My Very End of the Universe: The Fairy Tale Form

November 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

PhotoMargaretChapmanToday, another interview featuring authors from Rose Metal Press’ new flash anthology, My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the FormThis week, Aaron Teel Interviews Margaret Patton Chapman, author of the novella-in-flash “Bell and Bargain”:

AT: You mention Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s Madeleine Is Sleeping in your essay—which was the first thing I thought about when reading Bell and Bargain—and Kate Bernheimer’s essay “Fairy Tale Is Form, Form Is Fairy Tale” in which she lays out the four fundamental elements of the fairy tale form as she sees them. I’m wondering about the ways in which you see Bell fitting into or subverting fairy tale forms given that this work engages with but doesn’t strictly adhere to those elements, and the ways in which the ultimate form of the work, the novella-in-flash, was suited to housing such a liminal narrative space.

MC: Bell and Bargain is both a fairy tale and not a fairy tale. There is some archetypal fairy tale stuff going on: the magical youngest child; the absent father; the hint, I hope, of a prince. But there is much more interiority to the characters than you get in fairy tales (what Bernheimer calls “flatness”). Bell is structured around characters’ feelings about their circumstances, and how they feel as the world changes around them. I also attempt what Bernheimer calls “intuitive logic,” meaning that the events of the plot happen somewhat discreetly and are not too causally connected; that helps to create, as you said, liminal narrative space.

We often feel more real and alive in liminal spaces, and that is what fairy tales are about, the sorts of transformations that are changes in kind. I hope that each of these little stories is about a place of transformation. That’s why this form is so wonderful: it allows stories to be linked without building a traditional plot in which events stem very clearly from one another. I wanted to tell a story in which things just happened, which, ironically, feels more real, and less fantastical, to me.

AT: Bernheimer talks about the lack of description and physicality in traditional fairy tales as an “absence” to which she is drawn. This is tied in my mind to the intuition you talk about in your own essay of a link between narrative and mapmaking, and the articulation of that idea in Peter Turchi’s Maps of the Imagination, The Writer as Cartographer—the notion that we choose, when writing, what to show and what to hide, not only in terms of craft elements but also within the story itself, the content. It’s a brilliant metaphor for fiction, generally, but especially, I think, for the novella-in-flash. We can’t show everything; there isn’t enough space. Can you talk a little bit about your process and how it relates in your mind to the idea of narrative mapmaking?

MC: The completed work, for me at least, is always the product of so many attempts, failures, formal experiments, bad ideas erased, and good ideas abandoned. What to show and how to show it is a big part of the editorial process. I have a tendency to want to show less, but because of the kind of story I wrote I had to consider world-building—my novella is, on some level, historical-fantasy-fiction. So I also had to map out, as it were, a time and place unfamiliar to readers.

I recently spent an evening with my dad (who is also a big map nerd) looking up nineteenth-century Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps of my hometown of Durham. It is amazing that these lovely neighborhood maps were produced for such a mundane purpose, and how slight they are, and yet how full, like little poems. I was also struck by the ways that older city is still present: streets disconnected by highways, abandoned alleys, houses whose doors appear to face nothing. Cities and neighborhoods are palimpsests, constantly being erased and rewritten. My hometown is going through some crazy renewal right now, so much being torn down and rebuilt; but cities have to do this. If they aren’t being rewritten they die. Similarly, writing is always a writing-over, a remapping.

Margaret Patton Chapman received her MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her short fiction has appeared in Wigleaf, The Collagist, SmokeLong, Elimae, and in the anthology The Way We Sleep, among others. She is prose editor for decomP magazine, and currently lives in Durham, North Carolina.

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