EK Johnston on Retelling Tales

By Jim Dean, July 4, 2016

I am a huge fan of EK Johnston’s A Thousand Nights – just published in paperback by Macmillan – so it’s great to have her on the site today to discuss retellings!

 

(Re)Telling Tales

I make no secret of the fact that I got started in writing through fanfiction (and, before that, hours as a child spent live action role-playing Star Wars and The Chronicles of Narnia in the backyard). It is quite natural to me to see a story that I have loved, and to want to pick it apart, find the cracks, and re-tell it. There is some element of this in all of my books so far, though A Thousand Nights is the most obvious of them, and it’s certainly an underlying theme for all of my ideas.

There are, I think, two primary reasons for this. The first is simply that everyone does it. All stories derive from a shared cultural history (even if you’re borrowing from someone else’s cultural history), and our archetypes are so firmly entrenched that they are nearly inescapable. I have chosen to embrace those archetypes and then, when they’re distracted, tickle them until they’re contorted into a new shape. I don’t invent things, but I do change them, and that’s what makes the story mine, as much as anyone’s story is their own.

The second reason is probably best described as “obstinacy”. There are, to put a point on it, so many stories about boys. Even the stories that are, theoretically, about girls are STILL about boys. With A Thousand and One Nights, for example, Scheherazade is relegated to being a plot device, and at the end of the story, she’s still married to her serial killer husband. I couldn’t do much to change that second part, but I did get to dig around in the “plot device” part. (This is called agency, by the way, and it’s something I find I require in all female characters whether I am writing them OR reading them.)

This blog post is supposed to be about what story I would most like to retell, and I guess the short answer is . . . all of them. I mean, I don’t have that kind of time, obviously, but I have faith in a lot of other YA writers to get the job done too. We’re articulate and we know where the stories we’re telling came from, and we’re not about to let that stop us.

(Sidebar: for reasons I’ve forgotten, I read CINDER, ASH, and SHADOWS ON THE MOON in the same week. They’re all Cinderella retellings, and more, they’re all “Asian” (that’s not good enough: they are Chinese, Chinese, and Japanese respectively), and all three of them are MASSIVELY different. It was delightful to read them all back to back. I like that we get to do that with so many stories.)

I love retellings, and YA retellings in particular. I’m endlessly glad that there are so many of them, and that we get to read versions of the same story retold in so many different ways. And I really enjoy writing them too. Which is quite handy, because I have a few more planned.

E-K-Johnston-Author-Photo

 

What do you think?