“Now one day, finally and at last and about time, the queen went to bed and gave birth to a baby girl with a crown of red hair.”
Becca Berlin has grown up in the Pioneer Valley, listening to her grandmother’s storytelling. After her grandmother dies, Becca sets out to learn how she came to the U.S. in 1942, with her grandmother’s story to guide her — “Everyone slept: Lords and ladies, teachers and tummlers, dogs and doves, rabbits and rabbitzen and all kinds of citizens.”
The fairy tale of thorn hedges and poisoned sleep becomes a contemporary story of the Holocaust in Jane Yolen’s “Briar Rose.”
Among her 350 books for children, teens and adults, Yolen has written fantasies ranging from owls in the woods to young dragons, Merlin, the Scots Highlands, and dinosaurs celebrating holidays — many with her family. Yolen has worked with her sons, Jason, a photographer, and Adam, a musician. Her collaboration with her daughter has taken longer to unfold.
“I knew from birth I wanted to be a writer,” Yolen said. “Heidi writes beautifully, but it was too much like following in her mother’s footsteps.”
Heidi Stemple has worked as a probation/parole officer and a private investigator and interned at a half-way house for boys 14 to 18 and at a center for the family and friends of murder victims. She had begun to work as a counselor at a shelter for battered women, she said, when she became pregnant. Home, sick and with time to fill, she turned to a project with her mother. Now they have written 20 books together across almost 20 years, and Stemple has written two on her own.
One of the early books they worked on together changed their relationship, Yolen said, as thoroughly as Stemple’s having a baby changed it. In “Mirror, Mirror” they collect folk and fairy tales from around the world — and talk about them. After each group of stories, they exchange thoughts and responses.
The conversation ran parallel to their lives, Yolen said, and deepened their relationship.
“I would say things I didn’t remember I knew,” Stemple said.
She recalled dropping off her younger daughter at school and coming home to work, thinking another day of introspection.
They looked at those stories from different backgrounds,Yolen as a folklorist and fantasy writer and Stemple from a psychological point of view.
“It was seeing her as an adult and not just as her mom,” Yolen said.
When they came to Beauty and the Beast, Yolen found it powerful. She admires beautiful and complex retellings including Robin McKinley’s “Beauty,” “Rose Daughter” and “Deerskin.”
Stemple heard the original story as a primer for an abused wife and found it deeply troubling: For her it held the clear message, “if you have someone awful and you just love him enough, he will turn into a prince.”
And as they read “Rapunzel,” Heidi had become an adoptive parent to her older daughter, Lexi, and the “witch” who takes in the baby Rapunzel and cares for her became a compassionate and responsible figure.
“The story takes on incredibly different meanings,” Yolen said.
The two began to talk about difficult subjects, sex and death and motherhood, for the first time, and they would learn things about each other they hadn’t known. And that conversation has carried on.
“I only recently learned something about what Heidi did when she was working in probation,” Yolen said.
In a conversation about incarceration, she said “you have never sat in a jail cell with someone who has murdered four people, and I have.”
In working together, Stemple said, people bring their own histories, the knowledge they have gained in the interstices of their lives.
“I’d like to say I introduced her to the word ‘interstices’,” Yolen said.
“You taught me to talk,” Stemple shot back warmly.
Yolen agreed her daughter certainly knew some words her mother had not taught her.
“Most of those I made up,” Stemple said
Today they exchange work regularly in good-natured close readings. Some stories they write together, and some one will claim as her own. They will often email a story or an idea to each other and edit, fiddle and add. They have long practice in editing their own and other people’s work and listening to someone editing their own, Stemple said.
“Don’t mistake this for never arguing about each other’s point of view,” she said —
the argument tempers the work and condenses it.
They had just spent a weekend in the car together for about 25 hours, Yolen said, on a trip through Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine to bookstores and events. On the road they drifted into talking about books, “thinking in story land,” and came up with an idea for a new project. They threw lines back and forth and talked about the shape of the plot, and by the time they got home they had the arc of it.
“We have no words on paper yet,” Stemple said.
“You’re wrong,” Yolen answered, and they laughed as Heidi said she too had a sheet of paper near her and had been keeping herself from jotting down ideas as her mother spoke.
“This gives a glance into how we work,” Stemple said: tightening ideas, finding a direction and a tone.
“It feels that way,” Yolen agreed. “Sometimes I get a paragraph down and send it to Heidi and say ‘do you want to play?’ Sometimes she says ‘no, that’s your book.’ Sometimes she sends me the next line. Something’s always cooking.”
Now Yolen is working on another Holocaust book formed around a fairy tale: Hansel and Gretel. The folk tale moves across three places, she said: The children are starving in the cottage, lost in the woods and imprisoned in the witch’s gingerbread house, where fingers grow thin as bones and people are baked in ovens. Yolen spins her story around a twin brother and sister in the ghetto, the forest where groups of partisans live in hiding and the concentration camps where people become skeletal … and bodies burn.
Some people object to the idea of a contemporary writer writing her own fairy tales, she said, but all fairy tales and folk takes began somewhere. King Lear is a rewriting of a folk tale — a king asks his three daughters to tell him how much they love him, and the youngest answers “I love you like salt” and is banished.
“All writing, whether you finish it or not, whether you publish it or not, is a platform, an armature,” she said. “Journalism, poetry — I believe each time I write something I’m learning something, and I can translate it into later work.”
She tells writing students, “you have to keep your eyes open; there are stories all around you — what you bring makes stories live.”
“I see stories everywhere,” she said. “The world is filled with stories, with poems, with sonatas. If you get up early and hear bird song, it might be a picture book or music. You have to be open to it, ready to receive it. You have to go around without blinders and ear plugs.”
Yolen has never overtly taught her children how to write, Stemple said, but she has modeled a writing life.
The family has run a creative community out of their house, Stemple said, filling it with artists and craftspeople and many more entrepreneurs.
“We saw that it was a way to live,” she said, “and that it was not just about talent. It’s about working hard.”
And more, her mother has set an example in her own life and work.
“When my brother wrote his first book with her, he called it going to writers’ college,” Stemple said. “She taught us her work ethic: Don’t complain about the writing — get it done. You won’t get a novel written by talking about it.”
Stemple has recently taken on “Kite for Moon,” a book Yolen had begun and put in a drawer. Stemple looked at it and said “it’s too long, and you didn’t get to the point.”
“I tore it to bare bones and reworked it on her armature,” she said, “and made it a tight and lovely book about what she wanted it to be — and we sold it. Things come about. Collaboration can never be a straight-line process.”
“It’s like soup,” Yolen said. “I want to make a chicken soup and I start cutting, start tasting.”
“The only problem with that metaphor,” Stemple said, “is that in a story you can take things out. In a soup you can’t.”
Books, Yolen agreed, are made in the rewriting, and she and her daughter are not afraid of doing five or 10 or 15 rewrites, changing, paring down or adding something new. They can always take it out.
Jane Yolen and Heidi Stemple spoke on their work together, “… To the (Owl) Moon and Beyond” anchored the opening weekend of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers — but I spoke with them in December 2015 for this feature story, which ran first in the BFWW program / magazine. My thanks to Jennifer Browdie for the chance and to Jane Yolen and Heidi Stemple for their generosity and good humor in taking the time to talk with me.