Interview with Jessica Day George

Princess of the Midnight Ball is a YA retelling of the fairy tale, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” by NYT bestseller, Jessica Day George. Both my daughter and I read this one over the holidays last year, and afterwards we immediately wanted to visit a greenhouse, take up knitting, and read more of Jessica’s fairy tale retellings. Madam author was kind enough to join me for an interview here on the blog. Check it out below.


Amy Trent: Hi Jessica! Thanks so much for chatting with me about your book, Princess of the Midnight Ball. As a fellow reteller of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” I have many questions about how original/existing versions of the fairy tale inspired you and your story of Galen (swoon), Rose, and her family. Let’s get to it, yeah? Many beautiful and striking images occur in this book. The description of the queen’s gardens and hot houses are breathtaking. The image of the name-sake flower bouquets tied with black knitted wool that Galen gifts to the princesses is lasting. Were you inspired by any existing imagery or illustrations of this fairy tale when you were crafting this story?

Jessica Day George: I was thinking a lot about Beethoven, if you can believe it. One of the first places I visited on my first trip to Germany was the house where Beethoven was born. The old town square in Bonn, and the architecture of nearby Frankfurt were really in my head. I kept picturing early 19th century ladies walking about, with long shawls draped from their elbows, and the pink stucco houses, the fountains, the incredibly manicured gardens. Being a “garden designer” was a highly competitive and very well respected job. I’m fascinated by how royals (from any country) could have flowers all year round, or “exotic” fruits, while just outside the gates there would be children who had never seen a rose, or didn’t know what an orange was.

AT: Navigating a cast of characters that include twelve sisters is daunting. How did you approach the enormous cast of main characters? Did you ever consider cutting or killing off princesses? It happens often in retellings of this fairy tale.

JDG: LAZINESS. Getting rid of princesses in a retelling of The TWELVE Dancing Princesses is just PURE LAZINESS. But man, would it have been easier, and I understand why people do it! When I was brainstorming the story I came up with the personality of each princess, a lot of which was based on birth order and age, and then it was easier to see who would react to certain situations, and how. That said, my copy editor, doing a final pass to check for any inconsistencies, pointed out that one of the sisters (Lilac) had no dialogue! At all! She never talked! I hurried back in and switched one or two lines from other people who were talking too much to her! And it wasn’t easy, because I couldn’t just give her one of Poppy’s snarky lines, or one of Rose’s “oldest child leading the way lines.” My way of “cheating” was to not give any of the Princes Under Stone personalities, and have that be a plot point (though now I can’t remember if it’s in Midnight Ball or Silver Woods). That helped reduce the cast to my core characters: the girls, Galen, a handful of parents.

AT: Was your decision to start the story from Queen Maude’s POV and then Galen’s an attempt to manage the large cast of characters or was it how the muses brought the story to you? Inception is always so fascinating.

JDG: Mostly just that I love a good introduction. I think I’m one of the few people who read the Wheel of Time books and didn’t skip the very long intros to each book! People would be like, But it’s weird and it’s not any of the main characters! And I’m like, Yeah, but it reflects what’s happening in the book! You need to know how the princesses got to where they were going, and this is how!

AT: Several different versions of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” exist in folklore. Many (most?) of these original fairy tales lack a clear villain and just pose the problem of the princesses’ worn-out shoes. Why did you decide to introduce a villain, the King Under Stone, from the very first chapter of your retelling?

JDG: One of the main reasons why I wanted to retell this story was because it didn’t have a villain, but it SHOULD have. The variations can be very different, but the one thing they have in common is that they dance all night, every night, until their shoes wear out. People die because they won’t tell their secret, but they are unmoved. And in the end it says that they “never danced again and they lived happily ever after.” It’s really chilling to me, and I knew there had to be a reason why they were doing this. Someone was making them do it! But who? and why?

AT: In many versions of the fairy tale, the king and father of the twelve princesses does something rather unfatherly. He promises that the man who unravels the princesses’ mystery may wed the princess of his choosing as a reward. A father reducing a daughter to a door prize is hard for modern readers to rally behind. How did you grapple with this? How did this gem from the original fairy tales inspire or confound you?

JDG: Kings, man. They had to secure the line of succession! Nothing else mattered! And with twelve daughters and no sons, the king had to find someone to rule after him ASAP. One of the girls was clearly going to marry the next king, and I feel like this was a golden opportunity to have the king select one who was reasonably clever and clearly motivated. I think it’s a very neat solution, honestly, and it’s sort of the male equivalent of the “bride finding ball” in Cinderella, or the tests in Princess and the Pea.

AT: “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” was my favorite fairy tale growing up, and was the first place I encountered the motif of an invisibility cloak. While many characters might see a cloak of invisibility as an excuse to act with impunity, Galen’s integrity is highlighted whenever he wears the cloak. What do you see invisibility cloaks as a metaphor for? What excited you most about the invisibility cloak? What worried you most?

JDG: I didn’t so much think of the invisibility cloak itself as a metaphor, but as the reward. Galen’s kindness to everyone, his generosity, was rewarded far beyond what he had anticipated. (Especially since he anticipated nothing.) And a gift like that is also a responsibility. It was given for his goodness, if he had used it for nefarious purposes, I imagine it would have been taken away. Being invisible tends to give people license, and invisibility in the wrong hands is an invitation to do crimes, or give in to your worst impulses. That is why it is so satisfying when it’s taken up by someone with a good nature, because they will use it, as they will use any power, to do good.

AT: Another common motif in folklore is that of the clandestine dance party. In some folklore the dancing that occurs is done willingly. In other versions the dancing occurs under duress. It’s unclear in many original versions of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” why the sisters are dancing. How did you arrive at the decision that your twelve princesses were dancing against their will?

JDG: That’s the whole impetus for the story! I have several versions, in German and English, and there are quite a few differences, but the one thing that is always the same is the ending: “And they never danced again, and they lived happily ever after!” If never dancing again was their happily ever after . . . why were they doing it? Also the image of dancing night after night, so hard that they destroyed a new pair of shoes, didn’t sound fun. It sounded painful. And doing it when their father was threatening them, when the princes who tried to find out their secret were DYING . . . something’s wrong there. Either these girls were all sociopaths, or they were under a curse.

AT: The source material (original fairy tales) is at times… bloody. For example, in the Brother’s Grim version of this fairy tale, any man who fails to discover the princesses’ mystery will be put to death. Those are some pretty high stakes. And oh my, that looks not just ruthless on the part of the king but sinister. How did you navigate this? How did it influence you?

JDG: As I said before, this is the reason this story caught my attention. So many princes are executed in the older versions! It’s so cruel of the king, so cruel of the princesses, and so completely boneheaded of the suitors! I decided to make the deaths part of the curse, unknown to the king (who I see as a single dad at his wits’ end, rather than a despot), to take the edge off some of the knowing cruelty of this story.

AT: Many authors (me included) retell fairy tales because of the romance. There is something magical and life affirming about a happily-ever-after. Fairy tales have powerful messages for us about how love can heal us, transform us, make us brave. But the love story, if it even exists, in original versions of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” leaves much (we’re talking boat-loads) to the reader’s imagination. This begs the question, what about the original version of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” inspired you to retell it in novel form?

JDG: It wasn’t the romance !I’m not a super romantic person . . . well, I am, I always want there to be at least one couple in my books, even for younger readers (older siblings falling in love, nothing weird!) But I don’t usually go into a story thinking that everything hinges on the romance. In the original, a king with so many daughters and no sons clearly needs someone to pass his crown to, so why not someone clever enough to solve his problem? And then he gets to marry one of the princesses, in an arranged marriage. Not super inspiring in the romance department. I wanted there to be a romance between Galen and Rose because to me that’s the best of both worlds: the kingdom gets a Crown Prince, but the couple are indeed happy together. The reason why I wanted to retell this story, why I’ve actually done all my fairy tales, is to fill in the blanks of these stories. The basic premise is appealing, but then when you really read deep, you have a lot of questions, and turning it into a novel gives you a chance to answer those questions. A lot of fairy tales that have been popular for so long (Cinderella is the big example) are underdog stories, and who doesn’t love an underdog? Galen is the underdog here, and we see how his cleverness and good nature get him a happily ever after, as he solves the mystery behind the dancing slippers, which isn’t even really solved in the story. We know where they’re going dancing, but not why, not how.

AT: We’ve talked a little about some of the challenges original versions of this fairy tale pose to authors, but what was one of the joys for you? If I had to guess, might it be the opportunity to showcase the loving, supportive relationship of sisters? Those exchanges between the princesses sparkled!

JDG: Thank you! Yes, I’m a big fan of showing families (biological, found, extended) who get along, or even if they do argue, it’s not life or death. That was a lot of fun, and definitely led to the family in Tuesdays at the Castle, who banter and might get frustrated with each other, but do love each other. One of the other very fun things for me about this book was just writing the character of Galen. Coming up with someone who had been essentially, a child soldier, yet had retained his inner goodness, was very interesting to me. Also the knitting. My grandpa taught me to knit, and one of our dear friends (a former roommate of my husband’s) is also a knitter who taught me how to do fancy things like cables. I wanted to showcase the manly art of knitting!

AT: Have you ever come across a fairy tale that you’ve wanted to retell, but ultimately couldn’t because it was too problematic or challenging to adapt in an original way? Are there fairy tales or motifs that you wish more people would experiment with in their retellings?

JDG: Not really. The whole king-in-love-with-his-own-daughter business is so gross, but I think Robin McKinley managed to do it so well that I think in capable hands there’s no fairy tale that couldn’t be retold. I just don’t particularly have one that is real weird that I want to do myself. Mostly I just see little fragments, or stories that didn’t go anywhere, or were too much like Cinderella/Beauty and the Beast, that I wish somebody would pull out the little details from those and use them in another story.

AT: Okay, last question. In the chapter entitled “Third Night,” Galen petitions the head cook for help as she is baking cookies. What type of cookies were they, and do they align with a favorite cookie of yours? Cookies are a longstanding passion of mine. It’s very exciting when they show up in literature.

JDG: OBVIOUSLY they were gingerbread! This is my version of Germany, after all! (I freaking love cookies.)

AT: Now I want to make gingerbread cookies. Jessica, this has been such a pleasure! Thanks for getting into it with me today.

JDG: This was great! Thanks for your awesome questions!

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