Today, FeministFiction is hosting YA author Betsy Cornwell, whose gorgeous debut novel Tides I reviewed a couple of months ago. In this interview, we talk about feminist fantasy, fairy tales, and the importance of diversity in YA.
1. For those who haven’t read it, could you give a quick summary of what Tides is about?
For sure! Tides is all about selkies and kidnappers, mysteries and science, and the fluid nature of family and love. It’s the story of a boy named Noah who moves to his grandmother’s island cottage for a summer marine science internship, and brings his sister, Lo, along to help her get away from their parents. He and Lo soon learn of their grandmother’s decades-long romance with a selkie woman—and before long, Noah begins to fall for the selkie’s daughter. But when one of the selkie children is kidnapped, the tremulous bonds between them are tested, and they all must fight to keep the selkies’ secrets from being revealed.
2. What inspired you to write a novel about selkies?
‘The Selkie Bride’ has been one of my favorite fairy tales since I was very young; my grandparents had a big, gorgeously illustrated book about different kinds of fairy folk, and I first read about selkies there. A few years later, I had an argument with my mother about the selkie going back to the ocean when she finds her skin again—she thought the mother shouldn’t abandon her children; I thought the selkie had been kidnapped and had every right to escape. (I still think I’m right!)
I’ve also always wished I were a mermaid or a selkie or any kind of underwater fantasy being, really, so I loved writing about the selkies’ world.
3. Tides features not only the romance between two teenagers, Noah and Mara, but also between the protagonists’ grandmother and another woman – pretty unusual in a young adult novel. What motivated you to include this element in Tides?
The grandmother’s romance with a selkie woman was one of the earliest elements of the novel—it’s been there since my first few days of drafting, long before Tides was even called Tides. Gemm just ‘walked into my head’ with this backstory, this part of her life.
However, as a bisexual/pansexual person, maybe I write queer characters because they are a bigger part of my imagination than they would be otherwise; I’d kind of like to think that’s not the case, though. I would love to see more diversity in mainstream YA and fantasy, written by writers of all sorts of backgrounds and identities.
4. Tides is told from several points of view, which seems like a challenge to write. How did you develop each voice and balance the points of view in the narrative? Were there any more perspectives you wanted to include but couldn’t?
Yes! The villain’s perspective was originally a big part of the manuscript. My editor and I eventually cut it because it was the only adult voice in the novel, and because she wanted to play up the mystery aspect of the plot. Ultimately, the book is sleeker and cleaner without those chapters, but I still miss the darkness there; I had a lot of fun being creepy while I was writing those chapters, and some of my favorite lines were there (what that says about me, I’m not quite sure…).
Tides is the only time I’ve written from multiple perspectives, and it just became clear as I was drafting that it was the most useful way to tell the story. It’s very freeing to be able to move from one character’s mind to another, and yet to be intimate with all of them. It was actually easier, with this particular book, to write from more than one perspective.
The companion novel to Tides, Compass (which I’ve just sold, yay!) also has multiple perspectives—but only two this time.
5. It’s pretty difficult to dive into the world of YA paranormal/fantasy romance and create a feminist text. There are a lot of tropes in place that are pretty problematic, with the stalker guy who saves the powerless girl and endless love at first sight. Was this something you kept in mind when you wrote Tides? What was your approach to creating an original paranormal romance?
Actually, I think there are a lot of feminist paranormal/fantasy romances out there—Robin McKinley, Tamora Pierce, Madeleine L’Engle, Malinda Lo, and Kristin Cashore’s books, for instance. It’s true that there are also un-feminist or even antifeminist texts, and that those have tended to take some of the spotlight in the last few years. But I don’t think feminism in YA or in romance is an anomaly; they are often wonderfully subversive genres, and that’s part of why I like to write in them. (Loretta Chase and Jennifer Crusie write awesomely feminist adult romance novels, just to give a few more examples.) Romance (adult and YA, paranormal or no) is largely written, published, and read by women, and there’s always going to be something exciting and patriarchy-subverting about that.
As for the insta-love that’s been so much decried recently, I can definitely see the problem with advocating for the idea that two very young people can instantly know they’re meant for each other and spontaneously move into a functional, intimate relationship without any of the work that comes with building and sustaining that. However, I’m uncomfortable with the other extreme, too—that if two young people’s relationship is short-lived or fast-moving, they can’t possibly ‘really love’ each other. Or, that you can’t really love anyone you haven’t known for years. This seems to advocate a kind of emotional abstinence, which (like sexual abstinence) is an unrealistic and unhealthy standard for most young people. Ultimately, I think it’s a very dangerous thing to say who is allowed to love whom, and when, and how. If anything, we as feminists—and as humanists—should advocate for more love of all kinds in the world, not less.
That was kind of a long and theoretical answer. I naturally carry my own principles over into my writing, as everyone does; for me, that means intersectional feminism as well as my other beliefs. When I wrote Tides, I wanted to emphasize the importance of loving generously, and loving people who aren’t just in your biological family; I also wanted to emphasize things like body positivity and the agency of young people. Those are all essential parts of my feminism.
6. One of Tides' protagonists, Lo, is adopted and suffers from bulimia -- two topics that can easily be misrepresented or turned into “moral of the week” type situations. What were the challenges in developing Lo's story in a way that was sensitive and realistic?
What keeps Tides from being an ‘issue book,’ I hope, is that Lo is not defined by either of those traits. She’s adopted, and she’s dealing with an eating disorder, but she’s also a talented artist, a good listener, very motivated, hyper-organized, a steadfast supporter of her brother even when he drives her crazy . . . and so on. Everyone has dealt with ‘issues’ that could easily make for a maudlin after-school special, but no matter what those issues are, they never encompass the full, complex, exciting scope of our whole lives. I wanted to show that with Lo, and with the other characters, too.
7. You describe your next book, Mechanica & the Heir, as a “steampunk retelling of Cinderella with a feminist bent . . . and a fractured ending.” I’m beyond intrigued! Can you tell us a bit more about that?
I just sent my latest revision off to my editor the other day, and I’m so excited to see Mechanica polished up and on its way to publication. Hmm, here’s what I can say about it now:
Mechanica: The Inventor Princess2 (as it's currently called; the title is still up for a little debate) is a steampunk retelling of Cinderella set in an alternate Victorian England called Esting. It's about a girl named Nick, her horrid stepfamily, and her horse, Jules (who happens to be eight inches tall and made of metal and glass). There's a ball and a gown and a charming prince, but the happily-ever-after Nick is waiting for might be different from what she expects—might be something wilder, more joyful, and more dangerous than she can imagine.