Please welcome Camille Griep to The Qwillery as part of the 2015 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. Letters to Zell is published on July 1st by 47North. Please join The Qwillery in wishing Camille a Happy Publication Day!
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Camille: Thanks so much for having me! I’m thrilled to be able share my very first book with you and your readers.
I started writing very early in life. I was one of those children who liked to soothe myself with stories, whether I was lamenting a fruitless wish for a Pegasus of my very own or a failed friendship. Growing up with my grandparents and no siblings, I read a lot to keep myself company, to fill the hours of my persistent childhood insomnia, and to attempt to understand my own imagination. I wrote books in school, but kept writing when I was out of school, too – journals and notebooks and diaries. I wrote for myself, for my parents, and for my friends. I was lucky to have friends who indulged this behavior well into our teens: in high school, we passed fairy tales instead of notes for a while. Telling stories is something that has always been a part of who I am, whether or not I’ve been actively writing.
TQ: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Camille: Definitely a pantser. I would so like to be a plotter – almost as much as I (still) want a Pegasus. Both are about as likely to happen.
Ideally, I write a book as I did Zell: starting with the beginning, moving to the end, then creating a bridge in the middle. I’m a visual writer and that lends itself to more surprises than is often healthy for an outline.
I know this because I sold my second novel on spec, so I had to submit full outline. While the plan itself was difficult to wrangle, it was even harder to stick to it. I prefer a much more organic process of creation, and, of course, I ended up having to rewrite the outline as I got deeper into the text and made new decisions based on how I’d moved the characters through their environment.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Camille: My attention span is very short. I am easily distracted and that is directly in conflict with my needs for novel writing – long, uninterrupted stretches of time. I work constantly to schedule my days and weeks efficiently, so that I can chop up some into small pieces for small projects and spend long days to do immersive projects. I’m not very good about saying no and tend to get a bit over my skis with commitments. With one major exception, all of the writing-related projects, groups, and publications I’ve been involved with have been worth every stressful minute.
TQ: Who are some of your literary influences? Favorite authors?
Camille: I think I’m influenced by everything I read. That said, my writing has been most shaped by those whose work can be read a variety of ways. Frost has this nice, pastoral reputation these days when in actuality, his writing is much darker. I’m trying to put my own spin on using humor to diffuse the utterly heartbreaking, like Pamela Ribon and Libba Bray. I love Dorothy Parker and Fran Lebowitz, whose writings are true and awful and funny all at the same time. Finally, I’m under the spell of whimsicists like Walter Moers and CS Lewis. The Horse and His Boy changed my life when I stumbled upon it in my grandparents’ library all those years ago.
It’s hard to whittle down a list of favorite contemporary authors, but if I had to add to the ones above, I’d add fiction writers: Yannick Murphy, Jandy Nelson, Chad Simpson, Stephen Graham Jones, Annie Proulx, and Kent Haruf. There are so many more, but we’ll say these are my favorites right this very minute.
TQ: Describe Letters to Zell in 140 characters or less.
Camille: Fairy tale princesses discover Happily Ever After isn’t the Happy they’re After.
TQ: Tell us something about Letters to Zell that is not found in the book description.
Camille: While the book is indeed a paean to the epistolary form, it’s a tribute to many other things close to my heart. One of those things is Los Angeles. When the characters emerge Outside, they find themselves in present day L.A., their portal exiting at the famed, door-less magician’s hangout The Magic Castle. This was an amazing solution in my mind, L.A. being the home of all sorts of strange things, a few overdressed women popping out of thin air would be within the realm of normal at a place like the Magic Castle.
TQ: What inspired you to write Letters to Zell? What appealed to you about re-imagining the fairy tales of Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Rapunzel?
Camille: This book really came about as a result of my grappling – as many of us in our mid 30s do – with expectations. No matter what kind of life path you align yourself to, there are a lot of societal pressures telling you whether you’re acceptable or not. A woman really never gets it right. The singletons are doing it wrong, mothers are doing it wrong, the childless are doing it wrong, the stay-at-homes are doing it wrong, the work-around-the-clock women are doing it wrong, the. I guess it’s fair to say that I’d been on the receiving end of things for too long, and I was tired of hearing friends lament their shortcomings and how their lives failed to measure up.
A friend remarked that instead of the life she had, she wanted the fairy tale. I thought darkly, what if the fairy tales wanted reality?
At first I meant to simply turn the concept into a short piece. But I couldn’t fit the expectations of Cosmo, Vogue, TMZ, and Dr. Ruth into a bite-sized portion of fiction. I dug into the well-known princess stories, trying to choose whose might fit best, when it dawned on me that perhaps all of them, in a wider world of imagination, could find freedom and acceptance from each other. Combining their stories took patience, but allowed me to create a very unique, character-driven narrative.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for Letters to Zell?
Camille: Most of the research required for LTZ was reading. In order to ensure I’d grounded myself in the Grimm versions of the fairy tales instead of the Disney versions, I carefully read each of the main and minor characters’ fairy tales, whether they were Grimm, or Christian Anderson, or otherwise. I threw the kitchen sink into the Realm of Imagination. This will undoubtedly annoy some readers, but it was a conscious allusion to the fact that everything we write for readers is influenced by other imaginative works, whether we like it or not.
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Camille: The easiest character to write was probably Bianca aka Snow White. Even though CeCi’s voice is likely closer to my own, Bianca’s reactions to most things boiled down to what would someone say if their patience ran out five minutes ago.
Conversely, Rory (Sleeping Beauty) was the toughest. I worked really hard to make her anachronistic in a setting (Grimmland, the Realm of Imagination) that is already pretty strange. In order to offset much of her passive voice and fervent romanticism, I layered in as much humor as I could. The downside here, of course, is that humor isn’t universal. Readers who don’t perceive that the women begin the narrative as caricatures will miss the way the women gradually break free as they find their own space in the world.
TQ: Which question about Letters to Zell do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Camille: How did you choose the personalities for each princess?
I like to say the characters begin the book with their personalities turned up to eleven. Because the book is satire, it’s necessary for us to encounter them at their most obnoxious in order to have the character arc I was aiming for, whereupon they begin to soften and take on the best qualities of one another, as old friends often do.
Zell became the letter recipient because her life seemed to be most complete in the traditional sense. In the Grimm version of Rapunzel, she is pregnant with (gasp, illegitimate!) twins when she is evicted from the tower. Since she ends her tale with a life that looks the most like what is considered “normal,” I decided to upend it as the catalyst for the book.
CeCi is the most practical of the bunch she’s used to running a large household. Used to being useful, her recognition of the loss of her own resourcefulness causes her to closely examine her own life, wants, and needs. She does, however, retain a fair bit of whimsy, as she really didn’t have much of a childhood.
Rory is antiquated and dreamy because of her long sleep. But her inability to see things for what they really are isn’t so much stupidity as avoidance. Rather than lose anyone else or any more time, Rory clings to the fragile latticework of her own optimism.
Bianca is unfiltered because she was raised for a time by a bunch of rough diamond miners. She’s embittered because she so desperately wanted her stepmother’s love. As with most prickly beings, her defense mechanisms are largely a smokescreen of her own tender heart.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery lines from Letters to Zell.
1. “You couldn’t shut up about [yoga] a few weeks ago...you might want to give it a try. Maybe you’ll get flexible enough to pull your head out of your ass.” (CeCi, after telling Bianca, “Namaste, bitch.”)
2. “Humans can’t all be assholes, right? Head of Soufflés herself can’t be responsible for techno music, Chia Pets, and pies in a jar.” (Bianca/Snow White)
3. “You would be proud of me, Zell. I feel much braver these days. Bravery is exhausting, though, so I do have to drink a good deal of coffee.” (Rory/Sleeping Beauty)
TQ: What's next?
Camille: Next spring I’ll be releasing my 2nd novel. In New Charity Blues, two women struggle with cultural expectations, their own motivations, and friendship in the midst of a streamlined, reimagined Trojan War set in a post-plague western country rife with prophecy and magic.
Ex-ballerina Cressyda (Syd) Turner joins the effort to rebuild her unnamed City after a pandemic plague decimates the country’s population – all except for that of her hometown, the rural backwater community of New Charity. Yearning to be an influential voice in her City, Syd is embittered by the irrelevance of her art and her inability to find a purpose. When the opportunity to return to New Charity arises, she jumps at the chance to open the hydroelectric dam the town has shut down and restore power to the city.
Cassandra (Cas) Willis, a Seer and Acolyte, is a pensive cowgirl, quietly wishing to be more than just a voice in New Charity’s strict Sanctuary. Her ability to see into the future is her greatest gift, but when she learns that Syd’s father, Cal, was killed by the Sanctuary's Bishop, she strives to find a justification so as to maintain her perception of the institution she grew up in.
Syd – used to being seen and not heard – and Cas – used to being heard and not seen – each balk at the expectation that they will fulfill supporting roles in whatever the men in their communities decide. Disowned by her powerful family, Cas aligns herself with Syd, and a careful respect emerges as each begins to understand the pressures put upon the other, until Cas receives a vision of her town’s utter destruction.
Though these women are minor characters in older narratives, they are remembered primarily as representative symbols of womanhood – Cressyda the pandering, inconstant floozy and Cassandra, the helpless, crazed prophetess. I want to explore the choices that bring them to their decisions, their loves, their families, and most importantly, their friendship with one another.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Letters to Zell
47North, July 1, 2015
Trade Paperback and eBook, 336 pages
Everything is going according to story for CeCi (Cinderella), Bianca (Snow White), and Rory (Sleeping Beauty)—until the day that Zell (Rapunzel) decides to leave Grimmland and pursue her life. Now, Zell’s best friends are left to wonder whether their own passions are worth risking their predetermined “happily ever afters,” regardless of the consequences. CeCi wonders whether she should become a professional chef, sharp-tongued and quick-witted Bianca wants to escape an engagement to her platonic friend, and Rory will do anything to make her boorish husband love her. But as Bianca’s wedding approaches, can they escape their fates—and is there enough wine in all of the Realm to help them?
In this hilarious modern interpretation of the fairy-tale stories we all know and love, Letters to Zell explores what happens when women abandon the stories they didn’t write for themselves and go completely off script to follow their dreams.
Camille Griep lives just north of Seattle with her partner, Adam, and their dog Dutch(ess). Born in Billings, Montana, she moved to Southern California to attend Claremont McKenna College, graduating with a dual degree in Biology and Literature.
She wrote her way through corporate careers in marketing, commercial real estate, and financial analysis before taking an sabbatical to devote more time to her craft in 2011.
She has since sold short fiction and creative nonfiction to dozens of online and print magazines. She is the editor of Easy Street and is a senior editor at The Lascaux Review. She is a 2012 graduate of Viable Paradise, a residential workshop for speculative fiction novelists.
Her first novel, Letters to Zell, will be released July 1st from 47North.