Fiona Price is a Melbourne author whose recent release is Let Down Your Hair and we were able to find out a little more about her in this recent interview.
Can you tell us what inspired you to become a writer?
I’ve been a storyteller since before I was old enough to read. My parents tell me that when I was two or three I didn’t pretend my toys were babies, like other little girls: I used them to act out little stories. This turned into a concrete desire to be a writer when I was about six years old and read E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. I loved it, and read it over 30 times, putting a tick in the front cover each time with a pink marker.
Let Down Your Hair is your debut fiction, can you tell us what drew you to base novels on fairy tales?
When I was in second grade, my teacher read us Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes, which retells six fairy tales in comical rhyming verse. I particularly loved his version of Little Red Riding Hood, where Red shoots the wolf and turns him into a fur coat! After that I started trying to write my own ‘fractured fairy tales’, one of which ended up turning into Let Down Your Hair.
Can you tell us a little about Let Down Your Hair?
I’ve always loved hair, and the way it comes in so many colours and textures. Add to that my fondness for retelling fairytales, and it was inevitable that I was one day going to try my hand at retelling Rapunzel. My first idea was to make Rapunzel a flight attendant, trapped in a horizontal tower in the sky with a domineering flight manager. Eventually, though, I abandoned this idea and decided to set the story in the “ivory tower”: a prestige university.
The details took shape after I fell pregnant with my first child. Conscious that the baby might be a girl, I found myself looking with new eyes at the way women’s bodies are judged and sexualised. If this child turned out to be a daughter, I thought, what could I do prepare her to deal with the pressure to be a thin, pretty sex toy for men? I decided I’d just have to teach her to rise above those messages, because in a world filled with screens and billboards, there’d be no way to stop her from hearing them.
Then I started thinking. If I did want to protect her from sexist messages, what would I have to do? I’d have to vet everything she watched, read and saw. I’d also have to home-school her, so she didn’t pick up sexist messages from other kids. In short, what I’d have to do would be raise her in controlled isolation, the way the witch did to Rapunzel. And with that thought, Professor Andrea Rampion stomped into my head, determined to raise her abandoned granddaughter in a totally feminist environment.
I found the story to be very black and white, no real shades of grey. Do you think the original fairy tales are that black and white?
To me, a story which is ‘black and white’ is simplistic. The original fairy tales tend to be quite black and white, because they’re short and simple. Their characters are basic archetypes like Wicked Witch and Beautiful Princess, who are either totally good or totally bad. Usually the good characters are beautiful and get happy endings, and the bad characters are ugly and come to a bad end. We don’t get any shades of grey because we don’t get enough detail about the characters’ pasts and what motivates them to do the things they do.
In the Rapunzel fairytale, the Witch is ‘bad’ and Rapunzel and the Prince are ‘good’. We don’t know why the Witch does such bad things: we’re left to assume that she does them because she’s wicked. In the real world, people are far more complex than that.
I don’t think Let Down Your Hair is black and white at all. No-one in the novel is wholly bad or wholly good. For example, Andrea isn’t a simple ‘black’ villain. Her motivations are good: she wants to protect Sage from sexism so she doesn’t end up like her mother. It’s the way she goes about protecting Sage that’s bad, and the reason for this has to do with her personality and her past. By the end of the book, she’s learned to question her actions and changed as a person. I also present feminism in a very “shades of grey” way: ultimately it helps Sage, but I show its flaws and it’s certainly not presented as the answer to all her problems!
What other fairy tales are you planning to base novels on?
At the moment, I’m deciding between two fairy tales for my next retelling. A couple of years ago, I had an interesting idea for a Snow White novel, which I was planning to start this year. Then, about a month ago, I read something online that gave me an idea for a Cinderella retelling which is so deliciously evil I’m tempted to write that one first! When I’ve finished the book I’m currently working on I’ll have to decide.
When is your favourite time of day to write?
I usually prefer to write late at night, when it’s cool and quiet. These days I make sure I have a writing laptop which doesn’t have internet access for writing so that I don’t get distracted by social media!
What was the last book you read?
A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, by Xiaolu Guo. It’s the story of a young Chinese woman who goes to London for a year to learn English. I’m half Chinese and half Anglo-Australian myself, so it was really interesting to see how the author explored the differences between the Chinese and English people.
Which authors have most inspired your career?
I was greatly inspired by Robin McKinley, who wrote ‘Beauty’, the first novel-length fairy tale retelling I ever read. Other authors who’ve inspired me include Antonia Forest, Michael Ende (who wrote The Neverending Story and Momo), David Lodge and Peter Goldsworthy.
Can you tell us a bit about what are you working on at the moment?
At the moment I’m redrafting a fantasy novel called ‘Pictures in the Sand’. It’s the first of a trilogy set on an island where everyone has a coloured griffin tattooed on their left hand when they turn twelve. The colour tells people what your rank is. The Royal family get red tattoos, because red is the highest colour of the rainbow, and the lowest ranked people get purple tattoos.
What does being a woman mean to you?
On one hand, being a women means a lot of good things. It means I was able to grow two new people inside my body. It means I can show vulnerability and weakness without being judged for it the way men are. It means I get more freedom of choice with how I dress: I’ve known men who’d love to do creative things with their clothes and hair, but are too scared of how they’ll be judged to do it.
On the other hand, being a woman definitely has a down side. A lot of this also has to do with social pressure. Women are under pressure to “look good”, and people tend to focus on their looks first and dismiss or ignore what they do and say. They’re under pressure to ‘catch a man’, get married and have children by a certain age. There’s also this idea that woman are carers, who should put other people’s needs and wants ahead of their own. As a woman, I’ve felt all of these pressures, and they can be really stressful.
For both men and woman, I’ve now decided, is to grow strong and independent enough to shrug off those social pressures about what you should do, and make your own choices (within reason, of course!). I’m not there yet, but I hope to be some day!