Thursday, March 06, 2008

Q&A: Elizabeth C. Bunce, Author of A CURSE DARK AS GOLD

You've been writing since a fairly young age, yes? Can you tell us a little about your earlier efforts? Have you always written fantasy?

I think so—all my serious efforts, anyway. My first attempt at a novel involved a gutsy princess with amnesia, and was written at summer camp when I was twelve, in a spiral notebook I kept under my bunk. But it wasn't until a few years later—when I was a sophomore in high school—that I really got serious about writing. It suddenly occurred to me that writing novels was a job, done by real people—and that it was something I could do, too. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by friends who also loved to write, and we served as a sort of critique group, though of course we'd never heard the term. We worked on the school literary magazine together, took all the same literature and creative writing classes, passed around the latest Piers Anthony and Patricia McKillip books, and read each other's poetry. It took me ten years to find another group like that!

You also have a long background in the fabric arts. How did that inform the writing of A Curse Dark as Gold?

My background as a needlewoman provided the initial germ for Curse—the idea of straw spun into gold thread, and thus taking place in a textile mill (and not the grist—grain—mill of the fairy tale); but very quickly thereafter I realized I was out of my element. I'm not a spinner or a weaver, but my sensibilities were in the right place, and my understanding of the fiber arts was certainly a plus. Fortunately, I have friends in the textile arts, and through sheer happenstance I live not too very far from a 19th century woolen mill, so it wasn't terribly difficult to brush up on.

What kind of research did you undertake for the novel?

How much time do we have? I'm almost not kidding. For me, research is addictive, and I find it so interesting and so rewarding on its own merits that it can become a form of procrastination. My research for Curse breaks down into three major areas: the woolen industry, the fairy tale and folkloric elements of the story, and the social history of the 18th century.

I read a lot, first of all—both primary sources, like the 1760s journals of cloth worker John Brearely, and secondary sources, like J. De L. Mann's invaluable The Cloth Industry in the West of England. But I also made sure to do some hands-on research, so that I knew what Charlotte's world felt like, looked like, smelled like . . . One of my most important resources was Watkins Woolen Mill State Park in Lawson, Missouri, a beautifully-preserved 1840s mill, with many of the buildings and machines still intact. The technology is a little more advanced than at Stirwaters, but it was an essential starting point for getting the feel of the mill right. The fine folks at Watkins Mill even keep a small flock of Merino and Cotswold sheep on the property, and actually allowed me to get into the pen with them and try my hand at shearing with period implements.

All these elements feed into each other, of course. The perfect example of this is the Friendly Society. There really were these organizations, the ancestors of modern-day trade unions: groups organized to provide financial and social support for the local members of a particular trade and their families. They had names like "The Worshipful Brotherhood of Shearmen," or "The Friendly Society of Cloth Frizzers." This detail initially came up while researching the wool trade. But in addition to helping their members through hard times, such groups also sponsored village festivals . . . which is how my Friendly Society became responsible for offering "tribute" to the River Stowe to stave off drownings. There are actually villages in England where similar rituals were practiced into the 19th century. I stumbled across a couple of those stories while reading up on folk magic and superstitions about hauntings, and didn't even make a note of it, because I had no idea I was going to use those stories later. And yet, when I found myself writing the scene about poor Annie Penny, there they were: the Friendly Society, funerals, an arcane ritual. . . . It all came together so naturally—and then wove itself seamlessly through the rest of the book as if it had been there all along.

You're writing in the long tradition of the retold fairy tale. What attracted you to "Rumpelstiltskin" specifically?

Specifically, nothing. Or everything, maybe. It's a fairy tale that's always bothered me—from the incredibly callous actions of the miller, to the unflattering portrayal of Rumpelstiltskin, to the thoughtless and ungrateful behavior of the miller's daughter. Add to that the curious anonymity of the heroine, and my ideas about gold thread . . . and you have all the elements necessary to intrigue me enough to see what else might be going on in the story. I wanted to get inside the head of a girl pushed so far to the edge that she becomes willing to barter her own child . . . and also inside the head of the fellow who simultaneously wants to help and destroy her.

Could you name some other retellings you love (of "Rumpelstiltskin" or in general)? What writers have had the most influence on you?

I have to admit that I haven't read many "Rumpelstiltskin" retellings, both because I just don't like the fairy tale that much, and also because I actively avoided them while writing Curse. That said, I remember being so impressed with Nancy Kress's "Words Like Pale Stones" in the anthology Black Thorn, White Rose, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. Kress takes a very unsympathetic view of the king, who essentially puts his bride to work in a sweatshop, churning out gold thread, until a more exciting prize comes along. This is a very dark story, though, and certainly not something I would recommend to children!

My favorite retelling in recent years is Juliet Marillier's splendid historical fantasy Wildwood Dancing (Knopf 2007), which blends "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" with other tales against a beautifully realized backdrop of medieval Transylvania. Simply marvelous!

My all-time favorite retelling, however, would have to be Robin McKinley's Beauty. Or Patricia McKillip's Winter Rose. Or . . . For a more extensive list, readers can check out my website:

As a writer, do you plan out your book, or do you prefer to fly by the seat of your pants? Or a combination of the two? Are you a perfect-every-sentence-and-then-go-on-to-the-next writer, or do you block out a lot of text and then revise it?

I have to admit, I'm very much a planner and a perfect-every-sentence sort. One of my goals is to be more fearless with my writing, but it doesn't ever seem to happen!

What was your path to publication?

It was unusual in that once I finally had a manuscript in hand, it only ever landed on one editor's desk. I had been on the planning committee for a local writing conference, where I met my agent, Erin Murphy. It was my first conference, and the energy was so amazing that I sort of caught the conference bug after that. I started looking for events around the country in places I might visit anyway. My parents had recently moved to Arizona, so I looked into an SCBWI event in Phoenix. As I was researching the faculty, I found an interview with you, where you talked about editing a recent book I'd loved—Kate Constable's The Singer of All Songs. That looked promising! But as I read further, I saw that you compared it to one of your favorite childhood novels—my favorite childhood novel, Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown! I figured it was meant to be—or that I had a pretty good shot, anyway. I knew that because you loved the same books I did, you would probably understand what I was trying to do with Charlotte and "Rumpelstiltskin."

I remember very specifically where I was when I read the first two chapters of A Curse Dark as Gold: I was sitting in my chair at home on a night in early November 2004, reading through the manuscripts I was going to critique for the Arizona SCBWI conference. Most of the manuscripts were not really working for me, I'm sorry to say, and thus I was in a fairly cynical state of mind about finding anything that I would want to take farther. But then I started Charlotte Miller, as it was called then, and by the end of the first page, I remember getting this very distinct editorial frisson, this feeling of "Hey, wake up—this is really interesting." I finished it and read through it again, and yes, it was still really interesting! So I wrote you a critique that read in part, "I really, really like this. You write with a wonderful specificity and authority that immediately caused me as a reader to put my trust in you as an author, and the characterizations, your sure knowledge of milling and wool-making, and the developing plot with Uncle Wheeler all bear out that trust and prove it worthy. Very good work!" And then I asked to have the whole manuscript, which is the first time I ever did that at a critique, and it's still a rare thing.

It's still that "wonderful specificity and authority" that gets me now—the strength and surety of Charlotte's voice. Was Charlotte a voice and a character that simply appeared in your head? Or did she take a little bit more conscious development?

Well, both, of course. The idea for the novel—a retelling of "Rumpelstiltskin" set in a textile mill—came first, and I knew that the miller's daughter needed a name, before I could know who she was. I started running through old-fashioned names, seeing how they sounded with Miller—Sarah Miller, Anne Miller, Catherine Miller, etc. As soon as I hit on Charlotte, I knew her—an older sister who felt very put-upon, a girl who's very affectionate toward her family and yet a little frustrated and scornful. She really blossomed out of her name, so I wrote "My name is Charlotte Miller, and I am the miller's daughter" at the top of a page, and just let CM tell me about herself. Her voice was very apparent right from the start—especially in how it contrasts with Rosie's—and it was pretty easy for me to get into her head. But the novel took three years to write, and another year in revisions . . . and I don’t think I'm exactly the same person I was in the summer of 2002… so it stands to reason Charlotte isn't, either. But the essence—the things that make Charlotte Charlotte—they were all there the instant I first heard her name in my head.

What books have been most influential in your life as a writer?

Well, I’ve already mentioned The Singer of All Songs, which obviously had a very big impact on my career! But I'll add The Hero and the Crown, which has always been sort of a beacon from my childhood of what a great fantasy novel for kids should be—rich, layered, and completely re-readable. More recently, I've been inspired and challenged by Peter S. Beagle's amazing novel Tamsin . . . and it’s fair to say that a lot of English literature (Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, the Brontes) seeped into my bones and leaches out through the keyboard in strange ways. Of course, I can hardly leave out all the mythology, fairy tales, and folklore that I've been studying forever, so I'll just give a special nod to The Odyssey.

What did you struggle with most in the initial writing? In the editing, once we were working together? (Besides your desire to bean me over the head with my 26 pages of editorial notes . . .)

During the composition of the novel, I hit a really tough spot with Uncle Wheeler—for the longest time I just could not get him to tell me how he was connected with Jack Spinner. I knew that that backstory was critical, and for about six months I banged my head against a brick wall (well, actually I painted several—I used my time and frustrated energy to remodel my basement), and revised every page of what I'd already written. This was at the same time that I started working with my critique group, so the polishing certainly didn't go amiss, but the connections were so simple and obvious I'm still not certain why they didn't come to me sooner.

During the revisions? Perfectionism. You and I both suffer from this affliction, and while it produces amazing things, the way it does so can be oh, so painful. I'm a fairly confident first-drafter, but when I'm revising, I get very angsty if things aren't absolutely perfect. If I can't mold the text into my vision for what it should be (or yours!) . . . well, let's just say my husband learned to hide from me for days at a time.

What part of writing do you enjoy most?

This sounds terrible, but I think it's true for a lot of writers: I like the next project best—the one I haven't started working on yet. Grand ideas are still rushing at you, but you haven't had to sit down and actually wrangle them into shape, trying to make them behave. The possibilities are boundless, and you haven't had a chance to screw it up yet. I love that stage, and it's fair to say that thinking about the next book is one of the things that motivates me to keep working through the current project. It’s interesting, because I just read an interview with artist Kinuko Craft, and she said something very much the same: she’s happiest before she puts the first stroke on the canvas. I think this must be true for a lot of people who create for a living: the reality doesn’t live up to the idea, and once you paint the first stroke, or type the first words, you’re committed to the work part.

You're a part of a number of online and offline writing communities, yes? Could you talk a little about those?

Offline, I am so proud to be a part of a writing group with a long and amazing history. Juvenile Writers of Kansas City has been operating a critique group for almost 40 years in the KC metro area (for reference, that's more than a handful of years before I was born). I joined in 2003, and through them I've met some incredible writers and really great friends. Several of them are mentioned in the acknowledgements to Curse, and I have no doubt that you'll be seeing their names pop up on spines at bookstores and libraries in the next few years. In fact, one of our members just sold her debut novel to a major house!

I'm also a member of the Class of 2k8 (, a collective of debut kids' novelists that grew out of the Class of 2k7 begun by author Greg Fishbone (The Penguins of Doom). Class of 2k7 members' names are becoming household words in the industry: Jay Asher (Thirteen Reasons Why), Sarah Zarr (Story of a Girl), Melissa Marr (Wicked Lovely) . . . and we expect great things from our 2k8 members, as well. Our books come from all different publishers and span every genre for middle grade and YA readers. It's very exciting and actually rather soothing to have so many people going through the "First Book Thing" together. Writing is a very solitary pursuit; even if you're an extrovert (which I'm not), all the work is done inside your own head. So having friends in the business, going through the same steps and process you are, makes the journey a lot less intimidating.

What are you working on now manuscript-wise? Fabric-wise?

Right now I'm working on a fantasy adventure about a thief mixed up in a religious civil war, which should be a fun read; and a collection of stories about the girls of Greek mythology, which is also pretty dark. "Fabric-wise," I'm putting together a set of 18th century clothing, and doing the embroidery on an Elizabethan swete bag (like a sachet). I've been trying to be better about posting my needlework and sewing on my blog, so watch that space for progress photos!

Elizabeth's Website:
Elizabeth's LJ:
Another great Q&A:


  1. YAY, E! Great interview. Beautiful book!

  2. Thanks for the great interview! Elizabeth, I love the concept behind your book and, of course, the title is just wonderful and intriguing. I'll make sure to buy a copy. Good luck on all your future projects.


    P.S. Cheryl, I think your website is trying to tell me something. The "word verification" was gnias. Either it thinks I'm a genius ... or a giant a$$.

  3. Trust...that absolutely nails it for me. I read the first paragraph of CURSE and knew I was in for a fantastic story. So many layers of intrigue and creepinees, but stunningly beautiful the whole way through.

    I just can't shut up about this book, and I can't wait to see what Elizabeth does next. What a great interview, Cheryl!

  4. Really fantastic interview, thank you both!
    (and thanks for linking to mine)

  5. I'd been wondering about Elizabeth's research, really enjoyed learning more about that...Love the revision process tidbits as well, and oh, those dreams of that next project. :)

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