Joy Interviews Elana K. Arnold, Author of DAMSEL

I recently had the privilege of meeting author Elana K. Arnold at the Austin SCBWI conference. She was giving one of the keynotes and I was presenting a breakout session, and somehow we sat together at dinner. The ensuing conversation over chips and guacamole and margaritas about literature and life and feminism and fairy tales and more was so fascinating that I asked her right then if I could interview her. And then I read DAMSEL. It is a powerful novel, skillfully written and raw in its emotions even as Arnold uses fairy tale narrative structure. What it says about women and men and sexism and power is raw, too, and a must read for older YA readers and adults.

Here’s what Elana had to say as we continued our conversation in this interview.

JOY: First let me say that it was quite interesting to read this book within the context of our current fiery political and societal landscape: The #Metoo movement. The aggressive movement working to overturn Roe v. Wade. The endless list of powerful men whose flagrant misogyny is finally being called out for what it is. And of course everything that has been going on with the Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings as I finalize this interview… You have said that DAMSEL is about ‘waking up female in the man’s world.’ Can you talk a bit about why you chose a form of fairy tale narrative to tell this story? Were there any particular fairy tale or fairy tale retellings that inspired your process?

ELANA K. ARNOLD: Yes, we have all been lit aflame by our current landscape, and even more true, perhaps, is that the fire-hot coals of our discontent have been fueled by the massive bellows of our current landscape. My idea began with a dragon, and dragons live in fairy tales, so it seemed natural to let DAMSEL evolve in that direction… but almost immediately I saw how effective it is to take today’s very current problems—misogyny, rape culture, gaslighting—and illuminate them by setting them in a time and place that isn’t the here and now. Of course, our problems aren’t new problems—they’re the underpinnings of many of the European fairy tales I grew up reading. As far as inspirations, this book is probably the result of having read Goldman’s PRINCESS BRIDE, King’s EYES OF THE DRAGON, and Rice’s CLAIMING OF SLEEPING BEAUTY on a constant loop throughout my teenage years.

JP: Although DAMSEL is technically labeled YA, I definitely see this novel as a cross over adult book as well, given its themes. Certainly as a bookseller, I’d recommend it to older, more sophisticated teen readers. You are no stranger to tough stories that deal unflinchingly with sexuality and violence. Do you think about audience as you write? As you edit? And let me add here that as a fellow author, I’m fine writers making readers uncomfortable, to unsettle them. But I know some will argue that there’s a line…

EA: One of my mantras is, “It’s none of my business who reads my book.” I repeat this steadfastly throughout writing. My business is to write the best book I can write. Once the book is written, of course, I want it to be read widely, by adults and teens alike, but it remains none of my business who picks it up or who sets it down. And, I believe books are a wonderful place to practice being uncomfortable, to practice saying, “No, this is not for me, not now, at least.” And isn’t that what we want for our young people—for them to feel safe walking away from experiences that they are not yet ready for?

Sure, lots of people will argue that there is a line. I disagree—there is nothing a writer shouldn’t write just because the characters are young. Unfortunately, terrible things exist in the world, and young people exist in the world. I agree that there are experiences that young people—even better, that no people—should have to deal with. But that is not the truth of the world. And fiction is an outstanding place to explore truth, even the most uncomfortable truths.

JP: And in a somewhat related question (at least in my head it is related!), was the title always DAMSEL? Can you talk a little about your artistic choice there?

EA: DAMSEL was always part of the title, the core of it. Originally, there were other words, but DAMSEL is the heart of the book.

JP: Let’s talk about the female characters here: Ama herself, but also the Queen and Tillie and Fabiana. As you created them and wrote them, how did each contribute to the larger narrative you were telling here?

EA: I love all the characters in this book, even the “bad” ones. Patriarchy is bad for everyone—even the patriarchs—because it splinters power in such a way that both ends are pointed. No one escapes unscathed. As I wrote, I didn’t plan the characters or think about how they would contribute to the larger narrative—I am a very “eyes on the page” writer, focusing on just exactly what is in front of me. But when each of these characters appeared for the first time, I got that special tingle in my brain, that thrill in my gut, that told me I was on the right track. With some distance, I can see how they are all facets of a gem, but I don’t want to spoil that for the reader by looking at it too closely here.

JP: Clearly DAMSEL is similar to your other work, but you’ve also commented that it is its ‘own beast’. Can you speak to that a bit? How is DAMSEL a departure from your other novels?

EA: I talk a lot about the well from which I draw my ideas. We all have a well, and it is filled for us throughout our life by our experiences, our upbringing, the particular histories of our family, the books we read, the people we meet. We return to that well with each creative work. My last two YA novels particularly, INFANDOUS and WHAT GIRLS ARE MADE OF, drank deeply of the embodied female shame that filled my well. It was a complete surprise to me to find that after I had finished working on these books, I didn’t feel that shame anymore. The well was drained. But it was filled again by an underground river I didn’t know was there; this time, it filled with rage. DAMSEL is an unapologetically angry book. And I love it.

JP: Beyond the obvious of what you answered in question in question 1, what draws you to the stories you choose to tell? Is there a particular universal (or personal) question or questions that you find yourself repeatedly mining? Some character type that keeps reappearing?

EA: I am endlessly fascinated by people. I like to say that humans are my favorite animals, and that is saying a lot, as I have seven pets at home (and have had as many as thirteen!). I always begin a story with a question—what if there was a world in which, in order to become king, the prince had to conquer a dragon and rescue a damsel, but what if the story didn’t end with that rescue, but rather began with it? These questions draw me in, but ultimately, everything I write is about my struggle to figure out and communicate with others what I think it means to be a human being.

JP: Anything else you’d like us to know about Elana K. Arnold? Favorite junk food? Books on your nightstand? Wine or whiskey? Beach or mountains? Guilty pleasure TV? That kind of thing?

EA: So many books are on my nightstand, many half-eaten by my sheepdog Phoebe, who seems to love the taste of the glue that holds them together. Wine—red! Beach! No guilty pleasures—pleasures are my favorite. Let’s not feel guilt about the things that bring us joy.

JP: Thank you, Elana, for this thought-provoking conversation!

DAMSEL is on our shelves now.

Want to know more about Elana K. Arnold and her books? Click on over to her website here.

Damsel Cover Image
$17.99
ISBN: 9780062742322
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Balzer + Bray - October 2nd, 2018

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