Sarah McGuire is the author of the middle-grade fantasy fairy tale adaptations Valiant (based on "The Brave Little Tailor") and The Flight of Swans (based on "Six Swans"). We loved The Flight of Swans for its detailed worldbuilding, strong plot, and unique reimagining of the original story--we were thrilled to interview Sarah McGuire about it for this month's feature!
Rapunzel Reads: The Flight of Swans stays close to the original story, 'Six Swans', while expanding in new directions. What was your process for writing The Flight of Swans in this way, and what inspired your particular adaptation of it? How did you brainstorm? What inspired the Queen?
Sarah McGuire: For me, retelling a fairy tale involves exploring something I loved or fixing something I hated. In the original story, I loved that the younger sister saved her brothers. The original stories detailed her strength and heroism. But there were a few things I didn't like: both fairy tales (Grimm with six brothers and Andersen with twelve) seemed to concentrate on the sister's endurance. It felt like someone was chucking stuff at her to see how much she could handle. I wanted to focus on her agency, how this girl drives the story forward, not that she just sticks around for the ride.
Author photo credit: Jordan Weiland
I spent tons of time brainstorming the Queen's character. I remember sitting with a friend and telling her about my story. She asked why the tunics needed to be made out of nettles. I told her that's what the two fairy tales described. Julie gave me this look, and asked, "But why?" It took me a long time to figure out why nettles would be a problem, and as I did that, I figured out who the queen was.
RR: Who is your favorite character in The Flight of Swans, and why?
SM: Oh, that's like picking a favorite child! Every single character had something in them that I loved (or loved to hate) so I couldn't choose. I had fun with certain characters. Owain the hen was such a huge surprise. And Cadan always made every scene he was in funny. Aiden was the older brother I'd always wished for. (I'm the oldest in my family. I didn't want an older sister because if she was anything like me, she'd be bossy. But I did want an older brother.) Ryn loved her family the way I love mine.
RR: Since both of your books are based on fairy tales, do you have any favorite fairy tales/fairy tale retellings?
SM: I remember reading Shannon Hale's Goose Girl years before I wrote Valiant (while I was writing a manuscript I eventually set aside.) and thinking how at home I felt in that style of storytelling. It seemed to capture the beauty and awe that I experienced when I read fairy tales as a child. I also adore her Book of a Thousand Days. I remember thinking I'd have arrived if I could tell a fairy tale like Shannon.
In a completely different vein, Terry Pratchett's Witches Abroad is a complete send-up of fairy tales. It makes me laugh like a hyena sometimes.
RR: Do you have any tips for an aspiring writer?
SM: Read! And write! Take Ira Glass's words to heart. (Here's a link to the actual quote: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/309485-nobody-tells-this-to-people-who-are-beginners-i-wish) If you have good taste, you are not going to like what you produce at first. Or... you're going to know that something's missing and be frustrated that it doesn't live up to what you imagined. It's normal to live in the gap between what you write and what you wish you could write. In fact, it's a good thing. Keep going!
If you do decide to write towards publication, find folks who can give you good, constructive feedback. Learn how to apply it in a way that addresses the issues, but still preserves your voice and story.
The weird thing is that we're used to folks having to read what we write. For our entire education, teachers had to read what we wrote as long as we turned it in on time. But! When you write for publication, no one has to read what you write. A reader can set the story down any time. Once you understand that you're earning–– or maybe beguiling–– every reader for every page, it changes how you write. For me, it makes writing an act of hospitality. I'm creating a story for someone else, the way I'd set up a guest room. It's still my story, but I want it to be a place for readers as well.
RR: The lands Ryn travels to--from her native Lacharra to countries she barely knew existed--are all vivid and well-drawn, as is the history of this world. Did you intentionally create the world, or did it appear with the story? Do you have a favorite part about it?
SM: I had to be very intentional about the world. I tend to hear dialog first when I'm working on a story. The world comes much later. I knew I wanted a place where Ryn would not be dismissed, and even a place where black swans wouldn't be viewed as cursed. So I based part of the Ri's land on ancient Ireland. Women had a much more prominent role in the land and in Celtic mythology, ravens are birds of good luck.
I found it helpful to search for pictures of the types of landscapes I was imagining so that I could better describe them. Google maps is super helpful for that- if you know a specific area, you can go there on Google maps and see a satellite version of it. (Google Earth is even more in depth.)
RR: What is your favorite thing about being an author?
SM: It is so amazing to hold a book that you've written, to see something you imagined become something you can hold in your hands. I think the other thing that surprises and delights me is when I hear from readers who liked the stories. I still feel a bit shocked. There's this, "Who, me?" feel to it.