember, “Oh, yeah! The trope of the talking animal,” which I incorporated into the story “Death and the Woodwife.” Or I’d recall the image of the metal forest in “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” which I’ve had in my head since age six, and knew I needed to include. When I was a kid, I read The Fairy Rebel [by Lynne Reid Banks] and loved it. In it there is this lovely, mythical sequence where a little girl gets a beautiful gift from a fairy for each birthday. I took this idea that I had loved since the time I was a middle grader and curdled it, turning it into this series of sinister clockwork presents, which is embedded in “The Clockwork Bride.”
The stories of old are so un-feminist, but when you read a retelling, it’s almost always infused with feminism. I always think about the troubles of the women who wait... women who wait, women who wander, women who, like Alice, have to follow the path that is laid out for them. I wanted to break out of those tropes, as amazing writers like Kelly Link, Helen Oyeyemi, and others have done before, paving the way.
Were these stories originally planned with accompanying illustrations? What was it like to see the stories come to life through Jim Tierney’s art?
Yes, I knew from early on that the illustrations would be inspired by woodcuts and classic fairy tale imagery, but I wasn’t sure what shape they would take. From the start, Jim Tierney’s art has been entwined with the world of The Hazel Wood; it’s a perfect aesthetic. With the novel covers, I shared object lists and, for chapter headers, I would give ideas of objects that I felt were crucial to certain sections. For the tales, I collaborated with Tierney on the illustrated frames that surround each story; for “Alice-Three-Times” it’s icicles and for “Jenny and the Night Women” it’s apples. But the actual illustrations themselves? That was all Jim. They came in in pieces and I just got to be astonished.
The idea of having an ex libris page and endpapers for Tales from the Hinterland is incredible. These are all the little trinkets that, when I was a kid picking up a book like that, told me it was something special. Having that treatment given to my work has been thrilling.
What appeals to you about writing for young adult readers?
It is an absolute joy to speak to readers who might be encountering things for the first time, in fiction, yes, but also in their own lives. As a teen, when you read about a first kiss or love triangle or enemies-to-lovers or discovering that your parent is a person like you, it’s all new. As an adult reader, you’ve seen and experienced all of these things and you’ll respond to each more or less depending on who you are and what your tastes are. Every time a teen picks up my books, it’s a chance for those words and that story to become part of their foundational literature. They might see something in it that they’ve never seen on the page before, which is not to say my books are astoundingly original, but they’re fresh to them. When I think of the experience of reading Thomas the Rhymer as a kid or the Chronicles of Narnia, I realize that I’ll never quite recapture that singular feeling of having my feet on the heater, eating chocolate, while reading by bad light and wrecking my eyes. You can’t fully recapture that, you’re always kind of chasing it. So, writing for young readers is a privilege and a thrill.
Tales from the Hinterland by Melissa Albert. Flatiron, $19.99 Jan. 12 ISBN 978-1-250-30272-4