Thursday, August 24, 2006

Cinderella

One of the first movies I saw in a theater was Walt Disney’s Cinderella. At the time, I was young enough to be fascinated by small animals and indifferent to members of the opposite sex. So I was particularly intrigued by the part of the movie where Cinderella and her little animal friends scrounged enough discarded material—ribbons, beads, and such—to construct a presentable ball gown. After Cinderella got slapped down for her efforts, her fairy godmother supplied the spectacular replacement ensemble that caught the eye of the prince. You know the rest.

Years later, I realized that Cinderella was pretty passive after that first failed attempt to manage her own destiny. Her principal virtues were industry and grace under fire. But her ultimate success was more the result of her godmother’s generosity, and the prince’s obsessive crush, than her own efforts.

Even at a young age, I was inclined to identify with active heroines. But there weren’t many of those when I was little. In books and movies—at least the ones I was exposed to, women pretty much got rescued or played supporting roles à la Dale Evans. Nancy Drew was okay, but she always relied on Ned or her dad to bail her out of whatever she charged into. The Hardy Boys were more to my liking because I was impressed by what men got to do. When Wonder Woman finally came to prime-time TV, I was an avid fan. (But why did she have to wear that stupid costume?)

I didn’t think about Cinderella for decades—until Jim Huang asked me what classics had influenced me as a writer. By that time, I’d studied history and literature, and discovered Joseph Campbell. And I realized that all stories are reiterations of a few basic plots. What makes a writer great is her particular spin.

Where Cinderella comes in—at least to my story—is her example of recycling objects discarded in her environment to make something new and beautiful. Most of my stories rely on such bits—snatches of overheard conversation ("I must've been wearin' my beer goggles when I picked her up."); slightly out-of-the-ordinary events (The time the cat brought a live mouse into the house and lost it.); poignant or unbelievable news items (A crash on the interstate liberated 500 chickens); or striking or eccentric individuals (Like the poised young woman, “Lady,” singing Billie Holiday tunes on the Jackson Street Red Line platform. And the disconcerting Colin Farrell look-alike with the fresh-water-pearl-and-platinum bracelet that looked like something Paris Hilton might wear to the Oscars.) . Writing, for me, isn’t so much creating a linear narrative as it is solving a problem—like working one of those 5000-piece-giant-jigsaw puzzles—reaching into the puzzle box of my head for something to fill in a border or match that spot of red in the center.

My finished dress may not be as flashy as the fairy godmother’s, but I’ve stitched it together on my own. And I have Cinderella to thank for her example.



ON AN UNRELATED NOTE: For those who don’t already know that real forensics isn’t CSI, Connie Fletcher has come out with a terrific new book—EVERY CONTACT LEAVES A TRACE (St. Martin’s Press, 2006). Ms. Fletcher will be the guest speaker at the next MWA Meeting (see www.mwamidwest.org/).

Also The Skokie Public Library will host Jan Girten, Deputy Director of the Chicago Division of the Illinois State Crime Lab Forensic Center, Edgar winning author Jan Burke, and me, Thursday, September 7, at 7:30 pm.

37 comments:

ab said...

Active female heroes for children are few and far apart. My first was Pippi Longstocking. Astrid Lindgren told those stories to her little daughter, who also came up with the name. Pippi is free, strong and kind. She is also a little sad because she is alone.

When Astrid Lindgren first approached Sweden's largest publishing house with her book, it was turned down - one of the biggest mistakes ever made by that company. They did not believe Pippi was a good role model for little girls.

One thing one does tend to forget about the Pippi books, though, is her little friend Annika, who sadly displays all the characteristics of a girl cliché - she is silent and easily scared and never comes up with an idea.

I have noticed that in films nowadays that claim to have an active female protagonist, there is often a woman to hate. The evil stereotype. I wonder why.

Sara Paretsky said...

So, AB, your parents named your for the quiet scared-cat, but you rose above it!

I've always like Nicole Hollander's version of Cinderella, where she refuses to try on the slipper because "princey, who knows where that slipper's been?"
(Chicagoans should know Nicole's work--she's a cartoonist and performance artist, nationally syndicated, but a home-town gal)

Marcus Sakey said...

Ever read the His Dark Materials books by Phillip Pullman? It's a recent YA fantasy trilogy focusing on one of the most charming, tough, capable fictional girls I've ever read. One of the things that makes her great is that in addition to being a rolemodel of independence and empowerment, she's also a little girl--skinned knees, easy boredom, inappropriate impulses and all.

Plus, the writing is luminous. I've only read the first in the trilogy, but it was great stuff, leagues past Harry Potter.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

All of this related to the relative scarcity for so many years of female writers.

There was a terrific review in the Sunday NY Times of the new biography of Alice B. Sheldon, who became a successful science fiction writer by staying out of sight and pretending her name was James Tiptree, Jr. And that was still in my lifetime.

Even as recently as ten years ago, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was considered revolutionary because it had a strong, active female hero. Who kicked butt. (And for those who have never seen it and are smirking right now, Buffy was, for about four years, the best show on television by a lot. By the way, the current best show on television by a lot has its season premiere September 10.

The dam had to break at some point. Don't the numbers put readers of fiction at somewhere around 70% female? I know the first question that was asked of all the potential covers for my book (and they tell me there were lots of them) was "But what are female readers going to think?"

ab said...

Apropos covers, when a well-known male author here released a book some years ago about his youth (Title: Youth), the cover showed - a naked female body ("tasteful", but still), suggesting his coming of age as a man. Wonder if anyone will suggest a young naked man of the cover on my "Youth"?

Apropos the concept of active female heroines - you would have thought the barrier was broken way back then with Medea and godess Pallas Athena. But alas, no... That was only a couple of thousand years ago. And hey, everyhting takes time, right?

Barbara D'Amato said...

To chime in on the subject of Connie Fletcher's book, EVERY CONTACT LEAVES A TRACE--every page leave a trace! Every page provides chuckles or sadness or information that writers can use. It's wonderful reading.

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