The Little Mermaid was one of my favourite movies as a child, so the task of re-telling the story through a feminist lens was both an exhilarating and a daunting prospect. Here are my top tips for re-imagining a classic fairytale.
Become very familiar with the original source material. I made a decision early on that I was going to draw inspiration from the Hans Christian Anderson version rather than the Disney movie so I read and re-read the fairytale. I also downloaded the story in podcast form so I could listen to it while I was driving or at the gym. Within a few weeks, I could repeat the story verbatim.
Do not read other reinterpretations of the same story. This is slightly controversial advice, because some authors would argue that you should stay abreast of what’s happening in the marketplace. While you can do a cursory Google search to see what has been published recently, my fear is that I would a) become disheartened by reading someone else’s brilliance or b) subtly begin to emulate their style.
That being said, you must still do your research. I read a lot of academic essays dealing with fairytales, on the gender dynamics contained within, and the often confusing messaging for how women should behave. I also read so many essays on mermaid mythology that I feel as if I’m qualified to write a thesis on the subject. Most of that will never be directly shown in the book itself – it would be very boring for the reader if it was! – but it will inform the work in interesting ways, and can give you inspiration for characters, names etc.
The nice thing about re-writing a fairytale is that some of the work is already done for you. Unless you intend on drastically changing huge amounts of the plot (and more power to you!), you usually have the basic narrative set out for you before you even begin. With The Surface Breaks, I knew there were beats I had to hit; the mermaid’s fifteenth birthday, the shipwreck where she first sees the Prince, the visit to the Sea Witch. But within that framework, I had freedom to allow my imagination to run wild. These stories are so familiar to many of us; we have to find ways of making them feel fresh and innovative for a new audience. Give yourself permission to have fun with it and take risks!
At the outset, ask yourself one question - What is it I want to say with this book? I used my version of the Little Mermaid to discuss issues around the beauty myth, the female body, diversity, and inclusion – and hopefully managed to create a compelling read at the same time. It’s important to avoid becoming didactic. You can tell a story that deals with issues without it becoming an ‘Issues Book’, nothing is more off-putting for a reader than to feel as if they are being preached at.