I began writing Almost Midnight as a writing exercise to jog myself out of a major writing funk. 2014 was not an easy year for me personally, and I wrote very little prose after launching The Edge of the Woods. After busying myself with some script work, I was determined to get back into it, but every time I tried to think of something new or work on one of the concepts I’d started plotting before my dad died, I’d come up blank. My fingers would hover over the keyboard, tap out half a sentence, delete, and hover again. I’d groan, sigh, swear, make another cup of tea, do my nails, swear some more, close the computer and give up and watch a TV show. The part of my brain that tells stories was asleep behind a wall of thorns and vines and I couldn’t find the right sword to cut my way through.
I decided that if I couldn’t work on my novels, I could at least try to update my blog more often (which, if you follow this blog, you’ll know how well that went!), but I struggle to think of topics to write about. I’m not a journalist or a columnist, I’m terrible at essays and my opinions evolve so often I don’t really want to commit to that many of them on the eternity of internet. So I thought I’d use a shortcut and try to retell a story I already knew (that was safely in the public domain). I began with one of my favourite fairytales, Hans My Hedgehog.
I barely remembered the actual structure of Hans. I’d never read it, only watched the episode of Jim Henson’s The Storyteller, and not in years. I knew that Hans had been cursed to be a hedgehog by some fault of his parents, I knew that he was reviled, that he rode a rooster and lived in the forest, that he tricked a king into letting him marry a princess, that he became human for one hour every night, that the princess ruined his chances of breaking the spell, and that she walked the world to find him in a pair of iron shoes and broke the spell with love. Most of these are unique to the Jim Henson version. The original was, like so many fairytales, incredibly cruel.
So I used what I remembered as the framework, and almost at once something new began to grow from the gaps in my memory. I wanted to know who Hans’ parents were and what they’d done to doom him to life as a (actually pretty cute) monster. As if hearing his name called, out stepped a poor but ambitious young woodcutter from behind the wall of thorns.
That first day, I made my personal best for words written in one session. Hans was the sword I needed to free the storyteller trapped in my head and I wrote all day for two weeks until his story was done. Too long for a blog post at 13,000 words, but a story finished and one I felt proud of. Rewatching the episode of The Storyteller afterwards, I found I’d also written something quite new. My Hans didn’t look a thing like Jim Henson’s. Nor did our princesses, or our kings. I had added a fairy godmother in the form of a little hedgehog, and Jim had faceless magic and John Hurt. Our endings are different – though both happy – and every character’s motivation is different. But they’re both Hans My Hedgehog in that special way a fairytale can be told a thousand ways with a thousand endings and still be the same story.
Writing fairytales didn’t completely cure my writers block. It was another six months before I really got stuck into my Cinderella retelling, which was less the labour of love I felt for Hans and more an attempt to understand a heroine I’d only ever been able to connect with in one retelling – 1997’s Ever After. Cinderella, in all the other adaptations and all the stories, didn’t make sense to me, which always bothered me given how popular a story and character she’s always been. It took much longer to write than Hans, and it’s by far the longest story in the collection at 25,000 words, but to my very great surprise I found myself more at home in Ella’s head than I had in any other character before (which, naturally, means she will be everyone’s least favourite heroine!). Ella is at first held back by the terrible things that happen to her, and then by her own fear of further disappointment or rejection. Cindersoot became a story about finding the strength to speak up and not waiting for someone else to change your life for you. At last, I feel like I understand Cinderella. And more than that, I like her.
The story I knew I always wanted to have a go at rewriting was The Little Mermaid. It’s been my all-time favourite story for as long as I can remember. When I was young I watched the Disney movie at least once a day (but more like three) for years, but at the same time also watched the 1975 Japanese animated film (featuring the sea foam ending) and a low budget direct adaptation we found at the local video shop. So while I worshipped at the new feet of Ariel, I was always aware of the original ending, the little mermaid’s quest for a soul and the prince’s love for someone else. I thought it would be the easiest of the three stories to write, given that I knew it and loved it so well.
So, of course, it was nearly impossible. I knew it too well. I was basically trying to rewrite the original but with a prince who wasn’t a condescending prat (read Andersen’s original, he is the least dreamy prince of an already impressive cast of unappealing romantic heroes) and without the mermaid’s quest for an immortal soul (which is actually an aspect of the original I love, but as someone who isn’t religious I wouldn’t feel comfortable writing it). Everything I tried to write was terrible. It was bland and unoriginal and it, somewhat appropriately, had no voice. I was back in 2014, writing and deleting and swearing and coming dangerously close to ditching my laptop at a wall.
But I couldn’t give up. I’d always wanted to write this story. And besides, I’d already told people I was writing it. So I started again, and figured out who my mermaid was. Was she a princess? Did she have a family? Why would she give up her voice? Why does she fall in love with the first human she sees?
The answer to all these questions, as it turned out, was pretty much ‘no.’ No, she wasn’t a princess. She didn’t have a family. She was alone, and had always been alone. She was searching the ocean for someone who looked like her, and found the closest thing in the humans who travelled upon it. She didn’t give up her voice, because she had never had to speak anything but the language of the sea, which I discovered was a song. She didn’t fall in love with the first human she saw, but the one who looked as lonely as she felt.
And then it went from there. The story I wanted to tell was one of love, that loving someone doesn’t entitle you to be loved back. That true love expects nothing but gives everything, and that the love of a friend is not worth less than the love of a lover, even if it’s not the love you crave.
In the end, The Mermaid was exactly the story I’d always hoped to tell. I’ve gotten reports now from several people that it made them cry, which is a very high compliment.
Fairytales mean a lot to me. I think they’re always relevant, parables reshaped by the time and the teller, a game of Chinese whispers through the ages.
Will I write more? Absolutely, one day. But for now, I’m outlining a story set in rural Australia in 1994. Which, weirdly enough, might not have been possible without a magic hedgehog.
You can read Hans My Hedgehog for free here.
The paperback is available for US$11.99 from Amazon.