Hey there, Story366! Hope you’re having a glorious Saturday. As noted in yesterday’s post, I served as a guest speaker at the Ozarks Writers League Conference in Branson today, giving a lecture on literary citizenship, reading a bit of my own work, and sitting on a Q&A panel with fellow presenters Walter Bargen and Jo Van Arkel. Great event, great people in this group and I had an absolute blast. It’s a lot of fun to go to community writers group like the OWL, full of people who are hanging out together in a conference motel on a Saturday in Branson because they are excited to be there, wanting to hear people like me talk about writing, wanting to be around people with like interests. I always have a good time at events like this and this group was exceptionally receptive to what I was selling.
A few of the group’s members were successful authors, publishing books of all kinds, from children’s picture books to historical novels to mysteries. Karen Nelson, one of the group’s board members, has just published a story collection, After Ever After, out from Goldminds Publishing. Karen was a gracious host and I was happy to trade books with her, get a chance to read some of her stories this evening.
After Ever After is a book of fractured fairy tales, to use that Rocky and Bullwinkle term, though it’s not even very accurate in describing what Nelson does. As the title implies, Nelson picks up with some famous fairy tales (as well as a few unidentifiable ones) after the fact, often quite a bit into the future, depicting where these characters, both center and peripheral, land. On the third day of this project, I covered Jean Thompson’s The Witch, which has a similar mission, retelling and contemporizing the most well known tales, Grimm and Anderson and a few others. Nelson’s intent is a bit different here, however, as she more or less picks things up down the line, often with the characters from the tales who don’t, as her title implies, live happily ever after.
Nelson alternates between short short stories, five to seven pages long, and one-page flash pieces, her tales often adorned with elaborate borders or illustrations. One thing she doesn’t always include is clear indication of what fairy tale, or tales, she’s picking up with. It’s possible I don’t know my Grimm that well—in fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever read an actual Grimm fairy tale—but I certainly recognize moments like spinning gold from hay and characters taking hundred-year naps. Is Nelson smashing up legends? Is she borrowing? I wasn’t sure, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like what I was reading.
The story that most spoke to me in After Ever After is “Regret,” which, if I’m right, is from the perspective of the Ugly Duckling’s mother, whom Nelson names Hildy. Again, I’m not that swimming in fairy tale knowledge, but I do have the internet, so I went and found “The Ugly Duckling” and read it, and nowhere does it name the mama duck Hildy or Hildegard (or anything). And that makes me like the story more, as Nelson is finding a fringe character and focusing on it, expanding on it, instead of the more obvious ugly duckling (who ends up being a swan, in case you know even less about this stuff than I do).
In any case, we revisit Hildy years after her adopted son realizes he’s not a malformed duck and flies away to vain greatness. As it turns out, Hildy has that titular regret about not being a better mother to said swan when he was in her charge. She relives the moments of realizing he was different—as an egg, of course—dark, misshapen, strange. Of his misadventures as a much maligned youth. And now that he’s gone, putting the bullying behind him, never to return to her, to the origin of all his insecurity, persecution, and misery, she misses him. After all, she may not have laid him herself [side bar: first time I’ve typed that sentence this year], but she still sat on him, hatched him, fed him, and comforted him when he was down. She was his mom, and while we can’t blame him for never wanting to see the source of his trauma again, we feel for her. If these were humans, we’d tell this swan to call his mother once in a while, tell her he loves her, drop in and visit her.
And that’s what Karen Nelson does in After Ever After, give new voice to familiar faces, unexpected twists to characters who are defined by twists, provide empathy to people and creatures who haven’t known it before. I liked reading these stories, seeing Nelson’s imagination at work. It was a pleasure to meet this writer today, in person and on the page.