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Today’s guest is Mary McMyne. Her upcoming novel, The Book of Gothel, out July 26, 2022 in the U.S. and July 28, 2022 in the U.K., is described as a “lush, historical reimagining of the Rapunzel folktale from the perspective of the witch” for “fans of Wicked, Spinning Silver, and Hild.” You can connect with Mary on Twitter and Instagram, and learn more about her books on her website.

Cover of The Book of Gothel by Mary McMyne

Why are fairy tales told the way they are told? What secrets do they hide? 

I’ve been obsessed with folktales—with once upon a time, with long ago and far away—since I was little, when my mother told spooky bedtime stories about goblins and fairies that changed the very shapes of the shadows in my room. I used to look forward to bedtime, when she would recite folk poetry from memory and tell stories about Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Snow White. But as I grew older, I began to question the versions of the folktales she told us, many of which featured passive heroines whose goals were fulfilled only because of the intervention of a passing woodsman or prince.

Folktales are by definition dynamic stories, which are passed down orally. From parents to children at bedtime, between weavers at the loom or tired workers resting their bones beside the fire. We all know that stories are changed by each telling, that every storyteller puts their own spin on a tale. The versions of European folktales that we know exist in those forms because of who recorded them, where, and when. The Brothers Grimm. Giambattista Basile. Charles Perrault. Apart from a few exceptions like Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, Western European folklore was largely recorded by men.

Given the number of passive heroines in classic stories, I’m a huge fan of feminist retellings. As a reader, I’ve always been obsessed with point of view, the way that stories can become utterly changed when told from a new perspective. I love it when an author takes a story that once seemed simple and complicates it by breathing life into a neglected character, turning the story kaleidoscopic, complex, like a clear prism held up to the light that flashes a rainbow.

One of my favorite retellings as a teenager was Wicked, because of the way Gregory Maguire completely re-envisions (goody-two-shoes) Dorothy and Glinda from the perspective of the (certainly cynical, but not quite wicked) witch, Elphaba. In my twenties, I loved Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, which reimagines (philandering, absent) Odysseus from the perspective of (long-suffering) Penelope and her poor hanged maids. I could go on with recommendations here: Circe by Madeleine Miller, Ash by Malindo Lo, The Lost Queen by Signe Pike, “The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado, Grendel by John Gardner, Mermaid by Carolyn Turgeon, Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik. I love a retelling that turns the source material on its head, that turns a vilified, overlooked, or flat character into a complex person, asking questions about why the story was told the way it was, revealing secrets that aren’t in the original.

There are two fantasy retellings coming out this year that I’m especially excited about because they promise to do exactly that. I can’t wait to read Vaishnavi Patel’s Kaikeyi, out April 26, which Publisher’s Weekly says turns the Indian epic the Ramayana on its head by shining “a brilliant light on the vilified queen” and her ancient magic, illuminating the complexities of her character that are omitted from the classic version. And I’m excited to read Olesya Salnikova Gilmore’s The Witch and the Tsar, out in September, which promises to shed new light on the maligned and legendary witch Baba Yaga.

When I first set out to write THE BOOK OF GOTHEL, I wanted to write a retelling that speculated about the historical roots of the Rapunzel folktale in medieval Europe. I wanted to breathe life into the female characters who were neglected in the Brothers Grimm’s version. The mother, who craves the herb and births the child, but then is never referred to again. (That poor woman! Where is she when Rapunzel gets her happily ever after with her twins and the prince? What happens to her?) The witch, whose motivations for kidnapping Rapunzel go unexplored. (Yes, she’s mad that the baby’s father stole an herb from her garden, but why in the world does she want the infant as payment? How evil is she?)

There’s a long and terrible history in Europe of women being persecuted for witchcraft, especially women who lived on the margins or didn’t fit into the conventional roles prescribed for them by the Church. Most of these women, we now know, were maligned because of factors outside of their control. Widows were especially vulnerable, for example, as were women living in poverty. As a storyteller, I wanted to turn the stories we tell about witches on their heads, to ask whether the witches of the Brothers Grimm were really as evil as they were made out to be. THE BOOK OF GOTHEL is my attempt to ask how the witch would represent herself.

A manuscript found buried in an ancient Black Forest cellar, GOTHEL is the medieval memoir of Haelewise, daughter-of-Hedda—the peasant woman who would become known as the witch who stole away Rapunzel—written in ink on parchment in her own words. Born to a midwife and fisherman in 12th century Germany, Haelewise is a young midwife’s apprentice who has fainting spells and the ability to sense the movement of souls. When her mother dies, Haelewise, shunned by her village, escapes into the Black Forest to seek shelter in the legendary Tower of Gothel. But the wise woman who lives there isn’t what she seems, and soon, Haelewise must choose between safety at Gothel and entry into a dangerous circle of sorceresses and wise women who practice forbidden magic.

The magic these women practice is inspired by herbcraft, medieval folk beliefs, and stories of ancient gods and goddesses, not the diabolical witchcraft the Church claims it is. And the sorceresses and seers who teach it to her—a young woman named Rika with ties to the local Jewish community, a pregnant princess, and historical characters like Beatrice of Burgundy and Hildegard of Bingen—are different from the way they have been presented by historians and scribes.

From its magic system to its portraits of historical figures, GOTHEL is my attempt to interrogate history and fable, to ask why stories are told the way they’re told. Why did Hildegard invent her lingua ignota, the secret language she taught her nuns? What did Christian scribes leave out of their records? What artifacts did medieval clergy destroy? What happened to Rapunzel’s mother after the witch stole her baby? Did she and the witch know each other beforehand? And why did the witch want to kidnap Rapunzel and lock her in her tower?

I wrote GOTHEL so she could tell us herself.

Photo of Mary McMyne Mary McMyne’s poems and stories have appeared in magazines like Gulf Coast, Redivider, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, and the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. Her fairy tale poetry chapbook, Wolf Skin (2014), won the Elgin Chapbook Award. Originally from south Louisiana, she earned her MFA in fiction from New York University. She is hopelessly obsessed with illuminated manuscripts and grimoires.