Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Emily B. Cataneo

by Kendra Fortmeyer Read the Story December 19, 2016

One thing that I found intoxicating about this story was the interplay of the fairy tale mode with modern sensibilities. As a contemporary writer, how do you interact with antiquated/fantastical tropes?

There’s so much to love about fairy tales. I think there’s something inherent about these stories’ aesthetic that grabs onto the hearts of humans and sits heavy in our stomachs—something about our cultural memory that makes us want to read about dark forests and spooky beasts and raw magic. I’m also fascinated by the prevalence of powerful women in these stories; fairy tales are rife with female characters who can control their environments through magic, or who must overcome obstacles and take a journey instead of languishing in passivity.

And yet, although there’s much to celebrate in fairy tales, there’s also plenty that’s deserving of side-eye: the trope of the haggard, evil witch and the sleeping, helpless maiden; the plot that hinges on the woman realizing that the mean beast has a heart of gold; the character whose agency is wasted on helping other people clean up their messes. I’m interested in subverting these kinds of tropes, in reclaiming and reimagining them to shed more light on and give more agency to these traditional characters. Fairy tales are ripe with metaphor, and one of my projects as a writer is to skew these rich tales to fit with my own modern feminist perspective.

Your story engages playfully and provocatively with the language and rules of fairy tales. If you had to choose one, what would you say is your favorite or most personally influential fairy tale, and why?

This one’s easy: Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. When I was young, one of my favorite books was my copy of Mary Engelbreit’s illustrated, abridged edition of the story. I remember reading it with a pit of wonder and fear in my stomach. So many elements and images from that tale—the troll mirror glass that lodges in Kai’s eye, the bright roses that bloom in the city, the Aurora and the reindeer on the journey north—terrified me and fascinated me in equal measures, for reasons that I couldn’t and still can’t entirely articulate. Which I think is part of the function of a fairy tale. On a more rational level, The Snow Queen also appeals to me because it’s a story of transformative journey, which is something that I’ve sought whenever possible in my personal life, even if a “transformative journey” is something as small as taking a long walk until things make sense again. The fact that The Snow Queen features both an intriguing female villain and a female protagonist doesn’t hurt, either.

A striking element of this story is the intense claustrophobia of the focalizer’s relationship with the bear—so intense that it’s an immense relief when she’s able to leave the house and journey to the far north. Could you talk a bit about how she’s able to self-actualize and break free?

I think the protagonist is able to escape that claustrophobic cabin and embark on her journey through an act of self-trickery. After all, she initially tells herself that she’s going to journey north to further her goal of helping the bear, of breaking his enchantment. She’s just being pliant, understanding, and useful, as she’s been all along. But as so often happens—in fairy tales and, ideally, in real life—her journey transforms and emboldens her in ways that she didn’t expect to be transformed and emboldened. She thinks she’s continuing her servitude to the bear, but in reality, she ends up freeing herself.

You mentioned to me that when you initially began work on this story, it had a sadder ending, explaining “because that was more my vibe when I was 25—I added the more empowering ending as a better-actualized 27-year-old.” Looking back on your past work, have you noticed your stories evolving as you’ve grown and changed? How?

I think the ending is the most important component of a short story, in terms of leaving readers with a message, a feeling, or an impression. And, oh dear, let’s travel back through the mists of time to my early twenties. Back then, I almost always ended my stories on a note where the character was mentally trapped, in stasis, or unable to act instead of being acted on. I think there’s a place for that kind of story—who hasn’t felt trapped at some point in his or her life?—but I struggled to conceive of different endings because I often found myself in the exact same position as the characters I was writing about. As I’ve actively worked to stop being that kind of character, I’ve started writing stories with the action-oriented feminist endings that I imagine for myself. Let’s stop letting the bear eat all our stuff. Let’s stop hiking north for the bear. Let’s descend into the enchanted root cellar and indulge in the delights down there.

About the Author:

Emily B. Cataneo is a Boston-based writer of literary speculative fiction. Her work has appeared in magazines such as The Dark and Interfictions: A Journal of Interstitial Art. Her short story "The Emerald Coat and Other Wishes" was longlisted for Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016. She is a 2016 graduate of the Clarion Writers Workshop in San Diego.

About the Interviewer:

Kendra Fortmeyer is a Pushcart Prize-winning fiction writer whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Nonrequired Reading, One Story, The Toast, Black Warrior Review, Lightspeed and elsewhere. She received her MFA in fiction from the New Writers Project at UT Austin, and recently attended the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ workshop in San Diego. She is the fiction editor for Broad! magazine and likes to play in the genre divide. Her debut magical realist YA novel, Hole in the Middle, is forthcoming from Little, Brown in 2017.

About the Artist:

A Best Small Fictions 2015 Winner, Dave Petraglia's writing and art have appeared in Bartleby Snopes, bohemianizm, Cheap Pop, Crack the Spine, Five:2:One, Gambling the Aisle, Hayden's Ferry, matchbook, Medium, McSweeney's, Necessary Fiction, North American Review, Per Contra, Points in Case, Popular Science, Razed, SmokeLong Quarterly, Up the Staircase, and others.