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.
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.