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Michael Earp on fairy tales, children’s literature and reading

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Ahead of their Rewriting Fairy Tales workshop, Michael Earp chatted with us about their passion for fairy tales and children’s literature.

For over 20 years, Michael has studied, read, sold, promoted, edited and distributed children’s and YA literature.

In 2019, they edited the groundbreaking anthology Kindred: 12 Queer #LoveOzYA Stories (Walker Books Australia), and Everything Under the Moon: Fairy Tales in A Queerer Light (Affirm Press), their latest anthology, will be on sale soon, promising to cast a new light on beloved (and not-so-well known fairy tales).

In recent years we have seen a sort of renaissance of the fairy tale, with films, TV shows and books retelling these beloved stories. Why do you think we keep coming back to fairy tales?

This is likely for several reasons. First, society is obsessed with creating a canon for itself where certain works are seen as integral and are woven into the fabric of our combined psyche, but it is important to recognise how this preference one experience over another. There’s an element of elitism to it, too. Don’t get me wrong, we all naturally do this as we consume stories and art – we react to them and that informs how we refer to them later.

When that happens on a societal level, however, it can drown out entire cultures and minorities and create a sense of otherness. But that’s exactly why I believe we’re returning to ‘traditional stories’ more and more. It’s simultaneously a way to take the familiar and make it new, offering an entry point to the audience, while also finding opportunities to critique what these narratives have said previously.

Do you remember the first fairy tale you ever heard or read? Do you remember how it made you feel or what you took away from it?

To be honest, I’m not sure I do remember the first fairy tale I heard or read. I think, like many children, I was shown – and was enthralled by – Disney movies. While there’s plenty to unpack about the choices Disney makes in its adaptations, there’s no denying its appeal.

I was introduced to Fantasia at a very young age, and it captured my imagination to no end. Dancing flowers, unicorns and pegasuses. I would watch over and over refining my internal dialogue over which colour pony was my favourite, which moment of their play delighted me the most. Then Aladdin came out when I was eight years old, and I became obsessed. The Aladdin soundtrack is the first CD I bought with my own money.

Talking about fairy tales, congratulations on your new anthology Everything Under the Moon: Fairy Tales in A Queerer Light! Tell us about the selection of authors and editing process for the anthology and about the story you wrote for it, which, if I’m not mistaken, is based on Perrault’s Donkeyskin.

I’m so thrilled that the anthology is finally here! I had this idea while I was working on my last anthology, Kindred: 12 Queer #LoveOzYA Stories, which came out in 2019. It took four years, but here we are! I wanted to find authors who I knew would approach the task in ways I would never think of.

I’m always dreaming up ways to adapt fairytales, but I’m only one voice. So, I reached out to international authors, as well as locals, eager to see which story they would choose and how they’d rework it. I commissioned them to really question the heteronormative ethos that traditional stories are steeped in, to Queer them in every sense, rather than simply making two princesses kiss.

And, yes! Donkeyskin was my selection. I’m finding many people aren’t familiar with the original story, and part of me is relieved about that. The story is rather messed up in a number of ways, but I wanted to take what is a bit of a ‘WTF’ kind of story and turn it into a meet cute in could-be-Melbourne. I also wanted to ask why the social status of someone should have anything to do with their beauty. I had a lot of fun with my story.

What do you think readers will take away from this book?

First and foremost, joy. I’m not saying all the stories are light and fluffy. In fact, there are some heavier ones, and it’s hard to ignore the darker sides of life when you’re adapting stories in which fathers are trying to marry their daughters (like in Donkeyskin. See? Messed up!). But what each of these stories do is breathe life into what have previously been two-dimensional archetypes and reflect a much boarder variety of identities than the Brothers Grimm even knew existed. Beyond that, I hope people discover a new author.

Without spoiling your workshop, what possibilities do rewriting fairy tales offer to fiction and non-fiction writers?

Well, how long is a piece of string? More so, how long is a piece of string when it has been woven by the moon, singing it into being, dyed any (or all) of the colours of spring? The possibilities are endless, not only because each person will approach their work from their unique perspective, but also because the number of fairytales to draw on is so much deeper and broader than many people assume. Disney hasn’t even scratched the surface!

Children’s literature is quite a powerful thing. Perhaps as we grow older, we forget how some of these books shaped our vision of the world. What children’s book have you read recently that would recommend for people of all ages and stages?

I love children’s literature. My 20+ year career has been almost exclusively working with children’s literature. The older I get, the more I’m convinced that relegating it to childhood is a terrible mistake. It’s not that these books don’t recognise what it is to be human any less than books for grown-ups, but they do have to get creative in how they approach things. It’s that creativity, that conciseness, what excites me. I recently read The Worlds We Leave Behind by A.F. Harrold and stunningly illustrated by Levi Pinfold. It unpacks the idea of revenge in a deep and moving way, making deliciously creepy use of the ‘witch in the woods’ trope. Also, I read Jon Klassen’s latest, The Skull, which is his retelling of a Tyrolean folktale. The story itself is fun and his illustrations, as always, are fantastic, but it is his author’s note at the end what makes the whole thing brilliant. He describes the way his retelling came about, and I found myself thinking: ‘That’s exactly what I’m doing with Everything Under The Moon!’

You’ve also worked as a bookseller, what are the three things you wish you had known before starting out in the book industry?

People respond to passion; read what you love and gush about it.

Do not be afraid to stop reading! I was in my thirties before I allowed myself to put down a book I wasn’t vibing with. There are, quite literally, more books in the world that you will enjoy than there are days of your life. Do not waste time on something that’s not for you. (It doesn’t mean it won’t be for someone else, which is also absolutely fine!)

And last, not only do audiobooks exist, but they are also a legitimate form of reading no matter what anyone else tells you. Since I got my ADHD diagnosis, I have let go of the stigma that physical books are ‘proper’ reading. I now devour several books a month in addition to what I read physically, because I know I can listen to someone reading to me exponentially faster than I can read myself. And slow reading doesn’t make me any less of a book nerd.

What other projects are you working on now?

I’m co-editing an anthology with Alison Evans that consists of trans and gender diverse authors. It’s coming out mid-2024 and I’m sure there’ll be more news on that soon!

I’m also working on a memoir, which is an incredible change of pace for me, but I’m loving the challenge of stepping so far out of my comfort zone. Beyond that, I keep creating content for my Patreon and newsletter, and chase opportunities for short work when they crop up. There are several other things waiting for my attention, but there’s only so many hours in a day.

Places are still available in Michael’s workshop Rewriting Fairy Tales. Members of Writers Victoria receive up to 37% off the full price of all clinics, workshops, seminars and courses. Writers experiencing financial and social barriers to developing their skills are encouraged to apply to The Writers Victoria Fund for subsidised attendance at workshops and clinics.

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