Today, I’m honored to bring you a Project Short Story guest post from author Jessica Keener. I had the pleasure of working with Jessica on our panel at this year’s Boston Book Festival. Jessica is whip-smart, funny, and interesting, and these characteristics are reflected in her fiction. I devoured her latest short story collection, Women in Bed.
Jessica’s insights into the short story have clarified many of my own thoughts about them: why we love them, why we sometimes find them challenging. But it is Jessica’s guest post on Fairy Tales that gave me my most recent a-ha moment. Fairy Tales are often a reader’s first experience with the form of the short story, and perhaps set the expectation of what a short story should be. I’m still pondering this, and working on a post about it. I hope to share it with you soon.
Today, Jessica shares her personal experience with fairy tales. I’d like to thank her for taking the time to write this post for us, and I hope that you enjoy it as much as I have. Please share your thoughts about fairy tales and all things short-story in the comments.
Once upon a time
My love for short stories began in early childhood in the form of Mother Goose rhymes, but took permanent hold in the phantasmal world of fairy tales. By third grade, Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Anderson’s Fairy Tales took top position on my list of favorite things to read. I loved these short stories for their raw, intense emotions. Simple on one level—a girl walks through woods to see her grandmother—but complex on another: girl fails to perceive danger and is almost tricked by deception. In each tale, some magnetism between good and evil forces swayed the tidal currents of my subconscious. Why, for instance, couldn’t Red Riding Hood see the wolf under her grandmother’s bonnet right away? What took her so long to figure things out? As an adult reader, I reconsidered the symbolism of Red Riding Hood and wondered: what present dangers are disguised behind familiar faces and forms (friends, foes, governments, pesticides)? What causes us not to see them?
By age eleven or so, I’d read these fairy tales over and over. I felt a compulsion to do this, as if rereading and memorizing the stories and words might saturate me with their wisdom. I wanted to locate secrets about life I intuitively sensed lay embedded in those pages. Why did Goldilocks think she could enter a stranger’s house, eat leftover food and sleep in a stranger’s bed? Didn’t someone tell her to be careful? What would I do if I were in her position?
“The Ugly Duckling” is a heart wrenching yet inspiring tale of a bird that is bullied, rejected, tossed by time and fate; victorious in the end, in part, because the universe decides to save it. On a more complex level, it’s about faith and despair’s intricate dance. One more day in the cold marshes and that little duck would have been a goner. Was it a G-d-like intervention? Was it the duckling’s kindly heart that drew reward after long suffering, hence a morality tale? How do we find our rightly place in the world? The story introduced me to the concept of destiny and belief in self. I wouldn’t have defined it as such when I was eight or eleven, but the elixir of perception and awareness was there in the story, in the words.
Animate and inanimate objects possessed equal power in these tales. Everything and anything had an ability to share knowledge. One of my favorite Anderson fairy tales, “The Fir Tree,” is about a tree yearning to be other than itself. It longs to be a glittering Christmas tree. The tree finally gets his wish but it’s short-lived. Soon after becoming a decorated tree, the holiday ends, the fir tree is discarded and chopped into pieces, then “placed in a fire under the kettle.” Yet, earlier in the story, the fir tree had been forewarned: “Rejoice with us,” said the air and the sunlight. “Enjoy thine own bright life in the fresh air.”
This story introduced me to the concept of tragedy and loss. On a more complex level, it revealed the way disparaging thoughts can lead to self-annihilation. These are heady things for a child and I could never have expressed them thus back then, but these tales gave me comfort. Despite their dark and frightening turns, they also imparted joy and light. I leaned on them because I felt they cared enough to tell me the truth.
Jessica Keener’s collection of short stories, Women In Bed, came out in October and has received early praise from Publisher’s Weekly, which said: “She demonstrates a versatile voice and ability to deliver as much exquisite detail as the stories’ brevity will allow.” Jessica’s debut novel, Night Swim, was published to critical acclaim and became a national bestseller.