Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Q&A with Hester Velmans, Author of Slipper

Please join me in welcoming Hester Velmans to Let Them Read Books! Hester is celebrating the release imagines the historical origins of the classic tale of Cinderella, and I recently had the chance to ask her some questions about her inspiration and the challenges of reimagining a beloved tale. Read on, and leave a comment telling us your favorite movie version of Cinderella!

Her life is the inspiration for the world’s most famous story...

Lucinda, a penniless English orphan, is abused and exploited as a cinder-sweep by her aristocratic relatives. On receiving her sole inheritance—a pair of glass-beaded slippers—she runs away to France in pursuit of an officer on whom she has a big crush. She joins the baggage train of Louis XIV’s army, and eventually finds her way to Paris. There she befriends the man who will some day write the world’s most famous fairy tale, Charles Perrault, and tells him her life story.

There is more: a witch hunt, the sorry truth about daydreams, and some truly astonishing revelations, such as the historical facts behind the story of the Emperor's new clothes, and a perfectly reasonable explanation for the compulsion some young women have to kiss frogs.

This is not the fairy tale you remember.

Hello, Hester! Thank you so much for taking the time to visit Let Them Read Books!

What inspired you to write your own take on the Cinderella tale?

I wanted to draw a distinction between the romantic fairy tale we all know and the unromantic reality of life in the late 17th Century, the time period in which the story was first written down by the French author Charles Perrault. Determined to make the background and setting to be as authentic as possible, I immersed myself in the language, habits and social life of the period. My research led me to recreating Cinderella’s life as if she had been a real historical character. 

Can you talk about some of the challenges and rewards of reimagining a classic tale for today's readers?

The challenge: to make the main points of the classic tale recognizable, while twisting them into a form that would resonate with today’s readers. I wanted to avoid sentimentality or magic tricks, striving instead for psychological credibility and historical realism.

The reward: the pure fun of taking familiar fairy tale tropes and inventing perfectly reasonable explanations for them, like the real-life king who could well have been the model for the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes, or the superstition that might have led to the story of the Princess and the Frog.

What type of research did you do to bring Lucinda's world to life?

Not only did I read everything I could lay my hands on (or look up) about 17th Century European history, I also spent hours traipsing around museums peering at 17th Century canvases, noting down all the little details I could find on dress, furnishings, food, activities; even mannerisms and facial expressions. I also immersed myself in the literature of the period—e.g. Tom Jones, Gulliver’s Travels, Samuel Pepys’s Diary, paying particular attention to the language. Since I am also a translator, I am obsessed with the power of words, and in writing this book I took care to choose words and turns of phrase that would make it sound authentic without making it archaic, or quaint, or hard to follow.

Did you discover anything in your research that surprised you?

The greatest surprise was that nobody seemed to have heard of Charles Perrault. I thought his was a household name, like the Brothers Grimm (who lived 100 years later). I also found that there are no biographies of Perrault, who, as I discovered, was a fascinating and important historical character.

Charles Perrault, author of Cinderella (and Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, and Puss in Boots, to name a few) is often credited as the inventor of the modern fairy tale. If you could sit down with him today, what would you ask him?

If I had the chance to sit down and interview Perrault (and if he’d had a chance to read my book), I’d ask him if I had any of the facts right! I would also want to know if he wrote the tales for his own children, or if, as I suspect, he wrote them to please the ladies at Louis XIV’s court. 

What's your favorite movie version of Cinderella and why?

The original Disney version, of course. It was the first movie I ever saw as a child. It was a movie to make a little girl dream. I particularly loved the birds and mice who were Cinderella’s little helpers. It wasn’t until I was a bit older that I began wondering why Cinderella was only considered worthy of marrying the prince after proving she had the smallest feet in the land. It didn’t seem fair, to be judged on the size of your feet!

I’m also fond of spotting the Cinderella theme in many of my favorite movies, e.g. Pretty Woman, Grease, Pride and Prejudice, and Mean Girls.

And lastly, what are you working on now? Will we be seeing more fairy tale retellings?

Maybe I’ll have to write a biography of Charles Perrault, since no one else has done it. The novel I’m working on now is set in the last year of World War II in Amsterdam, when food supplies were cut off by the Nazis, and many civilians died of starvation. It isn’t a fairy tale, but, as in my other books, there are fairy tale aspects to it.

About the Author:

Hester Velmans is a novelist and translator of literary fiction. Born in Amsterdam, she had a nomadic childhood, moving from Holland to Paris, Geneva, London and New York. After a hectic career in international TV news, she moved to the hills of Western Massachusetts to devote herself to writing. Hester’s first book for middle-grade readers, Isabel of the Whales, was a national bestseller, and she wrote a follow up, Jessaloup’s Song, at the urging of her fans. She is a recipient of the Vondel Prize for Translation and a National Endowment of the Arts Translation Fellowship. For more, visit her website at www.hestervelmans.com.

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