Issue 048 Author Interview: Rebecca Burton and “The Prince and the Raven”

Happy Yule, dear readers! Issue 048 story “The Prince and the Raven” is the perfect wintry tale to get you feeling festive. As an extra treat, we have Rebecca Burton here to tell us all about how she crafted her own original fairytale.

LSQ: This story feels so much like a folk tale about how ravens came to have black wings. How did you go about capturing (and nailing!) that kind of narrative voice?

Rebecca: It was an interesting challenge for me when I had the idea to write my own fairytale. My prose tends towards the lean and I usually have to go back and add all the descriptions in during editing. But with this story, I wanted to get that voice right from the first draft.

There’s a particular rhythm to fairytales, as well as a particular quality of description, that we all pick up on unconsciously as children. And I think it’s those rhythms that make the style of storytelling so nostalgic and comforting.

As to how I tried to capture that voice… I started by trying to grasp the setting first (after the initial idea for the characters and plot). Usually when I write, the setting gets filled in last, painted in around the characters. But to make this fairytale world as lush and rich as a fairytale needs to be, I had to try starting the other way around.

In my head, the opening to this story is animated, in the style of the old Don Bluth animations, and once I could feel that setting and hear the sleigh bells on the horses and feel the crisp cold of the snow and the moonlight on my skin, I had found my way in. Then it’s just a case of holding onto that feeling until you reach the end of the first draft – not easy!

LSQ: Eowynn plays a pivotal role in this story, and it stood out to me that she is a woman seneschal, as we usually see that role filled by a man. How do you think the story might have been different if you had made the prince’s seneschal a man instead?

Rebecca: I think Eowynn’s identity as a queer woman is a key component of the story. She is unusual in her world, which reflects our own past and present, a strong woman who loves women in a very “traditional” patriarchal society, and that gives her a different perspective on the world around her. The seneschal character could have been a man, or even a straight woman, and they could have felt pity for Branwen and they could have freed her. But Eowynn feels that connection with Branwen in a different way – as two beings who don’t quite belong and who long to be themselves, who may have found themselves swayed by love for the Prince (romantic for Branwen, platonic for Eowynn) but who, at the end of the day, need to find ways to be true to their own natures.

For me, it adds additional layers of meaning to the story that couldn’t be there otherwise, and reflects my own recurring interest in identity and belong.

LSQ: What are some things writers should consider when writing an original fairytale?

Rebecca: There are many things you could think about before starting to write a fairytale – your theme or moral, the symbolism you want to use, your happy ending. But, to be honest, I didn’t think about any of those before I started writing this story.

I think they are all important but, for me, and with any story, that all comes later. I never know what I’m really writing about until after I’ve finished the first draft (and sometimes not for a long time after that).

However, with fairytales, I think it’s important to remember that everything needs to be heightened – the theme can be more overt, the characters more clearly drawn as good and evil, the language used more poetical. That’s what we learnt to expect from those tales as children and, if they are missing, we can feel a little cheated.

But, saying that, as with any writing, all rules are made to be broken. I think most of the characters in “The Prince and the Raven” are fairly morally grey, for example.

The most important thing, for me, with any writing, is to figure out what I’m trying to say (usually by writing the story in the first place), and then trying to uncover and reveal that meaning. Sometimes I think being a writer is like being an archaeologist – except we have to create our own ruins first before we can excavate them.

LSQ: What drew you to this issue’s bird theme?

Rebecca: I’ve always loved birds, for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, my dad signed me up for the RSPB’s Young Ornithologist Club and I remember being devastated when I read about how avocets were going extinct in the UK. (It’s okay. They’ve since recovered, and I’ve been able to see them in the wild! And they’re as beautiful as I expected!) And I remember seeing my first peregrine falcon when I was about 10(?) on Lundy Island and being awed.

When I got to university, my IRC handle was Falcon and most of my friends called me that in real life too. For a while, I responded better to that than my own name.

(I’m really dating myself here – YOC hasn’t existed for over 20 years and no one who wasn’t very online in the early ‘00s probably knows what IRC is…)

But back to the point – birds. Birds are flight and freedom. I think they speak to the part of all of us that longs to soar and reach for the sky. (But beware of flying too high, O Icarus…)

They are beautiful but fragile, and so often in art are a metaphor for the soul. And it’s all of those associations that makes them perfect for storytelling – especially a form of storytelling with such a rich history as fairytales.