Last year, Elana K. Arnold’s Damsel was awarded a Printz Honor, a third book in her Bat series was published, and her first picture book, What Riley Wore, hit shelves. This year, she returns to another well-known tale with Red Hood, a contemporary retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood,” and will publish her second picture book, An Ordinary Day, in March. Arnold spoke with PW about the appeal of delving into familiar stories, themes that reappear again and again in her work, and why she writes for young readers.
What appeals to you about reworking elements of fairy tales into a contemporary reimagining?
Lots of things actually. First, it’s tapping into a conversation that’s already started. Readers have, at least here, a base knowledge of the stories in the Western canon, of Red Riding Hood and the damsel. When I choose to engage with them, I’m entering a conversation that’s been going on for a long time. Part of the emotional work has been done for me by history and all the versions that have come before. I’m interested in poking at the stories that we think we know and looking at them from a different angle. With Red Hood, the question is, “What if the predator has a predator. What if the prey isn’t just prey?” I think that the reason these stories live for so long is because they fit the cultural discussion in ways that those in the original oral tradition couldn’t have imagined when telling their own daughters and granddaughters; that we’d still be dealing with gaslighting, rape culture, the absence of safety for a female-presenting body in the world. Or, maybe they could have imagined.
From where did the inspiration for this newest novel come?
About three and half years ago, I was ice-skating in an outdoor rink near Yosemite. It was cold and the rink was ringed with trees and up above my head was a full moon. I had just begun my period. As I was skating, I thought to myself, wait a minute: if werewolves cycle with moons and menstruation cycles with moons, why wouldn’t there be someone—a girl? a teen?—who when she starts her period in conjunction with the full moon, finds that with her blood comes the ability to hunt werewolves? And I thought, that’s a great idea. I went back to my hotel and started Googling and nothing came up. I couldn’t believe this story hadn’t been written and was so excited to be the one to do it.
Where does your writing process begin?
Each book is something different, but, after writing multiple books, I’ve noticed that usually it begins when I notice something in the real world, usually in my own body or my own life. And then I ask, “what if?” That combination of noticing something real and asking “what if” leads to a story.
The themes and subjects that you address in Red Hood and your previous YA novels are difficult and, by their nature, often violent. What compels you to tell these stories, even when some adults may think they are too dark for a teen audience?
I think of Damsel, Red Hood, and What Girls Are Made Of as female. I call them “she.” And it’s interesting to me that books we write for and about young women are also treated like young women. They are seen as both insignificant and dangerous at the same time. We write off girls and then we blame them when bad things happen to their bodies, or we say their bodies compelled men or boys to do things. And I think the same is true of young adult literature in general and books that center female bodies specifically. I can most accurately talk about my experience because I know my books and the reaction to them most intimately.
I’ve seen that response to Red Hood already: “Oh, this is a book that says it’s okay to kill boys” and “this is a book that’s putting forth this dangerous idea of female violence.” It’s a book about a girl who kills werewolves because they want to kill her. They’re trying to kill her, and her friends. And yet, we don’t hear people say, “Oh this is a dangerous book because it shows how dangerous werewolves are.” I’ve never had a teenager tell me that my books were too much for them. I’ve had teens tell me that they’ve put it down, but I think that’s so great. It’s a success story. Because if a young person comes across my books and feels overwhelmed by it and chooses to close the book and walk away, that’s a total win because that’s a girl, usually, who has decided that she’s in an unsafe space and leaves it. That’s what I want for young people, for them to recognize when they’re not comfortable and to leave that situation. And what a great and beautiful place to practice consent and self-care. No one is holding their eyes open and forcing them to read; it’s a place to be uncomfortable and to say no.
Do you find that the experience of creating stories for different ages and audiences is a noticeably different process?
Yes and no. I follow the story. I don’t sit down and say, today I’m writing a picture book or young adult novel and, so, therefore I need to be this edgy or this constrained. .Later, during revisions, I might let the reader into the room, but the reader is never there during the first manifestation of a book.
Does being plugged into the concerns and perspectives of a specific audience at all impact other projects?
I wrote a talk once called, “Sex, Death, and God: Or What the Back of My Brain Is Whispering,” because in my YA, I find that my interests tend to revolve around sex, death, and spirituality and the way those things overlap. I have a picture book coming out, called An Ordinary Day, and, in a way, it’s also about sex, death, and God. It has a dog that’s dying and a baby that’s being born—as the result of sex, obviously—and there’s a crow that is definitely spiritual. Whatever your nut is to crack as an artist or writer, it will go into everything you work on.
Do you feel those three themes are the threads that connects your stories, across audience and subject?
In a lot of my work, but not all. I don’t think my Bat books concern themselves with sex, death, or God. They’re more about gentle love and kindness, animal husbandry, and the ways we can listen to ourselves and one another. Some of those things feed into my other books, too, but I think those books are even more simple than my picture books. They have a precise, tunnel-like focus on one of my interests. We all contain multitudes and no writer or artist should feel they need to limit themselves; we should all feel compelled to explore all the things that fascinate us as thematic through-lines, because you never know where they’re going to take you. And the world will tell you no many, many times, so I don’t think the artist should tell herself no when it comes to exploring thematic issues at the beginning of a project.
Does your work in Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program inform your career?
I’ve been at Hamline now for two years. I wanted a job like it for many years because it’s weird to be a writer and have so much of your time focused on yourself and your relationship to your work and reviews. It can feel very gross to be so much in your own head and it can also be very isolating. I’m a person who has a hard time with social skills and events, so I can really tuck in and be alone. I wanted a place where I could have community, which is selfish, and place where I could be of service. It has been a wonderful opportunity for me to try to help other writers feel brave and powerful and the right to be big and take up space.
It’s been good for my creative work, too, because it has forced me to explain the way the back of my brain works in a way that I never really thought about before, so that I can help other people get more in touch with the back of their brain, too. Which is where I think a lot of our idea generation comes from: the parts we can’t quite focus on, like the murky waters of a well. It’s helped me go there more myself.
Where did your interest in writing for young readers begin?
I was always a reader and I always wanted to be writer, but I never met a writer growing up. I never believed it could happen for me. My graduate studies were in a traditional MFA program. It was the ’90s, so [we read] a lot of Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway and I didn’t really think my stories about teen girls mattered or were literary. I tried for a long time to write different types of stories, but I felt like a fraud, so I stopped writing for a long time. When I returned to writing around 2011, I knew I wanted to write stories that centered young people—and that now had a name: young adult. It was getting a lot of space, especially romance, which I wasn’t really interested in, but it was close enough. It was adjacent to my interests.
I had some traumatic things happen to me during my teenage years and I heard from a psychologist once that, when terrible thing happens to you at a certain age, sometimes your psycho-emotional development stops there. I think, for a long time, I felt very much like a hurt and lost teenage girl, so writing these books helped me grow and heal. You work with what you have, making art out of whatever materials are at your service. I had pain, and shame, and fear, and icky body stuff, so that’s what I made art from. If you make enough art with that stuff, you do heal. If someone were to read my work from the beginning, they would see me as a person, changing. All my other books end with a girl, alone, stepping into the future. Literally, physically. Every one. A solitary girl taking an independent step away. But Red Hood ends differently. I think part of that is Hamline and my community of friends there, too.
You often publish more than one book per year. What does your writing schedule look like? Do you work on books concurrently?
I do work on books concurrently; I think of them as palate cleansers for one another. I wrote A Boy Called Bat when I was writing What Girls Are Made Of. When I got overwhelmed with What Girls Are Made Of, it felt good to turn to this gentle and kind place that was also true to my lived experience.
Picture books are different. If I’m lucky, I have an idea and I write it, but that doesn’t happen very often, so they don’t take up as much space in my day-to-day life.
How has your approach to storytelling or the industry changed over the course of your career?
I’m very lucky that my agent, Rubin Pfeffer, tells me that my job is to write the book and his is to find a home for it. I have been very careful to try not to pay much attention to the industry as a business, which I realize is a privilege. I have stability and am not scrambling to make money. It’s hard to put art first when you’re hungry and I recognize that. I know it’s a business, but I do my best work when I focus on art first. I’ve also become more focused on reading and elevating voices that are different than mine.
What’s next on your to-do list?
This is an exciting year. I’ll be doing two tour legs for Red Hood. One is with my publisher for the Epic Reads tour at the end of February and beginning of March and will be mostly in the Midwest. Then I’m doing a series of events with Anna-Marie McLemore and their wonderful book Dark and Deepest Red, which we’re calling the Red Tour because both of our books retell fairy tales, mine Red Riding Hood and theirs The Red Shoes. My picture book, An Ordinary Day, comes out in March and is very special to me. Then I’m working on line edits for my next middle grade novel with my editor Jordan Brown at Walden Pond, called The House That Wasn’t There. It’s a gently magical exploration of the spaces between us and includes many things, from teleporting kittens to a taxidermy opossum named Mort. I think it will appeal to lovers of the Bat books in that it has a gentle heart and focuses on animals and immediate relationships in childhood.
Red Hood by Elana K. Arnold. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, $17.99 Feb. 25 ISBN 978-0-06-274235-3