As many of you know, a couple of months ago we lost a wonderful friend and champion of queer books in Jo, a brilliant bookseller and the blogger behind Once Upon a Bookcase. Jo had interviewed me about At Midnight for her blog, but due to a very ridiculous miscommunication on my part, I didn’t get the answers to her on time, so we said we’d publish it on her blog for the UK release on February 7th, which probably made more sense anyway, being that she’s in the UK.
Of course, neither of us had any clue that those few months would be everything.
Tomorrow, the UK version of At Midnight releases from Titan Books, and there is no one I was more excited to celebrate with than Jo. She was the first person I told when it sold there, and she was, as always, incredibly excited and supportive. As it happened, the final pages arrived for my review a couple of days before she passed, and so the UK version has an addition to the dedication page, because truly, that edition was for nobody more than Jo.
I know this isn’t the typical interview I post here, but, well, hopefully you understand the exception.
Rest in peace, Jo. Thank you for everything.
Q: Can you tell us a little about At Midnight?
A: At Midnight is an anthology of fairytales reimagined by some of my favorite YA authors, predominantly based on the tales by the brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and Charles Perrault, though there are definitely some other influences in there. It’s a pretty dark collection, though there are some definite romantic and/or funny bright spots.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for At Midnight?
A: It was actually Anna-Marie McLemore’s idea! We were texting about something and they suggested it and I said it was a great idea and they should pitch it, but they had no interest in being an editor. So they gave the idea to me to pitch to my editor at Flatiron, under the condition they could be a contributor, and, well, obviously.
I thought fairy tales went really well with my other two collections, which are Poe and Shakespeare, in that they’re well-known and there’s a lot of scholarship there. These are stories that have survived and evolved for centuries, and no matter how much one might want to relegate them to children’s flights of fancy, that endurance should make very clear their literary merits are not easily dismissed. And that’s even before you get to the fascinating cultural studies of how different versions compare around the world. Fairytales are truly a brilliant academic subject!
I also really wanted to achieve something similar to the other collections, which is to center these well-known stories on characters who don’t always get to see themselves in fairytales, but also just to see how these authors would shake them up. I knew the results would be fun and interesting, and they definitely were!
Q: How did you decide who to approach as potential contributors for this anthology?
A: Well Anna-Marie was the first obvious addition, as the idea was theirs, and they’re also simply one of the very best short story writers in YA right now. The rest really came from different directions, but with the exception of Anna-Marie and Malinda (because how incredibly iconic is getting the author of Ash to be in your fairytale reimagining anthology??) I actively stayed away from authors who do fairytale retellings. (Or mostly any retellings, but I was so excited by Legendborn that I had to leap on Tracy Deonn.) I definitely wanted some authors whose work was more “touched” with magic rather than defined by it, and if you’ve read Roselle Lim or Darcie Little Badger, for example, you know what I mean.
My editor at Flatiron was also very involved here, which helped bring three of her authors into the lineup. And some authors really excited me as potential contributors because they write in so many different genres that I didn’t know what they’d deliver, like Alex London, who’s well known in YA for both sci-fi and fantasy but tends to go more contemporary in his short fiction (as he did indeed do here).
I never give instruction for genre, to be honest; I find I don’t really need to. When you’re doing reimaginings, there’s a tone built into the work that, as long as you reasonably keep to it, can work in multiple genres, and that’s the more important angle. In fairy tales, you want to capture the darkness, the haunting, the romance, the prevalent plotline elements, etc. and that’ll lend itself nicely to romance, fantasy, horror, and thrilling contemporary, so that’s what dominates here.
Some of the authors wrote exactly what you’d expect, genre-wise, and some went totally outside; there’s only so much you can control that without being overbearing. But it makes it more interesting not to know exactly what you’re gonna get. Then, when stories come in, I like to scatter the genres around, making sure they flow nicely into each other without condensing too much of any one in a single section. I know not everyone reads anthologies in order, but story order is really important to me when I craft a collection.
Q: What was the process? Did you suggest specific fairy tales for those authors, or open it to them to suggest which fairy tale they would like to retell?
A: I left it totally open, but it was a little “first come, first serve” in terms of responses, so some authors definitely had fewer to choose from. The only thing fully planned going in was that Melissa Albert would write an original tale, because, well, if you’ve read The Hazel Wood, you know that she can absolutely crush that assignment. (And she did.)
Q: How was it decided which fairy tales would be retold for At Midnight, and which wouldn’t?
A: Everyone was allowed to pick their own; the only pushing I really did was to make sure the absolute biggest ones were covered. Like, I’m not doing a fairy tale anthology that doesn’t include Cinderella or Snow White. There are a few stories I can’t believe didn’t make it in, but that’s the case for some of the things that aren’t in my earlier anthologies, too. You can’t fit everything.
I didn’t take fairy tale retellings from recent years into consideration because longform and short form are just so different, and really, there have been so many novels with this theme. The number of Cinderella adaptations alone is probably greater than the number of stories in this anthology. But that wasn’t gonna make me leave out Cinderella!
Q: You are hugely passionate about diverse books and stories, and the majority – if not all – original fairy tales feature mainly privileged characters in very specific gender roles. The majority of the stories in At Midnight are by authors from marginalised groups, about characters from marginalised groups. Did you approach particular authors with the idea of them writing specific representation into their stories?
A: I don’t like to tell people what to write, so I avoid that as much as possible, but I definitely think in terms of wanting to make sure the opportunity is there. I definitely wanted to give trans writers the opening to craft fairy tales starring trans teens, for example, but I don’t make it a requirement; I just cross my fingers and hope. But I read widely and love authors doing all sorts of things, so it’s not like i have to go hunt down marginalized authors to do this or that; if I’m just picking the authors I think will be best at something, many of them are going to happen to be marginalized authors.
That said, I do give thought to what representation I think is specifically meaningful for different collections, for example wanting a number of trans authors in my Shakespeare anthology because crossing gender lines is so central to the original work. In this case, I definitely thought it would be interesting to have authors who might do non-Western spins on things, and I also really wanted the Indigenous storytelling tradition highlighted.
Q: How similar or different is the role of an editor of an anthology to that of the editor at the publisher publishing the anthology?
A: It’s pretty different! I work on the lineup with the publishing editor (Sarah), but I’m the one who reaches out to the authors, signs them up, negotiates with their agents, issues the contracts and payments, and does at least the first round of edits. Depending on the timeline of things, I might do multiple rounds with one or more authors before sending everything on to Sarah, so what she sees are already fairly polished drafts. Then she edits everything, sends it back to me, and I disseminate to each other and work through things with them until each story is final.
Once that happens, Sarah and I work on the story order together, I put everything in one document, and send it over. I also at some point need to write the introduction and acknowledgments, collect everyone’s bios, write bios of the original authors, and, in the cases of His Hideous Heart and At Midnight, source original versions of the works that are in the public domain so they can be included in the volume.
The final version for the publisher works much like when they handle a novel–they put it through production as a single volume, copy edit, lay it out and design it, etc. But each time it comes back to me, I have to deal with each author individually. That means that for copy edits, I get back one file, which I then send to all the authors, and then I get back fifteen different files, each of whose edits I have to transfer onto one master doc. Then this happens again with first pass pages, then proofreading queries… And of course, all the while, you have the regular Book stuff, like cover reveals and interviews and promoting when it’s available for review, etc.
So, yeah! It’s a lot! I do not advise people get in lightly! And I haven’t even mentioned tax season yet…
Q: What can we expect from the fairy tale retellings in At Midnight?
A: Definitely largely dark themes like the originals, but the authors have played with them in really interesting ways. YA is the perfect venue for exploring the questionable-to-toxic parenting in so many fairy tales, and you’ll definitely see that in a number of the stories in a central and intentional way. The magic in At Midnight tends to be steeped in various cultures, which I think makes for a very cool update to the originals. Of course there’s a lot of queer romance, which is always an improvement.
Q: And now onto the stories! Can you tell us a little about your story, “Say My Name”? Why did you want to retell “Rumplestiltskin”? (Did you choose to retell “Rumplestiltskin” because you like the original, or because you don’t like the original?)
A: I don’t have strong feelings about the original, per se, but I do like to play with stories that have questionable motivation. Really, though, the reason I chose it is because I’d once had a story idea I really loved for an anthology that didn’t sell, and because it was about a catfish, I immediately thought of reusing that element of it for a story in which someone was keeping part of their identity a mystery. My story is a little bonkers, and I personally think it’s hilarious, but readers are either gonna agree with me or say “WTF is this?” and there is no in between.
Jo asked if any contributors wanted to answer any of these questions, so here’s a little more participation:
Why do you think we’re so drawn to fairy tales and their retellings?
Anna-Marie McLemore: There’s something in fairy tales that speaks to our humanness, our best instincts, our worst impulses. They exist across cultural traditions for a reason. They talk to parts of us we often don’t know how to talk about.
Gita Trelease: I believe they express a truth we sense but don’t always acknowledge: that the inexplicable—which we sometimes call magic—exists in our everyday world. And they do it without fuss or explanation, which feels very true to me. A girl runs an errand in the woods and is greeted by a talking wolf. Another girl spins straw into gold. Buried bones sing. Keys bleed. Parents do reprehensible things. When we’re young, we take this strangeness for granted, only to forget it as we get older. But fairy tales whisper the reminder that our world is threaded with wonder and danger and things that don’t make sense…and only by recognizing this can we survive it.
What’s your favourite fairy tale? And your favourite author/collector(s) of fairy tales?
Gita Trelease: It’s impossible for me to choose, but the novel I’m working on now is in some ways a retelling of “The Singing, Springing Lark” so that’s the one I’ve been thinking about lately. It has a lot in common with “Beauty and the Beast” and includes the motif of seemingly useless gifts that magically save the day, which I just love. My favorite collectors are Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.
Stacey Lee: When I was a girl, I loved Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid. Though I’m glad Disney gave Ariel a better ending (and fun songs to sing), the original’s tragic ending definitely gave me more feels!
What are some of your favourite fairy tale retellings?
Anna-Marie McLemore: Ash by Malinda Lo, Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C Dao
Gita Trelease: There are so many, but I adore Angela Carter’s retellings in The Bloody Chamber, Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver, and Mary Zimmerman’s play, “The Secret in the Wings.”
Anything else you would like to add?
Gita Trelease: I used to teach a class on fairy tales and every semester my students would fall in love with the Grimms’ lesser-known tales, the weird ones they’d never heard of—I highly recommend checking them out.
A dazzling collection of retold and original fairy tales from fifteen acclaimed and bestselling YA writers, including Tracey Deonn and Melissa Albert
Fairy tales have been spun for thousands of years and remain among our most treasured stories. Weaving fresh tales with unexpected reimaginings, At Midnight brings together a diverse group of celebrated YA writers to breathe new life into a storied tradition. You’ll discover…
Dahlia Adler, “Rumplestiltskin”
Tracy Deonn, “The Nightingale”
H.E. Edgmon, “Snow White”
Hafsah Faizal, “Little Red Riding Hood”
Stacey Lee, “The Little Matchstick Girl”
Roselle Lim, “Hansel and Gretel”
Darcie Little Badger, “Puss in Boots”
Malinda Lo, “Frau Trude”
Alex London, “Cinderella”
Anna-Marie McLemore, “The Nutcracker”
Rebecca Podos, “The Robber Bridegroom”
Rory Power, “Sleeping Beauty”
Meredith Russo, “The Little Mermaid”
Gita Trelease, “Fitcher’s Bird”
and an all-new fairy tale by Melissa Albert