The Big Idea: Alethea Kontis

It’s not a joke when I tell you that the first time I met Alethea Kontis, she reminded me of a fairy-tale princess. It had to do most immediately with her Disney-esque hair and eyes, but the resemblance went more than skin-deep as well, as her personal wit, charm and gumption — all characteristics of the species — quickly showed. Now, Kontis isn’t a fairy-tale princess (or if she is, she is of the “self-rescuing” sort), but it turns out she does have quite a fascination with fairy tales, which shows up in her debut novel, Enchanted. Even more fittingly, that fascination with fairy tales has its start in her real world.

ALETHEA KONTIS:

Once upon a time there was a little girl named Alethea who dressed like a fairy tale gypsy, befriended trees, and had really big ideas.

That little girl was me.

I was supposed to be a New Year’s baby. Instead, I showed up almost two weeks late and ruined my mother’s ski trip. Encouraged by three hours of resentful snowshoeing, I popped out on the morning of January 11, 1976. It was a Sunday. I am a Sunday’s Child. Blithe and bonny and good and gay.

I’ve always hated that stupid nursery rhyme.

Who wants “blithe and bonny and good and gay” as a quality? My life goals were to be weird and mysterious. I wanted to walk the fine line between good and evil, constantly plagued by the very sexy dark side. I wanted to write disturbing and real prose inspired by my tragic upbringing.

But noooooo, I had to be a freaking Jedi raised in a Norman Rockwell painting. Darkness took one look at me and threw in the towel. My parents named me TRUTH, for gods’ sake. Hopeless. Completely hopeless. I was a stuck up stick in the mud with two goody shoes that craved adventure like Lorelei Lee craves diamonds, but I was always too damned scared to do anything about it.

So I read, a lot, about all the impossible adventures I wanted to be part of. And when I’d burned through all twenty library books and my two weeks weren’t up yet, I wrote to fill the gap. I wrote everything: myths and stories and comic strips and greeting cards and anti-drug pamphlets and poems–rotten amounts of rotten poetry that’s cute when you’re ten and pathetic when you’re in high school. No one told me what I could or couldn’t do, so I just did it all.

And every night when that first star came out in the darkening sky, I wished for a ship. This magical ship was going to show up out of nowhere and take me on the fabulous adventure that had been chomping at the bit waiting on me to arrive. I wanted the fairy tale. And not in the Julia Roberts way.

I chose to take the whole writing thing seriously in 2003. The moment I did, two very influential people popped into my life: Orson Scott Card and Andre Norton (best fairy godparents ever).  Uncle Orson taught me that I’d had the power all along to take these goody two shoes (Ruby slippers! Who knew?) wherever I wanted to go. Miss Andre taught me that even the smallest things were magical to someone. They both brought home the idea that writers–these architects of adventure I had worshipped forever–were people too. The only differences between them and me were a few decades and an unprecedented amount of Butt in Chair.

In the spring of 2004, I got my first book contract (AlphaOops: The Day Z Went First) without even really trying. In fairy tales, this is usually where it skips to the “…and she lived Happily Ever After” bit. Oh, those tricksy Grimms and their “good parts” versions. Such is the way of the storyteller. Keep your audience hooked all the way to the end, even if you have to skim over certain less-interesting facts.

That’s never been enough for me.

Why did the frog prince stay with that princess? Sure, he needed out of that spell, but she was a bitch who lied to get what she wanted, went back on her word, and then tried to kill him so she wouldn’t have to fulfill her promise. Were Cinderella and Prince Charming really in love? He saw a pretty face across a room and danced with her three nights in a row, yeah. She obviously made such an impression on him that when he came calling later with shoe in hand, he rode away with the wrong sister twice before getting it right.  I can make a daisy chain, but how does one realistically weave a shirt out of nettles? And how does a sweet, innocent girl like Snow White grow into someone who takes pleasure in maiming her stepmother in front of her entire wedding party?

My dad is a storyteller. I know how this works. I know how to listen between the lines for the hyperboleless truth. Maybe these folk tales and nursery rhymes really did happen a long time ago, and over countless dinner tables they’ve boiled down to “good parts” versions so small that what’s left are reductions open to billions of interpretations.

The world of Enchanted is my interpretation. I took all those tales and rhymes you know and love (and some you’ve never heard of) at their word, and I rehydrated them. I filled in some blanks, came to some logical conclusions, and fit them together like John Nash puzzle pieces. You’d be surprised at how snugly they fit.

For example, it makes sense to me for most of these tales to have originated in one large family–Woodcutters, naturally–with a penchant for storytelling. “Cinderella” works for me if the girl and the prince have met before, and the ball is simply a ruse to bring them together beneath the radar of warring families. Perhaps they originally met…when the prince was a frog. And so on. And so on. The more you know about old-school fairy tales, the more you will enjoy Enchanted. I stand by that promise, no frog-throwing.

Once upon a time, there lived a girl who was the daughter of a stern mother and a storytelling father. She liked to write things in her spare time that she thought no one wanted to hear.

That girl is Sunday Woodcutter.

Enchanted is her story.

—-

Enchanted: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s Web site. Learn about her tour “chip-in” fund. Follow her on Twitter.

27 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Alethea Kontis

  1. In the ‘tangentially irrelevant’ category: you share a birthday with my late grandmother. She was born on January 11, 1908.

    On the strength of that connection (and your Big Idea, of course), I’ll have a look at your book.

  2. I had to keep pinching myself to make sure I was still on this side of your blog. Although I am your mother’s contemporary judging by your birth date, (I actually remember what I was doing 1-11-76, but that’s a different story) I felt exactly the same as you did as a young child. I was a Monday’s child (fair of face – debatable). I’m anxious to read Enchanted.

  3. Princess, you make weird and mysterious approachable and endearing. Cannot wait to see the smiles on my nieces faces when I present them with their very own copies of Enchanted :) This was a fabulous piece, cheers to you!

  4. Love your personal story, Alethea, it resonates with me so much! I, too, have always wondered about the story behind the tale, the truth in the fiction — because there is always truth, somewhere.

    It is in those oft neglected teeny words that the really interesting part of the story weaves magic in my writer’s brain. How did Cinderella’s living father allow his new wife to so abuse his only daughter? Was she a wild seductress? A an evil sorceress? Or did he abuse his daughter, too? How does the wolf swallow an old woman and a girl and yet, they emerge whole from his belly? Or perhaps it wasn’t his belly that the woodcutter cut open — or off. And was little Red really whole afterwards, or did she fear the forest, the dark, and wolves of every ilk forever after?

    I digress, but your stories pick at my brain and bring out the questions I’ve wrestled with since childhood when I devoured every fairy book — green, red and blue, and every myth I could lay my hands upon. It makes me wonder about the penchant for lost shoes across the continents — from Asia to Europe, and the absurdity of time.

    Enchanted, is enchanting — and so are you! Congratulations on your spectacular book and your interview at http://www.WaterworldMermaids.com.

    Hugs,
    Diana Belchase

  5. I love this line:
    “No one told me what I could or couldn’t do, so I just did it all.”
    I love your book, Princess!

  6. And OCD/Problem Solving wins vs. Reading Comp.

    Looks as if Amazon, indiebound and Google Books don’t have e-book versions.
    Barnes and Noble does.

    Either way, it looks excellent. If I can figure out an easy way to convert BN/Epub to unlocked MOBI I’ll get it today. Otherwise it may need to wait a day or so while this gets sorted.

    Thanks for this!

  7. What a beautiful story, Alethea! So much nicer than Grimms! I used to love fairy tales, until I reread those to my children. What I clearly needed was one of yours!

  8. Tangentially, a nettle shirt is made in precisely the same way as a linen shirt (starting with the flax), and the resulting fabric is softer. Ramie is a tropical nettle still used for cloth, and it’s occasionally possible to purchase nettle fabric from obscure Eastern European manufacturers. So many of the things we think are strange about fairy tales are actually straightforward in context.

  9. Phiala, you beat me to it. Though admittedly I hadn’t thought about the fairy tale in that context until today, since the last time I read that story (or stories, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were several) was long before I started spinning, let alone did some reading on bast fibers. (The word “net” may be related to “nettle”.) Actually, that puts a new complexion on Rumplestiltskin, too… maybe it’s time to reread all my Lang Fairy Books through the lens of fiber arts. Whenever a child sees me spinning (with a drop spindle, not a wheel) and asks what I’m doing I relate it to Sleeping Beauty, and considering how often this happens I should find some other stories to mention.

    And I love retelling of fairy tales, so will definitely look forward to this one. :)

  10. Really odd that there’s an entry on Amazon that says there is no Kindle version. But when I follow the link provided by geekdad42 there it is.

    Is there, or will there be, an iBooks version?

  11. Lovely post, Alethea, and congratulations again on ENCHANTED. Growing up, fairy tales were my food and water. I LIVED on them. Your reading a deux at last night’s Lady Jane’s made me want to revisit those faraway lands again.

  12. Diana, you’re welcome.

    Robin, I think the spindle in Sleeping Beauty is on a great wheel, not the shaft of a drop spindle. The spindle on a great wheel needs to come to a point to get proper transfer of twist (though it doesn’t have to be that sharp, really), whereas a drop spindle shaft can be entirely blunt since that’s not how the twist is conveyed. A great wheel is also quite a bit older than a flyer wheel.

    But yes, Rumplestiltskin is doing something impressive, but not what modern audiences think of. There’s no transmogrification, just some amazingly fast flax processing, normally a very slow process.

  13. This sounds…intriguing. Dang it, Scalzi, when you look up the phrase embarrassment of riches, there’s a reprint of my Amazon wish list. Still, in this goes…sigh.

    Ms. Truth Kontis, are you perchance the long-lost apprentice of Ruth Manning-Sanders? Don’t feel too bad; I’m named after the eagle tasked with the eternal eating of the liver of Prometheus, and I don’t even like liver!

    If you want to read a really weird fairy/folk tale, try The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.

  14. My probably erroneous recollection was that spinning wheels (in Europe) are only a few centuries old, and I thought the Sleeping Beauty story was older than that — though I suppose if Perreault’s tale is actually the first instance of it then that wouldn’t be the case. He did use the word “fuseau”; don’t know if in contemporary usage that would be assumed to be a part of a wheel or referring to a handspindle. It’s true that drop spindles don’t have to be pointy, but some of them are, to rest on the ground and still spin; I can say from experience that the tips of handspindles can hurt. (Robin McKinley played with this in her retelling Spindle’s End, where the approach to avoid the doom of the princess pricking her finger was to make all the spindles blunt and totally incapable of piercing skin.)

    At any rate, the kids who are asking me about spindles usually don’t know what a spinning wheel is either. :) I use it more as an illustration of how old the practice of spinning is and to give them something familiar to relate this now-arcane art to. Sometimes a parent who has seen a (modern) wheel will comment that they never could imagine how one could prick a finger on that.

  15. After some research (thank you all for bringing this to my attention!) it seems there was some difficulty in getting the e-book file to Amazon. They are working on getting it fixed ASAP. (I assume this same file is what’s sent to B&N as well.)

  16. Robin, there’s a great wheel depicted in the Luttrell Psalter, ca 1340, so they’re plenty old enough. Flyer wheels weren’t invented until much later. That’s contemporaneous with the oldest versions of Sleeping Beauty that I know of, though I don’t know when the spindle appears as a plot element. I have no idea what the period connotations of “fuseau” are. I know where to start looking, but it would probably take some time. And I agree, drop spindle shafts can be pointy. The difference is that great wheel spindles have to be pointy (although not necessarily sharp).

    From here, we degenerate into plausible speculation and just so stories, which are a great deal of fun but inconclusive. :)

    Alethea, I’m a long-time research enabler. If you ever want information or sources, I’m easy to find and happy to help.

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