Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Maureen McGowan

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Maureen McGowan

What do ninjas, vampires and fairy-tale princesses have in common? Maybe not a lot — at least, not until Maureen McGowan got her hands on them. With her new Twisted Tales series, Maureen takes the popular "princess" trend and turned it right on its head. She talks to Open Book about writing the first two books in the series, Cinderella: Ninja Warrior and Sleeping Beauty: Vampire Slayer, both just released with Raincoast Books.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new YA series, Twisted Tales. What was your inspiration for it?

Maureen McGowan:

The books are adventurous adaptations of traditional fairy tales with heroines who fight hard to save themselves — and still get the prince. The stories also present the reader with choices at three points, which affect how the stories unfold.

The initial spark for this series wasn’t actually mine. A freelance editor who had seen my (unpublished) work, Bev Katz Rosenbaum, asked if I’d like a shot at writing a proposal for updated fairy tales with a choose-your-own-adventure element to be targeted to a particular publisher.

At first I wasn’t certain, but when I started to brainstorm ideas, I got very excited at the idea of “fixing” certain elements in the traditional tales and creating heroines who weren’t just waiting around for a princely rescue. I wanted to create determined and active heroines inside stories that are fast-paced and fun. Why should adventure stories just be for boys?

OB:

The first two books in the series, Sleeping Beauty: Vampire Slayer and Cinderella: Ninja Warrior, were recently released. Why did you choose these two fairytale princesses as the subjects of the first two books?

MM:

The publisher asked for the series to start with Cinderella. Afraid they’d want it to be “too sweet” and I wouldn’t have creative freedom, I asked the editor, “Can there be ninjas?” I was mostly joking at the time, testing my boundaries, but she said yes, and I immediately had an image of ninjas dropping from trees to attack Cinderella. I thought that was funny and could also be action-packed. I also liked the idea of exploring what would happen if, say, Cinderella didn’t go to the ball.

The title for Sleeping Beauty: Vampire Slayer came to me before the actual story idea. (At the time, the working title for Cinderella was Not Your Mother’s Cinderella Story.) But I loved the idea of retelling Sleeping Beauty with vampires — the idea of a girl cursed to sleep was always dark and creepy to me. Once I started to think of ways to make a girl who’s asleep, in the original, the point of view character, the details of how my character was cursed fell into place. Everyone else in her kingdom is cursed to fall asleep at dusk, just as she wakes, so she’s alone in the night with the vampires.

OB:

When you are writing these books, how much obligation do you feel to stay true to the original tale, and how much do you allow yourself to play with the characters and the plot lines?

MM:

There are no vampires in the original Sleeping Beauty?

I felt my only and main obligation to the originals was to deliver happy endings. I know not all traditional fairy tales have happy endings, but I’ve chosen to retell stories that do have happily-ever-after endings, with the tried and true themes of good triumphs over evil and the magic of finding true love. I decided that if I was including the words “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty” in the titles, I had to deliver on those themes, even if I added more of my own. Beyond the typical fairy tale themes, my Cinderella story is also about believing in yourself, seeing beyond superficial things to the true person inside; and my Sleeping Beauty story is about the dangers of prejudice and a child coping with parents who bicker — learning it’s not your fault (even if you’re literally cursed).

Beyond that, I didn’t feel much obligation to stick to the original stories. I included more of the traditional story elements in Cinderella, but “fixed” those I didn’t like. For example, if life was so bad with her stepmother, why didn’t she just leave? I wanted to create a scenario where Cinderella was literally trapped and already fighting to escape when the story starts. I also never liked the idea that the prince couldn’t recognize her the day after falling in love, without the help of a shoe. Or that she was expected to love him simply because he was a prince.

It was fun to mix things up and drop in winks to the original story. Depending on which choices the reader makes, Cinderella doesn’t necessarily even choose to go to the ball or get a fancy dress. But no matter which route you choose, the prince falls for her anyway. And she him. And she battles and defeats her (very evil) stepmother.

OB:

What does your average writing day look like?

MM:

I’m lucky to be writing full time right now. My day varies a lot depending on whether I’m working on a first draft or revising. While working on a first draft, I probably put in six to seven hour days, but I’d guess I only spend three to four of those actually writing. The rest is spent answering e-mails, pulling my hair out, social networking and randomly surfing the web. (Probably mixed in with some Tetris or whatever time-wasting game I’m currently obsessed with.)

Once I get a first draft on paper, I’m more focused, or at least can work at it for longer stretches at a time. That said, I rarely get going much before noon, but typically work well into the evening.

Now that I have books on the shelves, I’m finding it challenging, but fun, to add time to my day for promotion. Luckily, some of that fits in with my social networking habit. (Follow me on Twitter @MaureenMcGowan and on Facebook.)

OB:

What are some of the biggest challenges to writing YA fiction?

MM:

I think contemporary, reality-based YA must be very challenging indeed, and I haven’t yet tackled one. To get the voice right so it’s believable and not pandering, and current while timeless. Tricky. So far, I’ve stuck to fantasy and/or futuristic in the YA world. In those settings, you still have to create believable, smart, strong characters, whom today’s teens can relate to, but you can worry less about the actual words they use and the cultural references. I like making up my own worlds.

I think YA fiction has to be fast paced. At least my favourite current YA titles are fast paced. I’ve written in other genres and wish I’d tried YA sooner. I always imagined that my voice was too dark for the YA market, but I realize now my assumption was based on my ignorance of current books being targeted at kids. I think some of the darkest, most interesting popular fiction being published today is for the YA market.

OB:

What advice do you have for someone who is trying to get finished (or get started) on their first novel?

MM:

Just do it. Seriously. That’s what it’s ultimately all about. Challenge yourself to complete a certain amount every day or every week, and then stick to it. It’s amazing how five pages a week eventually turns into a novel. Now, it may not be a finished novel, it may be something that still needs a lot of work, or that you may need to put in a drawer in favour of starting something new, but I guarantee you’ll have learned a lot in the process.

Developing a support group also helps. When I first started writing with a goal to being published, I joined a critique group of other writers serious about being professional, improving and challenging each other. Nine years in, I think we have close to twenty books out between us (I should count them!). I was the least experienced when we formed and I’m not sure I would have finished even one book if it weren’t for them.

OB:

What were your favourite fairytales as a child, and why?

MM:

A lot of people have asked me this question and I wish I had a better answer. I was deathly afraid of witches when I was a child and don’t remember liking fairy tales. I think Hansel and Gretel stuck in my mind more than most, but I think it was the image of the birds eating their breadcrumb trail. That, to me, was terrifying, and although I turned out to be a fairly adventurous person, to this day, no matter where I’m traveling in the world, I always have a map and some money and a way to get home!

OB:

What will be the next book in the Twisted Tales series? Can you give us a teaser?

MM:

I wish I could announce the next book, but I can’t… But I will give a hint that it does a complete gender reversal on a much-loved fairy tale.


Maureen McGowan has always been making up stories — her mother called it lying, her teachers creative talent — but sidetracked by a persistent practical side, it took her a few years to channel her energy into writing novels. Before seeing the light, she was: an auditor, a knowledge engineer, a software development manager, a product development director and a hedge-fund CFO.

She finally pummeled her sensible side into submission to let her creative side run free. Aside from books and writing, she’s passionate about art, dance, films, fine handcrafted objects and shoes. Born and raised in various Canadian cities, (okay, born in one, raised in many), her previous career moved her to Northern California and Philadelphia for a number of years. She now lives and writes in Toronto, Canada. Find out more at her website, maureenmcgowan.com.

For more information about Cinderella: Ninja Warrior and Sleeping Beauty: Vampire Slayer, please visit the Raincoast Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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