Tuesday 19 February 2019

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Once Upon a Retelling: Sometimes We Tell the Truth by Kim Zarins

Once Upon a Retelling

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Welcome to Once Upon a Retelling! I'm a huge fan of retellings, and I'm really interested in hearing about authors' own love of the original stories, and what inspired them to retell those stories. And so Once Upon a Retelling was born, a feature in which I interview authors about their versions of well-loved tales.

Today, I'm stoked to have Kim Zarins stopping by to discuss Sometimes We Tell the Truth, her retelling of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.

Kim ZarinsCan you tell us a little about Sometimes We Tell the Truth? What kind of a retelling of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is it?

Sometimes We Tell the Truth is a contemporary YA Chaucer retelling, in which American high school seniors take an all-day bus ride from Canterbury, Connecticut, to Washington DC. To make them pass the time well-behaved, their civics teacher tasks them with telling stories, and the winner will get an A in the class. This means, as in Chaucer’s original, I have about two dozen characters tell a story on the road. In Chaucer’s unfinished text, the pilgrims never arrive at Canterbury, and we never learn who won the competition of telling the best tale. So I had the fun of inventing my own ending and all the in-between bits that helped me get to that ending.

Similarly, the characters’ tales are often modernized, and sometimes they masquerade as retellings of other well-known YA novels. For example, the Manciple’s Tale is about a love triangle and infidelity, in which Apollo’s lover cheats on him. This might make you sympathize with Apollo, but don’t: he’s alarmingly possessive. To get this point across, I used an Edward-Bella fanfiction framework, which makes it seem like Twilight fanfiction, but it’s really Chaucer fanfiction disguised as Twilight fanfiction. And of course, Chaucer’s fiction is Ovidian fanfiction, so it’s all very recursive. In the Harry Potter fanfiction used by another character, a Slytherin boy uses a certain Slytherin wizard’s help to perform a huge feat of magic—all to induce a girl to love him (aka the Franklin’s Tale, which Chaucer based on a tale from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron). So, Chaucer’s Boccaccio fanfiction becomes my Chaucer fanfiction disguised as a teen character’s Harry Potter fanfiction. It’s quite a nerdy novel.

Why The Canterbury Tales? What drew you to this classic story? And what inspired you to retell it?

I’m a professor of English in Northern California and I’ve taught Chaucer for many years and have loved discussing these tales with my students. Chaucer makes you laugh (the content can be scandalous!) but he also makes you think hard and feel deeply. I, um, may have compared Apollo to Edward in class, so retelling is kind of what I do on my feet to make Chaucer fun and modern and accessible. I draw from my years of class discussion by having the teens on the bus critique each other’s tales, sometimes ruthlessly. These in-between dramatic moments were some of my favourite moments to write. The whole thing was a blast, honestly. I did not want to get off the bus and back to my real life.

What do you bring to The Canterbury Tales with Sometimes We Tell the Truth?

The fancy answer would be that I have a PhD in English literature from a fancy university and have taught for years and am the Big Expert in all things Chaucer. But no, I don’t feel like the Big Expert. I do bring to the project a multi-year lovefest for Chaucer’s stories—the humour, the rivalry and flirtations, the potential for stories to reveal things about the tellers. The other thing I bring is a huge enthusiasm for young adult literature and its focus on growing, changing characters who learn who they really are. YA helps me retell Chaucer in a fresh way but one that is true to the original.

How does Sometimes We Tell the Truth differ from other retellings of The Canterbury Tales out there?

Mine is a close retelling. There are a number of novels that are “inspired” by The Canterbury Tales, meaning, the work is structured around a frame story of characters who themselves then tell stories, but those stories are not necessarily retellings of Chaucer. Chaucer didn’t invent this frame-story structure (his use of it was inspired by Boccaccio’s Decameron), but since he’s the most famous English writer to use a frame story, the Chaucer comparison gets made. That said, there is one truly close The Canterbury Tales retelling that may not use the frame story’s road trip, but expertly modernizes Chaucer’s tales and renders them in contemporary, rhyming poetry with an amazing beat. Patience Agbabi’s Telling Tales is innovative, and to hear Agbabi read aloud is a treat. Check out what she does with Chaucer’s General Prologue.

Sometimes We Tell the Truth by Kim ZarinsWere there any difficulties in tackling a retelling of a story already known, over writing an original story? Anything that was easier?

I didn’t want to do Chaucer an injustice. For example, I’d feel I’d really failed if Chaucer lovers hated my Wife of Bath. I wanted the story to feel satisfying both to Chaucer lovers—without boring them with something too expected—and also to readers new to Chaucer. Despite those challenges, this was the easiest novel I’ve ever written or will probably ever write. Knowing these characters already and getting to fangirl over them was something that I adored doing. Being faithful to Chaucer gave structure and characters, yet also made me take risks I wouldn’t dare otherwise, both in terms of content but also the sheer scope of the project. I don’t see much YA fiction with such a large cast—all those teens on the bus! All telling stories!—but because the large cast was kind of the whole point of the project, then and now, I didn’t abridge. Chaucer brought new courage to my writing and taught me not to hold back.

What do you hope readers get from Sometimes We Tell the Truth?

I imagine some readers would be turned off that I have so many characters and each one tells a story, but I really hope most readers will come away with the message that everyone has a story to tell. Putting voices to diversity is Chaucer’s message, an innovation to the frame story narrative that no one had ever done before him. All of Boccaccio’s characters were young, gorgeous ladies and gentlemen of the same elevated social class; they have different personalities but largely the same worldview. In contrast, Chaucer’s diverse pilgrims are from different walks of life and social classes and genders, knights and nuns and players and con-men and outcasts and all the rest. Such a diverse group wouldn’t have actually crossed England and all their social boundaries together, but on Chaucer’s fictional road trip, storytelling unites them, and they take turns listening to one another and sharing their own tales. Isn’t that cool?! I wanted my novel to get across that enlarged perspective-taking, and that sense that all these stories and lives are more than the sum of their parts.

What do you think makes a good retelling?

For me, a good retelling takes a marginalized character or marginalized element, and centres it so that the whole story becomes new. For example, we all know the tale of Odysseus and how he had to overcome challenges, but when the story become Circe’s, as is does in Madeline Miller’s gorgeous novel, all the familiar elements are there, but it’s not the story I thought I’d always known. Novels are such a great medium for these retellings because suddenly there’s a lot more room to deepen character portrayals and reveal elements that have been hiding there all along.

Are there any retellings you would recommend, either of The Canterbury Tales, or in general?

There are too many to name, but I’ll share a few premodern retellings that I adored. As I just mentioned, Patience Agbabi’s Telling Tales is great—her Nigerian Wife of Bath is just as dynamic and funny as the original. Madeline Miller’s Circe was brilliant and gave a context to this famous witch who is so much more than a secondary character for Odysseus to outsmart. C. S. Lewis did a lovely retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth with Till We Have Faces, told from the perspective of the jealous ugly sister, adding such depth to that character that I feel I will never get to the bottom of that profoundly complex tale. I have to add John Gardner’s Grendel to this list, because I admired how he made me care about Grendel but softened nothing of his murderous proclivities—and he even made me care about Unferth, of all people! I am currently reading John Updike’s novel The Centaur, which Americanizes the gods, and I’m surprised to see Chiron as a worn-down science teacher in a far nastier school than anything from Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson universe. The great thing about retellings is that the original texts can handle having endless retellings—for example, all these Chirons by Riordan, Miller (The Song of Achilles), and Updike, and they all are recognizably Chiron, but all these retellings are doing different work with that character. That’s why retellings are so addictive, maybe. That infinite abundance is amazing.

Anything you would like to add?

Just that, as an American, I loved how the Microsoft spellchecker on your interview form told me to put the “u” into words like favourite—I’ve always been looking for an excuse to do that, and my opportunity for glamour has finally arrived! Truly, thanks so much for having me. It was such an out-of-the-blue treat when you invited me to the blog, and I loved doing it. If any readers want to say hi, they can reach me on Twitter @KimZarins.

Thank you, Kim, for the interview, and for your fantastic answers! I don't know about you, but doesn't it make you want to read Sometimes We Tell the Truth even more, seeing Kim's passion for the original? And her enthusiasm for all those retellings! I'll definitely be looking them up!

Be sure to visit Kim's website, follow her on Twitter, and check out Sometimes We Tell the Truth, which was published in 2016!

Sometimes We Tell the Truth by Kim ZarinsSometimes We Tell the Truth by Kim Zarins

In this contemporary retelling of The Canterbury Tales, a group of teens on a bus ride to Washington, DC, each tell a story—some fantastical, some realistic, some downright scandalous—in pursuit of the ultimate prize: a perfect score.

Jeff boards the bus for the Civics class trip to Washington, DC, with a few things on his mind:
-Six hours trapped with his classmates sounds like a disaster waiting to happen.
-He somehow ended up sitting next to his ex-best friend, who he hasn’t spoken to in years.
-He still feels guilty for the major part he played in pranking his teacher, and the trip’s chaperone, Mr. Bailey.
-And his best friend Cannon, never one to be trusted and banned from the trip, has something “big” planned for DC.

But Mr. Bailey has an idea to keep everyone in line: each person on the bus is going to have the chance to tell a story. It can be fact or fiction, realistic or fantastical, dark or funny or sad. It doesn’t matter. Each person gets a story, and whoever tells the best one will get an automatic A in the class.

But in the middle of all the storytelling, with secrets and confessions coming out, Jeff only has one thing on his mind—can he live up to the super successful story published in the school newspaper weeks ago that convinced everyone that he was someone smart, someone special, and someone with something to say.

In her debut novel, Kim Zarins breathes new life into Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in a fresh and contemporary retelling that explores the dark realities of high school, and the ordinary moments that bring us all together.
From Goodreads.

Book Despository | Wordery | Goodreads

If you enjoyed this post, check out the other interviews in the Once Upon a Retelling series.

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