The Book’s Inspiration
Hello! My name is Bonnie M Hennessy, and I just published a fairy tale reimagining made for grown ups entitled Twisted: The Girl Who Uncovered Rumpelstiltskin’s Name. Today I would like to talk to you about what inspired me to write this story. Let me start by posing a question: Have you ever gone back to visit your childhood home or your elementary school classroom that was dear to you only to find that it is way smaller than you remembered and the paint is peeling?
Well after having children I had the opportunity to revisit lots of things from my childhood, including legos, candy corn, and my fairy tale books that my hoarding mother actually managed to hang onto for nearly three decades. Legos are still fun, except when you step on them barefoot in the middle of the night and a slew of words you’re not supposed to utter now that you’re a mom fly out of your mouth. Candy corn is just as bad as I remember. Only now I worry whether or not there is Red Dye #40 in them. And oh, those fairy tales, how strangely dysfunctional, violent, unfair, and downright amoral they now sound. It doesn’t even matter if you use your softest, most soothing mommy voice to recount the tales to your children about Hansel and Gretel’s parents who abandon their children, the wolf who eats Little Red Riding Hood’s favorite grandma, or the evil stepsister who cut off her toes while trying to steal the man Cindy loves - or at least the guy whose party she crashed the night before.
It was during just such a cozy nighttime story hour that I reread the tale of Rumpelstiltskin from the yellowed pages of my childhood book. The first page’s illustration showed a demur girl bowing her head dutifully before a king who pointed his jeweled finger at her and, as the story goes, ordered her to spin a whole room full of hay into gold - all because the girl’s father had bragged that his daughter could turn anything she touched into gold.
Thanks a lot, dad. Oh, and in case you never read this one, if she doesn’t manage to spin the hay into gold, her dad will die. Nothing like a little pressure!
And let’s not forget the little guy with magic who tricks her into agreeing to give away her first born child in exchange for his promise to spin the hay into gold. She had to choose between her father, who was probably sweating in the next room, or some child she might have someday with a husband she hadn’t even met yet. Hmmmmmm. After the predicament her father put her in, I might have chosen my potential, future kid over him, but I guess she is a better daughter than I am.
A Glass of wine, an Itch, and an Imagination Run Wild
After I finished the story and put my daughter to bed that night, I had a glass of wine and kept thinking about this poor girl in the story who had been cornered and tricked by every man she came across in her life. Father. King (eventual husband). And magical little guy with no name. Every feminist bone in my body was annoyed, and I found myself imagining all the comebacks I would have said to these men if I were her. You know, the kind of stinging rebuttals you always think about after the argument is over.
Like an itch in my brain that I couldn’t quite reach, this girl’s predicament kept nagging at me until I got out of bed at 5:30 the next morning and snuck past my two little kids’ bedrooms and out the door to a coffee shop with my laptop under my arm. I started sketching out what this girl’s life must have been like. The first thing I knew for sure was that her father had to be a guy who imbibed a little too much at the local watering hole. You know the type, very jolly, red cheeked, everybody’s favorite uncle, but the kind who likes to talk - a lot. I figured that talking at the tavern must have become slurred bragging, which ultimately became so annoying that someone finally called him on his bluff. Unfortunately for his daugher, that someone was a guy with a title, authority and too much hay on his hands.
From there the story just took off. I knew that she had to be clever and determined to have survived what was probably not her father’s first bad choice, and she also had to be fiercely tenacious to have beaten that little guy with the magic who tried to trick her. I saw her as a natural fighter with a moral compass, born into a family whose weaknesses were completely foreign to her. Thus, at the tender age of nine, she found herself in the middle of a brothel coaxing her father to come home while her mother sat home sewing by the fire, a habit which would continue over the years. Twisted focuses less on the men who tried to manipulate a young girl and more on the young woman who outsmarted them all.
Now if that’s not the start of a good fairy tale, I don’t know what is. Maybe there were no brothels in the children’s tales I read, but Maeve’s house of vice pales in comparison to the murder and other sins inherent in traditional fairy tales.
What do you know about the original fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin? I have been surprised how many people are unfamiliar with it, even with the popularity of the character on Disney’s popular show Once Upon a Time on ABC. How does my story compare to your memory of the original? Or is this a more obscure tale that you are not familiar with and will thus have no preconceived notions about the plot and characters?
Bonnie grew up a shy, quiet girl who the teachers always seated next to the noisy boys because they knew she was too afraid to talk to anyone. She always had a lot she wanted to say but was too afraid to share it for fear she might die of embarrassment if people actually noticed her. Somewhere along the line, perhaps after she surprised her eighth grade class by standing up to a teacher who was belittling a fellow student, she realized that she had a voice and she didn’t burst into flames when her classmates stared at her in surprise.
Not long after that, she began spinning tales, some of which got her into trouble with her mom. Whether persuading her father to take her to the candy store as a little girl or convincing her parents to let her move from Los Angeles to Manhattan to pursue a career at eighteen as a ballet dancer with only $200 in her pocket, Bonnie has proven that she knows how to tell a compelling story.
Now she spends her time reading and making up stories for her two children at night. By day she is an English teacher who never puts the quiet girls next to the noisy boys and works hard to persuade her students that stories, whether they are the ones she teaches in class or the ones she tells to keep them from daydreaming, are better escapes than computers, phones, and social media.
Find Bonnie and her books
Twisted: The Girl Who Uncovered Rumpelstiltskin’s Name
An old tale tells the story of how a little man named Rumpelstiltskin spun straw into gold and tricked a desperate girl into trading away her baby. But that’s not exactly how it happened.
The real story began with a drunken father who kept throwing money away on alcohol and women, while his daughter, Aoife, ran the family farm on her own. When he gambled away everything they owned to the Duke, it was up to her to spin straw into gold to win it all back.
With her wits and the help of a magical guardian, she outsmarted the Duke and saved the day.
Her guardian suddenly turned on Aoife and sent her on a quest to find his name, the clues to which were hidden deep in the woods, a moldy dungeon, and a dead woman’s chamber.
This is not the tale of a damsel in distress, but a tenacious, young woman who solved a mystery so great that not even the enchanted man who spun straw into gold could figure it out.
Not until Aoife came along.
Book Trailer: https://youtu.be/3SDfW7PY3wY
Chapter 1 Excerpt:
The morning mist had almost lifted in the village of Stanishire, the farmers and fishermen were readying the market, women were shouting chores to sleepy children, and Aoife was on her way to collect her father from the town brothel, where the painted ladies entertained men’s nocturnal needs.
When she reached the main street, she dismounted and tied her horse to a hitching post. She walked around the corner of the brothel where no one could see her, adjusted her skirt, and ran her fingers through her hair. Practice had taught her how to jiggle the finicky latch so its reluctant grip released and granted her entrance. The back hallway was dark and quiet. Maggie, the young girl who helped cook and clean, was opening windows to release the sweat and perfume-laced air. Broken glass littered the floor, and cards from unfinished games lay scattered on tables.
“Maggie,” Aoife whispered.
Maggie turned into the dust motes in a sliver of daylight. Over the years, Aoife had learned to call her gently and not to sneak up on her lest she startle the young girl as she had done the first time they met here when Aoife was eleven and Maggie just nine.
“Eeeeef-uh!” Maggie’s eyes lit up as she called Aoife’s name. She had always over-enunciated each syllable in what sounded like a sigh of relief.
She took hold of Aoife’s hand, pulling her around the corner and into the kitchen, one of the only places in the residence that passed for a respectable room.
“Wait here,” Maggie said, kissing Aoife on the cheek. “I’ll be right back.”
Aoife looked around at the pots hanging on the wall that Maggie kept so shiny. A rolling pin on the counter was coated with flour and the smell of bread baking in the oven filled the dimly lit room. In the corner was Maggie’s chair with a basket of women’s stockings waiting to be darned. Aoife turned her back to the parlor door and everything that happened there, pretending her visits with Maggie by the fire were no different than a visit with any other village girl. The sight of Maggie humming as she patched up stockings always made Aoife think of her younger sister, Tara, lying under her heavy blankets, sewing away at some pattern their mother had her working on. Aoife felt that Tara and Maggie would have enjoyed chatting over their sewing, if only Tara were not stuck in bed with a perpetual cough and Maggie the progeny of a brothel.
“Aoife. You look quite bright and alive considering the early hour.”
Aoife jumped as Maeve strolled over and pulled a leaf from Aoife’s hair.
“I see you’ve been busy with your studies,” Maeve added.
Aoife touched her hair, searching for more debris. Maeve’s dressing gown exposed her cleavage and her long, dark curls draped over her bare shoulders without apology. Aoife had seen her dressed, powdered, and painted since she was a girl, and she admired the way her gaze, so piercing, seemed to command respect from everyone. But what had captivated Aoife the most was something more powerful and more impressive than Maeve’s beauty. Although crow’s feet now punctuated her eyes, and her waistline had thickened, the most powerful men deferred to her, bowing their heads in her direction when she traveled through the streets.
“I couldn’t resist the path through the woods,” Aoife replied, knowing she could hide nothing from her.
Maeve stared at her. The affection in her appraisal was always slightly distant, stopping just short of motherly.
“Seamus is taking care of things,” Maeve said with her usual calm.
Aoife nodded and looked again at the shiny pots, trying to focus on anything but Seamus’ highly embarrassing ritual of waking her father, the fairly infamous Finnegan, from wherever he had ended his evening and saddling him on his horse. Maggie pulled a loaf of steaming bread from the oven and set out plates, knives, and a bowl of fresh butter. Each of them took their place around the table as Maggie generously portioned out the bread. Maeve let her shawl fall over the back of her chair and straightened up her shoulders, exposing even more of herself. Aoife flushed and bit quietly into her bread, savoring the flavor and the moment.
There was an honesty and warmth in this kitchen that she never felt in the presence of her own mother. Conversation and warm bread was what made coming to get her father for all these years worth the lashings she used to receive from her mother when she returned home.
“I hear that your latest suitor was seen heading out of town yesterday,” Maeve said. “I gather his hasty departure means that there will be no nuptials?”
Aoife shook her head and cast a quick smile at Maggie.
“I can’t imagine why you didn’t want to marry that one,” Maeve said. “Lots of gold, a manor house to the east with more land than you and your horse could ever discover, and handsome, too. What more could a girl want than a man with piles of gold and a good set of teeth?”
“A man who is blind and deaf and preferably feeble – with deep pockets, of course. Then I can live my life in peace and never have to worry about his teeth – or mine for that matter.”
Maggie giggled, and Maeve raised an appreciative eyebrow, offering her signature half-smile, half-smirk. Aoife grinned and took another bite of the steaming bread.
“And what do your parents say?” Maeve asked. Her features had softened, but her thoughts remained inscrutable. “I can’t imagine they find your refusals as entertaining as we do.”
Aoife fell silent. This was an unexpected detour in the script. They avoided direct references to Aoife’s family. It made breaking bread between them possible, since the money Maeve took from Aoife’s father by night was one of the greatest strains on her family’s resources, reputation, and love. The medicine that Tara often went without after her father’s reckless trips was reason enough for Aoife to despise Maeve, but she had learned to avoid dwelling on these realities. She needed Maeve enough to tolerate her father’s indiscretions, since rescuing him had now become a means of escaping her life. Discussing her family jeopardized everything.
“Well, no, they are not exactly pleased,” Aoife replied, her brashness fading.
Maeve wiped the corner of her mouth and cleared her throat. Something in the air had changed.
“You know, at some point, perhaps sooner than you might expect, they will stop coming. First, the young ones with stacks of gold and good teeth. They have the most fragile egos and will seek out friendlier pastures. Then eventually, even the wrinkly ones, with and without gold, will find calling on you not worth the effort,” Maeve paused. “The tales of your beauty will be replaced by tales of new faces with more welcoming smiles. The choices left to you will be slim.”
The bread balled up in Aoife’s throat. She could have had breakfast in her own home if she wanted this type of talk. She suddenly felt incensed that Madame Maeve dared to criticize her.
“My mother mires me in these traps daily,” Aoife dusted the crumbs from her hands. “She appreciates neither the risk to my reputation I take coming here nor the fact that I am the one who has run the farm for years now.”
“This is true. Your family would be in the poor house and your sister probably with God if not for your courage and your brains,” Maeve said. “But I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about you and your future. You must understand that there are consequences for you, whether you say yes or no to the suitors who come your way.”
She raised an eyebrow, which seemed loaded with a warning left to Aoife to decipher. It had a familiar ring to it, like the warnings her mother made so often about the consequences of Aoife’s trips to Maeve’s house.
“No respectable man will ever want to marry a girl who consorts with vile women, not when he thinks he can pay a few coins for her instead,” her mother would say.
Her mother lived in such a dream world she did not recognize that Aoife was trying to protect the family’s reputation and as much of their finances as was possible. Her mother worried more about Aoife’s reputation than the food on the table and Tara’s medicine. And because of that, a chasm had grown between them too deep to ever cross.
“My choices are just as narrow as every other girl’s. I know that,” Aoife said standing up abruptly. Her shawl dropped to the floor, its power to protect her no match for the storm brewing in the kitchen. “But I’d never compromise myself – or give men control over my body for money like you do. Of that you can be sure.”
“I wasn’t suggesting that,” Maeve replied, completely unruffled. “But it’s interesting that you did. And, Aoife, no matter what choice you make – your husband’s house, my house, or the nunnery – you are exchanging control over your body for money. Of that you can be sure.”
“I have given half my life already to protecting my family. Everyday, whether I’m seeing that fields are reseeded and sheep are sheared or carting my father home from here, I am picking up the pieces of my family’s fortune that my father has broken apart,” Aoife said with less command of her voice than she would have liked. “And now, after I’ve done everything I can to save this family, they – and you – expect me to sell myself off to the next buyer, supposedly to protect them? I can’t do it.”
Aoife knew there was no way for a woman to survive in the world without the protection of a man, yet the security they offered was never guaranteed. Her father’s choices still chipped away at the pieces of what was once her mother, Bronagh. Still bedecked in the jewels of their courtship, she found her only solace and comfort in embroidering ornate and regal designs and patterns by the night fire, awaiting his return from Maeve’s as if her delicate hands could somehow stitch back together the girl he had unraveled and the lives he had torn apart at the seams. Bronagh would not even consider selling her tapestries or needlework to help support her family, for that would have been beneath a woman of her status. Aoife, however, was not built to sit and sew while their fortune and Tara’s health deteriorated at the hands of her father. She needed to be on her feet fixing the problem, not decorating the home they were sure to lose if no one intervened.
Bronagh had traded away her soul for a broken promise of safety and love, and she expected Aoife to do the same. But now Maeve, too? Her advice was nothing less than a betrayal.
“For women not made to curtsey obediently through life, there is no easy choice.” A subtle urgency belied Maeve’s calm. “However, refusing every suitor is not a means of controlling your life, but rather giving over control to whatever or whomever is left over.”
“So I should marry the next man who comes along or end up in a whore house like you?” Aoife said, wincing at her angry words.
She was angry that Maeve had taken her mother’s side, but she did not relish wounding the one person who had always been a source of strength and understanding. Despite her words, Maeve’s features revealed not even the slightest hint of hurt.
“What I am saying is that you ought to turn away any option which would leave you without hope of peace and contentment,” Maeve replied. “But do not fool yourself into waiting for a perfect choice to present itself, because it never will.”
Aoife felt her stomach lurch. She needed to get away from this house, this woman, and the truth. Turning around, she marched outside where her father was standing. She walked to her horse and looked to see if he needed assistance. The legacy of too much mead weighed on his haggard figure as Seamus helped him to his horse.
“I’m so sorry to have inconvenienced you this morning, my sweet Aoife,” her father’s worn voice eschewed sadly.
“I know, father,” she replied. “You’re always sorry.”
He swayed precariously in either direction and then took Aoife’s hand suddenly.
“You’re too good to me, Aoife,” he whispered. “You should be reaching for the–”
“Stars,” she finished. “I know, Father.”
He closed his eyes and pressed her hand between his.
“My hand’s grown since we spent our nights stargazing.”
He nodded and Aoife felt a pang of nostalgia sweep over her. She missed the way he used to pick her up from her mother’s side by the fire and take her out of doors to look at the moon and stars. The memory of the polished scent of him from her childhood came back over the stench of mead that clung to him now. He had been a good father once upon a time. She looked up, searching for any fragment of the man who tossed her high in the air as a little girl. The sparkle of a tear danced at the corner of his eye. There he was. She kissed his forehead tenderly and he sighed with the soft smile reserved only for Aoife. His favorite.