The Big Idea: M.A. Larson
Posted on October 7, 2014 Posted by John Scalzi 18 Comments
The word “princess” has certain connotations in our culture, not all of them that great. Author M.A. Larson is here to talk about some of them, and how they relate to his new novel, Pennyroyal Academy.
I didn’t have a daughter yet when I started on the long path from idea to publication. I didn’t even really have a Big Idea. I was a film and television writer with what was, in hindsight, a pretty Small Idea.
I went around to some of the studios pitching a cartoon series called “Princess Boot Camp.” It was a straightforward parody of princess culture where I intended to juxtapose frilly pink princesses with hardcore military training. I was banking hard on “princess fatigue” to help me sell the show and build an audience. Now that I think about it, “Princess Fatigues” might have been a pretty good title. But I digress…
The show was optioned and developed, but eventually stalled. Still, I wasn’t quite ready to give up on the concept. A friend suggested I try writing it as a book. I was intrigued by the idea, so I decided to go back to the original source material – the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm – to do a little princess research. What I discovered led me to something much more interesting, and more profound, than I had anticipated.
In the story “The Six Swans,” the princess character has such fierce love and compassion for her brothers that she vows not to speak for six years in an attempt to break the curse that has turned them to swans, and even as she is being led up the gallows to be hung, her devotion to them is so great that she doesn’t utter a word. In another story, “The Golden Bird,” a princess is threatened with death, yet bravely risks her life to expose her evil brothers-in-law to the king. Yes, the princess Briar Rose is described as beautiful, but then she is said to be gentle, virtuous, and clever. Snow-White is so kindhearted that seven burly mineworkers and all the creatures of the forest come to mourn at her glass coffin when she is killed. The princess in “The Two Brothers” is faster than any man or woman in the kingdom. And so on and so forth.
These princesses were being described as clever, brave, athletic, and kind. While it wasn’t true in all the stories (there are some nasty princesses in Grimm’s Fairy Tales, too) on the whole they were far more multi-faceted and interesting than the vapid pinkness I thought of when I heard the word “princess.” In modern usage, the P word often seemed to describe a girl who was proud of her laziness, proud to be spoiled and entitled. “Princess,” to me, was just an empty word stitched on sweatpants and emblazoned in sequins on the sides of purses. It did not describe the girls I had been reading about.
And that’s when my Big Idea began to emerge. Could I reclaim the word “princess” from the Paris Hiltons of the world? Could I redefine it so that it meant, to my readers, what it had meant to the Brothers Grimm?
Armed with my new Big Idea, I realized I would need to scrap the entire idea of doing a parody. The princesses of Grimm’s Fairy Tales weren’t to be ridiculed; they were to be admired. I began to strip away the spoofiness, and what emerged was a story far more sincere than the one I had started with.
When my characters enlisted at Pennyroyal Academy, they wouldn’t be there as a tool for me to use to skewer princess culture. These girls would study the great princesses of the past, look to them as examples of how to live in harmony with the world, and learn to use the innate kindness and goodness in the traditional definition of a princess to quite literally fight against the forces of cruelty and evil. Graduates of the Academy wouldn’t sit in towers and wait to be rescued. They would fight their way out using their virtue as a weapon. My goal was to re-establish the princess as a paragon of decency and kindness, and I decided to do that by having my princesses battle witches.
Once I had that central conflict – princesses as the only force in the world capable of defending against witches – the only thing left was the hardest thing: sitting down in a chair and pushing keys. I infused my story with traditional fairy tales as much as I could. I aged it up and made it more sophisticated, just like the princesses I was writing about. With each chapter I added to the stack, I always kept my Big Idea in mind. And the next thing I knew I had a manuscript, and then I sold it, and now here I am writing this. And it’s all thanks to that dreaded P word.
I do have a daughter now, and I’m happy she didn’t see the original version of this project. Back then, I viewed princesses as pink and helpless and unworthy. But now that I’ve written Pennyroyal Academy, my definition of what a princess is has changed dramatically. A princess is courageous. She is compassionate. She is kind. She is disciplined. And if my daughter told me she wanted to be a princess when she grew up, well, nothing would make me happier.
Pennyroyal Academy: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.
Author identifies as Male on Facebook, can’t tell on the website because it’s not working for me. Unfortunately this book isn’t available at my local store, but I’ve got an order in because this is an incredibly intriguing premise!
Whoops. This is what I get for mis-remembering and not checking. Fixed.
Sounds like fun!
I am curious if the feminist connotations of “Pennyroyal” are deliberate. Either way, it sounds like a really interesting concept, and one I would definitely have enjoyed reading as a kid. Also YES for the bit about how Grimm princesses are in control of their own stories.
This sounds fantastic. I would love my daughters to read stories like this. Is it appropriate for 8-10 year olds? Or should I hold onto it for a few years?
The original Grimm fairy tales were really not kids stories, when you think about it.
Oh, and from the “other” fandom he is known for (one which is surprisingly relevant to stories about princesses): “THANKS, M.A. LARSON!” :D
When I was little, I remember thinking that a princess was someone brave who got to have important adventures based on all these stories. Even in the Disney versions, most of these princesses were good at things, they were smart enough to see things that other people didn’t, they were brave enough to wade into situations completely outside what they knew, they were curious and resourceful and adventurous and kind. It mattered what they did and what they were like, because the whole story usually hung on them.
The thing that makes me so angry about “princess culture” when I honestly love fairy tales and princess stories is that in “princess culture” the most important thing a princess can be is ornamental and the most important thing she can have is material privilege and a lot of sparkly clothes. It seems like the worst thing to do to one of the only ways girls can find themselves at the center of things.
So good for you realizing the difference.
I was always a little distracted by the lack of agency inherent in Disneys’s princesses… I read Grimm when I was a child. My version has the Little Mermaid dead at the end. She was strong, and sort of silly-naive in a way… but certainly not pink and fluffy.
I can never get past the point that a princess is an heiress, somebody who got handed the gig without merit or selection. I’m not quite up to “last king strangled with the bowels of the last pope” territory, but my republican buttons get pushed REAL HARD by princesses (and princes), Rightful Heirs, etc.
(Why, yes, in the S.C.A. I DO ride with the Horde; why do you ask?)
@ J.D. Locke – Actually I would suggest that Grimm’s were most definitely kids stories, it’s just that we’ve (adults) narrowed the definition of kids’ stories to exclude anything scary or twisted. But most kids are bloodthirsty little monsters if you give them the chance ;). Apart from me. I was the weird kid in primary school who didn’t like scary stories.
When I was a teenager (low these many years ago – ) I liked Piers Anthony’s novels – they had puns in the titles! What could be better than that.
In these novels various people had “special powers” – when I got fed up with them was when the heroine’s special power was too make others (the hero) “better than themselves”
We girls didn’t want to make the “hero” better – we wanted to get there in there and do it ourselves!
That’s my reaction to the princess being so noble and better (and glittery) – the princess (besides getting past that nobly born being better thing) needs to get there in the nitty gritty – not just be noble and pink and sparkly.
We want to be the actions of change – not just be noble, kind and inspiring!
To me, the word Princess has always triggered images of not fanciness and clingy, ill-tempered frivolity tied with a pink ribbon and embellished with the dollar sign, but of sharp-featured women with disheveled yet presentable hair knotted up to allow frisky, careless swaying above their penetrating eyes. They have been armed with either the sword and shield or the pen, basically to push through norms and carve out an unlikely, and in most cases forbidden niche for themselves. However, I couldn’t agree more to the observation that most people hold a preconceived notion of the contemporary ‘Princess’ who rides a Pink BMW around New York City and texts ‘totes every-word-that-exists’ to her roomie in a fur coat and stilletoes.
Being a 16 year old teenage girl, I have a big thumbs up for this kind of a venture.
Interesting and yet – I’m assuming the ‘witches’ follow all the standard old clichés too. So why aren’t the kindly princesses being squared off against *all* the bad people, why just the ones who are traditionally female? Because to me it looks like that same old dichotomy of either you’re a good girl (princess) or your a bad girl (witch) and there’s nothing in between. What about good witches/bad princesses? Are there scholarship princesses who are really good but not actually royal blood?
Of course, I could be wrong, the author didn’t give us much info on the witches. But this is definitely what I took away from this blurb.
I am likewise concerned about the whole good girl/bad girl dichotomy set up by the author. But I’ll still read it to judge. And who knows, maybe volume 2 will be from the witches’ point of view?
All the princess fiction I read (including traditional fairytales) had women who were smart, talented, capable and creative. What I didn’t like about them was when she was all that and yet STILL wanted/needed a man to complete her. Not that we don’t all want someone to see & appreciate us. But when the whole point of the story (as in with Disney versions) is to win the attention & heart of the man in order to be fulfilled, that sucks. The men in those stories are frequently boring. They want the princess because she’s beautiful or has a rich father, not because they’ve heard she’s smart and awesome with a bow. They never seem to acknowledge she’s a person in her own right, and that THEY need to win HER approval and heart, too. :(
Reblogged this on Scribblegurl and commented:
I’m disappointed I won’t get to see/read the first idea too, because i love stuff like that. But Pennyroyal Academy sounds pretty awesome, too. :)
sounds like a good read
This has some interesting connotations in it … firstly, if princesses are the only force capable of defending against witches – and witches are a threat substantial enough that monarchs would put their daughters into harm’s way to combat it – then it follows that the role of the *queen* is to produce as many princesses as possible.
Secondly, where do *witches* come from in this scenario? Who’d take up the old broom and cauldron in a world where the best and brightest are intensively trained to destroy them? There’s got to be some major reason there.
Fighting dragons I can understand – dragons are monstrous apex predators in direct competition with humanity – but the witches require more explanation.
The book is on Audible and from the sample the narrator seems good, so maybe I’ll spend one of my credits there to pick it up.