What used to be called "the folk tale market" in American publishing seemed to putter out quietly at the end of the 1990's, so in the last decade I'd pretty much given up on being able to write retold stories again. So it's been an interesting experience to return recently to the form that was essentially my apprenticeship in story.
I don't care too much for the catch-all term "folk tale". It seems to differentiate between classic, mythic traditions (that is to say religious traditions) and tales told by "the folk" that are by implication bereft of sacred content. In my opinion that's a false distinction, seeming to privilege one kind of story over another. Many of the stories I used to work with (the ones in The Broken Tusk, for example) fall into the mythic category but unlike Greek or Norse myths are part of a religious tradition that is very much alive and thriving. Some belong in both, being part of Hindu mythological lore and therefore written in one or more of the Puranas, or part of the Ramayana or Mahabharata, yet told and retold in endless permutations in a variety of settings.
All this has become relevant again now because I was invited recently to retell four paired stories for Karadi Tales, a publisher in India with a well-known line of book and CD sets. Each pair focused on a single character but needed to be capable of being read alone as well.
To begin with, I found it exhilarating to be back in the realm of retellings. I listened to Sanskrit verses, trying to catch cadence and rhythm and express it in the English renderings. I followed the twists and turns of mythological story, instead of following characters as one does in fiction writing. I found myself delving deeper into the story with each revision, sometimes revealing flashes of the backstory of minor characters, sometimes following a single prophecy or a promise gone wrong.
Because I was writing for an Indian publisher, I could also make some assumptions about audience. I didn't have to worry about whether readers would "get it". I could give myself permission to write in the kind of voice a storyteller might employ to speak to an audience, while assuming certain commonalities in framework and context.
For years I've tried to shape my writing to be accessible to any audience. It's led me to try to write so fluidly that anyone could understand. That's taught me in turn to pull back on content that calls for too much interpretation, to say "royal dynasty" instead of "lunar dynasty" because the latter would just take too many words to clarify. Now I could pull out those stops. I could let battles play out on the page because readers would get the setup, would know who the combatants were, and might even in some instances know the outcome already. It felt as if I were speaking to a family gathering.
I was reminded that good writing needs to be true to its purpose but it also has to be mindful of its potential audience. I was also made keenly aware that I needed to be writing from within this cultural context to make sense of these stories.
I'm used to writing picture book text by attrition, arriving at story by paring the words in anticipation of pictures yet to come. Halfway through this process, I needed to be reminded by the editor that in addition to being picture books these would be in audio format. "Words," she said. "We need more words." It was quite a revelation. Ah yes, if you're going to have the story read there have to be words.
And songs. Yes, songs. There will be music. More on that when we get there.
All of which has made me nostalgic for the retold story. Back in 1996, Diantha Thorpe of Linnet Books allowed me the freedom to write the stories in The Broken Tusk the way I wanted to: from the inside, beginning with recollections of stories I'd heard as a child, choosing to include stories that conveyed the playful exuberance of their central character while excluding those related to particular sacred sites or traditions of worship. I learned the structure of story as I wrote those. I wouldn't be a published writer of children's books today if it hadn't been for this most ancient and yet surprisingly relevant form. If the retold story does make a comeback in the American market, I hope it returns in a way that goes beyond an easy shorthand label.