Or to put this another way, how do you recognize Cinderella? Is it her name? Her bad fortune? Her beauty? Her happy-ever-after ending?
I ponder these questions after reading the story The Ugly Step Sister Strikes Back. The story does include household chores, but they’re taken on voluntarily. There’s no one being mean to Ella though she’s had her misfortunes in life. Apart from her name and her eternal happiness there’s nothing particularily Cinderella-ish about her. So is it a Cinderella story?
The story is about two step-sisters, Ella and Matilda. It’s told from Matilda’s point of view, and she is, presumably, the ugly step-sister. At the beginning of the story she dislikes Ella for being beautiful, smart and “all that” yet she doesn’t seem to be making Ella’s life miserable. Because the story is told from Matilda’s point of view, the term “step-sister” is used mainly for Ella. She’s the step-sister and as the story progresses it seems less and less like Matilda is the ugly-stepsister and more and more like she’s another Cinderella.
I received the book as part of a book-blog tour, and I was able to ask the author, Sarah Wilson, some questions. So here are my questions and the answers I received.
What gave you the idea to write about the ugly step sister? Did you start from the Cinderella fairytale and move into your own story or did you start with an idea for your own story and then relate it back to the fairytale?
It just started out with Mattie as the ugly stepsister to her perfect Cinderella-esque stepsister. It wasn’t a decision I made; this book started out with Mattie saying things in my head one night while I was in bed. I got up to start writing down what she was saying, and it was all I could do to put pen to paper fast enough to keep up with her. I was up all night writing things down.
Jealousy plays an intense part in Mattie’s life, at least at the first part of the story. Is any of that built upon your own experience? Did you have any sibling or classmate or friend you were jealous of?
This is where I should be fake and lie…oh no, I’ve never felt jealousy. I’m so above that. But as I said, total lie. I am a jealous person by nature. I wish I weren’t, but I am. I did have a younger sibling that I outright hated for a long time because everyone made such a big deal of how beautiful she was as a baby. And the only grandmother we ever saw only liked this sister. I got over that (I was pretty young!) but I do remember it. And my best friend in high school and I had a very competitive relationship. She was the cute one who got all the guys, while I was the smarter one who got better grades and into the college we both wanted to go to. So, I do have some firsthand experience with it. As I would guess most women typically do, as well.
The story seems weirdly self-aware. Speaking of romantic scenes, Jake makes the comment “stuff like that never happens in real life” and then later Mattie reflects on how things from the movies sort of happen in real life. It leaves me wondering how close to real life you picture this book. Is your fiction meant to reflect a dream world different from real life or is it baked up from the same ingredients as real life?
I like self-awareness in entertainment. Some of my favorite things are when shows make nods to the audience (like how Daphne Zuniga, who played Jo on Melrose Place, got paired up on her new series with Grant Show, who played her love interest Jake on MP). Did I want to ground this story in real life? Absolutely. That’s why you get the current pop culture references. And I why Mattie’s reactions are as realistic and real life-ish as possible. But is it a fantasy as well? Absolutely. In the same way that Cinderella and John Hughes’ movies are fantasy based in reality. It isn’t totally outside the realm of possibility for this story to happen. But I am a big, big fan of escapism in my reading. I have enough real life to deal with in real life. I don’t typically want to read about it.
I want to ask about the role of beauty in the story. The ugly step-sister isn’t really ugly. She might think she is at the beginning, but no one else seems to really think so. Why the choice to have her beautiful? These days there is so much pressure for girls to try to be thin, beautiful, etc, why not show that an ugly stepsister can win even while ugly?
I thought this was a fascinating question and I’ve actually been thinking about it for several days, but I don’t know that I have a satisfactory answer for you. I would disagree with you that no one else thought Mattie was ugly. Part of her backstory hinted at briefly was that she had been rejected by other guys. I didn’t include a story of one who told her she was ugly. That’s part of the reason why she was 18 and had never been kissed. But was she really ugly, or was that just how she saw herself because of how those boys had seen her? I don’t think her physical attributes are really ever altered in this story. I think she covers herself in black and wears glasses that she doesn’t need because of how she feels about herself internally. Mattie is no supermodel. Even after her transformation. But sometimes having your makeup done and your hair done and finding the perfect dress makes you feel beautiful. And I would counter that how we feel about ourselves changes how others perceive us. And when she goes to Jake in the end, it isn’t with the makeup or the hairdo or the dress. She goes as herself. So I do think that the ugly stepsister in this story stayed herself, but she stopped thinking of herself as ugly and started to see herself the way Jake saw her. As someone who was beautiful and worthy of notice.
There is the conversation about the story of Pride and Prejudice, and when challenged to explain the depth of Pride and Prejudice Mattie replies with: “I don’t know, but it hasn’t been around for two hundred years without there being more stuff to it.” Personally, I couldn’t believe you left it there. There are obvious comparisons between The Ugly Stepsister Strikes Back and Pride and Prejudice, and you could have used that moment to say why both books are about something more. Why didn’t you? Are both books just as Jake describes Pride and Prejudice, or does one or both have more to them?
Another interesting question. If there’s more to this story, I will be the first to admit that it wasn’t intentional. I’m not a message person, although looking at it now I can certainly see that there is a message in this book – be yourself, stay true to who you are, and things can work out for you. Even if you’re a little weird and not the most popular girl in school. Obviously P&P is a classic that people will still be reading two hundred years from now because of thematic elements and what it says about class structure and women’s place in that society…but I think part of the reason they’ll still be reading it is because of the awesomely amazing love story between Darcy and Elizabeth (which is essentially the Cinderella story, at its heart). I want to entertain. I want people to escape their real lives for a few hours. I want to bring people joy and satisfaction of a happily ever after. Do my own morals and beliefs get in there? Of course. So there may be more to my book, but I just wanted to tell a good story.
What do you love most about Pride and Prejudice? When or how were you first introduced to the story?
Darcy and Elizabeth easily have one of the best love stories ever. I love the wit and humor, I love that Elizabeth is a woman so advanced for her time and can hold her own and is clever and witty and fun. I love that Darcy is able to uncover what a rare woman she is, and love her more for it, not in spite of it. I love the lengths he goes to because of his love for her. So, so romantic. I was first introduced to the book my sophomore year of high school in my English Honors class. I remember that we had to act out parts and I was Lydia. But I don’t think I got it then. It wasn’t until I was in college and read it again and watched the BBC version with Colin Firth that I was like, “Holy cow, I totally love this.” And then proceeded to read everything else she’d ever written. I adore Jane Austen.
Am I right in thinking you have three other books published, all of them about novels based on the Book of Mormon? Can you share something about your experience in writing the other three books?
You are right. There is a niche market for LDS members who want to read clean books that reflect their faith. When I decided to become a writer the Catch-22 that I kept coming across was that you had to have an agent to get published, but in order to get an agent, you had to be published already. No one wanted to take chances. So I thought that if I could publish books with the smaller market, it would make agents more likely to take a look at me. Problem was, I never got to the NY stage. I had two more children, and I thought spending time taking care of them was more important than my writing. Then when they got older, publishing had changed and I decided to go it independently rather than try to publish with a failing institution.
Do you have any new books in the works right now?
I’m currently working on a YA time travel that is the book of my heart. It’s actually scary to write because I’ve loved the story and the characters for so long that I’m afraid it’ll never be as good on paper as it is in my head. I’m also making plans to write a novella with Mattie and Jake at their prom, and a sequel set four years in the future that will star Ella.
How old are your children and how do you find time to write?
My children are 13, 10, 5 and 3. I have some time to write when the 5-year-old goes to kindergarten and my 3-year-old will happily entertain himself. But that’s not really conducive because he does interrupt me and it’s only about an hour before I have to go pick up my 10-year-old. I think the best time to do it is at night after they’ve gone to bed, but then I have this cute husband that wants attention. So I’m not as disciplined as other writers. I think my family should come first. There will be time for writing later.
What do you think is the biggest problem facing the world today, and what do you think can be done about it?
I think the biggest problem facing the world today is selfishness. Most of the world’s ills can be drawn back to that one thing. Power-hungering, destruction, greed; all of it can be traced back to selfishness. About not caring about anyone besides yourself or your family. On how to fix it, I’m with Gandalf – “Some believe that it is only great power that can hold evil in check. But that is not what I’ve found. I found it is the small things. Every day deeds by ordinary folk that keeps the darkness at bay.” So I think we have to find small ways that we can be selfless and spread kindness and compassion, and we must teach our children to do the same.