What was appealing about using the Grimm Brothers’ tales as inspiration for your own stories?
I love those old fairy tales - I mean, the real ones. But it breaks my heart that most people don't know them. Ask any average person, child or adult, to name every fairy tale they can. Almost everyone will name the same seven or eight tales: Snow White, Little Red, Cinderella, and so forth. I wanted to create my own story--and simultaneously show off how great those old, gory tales really are.
How do you take lots of fairy tale story plots and not only bring them altogether, but put your own twist, voice and style into the writing? Does it take lots of practice?
Indeed it does! In fact, what I do is I find strange, funny, gory tales in my big book of Grimm, and then I practice telling them. First I tell them to the lamp. Then the ceiling. Then the sofa. The sofa has unreasonably high standards. Then my wife. Then a friend or two. Finally, I try them out in front of kids. As I tell the tale, I apologize for what's weird about them, usually in the form of jokes. Sometimes kids suggest the jokes during the telling. For example, once I was telling Aschenputtle (the Grimm Cinderella), and when I described two doves landing on Aschenputtle's shoulders, a kid shouted, "Do they poop on her?" The answer was "No." But I laughed so hard, right in front of two hundred kids, that I decided that question had to enter the permanent rendition of the tale. When I finally wrote down Aschenputtle, for THE GRIMM CONCLUSION, I believe you will find that joke right there in one of my narrative interjections.
Which leads to the question of whether the kids who contribute to my retellings share in my royalties. The answer is yes. They get 0% of each book I sell. Paid quarterly.
Is it difficult to write stories that are gruesome or scary, for a younger reader? How do you keep your audience from being spooked by what they’ve read?
Keep them from being spooked? Why would I keep them from being spooked? I'm trying to scare the bejeezus out of those little boogers. Actually, kids love to be scared. Ask a group of nine-year-olds whether they'd like to hear a funny story or a scary story, and they'll ask for a scary story every time. But I do try to balance the scares with humour. In my books, the narrator frequently interjects with warnings, wry observations and potty humor in order to remind kids that these stories are just that - stories - meant to entertain and enlighten. When kids are laughing and screaming in equal measure through a tale, you have achieved, I think, the ultimate entertainment. If they're thinking, too - well then, that, I think, is the ultimate art.
What is your favourite original Grimm Fairy Tale and why?
How could I possibly choose? Here are a few that combine thrills, laughter, and the peculiar, matter of fact magic that makes Grimm immortal: The Juniper Tree; Aschenputtle; Snow White; The True Bride; The Three Golden Hairs; The Robber Bridegroom; Fledgling. If you read those tales and tell me you don't like fairy tales, I'll give you a list of mental institutions to commit yourself to.
Did any of your pupils inspire any of the characters or situations in your stories?
Yes and no. They didn’t inspire the individual characters but they did inspire me to write these stories as a whole. Let me explain. You see, I was supposed to be the substitute librarian at the school where I taught, and read a story to some second graders. I took a book off the shelf called GRIMM'S TALES FOR YOUNG AND OLD and opened to a story called Faithful Johannes. In it, two kids get their heads cut off... by their parents. I thought, "Can I read this to second graders? Will I get fired?" And then I thought, "Let's find out!" So I read it to them, making jokes as I went and trying to make things not too terrifying. And afterwards, half of them were completely traumatized, and the other half asked me to make the story into a book. So I did.
How did you get into writing professionally?
I started writing books because I wanted to tell stories to my students. It's how I connect with kids, I think. With people in general. So I was telling stories all the time. That eventually morphed into writing these stories down, which in turn morphed into writing books for young people (who are generally better than old people). And as for how I was actually discovered, I got lucky. I was teaching in Brooklyn, and the mother of one of my students was a literary agent. She actually saw a play I wrote for the kids - essentially a plagiarized version of Disney's Sword in the Stone (itself plagiarized from TH White). Also, it starred puppets. Finally, the students had written the dialogue. So, in short, a real showcase of my talents. This mom came up to me afterwards and told me, "That was good." I was like, "Uh, what?" But from then on, I knew she might be interested in something I wrote. So when I started writing down the stories I told to my students, I showed them to her. She has been my agent ever since. Much to her chagrin.
Do you have a special place you write, or a writing routine?
Yes, I do have a time and place I like to write. I like to write first thing in the morning, before even I have breakfast. I take some toast and tea out into my garden, before anyone else is awake, while the birds are singing and the cats are still slinking around the edge of my backyard trying to steal an early bird for breakfast. That is the time I feel most relaxed and the least self-critical and the happiest. I do all my best writing then and there.
Do you have any projects in the pipeline you can share with us?
Being the Star Wars fan that I am, I was thrilled (and slightly terrified) to be asked to write a new novel based on The Empire Strikes Back. It will be unlike any Star Wars book before it: it's subtitled "So You Want to Be a Jedi"; I retell Episode V as a training manual for aspiring Jedi - with tests and lessons between each chapter. It's nuts. I am very proud of it. It'll be available worldwide in July 2015.
And more in the vein of my previous books, I’m working on another novel tentatively titled THE HOLY GREYHOUND. It will take place in the Middle Ages - specifically the year 1241, in France. I am using a variety of medieval texts as sources for stories, characters, and events. Also, medieval stories are awesome. In the life of Saint Margaret, for example, she encounters a dragon that kills people by farting on them. That definitely makes it into the book.
Where can fans of you and your work find out more about you?
They can visit my website, www.adamgidwitz.com, which has tons of information on my books, resources for teachers, and a list of all my upcoming events - in case you want to get scared in person (I'm even better at scaring you in person). They can also follow me on Twitter at @adamgidwitz, or friend me on Facebook. For more about fairy tales, and why it's okay (even a good thing) to scare kids, you can check out the essay I wrote for The Wall Street Journal entitled "In Defense of Real Fairy Tales."
What are your top 3 writing tips for budding writers, who’d like to write sinister and dark tales?
The most important thing in writing a book is to imagine. Just get yourself in a quiet space, get a pencil and a piece of paper (or a computer), and start telling a story. You do NOT have to start at the beginning. Sometimes I like to think of the most exciting part, and start there. Then I can go back to the beginning and fill in the details that get me to the exciting part. For young people, writing your stories down isn't even that important. Just imagining is. Imagining is not playing video games (even though I love video games), or surfing on the internet. Imagining is staring out the window, playing with toys, reading, making up stories on the basketball court or in the park. That's you writing a book. You can write it down later. That's what I did. I spent my whole life imagining. I only became a writer in my mid-twenties. But I already had strong writing muscles, because I spent my whole childhood imagining.
If you were picking a winning ghost story, what would you be looking out for … ?
It has to make you laugh, it has to make you scream, and it has to speak to your deepest emotions, without ever seeming to.