Skip to main content

Interview: June 2007

Sarah Beth Durst's imaginative debut work of fiction, INTO THE WILD, adds a new twist to the classic "happily ever afters" when famous fairy-tale heroes and heroines escape into the real world and must rely on a 12-year-old girl to save them when the stories want their characters back.

In this interview with's Alexis Burling, Durst discusses how the form and idea for this novel evolved over several years --- from a musical she wrote in high school to what it is today --- and describes how she ultimately chose which tales and figures to feature in the book. She also shares her thoughts on the much darker endings of the original Grimm stories, reveals which one of these she loves the most and touches on the possibility of a sequel. How did you come up with the idea for INTO THE WILD?

Sarah Beth Durst: In high school, I had the idea to write a musical about fairy-tale characters who live in the real world. I called it "Rapunzel's Hair Salon," and it had many truly terrible songs in it. Apparently, knowing how to play Fur Elise on the piano does not automatically make one a good songwriter. Who'd have thunk? So that went in a drawer.

Years later, I had the idea: what if a girl had a monster under her bed, and her mother knew about it? I wrote a single paragraph and got stuck. So that went in a drawer.

But the two ideas kept rattling around in my brain and eventually collided with each other. (It was probably inevitable. There's not much in there, after all, except for ’80s song lyrics.) I decided that the girl's mother was Rapunzel, and the monster was the essence of fairy tales (called the Wild). Long ago, the fairy-tale characters escaped the fairy tale to live in secret in our world. But now, the fairy tale wants its characters back, and it’s up to Julie to save them.

KRC: How did you go about picking out which fairy tale characters to include in this book? Were there any you decided to leave out during the writing process?

SBD: I left hundreds of fairy-tale characters on the cutting-room floor. Literally. Just this morning, I nearly stepped on the little mermaid's tail fin, and Hansel won't stop whining about wanting lollipops… Seriously, I read tons and tons of fairy tales in order to write INTO THE WILD, and it was very hard to choose who to include. When I was writing scenes, I'd occasionally "audition" different characters to see who fit the best. There were some who lasted nearly to the final draft before they were sent packing with a nice consolation prize of a poisoned apple and some gingerbread.

KRC: In terms of style, did you use any fairy tales or books as models when writing INTO THE WILD?

SBD: Not really. At least not consciously. I'm sure that all the books that I've ever read and loved have fed into my style, but I just wrote the way that sounded right to me.

KRC: What do you make of the fact that many of the original Grimm fairy tales (and others) had terrifying endings, and the fact that these endings were changed to accommodate a more “happily ever after” feel?

SBD: I love them all: the happy endings, the twisted endings, the random nonsensical endings. It really doesn't bother me that the endings (or the middles or the beginnings) are frequently changed. These tales are meant to be changed and retold. They are meant to be adapted to fit different cultures, different storytellers, different audiences --- that's what gives them their universality and their immortality. They can be made to belong to everyone, everywhere, at every time. That's part of their beauty.

Granted, not every retelling is good, but that's another issue… :)

KRC: When Grandma is talking to Julie, Grandma says, “That’s the beauty of the real world. Wishing doesn’t make it so…it’s actions that matter. Your choice matters.” What do you think she’s trying to say? Do you agree with this statement?

SBD: Grandma, as the wicked witch of fairy tales, was forced to commit many horrific actions against her wishes while in the Wild (for example, locking her adopted daughter in a door-less tower and plumping up a sweet little German boy in preparation for eating him). So, she firmly believes that free will is a gift that you should use wisely. I believe that both wishes and actions matter --- intentions are important, and how you act (or don't act) on those intentions is important too.

KRC: The following quote is used to describe the Wild: “…in here, life is fair. Everyone has a place. Everyone belongs.” How does this compare to what goes on in the “real” world? Does choice and free will breed unhappiness, however temporary?

SBD: One of the central themes of INTO THE WILD is free will (and its pluses and minuses). In the Wild, you don't have free will. You're like a puppet in a play. The Wild forces you to reenact scenes from fairy tales. If you find a beanstalk, you must climb it. If you approach a Gingerbread House, you must eat it. Outside of the Wild, you can make your own choices, but the flipside of that is that sometimes you will choose wrong.

KRC: The epilogue is fairly cryptic. Is there a sequel planned?

SBD: Yes. But the details are shrouded in secrecy. :)

KRC: How would the story be different if Julie was, say, Joe? Why did you choose a girl as your protagonist?

SBD: Julie feels so real to me that I can't even imagine her being Joe. Or even Josephine. She's Julie. If she was someone else, male or not, the story would be totally different because different people make different choices, and a story is all about the choices that the protagonist makes (or doesn't make).

KRC: Is there an underlying message/moral to INTO THE WILD that applies to the “real world,” or is it just a story?

SBD: I hope that people enjoy INTO THE WILD as a story, first and foremost. I think the most important thing that a book can do is make someone happy for the space of time it takes them to read it. As Samuel Goldwyn famously said, "If you want to send a message, use Western Union."

That said… yes, there are underlying themes to INTO THE WILD, and it does present a coherent worldview at its heart. My hope is that those themes add richness to the overall reading experience. And of course, I hope they're cool too.

KRC: If INTO THE WILD was made into a movie, who would you cast as Julie? Would it be animated, or would you use puppets, like in The Dark Crystal?

SBD: Ooh, I love The Dark Crystal! And Labyrinth. They're both definitely in my top five movies of all time. Star Wars is, of course, the number one movie of all time, but that pretty much goes without saying. But we were talking about INTO THE WILD… I'd love to see it as live-action film because then you'd see the real world transformed into a fairy-tale kingdom… On the other hand, I do adore animated movies…

As far as casting if it were live action, I'd hope Julie would be played by an actual 12-year-old, which cuts out pretty much all the actors I’ve heard of. If it were someone who is already famous, they would probably be way too old by the time the movie was made.

KRC: Did you read a lot of fairy tales growing up? If so, which one was your favorite?

SBD: Yes! Tons and tons. My favorite fairy tale was and is "Beauty and the Beast." I love that Beauty and the Beast truly fall in love. In other fairy tales, the prince and princess only meet briefly --- there's a magic kiss and then boom-flash-sparkle, we're supposed to believe it's true love. But Beauty and the Beast talk, take walks, have dinner… They become friends and, over time, fall in love. I always thought that was much more beautiful than some guy with a crown kissing a comatose girl.

KRC: Do you think kids these days still read fairy tales? If no, why not? What can people learn from reading these types of stories?

SBD: Yes. Or if they aren't reading them, then they're watching them on TV or in movies. Look at Shrek. And Hoodwinked. Or for little kids: "Sesame Street." In one recent episode, Zoe reads "Rapunzel" and then wishes for long hair. In another, Snow White recruits additional dwarves with the help of Elmo. The Big Bad Wolf (from both "Little Red Riding Hood" and "The Three Little Pigs") and Baby Bear (from "Goldilocks and the Three Bears") are both recurring characters…

Yes, I know that these are technically "fractured" fairy tales, not the originals. But what qualifies as "original" anyway? These are retold stories to begin with. Early Disney movies aren't considered fractured fairy tales, yet Disney certainly didn't choose the oldest (or even arguably the best) version of Cinderella. If "original" means oldest-known versions, I'd bet that even our grandparents weren't exposed to those versions first.

I love that the tales continue to exist and evolve to have relevance in today's world. I think they are important. They're part of our cultural language and history. They give us archetypes that we can explore or explode. And they're fun --- that shouldn't be underrated!

KRC: If you could become any fairy-tale character, who would you choose and why?

SBD: Ooh, good question. Definitely Beauty. But I'd want to be Beauty in one of the retellings where she gets that awesome library (like in BEAUTY by Robin McKinley).

KRC: Have you ever toyed with writing a book for adults, or do you feel you’ve found your niche with a younger audience?

SBD: Near as I can tell, the main difference between books for adults and books for younger audiences is the age of the main character. Also, adult books tend to be more whiney. (No offense meant to adult book writers. If you're reading this, I'm sure your book is wonderful and not whiney at all. It's everyone else's books. Not yours.)

In general, I don't really think about age when I write. I write for me. I ask myself, "What kind of book would I want to read?" And that's what I try to write. I don't change my style or vocabulary in any way or worry about whether or not a younger reader is going to "get" some theme or layer. I just tell the story in the best way I know how.

KRC: Do you prefer to read a specific genre of books? Might you have a few favorite books to recommend to your readers?

SBD: I am of the belief that every novel could be improved by the addition of a talking cat. So I tend to read novels that do have talking cats or dragons or unicorns. A few of my favorites are: WILD MAGIC by Tamora Pierce, DEEP WIZARDRY by Diane Duane, THE BLUE SWORD by Robin McKinley, TALKING WITH DRAGONS by Patricia C. Wrede… (I could go on like this for some time. If anyone wants other recommendations, feel free to email me!)

KRC: What are you working on now, and when can readers expect to see it?

SBD: I have been dodging this question for months now, but I did kind of let the cat out of the bag earlier with that sequel question. Yes, I am working on a sequel. It will be coming out summer 2008 from Razorbill/Penguin. And I'm really, really excited about it! It has some wicked cool scenes in it like…okay, I'm so not saying anything about it. Super secret. Lips sealed. You'll have to wait until next summer. In the meantime, INTO THE WILD is out now!