THE CRAFT OF THE RETELLER



GETTING STARTED

As a child, I was addicted to Andrew Lang’s ‘Colour’ Fairy Books, published between 1889 and 1910, and a mainstay of my local library. For those who don’t know them, the 12 titles in this series (Blue, Red, Green, Yellow, Pink, Grey, Violet, Crimson, Brown, Orange, Olive and Lilac) each contained a wonderful miscellany of fairy tales and folktales from around the world. A high school journey to West Africa fired my interest in other cultures and inspired me to read Social Anthropology at university.

I began my writing career with several children’s novels, initially published by Abelard and Blackie with Puffin paperback editions and several translations. These included Who Ever Heard of a Vegetarian Fox? which was shortlisted for the Federation of Children's Book Groups' Children’s Book Award, translated into Dutch, Japanese and Afrikaans and won a major award in Japan, with very enthusiastic reviews in The Guardian etc. and world sales over 100,000; and The Sea is Singing which was a TES ‘book of the year’, dramatised several times on BBC Radio, stayed in print for nearly 10 years, and translated into Dutch and Danish.

Eventually I was spotted by Rosemary Davidson, then the inspirational Editorial Director of children’s books at Cambridge University Press – who thought my academic background and strong track record as a children’s novelist ideally suited me to retelling myths and legends. Ever since then, I’ve been regularly hunting out ancient tales from all over the world, exploring their cultural perspectives and bringing them alive for a new generation of readers.



SOURCING THE STORIES

I own a large library of source books for traditional stories including many unusual collections dating from the colonial era. Over the years I have been compiling an informal but probably unique 'story index' of the most interesting tales from each region.




CHOOSING STORIES TO RETELL

I always try to find the earliest known and most authentic source for a traditional tale.

Each source book contains dozens - maybe even hundreds - of stories. So what do I look for when chosing which ones to retell?
  • A rich and satisfying plot with lots of drama and a satisfying conclusion.
  • Some kind of ‘meaning’ or moral twist, especially if the retelling is aimed at children.
  • Interesting characters, particularly unusual ones
  • A magical or supernatural dimension
  • A flavour unique to the culture to which the story belongs
  • For a collection, where there are several similar possible stories, I will only include the best one, though if the book also includes factual notes for an adult readership I usually describe related stories.


RETELLING TRADITIONAL STORIES

A priority for me is to maintain the integrity of the original story. This means not altering either the main plot or the main characters, and being ‘true’ to the culture from which the story originates. There is, however, scope for altering some of the detail. For example, sometimes generations of half-remembered oral retellings result in a plot that is rather jumbled up; in such cases I might unscramble it and change the order in which incidents happen in order to make the plot more logical and comprehensible. I might flesh out some of the characters more, add some colourful description, or soften a horrific scene if the story is to go into an educational series. Occasionally an editor has asked me to make a more fundamental change, such as swapping the gender of one of the characters or bringing the story to a conclusion which differs from the original: I am never willing to do this.

If the relevant source book contains narratives collected ‘in the field’ and recorded verbatim, even in translation it is possible to get a good idea of the type of language and verbal style used by the indigenous story teller. In such instances I attempt to reflect this in my own retellings. At the same time, I aim to make the stories meaningful to modern readers: using a direct style and eliminating any unneceesary detail - emulating the skills of the oral story teller who must work hard always to keep her audience’s attention.