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.
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.