If I were to judge a book by its cover, I’d say author Carolyn Turgeon was more punk rock than the subject matter of her novels would suggest.
The Penn State grad sports a shock of light in her black hair and an affinity for classics-inspired tattoos. But her head is filled with the reimaginings of children’s fairy tales and adult parables — her debut, “Rain Village,” based on the “Three Rings”; “Godmother,” the self-proclaimed secret Cinderella story; “Mermaid,” a retelling of the Hans Christian Anderson tale; and “The Fairest of Them All,” a rhetorical “What if Rapunzel was Snow White’s evil stepmother?” story.
She professes a love for tortured artists and musicians such as Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen and “anything else that mixes beauty and darkness, twistedness, rage and sadness.” So how did she come to embrace the world of whimsy?
“Actually, I was an Italian major at Penn State. ... I loved the idea of these ancient stories that we tell and retell and that take on new meanings in each telling,” she said. “I love that certain stories just have this hold on us, they live in our blood and bones, and that as a writer I can go in and inhabit them and illuminate their hidden parts. Fairy tales especially, because these are the stories that we hear as children and that live with us throughout our lives.”
Growing up a fan of the punk scene’s raw rage and pure emotion, Turgeon said the world of fairy tales is an extension of that aesthetic. She avoids the sugar that storytellers such as Disney pushed on young readers and instead plants a sense of realism in her otherwise fantastic worlds.
“That’s why I love fairy tales, they’re beautiful and sparkly and filled with spectacular images, but they’re always very dark and twisted and delving into the most raw emotions,” she said. “Those aspects might not always be highlighted, but when Snow White runs through the dark forest, having just found out that the huntsman was meant to bring her stepmother her heart, that is sheer terror. When the stepmother asks for that heart in the first place, that’s teeth-gnashing rage. When the little mermaid drinks that potion that turns her tail into legs, she’s in absolute agony.”
In her most recent book, “The Fairest of Them All,” Turgeon examines the result of love lost. After a short-lived romance with Prince Josef, Rapunzel returns to the tower she and her mother were banished to years before only to watch and wait for years for her former lover to return. In the meantime,Snow White, Josef’s daughter to his new wife, grows into a woman the kingdom reveres, throwing the rejected Rapunzel into a rage.
In that book, Turgeon draws on what we know about the timeless tale and turns it into a more realistic, well-rounded account of one woman’s perceived betrayal and her plot for revenge. There may be a hint of Disney in Turgeon’s tales, but would woodland animals break out into song in her emotionally charged version?
“In a traditional fairy tale, things are pretty black and white and that lady is just pure evil,” she said. “Really, though, she’s jealous, she’s hurt and angry, and she lives in a world in which youth and beauty are valued above anything (for women, anyway) and the loss of those things twists her heart. So telling a fairy tale in novel form, and then focusing on the minor characters, lets you explore the emotion and psychology that’s just missing from the standard stories.”
Turgeon will share an evening of book signing and reading with Jeanine Cummins, the award-winning author of “The Outside Boy” and “The Crooked Branch.” While the books’ concepts differ, Turgeon said, “we do share a certain lyric sensibility ... and an emphasis on emotional rawness. (They) also deal with some strong women’s issues, motherhood, but admittedly in very different ways.”