The Big Idea: Merrie Haskell

It’s always a delight when someone I know as a friend makes her debut as a novelist; I get to point and go “Hey! I know her!” So it is with Merrie Haskell, who I have known for several years and whose first novel The Princess Curse arrived in stores yesterday, to no small amount of acclaim (“With a good sense of humor, an able and empowered protagonist, and a highly original take on this tale, Haskell’s story gives readers much to enjoy” — Publishers Weekly). Now Merrie’s popped over to share her big idea for her novel — which was not only a big idea for the book, but a personal revelation for her.

MERRIE HASKELL:

I’ve always been afraid of the Underworld. And outhouses.

Let’s start with the Underworld.

Like most writers, I started out as a little kid with a big imagination, and while I would have gladly embraced the chance to visit another world–as a long lost princess-wizard-dragon-tamer, preferably–I never, ever, ever, EVER wanted to visit the Underworld. Any version of it. Not the Christian Hell, for certain; I was super-scared of that on a visceral level. But I also hated Hades, Avernus, Annwn, and any other variant I ran across. I imagined the dead as a passive zombie horde, at best. And the monster under my bed not only had long, Grim Reaper fingers, but a portal to the Underworld.

I tried to come to terms with my fear by writing fiction about it, of course. I had a couple of false starts in my teens, when I was first able to think rationally about why this stuff was scary. I kept trying to retell the Hades and Persephone story, because it was enough like “Beauty and the Beast” that it appealed to me (I loved retold fairy tales then as I do now).

Cut to some years later. I was retelling the story of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” I had boldly set the story in a made-up region of Romania I named Sylvania. (Sylvania, next to Transylvania. Transylvania means “beyond the forest.” So Sylvania is, therefore, the forest that Transylvania is beyond.)

Why did I choose Romania? For no other reason than we suddenly had Romanians in the family, and the stories were interesting. My aunt went for a visit and came back with pictures of vast modern palaces and horse-drawn wagons piled with hay, and my imagination was stirred.

My aunt also came back from Romania with several pictures of outhouses. I must confess, my sense of humor often has a scatological bent, but I’m not a big fan of outhouses; I was very afraid I would fall into an outhouse pit when I was younger (I never put it together with my fear of the Underworld, but I see how they might be related now).

But these Romanian outhouses had history. Ceausescu, the Romanian dictator, was known for housing “improvement” projects that tore down sturdy, traditional Romanian houses to erect grim apartment blocks in their place. Only, he wouldn’t factor in any plumbing improvements, so people were forced out of their homes and relocated to concrete monstrosities with no indoor toilets. They’d still have their outhouses, out back of their otherwise modern living quarters.

The point here is not that things in Romania sucked under Ceaucescu (though they did). Rather, the outhouse story illuminates the country’s history of constantly dwelling between the proverbial rock and the hard place. It may look like a story about a narcissistic dictator’s ambitions versus the realities of plumbing, but builds on Romania’s history as a buffer between the Ottoman Empire and the Hungarians, and on back to the Dacian conquest by Rome. Romania is, in short, conflict. And conflict makes for good story.

Learning about Romania illuminated a gap in my knowledge of the world. I’d never understood that the Dacians had become so Romanized after their conquest that they called themselves Roman from then on–hence the name of the country. I’d never even realized Romanian is a Romance language, more closely related to Italian than anything else. As a long time fan of all things Roman Empire, and as an educated person, I felt like, well, a jerk for not knowing even this much about Romania.

The more I learned about Romania, the more fascinated I became. Romanian fairy tales include a wealth of stories outside the usual “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty”: Fat Frumos (“handsome boy”, a.k.a. Prince Charming) and his Marvelous Horse; Ileana Cosanzeana, the most beautiful of fairies; dragons that steal the stars and moon. But what fascinated me most was the zmeu, a humanoid dragon who woos young women to the Otherworld… Otherworld, Underworld? This all tumbled together so well with the story of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” The princesses go dancing underground every night. What if the reason was because a zmeu was luring them there?

And what if the zmeu wasn’t the true villain of the piece at all? What if Lords of the Underworld always get their brides through kidnapping and coercion, because they know no better way? What if Hades, in kidnapping Persephone, was just doing as his subterranean brethren have always done?

What if the Lords of the Underworld choose young women with a connection to plants and life, like Persephone, for a specific reason?

As the daughter of the Earth goddess, Persephone brings rebirth to the Underworld. What if the Underworld dies if it doesn’t have a queen to grant rebirth? I had chosen an herbalist as my main character from the beginning because I thought that would be more interesting than yet another princess. But suddenly, the book changed, and the twelve dancing princesses were red herrings in the quest to save the Underworld. To save the very thing that had scared me throughout my entire childhood.

And that ended up being the crux of the book: what if being scared of the Underworld is the only way to fail?

It’s a big idea, confronting death and rebirth and the Romanian Underworld, but it’s easier to write about these sorts of things when they sneak up on you. When you’re three quarters of the way through the book and only then realize you’re facing your childhood fears–and researching another culture you knew almost nothing about six months before, and whose language you barely speak–it’s too late to stop.

I’m not so scared of the Underworld anymore. Some of that is growing up, and some of that is writing this book. But as for outhouses… maybe I’ll come to terms with those some other year.

—-

The Princess Curse: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Read the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

23 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Merrie Haskell

  1. Sounds right up my alley. I popped over to B&N and ordered it for the nook. What great timing! I will be on the road for a couple days, and was wanting a new book to travel with. Yours sounds terrific.

  2. I clicked through to read the sample pages, and got totally hooked. Sadly, I’ll have to put off buying until tonight, when I have time to negotiate an argument between my e-reader and the formats it’s being offered in.

  3. MERRIE!!! Happy Book! I have to say that I am entirely full of squee that you are having a BIG IDEA POST HERE ON WHATEVER. /allcapsbattiness

    I can’t wait to read it! Your book is next on my book list. It sounds all manners of awesome and right up my metaphorical alley.

  4. Congratulations on the book. Now, is there a Păcală like character in the book? Ask you Romanian family about the reference if you don’t know it already. Though I guess that’s less of a fairy tale and more fable… hmmm

    Anyway, congrats, looks interesting.

  5. I will read te book. I’m from Romania. The story about missing plumbing is, at least, exaggerated. We’ll see.

  6. #10

    How so? In Bucharest and the major cities sure that wasn’t the case. But on the outskirts and “la ţară” it was most definitely the case he built apartment blocks without indoor bathrooms (they did have water however) and outdoor outhouses. After the fact people would build their own bathrooms inside by rigging up something plumbing to the existing water supply and drain.

  7. This sounds interesting; it’ll go on my List. (There are too many things on my List already!)

    And the cover art is wonderful, too.

  8. This sounds like a wonderful book. I’m sad I won’t actually have the time to read it until the semester is over, but I’ll definitely be buying it then. And if my past post-semester novel reading frenzies are any indication, I’ll read the whole thing in a day.

  9. What a great day to re-find your blog after a lapse of several years. This novel sounds absolutely perfect for my Greek myth loving daughter.

  10. Looking forward to it, Ms. Haskell.

    Oddly, on this New Year’s Eve last, the date of a decades-long friend of the family attending my cousins Tom & Denise’s party offered a trivia question which she claimed no one whom she had asked had ever successfully answered: “What are the five Romance languages?”

    Many of my cousins are teachers and after the simultaneous rapid-fire chorus of “ItalianFrenchSpanishPortugueseand..uh” with a straggling “Latin?” coda ventured by one of the college-aged kids a silence settled on the group, the woman smiled smugly. Feeling like a road & rep-weary Shane hunched over in a quiet corner of saloon nursing a sarsapirilla, I could nearly feel the weight of the stares as all the heads swiveled in my direction.

    I heard the date inquire, “Why does he have his eyes closed?”

    “Because,” I explained, opening them, “I needed to visualize the map of the Mediterranean — Romanian.”

    It was my clan’s turn to smile smugly. Sometimes being the Asperger Kid has its social benefits.

    JJB

  11. I am acquainted with Merrie from Codex. Having seen several different versions of the cover for this book, I think the final version is rather delightful. Best success with it, Merrie! Nice signal boost, John!

  12. Matt @ #18 —

    I think at the party an “in-group” mutually-accepted “among non-linguists” implied-premise constraint-qualifier controlled, such that only modern **major** — pegged at say a threshold of **the** Officially Recognized National Language of a largish [10+ megapeeps] independent, modern Nation, f’rinstance — Romance languages were under consideration.

    Because, y’know, there’s being an Aspie and there’s being an Aspie who’s striven to learn that there’re social-interaction rules at work at social gatherings, like on a friendly discussion board.

    I may be an ass yet I exert myself to be an amiable, mindful ass.

    The relevant subject here which I addressed was Ms. Haskell’s epiphany about the fate of the Dacians and, I hoped, a faintly amusingly-rendered recent anecdote of a parallel epiphany of my own. I’m confident now and was conscious then that there were several million Americanglish speakers of recent Romanian descent who could have provided the specific answer sought much more briskly than I.

    However, they were not present at the party and neither were you, an egregious oversight by my cousins I’m sure.

    JJB

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