An Interview with T. Kingfisher

Thornhedge is the latest novella from the bestselling, award-winning author T. Kingfisher. She is known for her dark, fairy tale-inspired writing, such as Nettle and Bone, and her gothic novels, like A House with Good Bones. I’ve loved everything I’ve read of hers, with Thornhedge being no exception, so I am so excited to be able to interview her for Grimdark Magazine. Ms. Kingfisher, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me.

Thornhedge[GdM] Firstly, how would you pitch Thornhedge to someone who knows nothing about the novella?

[TK] Well, I keep telling people that it’s very sweet and only has a few dead bodies, but that may not work as an elevator pitch. So I’d say it’s a retelling of Sleeping Beauty where the heroine has a very, very good reason to keep her locked away in the tower. Also the heroine is a were-toad.

[GdM] Thornhedge was inspired by the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty. What made you pick this particular story to rework? How did you approach taking something so well-known and shaping it in to Thornhedge which is so uniquely yours?

[TK] I was actually writing a totally different Sleeping Beauty retelling—a children’s book under my other name, Ursula Vernon—called “Hamster Princess.” And the heroine is basically Xena: Warrior Princess as a hamster. But at the time I was writing it, I had this little nagging idea that I could go completely a different way with the story. Sometimes that happens when I’m writing—two books diverge in a yellow wood, something like that. But for once, I was actually able to go back and find that other story and chase it down.

As for why it’s uniquely mine…well, you know what they say, give any ten writers a prompt and you’ll get eleven different stories. (One person won’t turn theirs in and two others will do two different stories apiece.) It’s mine because everything I write ends up sounding like me, I suppose! But in this case, I really related to Toadling, because she is anxious and out of her depth and worried that she’s not doing the right thing, which is a place that I know all too well. I wanted to write her story, and I wanted her to win and to be able to go home again.

[GdM] I love how much of your work is rooted in folk lore and draws from fairy tales and well-known stories. Why have you chosen to use these as your inspiration? Are there any lesser-known tales that you would love to retell?

[TK] Oh, goodness. I love fairy tales because I am great at writing scenes and terrible at writing plots. Fairy-tales give me the plot already intact! I already know the main beats, I can just get in there and change the set-dressing and twist things around, without having the whole tyranny-of-the-blank-page going on.

Plus there’s a built-in resonance with a lot of fairy tales. Most of us know these stories from childhood, and they’re snugged right up against the bone. If you hit the right note with a fairy tale retelling, you can practically make the reader’s teeth vibrate. That’s a great place to work.

As for lesser-known stories…oh, there’s a few. Snow White is famous, but there’s Snow White and Rose Red, which goes a totally different way. And I’ve written a Bluebeard story already, but I wouldn’t mind writing another one. Or ten.

[GdM] In your retellings you often take stories we think we know and twist them into something darker and more interesting, rather than following the known beats of the story. What do you think makes a good retelling, and are there any that have been an inspiration to you? 

[TK] One thing I like to do with fairy tales is to look at them and go “How can I make this even worse?” (I have a retelling of The Goose Girl coming out from Tor next year, which is a dark story to begin with, full of talking horse skulls and whatnot, but I thought I could go darker. It’s called A Sorceress Comes To Call.)

But a lot of times, I don’t even have to make them darker, I just have to have the characters react to what’s going on in the way that normal people react, not fairy tale heroes. Most fairy tale protagonists do not react to things the way I would! They’re way too blasé about the talking horse skull on the wall, or the roses that bloom every day at midnight, or the house full of invisible servants. And often they’re just too accepting and don’t try to figure things out. I wrote a retelling of Beauty & the Beast where the Beast is magically prevented from talking about his curse, so he and Beauty are trying to communicate with each other via words underlined in books and whatnot. So I think mine come across differently, even where the fairy tale is played fairly straight, just because I’m trying to write protagonists that are acting like people I know would act.

[GdM] Your writing always seems to strike the perfect balance of very dark themes and content with the right amount of comfort and humour. I describe it to people as being creepy cosy fantasy. Is this something you intentionally work towards, and if yes, do you have any sage advice for readers who may be writers too?

[TK] I think it’s less intentional than inevitable—the humor shows up because it’s very hard for me to stay Very Serious for more than the length of a short story. But also, people under stress crack jokes all the time. There may or may not be atheists in foxholes, but there’s a helluva lot of comedians! I never know what to tell other writers, except maybe go binge watch M*A*S*H* or something. And when in doubt, write the joke. I think writers and editors worry sometimes about giving readers whiplash, but I usually find that readers handle it just fine.

As for comfort…well, there, again, it’s very individual, but in my experience, the vast majority of people aren’t awful. If you were dangling off a cliff, 99% of people are going to go “Oh crap!” and pull you up without thinking twice about it. And yeah, we’re all tired and busy and have bad days and lack empathy sometimes, but there are so many people out there who really want to help make the world better in any way they can. Maybe not 99%, but a whole lot of people nonetheless. So I write about those people, which I guess turns out comforting in practice. A large part of it is just that I spend so much time in my character’s heads that I have to like being there!

[GdM] Flora and fauna play a huge part in your stories, most recently with the brambles, briars, birds and the swamp in Thornhedge. Do you plan and research this extensively for each story or is this something that grows organically?

[TK] Oh, believe me, if being an amateur naturalist was a profession you could make a living at, I’d be there! I love bugs and birds and plants and gardening and nature in general, so usually by the time something gets into a book, it’s a thing I already know about. I had to check a website for Thornhedge on bird behavior for the wagtails, because they’re European and not one of my backyard visitors, but I can’t say I’m doing extensive research so much as dredging up Cool Stuff I read about and wanted to put in a story.

[GdM] One of the things I love about the women in your stories is that you focus on those who might otherwise be relegated to background characters like Marra and Agnes in Nettle and Bone or Samantha in A House with Good Bones. In Thornhedge, Toadling also seems to fit this mould; she anxious, knows she is not beautiful, and feels like she does not belong for much of the novella. Why do you choose to do this?

[TK] Practical overworked middle-aged women basically keep the world running. (The corollary to this is that ten overworked furries keep the internet running.) And being myself a rather frumpy middle-aged woman, I write stories about people like me partly because they’re very much who I can write, but also because I want those women to have stories.

Sometimes we read fantasy stories in order to pretend we’re someone else, but sometimes we read fantasy stories in order to pretend that people like us can have adventures too.

Mind you, if the readers ever get tired of reading about middle-aged gardeners, I’m probably in trouble, but so far, so good…

[GdM] The strength of your characters really makes your work stand out. I really appreciate how I can relate to these characters so easily and genuinely care about them. Are you able to pick a favourite of yours? (Mine is Samantha from A House with Good Bones because of the box wine and the love for ladybirds)

[TK] Samantha was a heckuva lot of fun to write, and yes, I do drink boxed wine and watched British murder shows and love insects. But my favorite is probably Halla from Swordheart, who has serious ADHD and is interested in everything, and is as close to a self-insert character as I’ve ever written. (My editor actually called me out on that, to my great amusement and mild embarrassment.)

[GdM] There have been some amazing anthropomorphic characters in your writing. From memory there’s been possums, chickens, vultures, and now toads. What is the animal that you would most love to include in a story just because you think they are awesome?

[TK] Oh gosh. Rats, maybe—rats are marvellous. And I probably need to write another horror novel with a dog, because people are always so happy when the dog lives through it (and the dog always lives through it. Me and Dean Koontz, we’re not killing the dog.)

There are some obscure birds I’d love to include in a book—the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock just slays me completely—but I’d have to actually know more about their behavior to write it, and I haven’t spent time with any of them, just admired photos. Maybe someday!

[GdM] I’m always curious about how an author approaches the hands on process of writing their books. Could you please describe your writing process? Are you very regimented where you sit from 9-5 at a desk or is it a little more fluid? Do you research and plan every detail before you start or do you let the story drive you?

[TK] Oh heavens, no. I am a night owl by nature. I sleep late, get up, have lunch, then usually go to the coffee shop for two or three hours. I have to write a thousand words a day at least four days a week or the system collapses. I often do more, but I’m pretty firm on the thousand word minimum. And I only outline under duress. If I have to outline the whole story, then I feel like I’ve written it already and I get bored. Usually I’ll know one or two things that happen in the book—with fairy tale retellings, I’ll have a couple landmarks in the plot—so I just start writing and kind of aim the story at those landmarks. It’s more like wandering through the woods, picking up interesting leaves and turning over logs, and occasionally checking the map to make sure I’m headed in the right direction. Frequently new landmarks will pop up as I figure things out, or I’ll realize that one of the distant landmarks isn’t a place I want to go after all, but it tends to be very loose and organic and meandering.

I also have three or four or five projects going at any given time, so those thousand words may not all be on the same story. Lots of my writer friends have to do a deep dive into one project, and there’s a lot of advice out there that says a desire to work on a different story is a sign that there’s something wrong with your WIP, but me, I’ve got ADHD like whoa, and sometimes I want to write a horror story and sometimes I want to write a fantasy about were-toads. (If I have any writing advice, it’s that “if you get a book at the end of it and no one is dead or on fire, you’re not doing it wrong.”)

[GdM] Are you able to reveal what you are currently working on?

[TK] Sure! At the moment, due to medical issues, I’m actually slowed down for a few months, but I’m trying to get the fourth book in my fantasy romance series, The Saint of Steel, off to the editor. It’s nearly done, but it turned out longer than I anticipated. I’m also working on the next Sworn Soldier novella for Tor Nightfire, and on a very odd mystery novel.

[GdM] Thank you again for taking the time to answer my questions, I really appreciate it. It has been so lovely to get the opportunity to chat with you find out more about your works.

[TK] Delighted to chat about Thornhedge! Toadling is near and dear to my heart and I’m so glad people are getting to meet her!

Read Thornhedge by T. Kingfisher

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Fiona Denton

Fiona Denton

Fiona is a former secondary school teacher and current stay at home parent to two very wild and active children. She lives with them and her husband in the UK and can often be found on a beach paddling in the North Sea or stomping through a forest with the sprogs and hounds. She loves to read and has always enjoyed fantasy novels, particularly the very dark and twisty ones with mythical creatures.