Let Down Your Hair (interview & review)


Author: Dr Fiona Price

Book title: Let Down Your Hair

Mode: Novel

Genre: Fairytale adaptation/Women’s fiction/Coming of age

Publisher: Momentum Books (digital imprint of Pan Macmillan)

Publisher’s website: http://momentumbooks.com.au/books/let-down-your-hair/

Blog: http://dressingthesalad.com/

Plot, setting & characters:

Let Down Your Hair is a modern retelling of the Rapunzel fairytale. I relished the challenge of adapting plot, symbols and archetypes for a present-day setting while keeping the scaffolding faithful to the original. I took the liberty of adding a second tower, ruled by a different wicked witch, but otherwise events in the novel parallel the fairytale closely. Not the sanitised versions of Grimm and Disney, but the earlier, darker story!

First part of the story is set in a university, where I draw on the concept of the “ivory tower”, where academics live in lofty seclusion. Presiding over this first tower is Andrea Rampion, unhinged hardline feminist and Professor of Womyn’s Studies. Her daughter Emmeline went off the rails in her teens, and left her baby girl Sage in Andrea’s care. Andrea blames patriarchal messages for what happened to her daughter, and is determined to keep her granddaughter away from them. She home-schools Sage, and vets the company she keeps and everything she watches, hears and reads.

At 22, Sage moves into her grandmother’s top floor office to start a PhD in Women’s Studies. She looks out the window, and below her, through a skylight, sees a naked young man. Andrea is angry, and marches off to Buildings to complain about indecent exposure. But he waves up at Sage, and his grin is the warmest thing she’s seen in her strange and isolated life. She rushes down to warn him that Andrea’s on the warpath, and begin a secret romance that prompts Sage to begin asking questions about how she was raised and what happened to her mother. She and Ryan start looking for the answers to those questions, and find more trouble than they could possibly have foreseen…

Education & background:

Where have you studied? At which institution? What was your PhD topic?

I did a BA at Adelaide University, majoring in Psychology and Chinese. After completing Honours in Psychology, I won a scholarship to study Chinese at Xiamen University, where I studied Advanced Mandarin for a semester before heading to the University of Melbourne to do a PhD in cross-cultural psychology. My doctoral research was on how taking part in a international exchange program shapes students’ knowledge of an attitudes towards other cultures. And yes, like Sage, the office where I wrote my thesis was in the tallest building on campus!

How are your studies relevant to your creative interests?

In the intercultural field, you gain a lot of insights about how people’s values and judgments are shaped by their culture and upbringing. In my studies and career I look at what happens when people from different cultures work together, and teach people how to manage any challenges. For example, in November 2014 I ran workshops for Monash about how the Chinese education style differs from the Australian one, and the implications this has for the Australian academics who teach students from China.

Understanding friction between people from different cultures is very useful for a fiction writer. Writers like Zadie Smith and Amy Tan have built their careers on exploring how cultures intersect, and the friction that occurs between them. The next two novels I’m working on will have a more cross-cultural flavour. For these, I’ll be drawing on insights from my career and upbringing in a bicultural family (Anglo-Australian and Malaysian Chinese).

The world of Let Down Your Hair is essentially a white Anglophone monoculture, because I wanted to focus on gender. Even so, I explore value clashes throughout the novel, they’re just clashes between subcultures rather than cultures. I throw Sage, who grew up in a closed world of hardline academic feminism, into a series of different subcultures, each with their own values and code of conduct. The Handsome Prince, Ryan, is a classic tortured artist, who rejects all things mainstream and commercial. She also encounters suburban ‘slut culture’, corporate high flyers, fashion models, women working in adult entertainment, inner city intelligentsia, and mountain dwelling new age types. Through escaping Andrea’s influence and moving in different circles, Sage figures out who she wants to be.

Why did you choose this particular fairytale for your adaptation?

I’ve always been a great fan of hair. Wonderful stuff, especially the way it comes in a range of different colours and textures. The symbol of the young woman imprisoned by a stronger personality is also one that resonates with me. I always wanted to be a writer, and while writing my thesis, I too felt like the ivory tower was a prison!

What else have you published / written and can you share with us any future plans?

So far, most of my significant publications have been professional ones, rather than fiction. In 2007, Allen and Unwin published my non-fiction book ‘Success with Asian Names’, a guide to structure and pronunciation of names from 15 Asian languages. I was also a co-author for the 2014 HarperCollins International Students Guide.

On the creative side, some years ago I published a number of poems and short stories, including ‘Happy As Lari’, which won the 1999 Tom Howard Short Story Contest. After that, I spent some years having children and writing and recording songs (both lyrics and music) before I turned my attention back to fiction.

I’m working on the first of a high fantasy trilogy tentatively called ‘Pictures in the Sand’. In this, I’m looking at issues of religion, culture and colonisation. Doing this in a made-up setting with made-up cultures gives me more leeway to explore these things without treading on toes. Once I’ve written the first book, I plan to move on to a modern retelling of Snow White.

Which other roles or opportunities have you enjoyed, that might interest fantasy buffs? (e.g. weren’t you in some kind of committee for a Harry Potter cyber fan-base?)

About twelve years ago I was a Moderator on the Harry Potter For Grownups (HPFGU) mailing list, to which I posted several times a day. What I loved about that list was being able to analyse stories and characters with clever people who didn’t think they were above popular fiction. I made a lot of great friends there, and visited them overseas; they’re all still on my Facebook.

Viewpoints on aesthetics, philosophy and the relationship between academia & society:

I once read (in World Tales by Idries Shah) that there are 300 versions of Cinderella around the world, from Oriental to Amerindian. There are, it seems, scholarly reservations about imposing too much universality upon fairy tales; that we risk imperialistic appropriation, loss of contextual distinction, or over-simplification. Nevertheless, I suggest that renowned anthropologists such as Joseph Campbell, Jungians, and folklore collectors like Shah, made genuine attempts to foster harmony between the world’s peoples by focussing concerns that we hold in common. There are many ways to express curiosity and respect. Where do you stand on this issue?

Like most things relating to cultural differences, it depends on what level you’re looking at. On a biological level, human beings of all cultures have the same basic drives and needs. It’s the way people manage those needs that differs. What one culture considers appropriate ways to secure food, sex and shelter may be ineffective or considered immoral in another.

Cosmetic elements and props you see in well-known Western fairytales will obviously differ from those you might see in non-Western societies. Things like apples, and cottages and long blonde hair are obviously culture- or region-specific.

When you pare fairytales down to the basic themes, however, I’d argue that most can cross cultures. The need to protect vulnerable and desirable young women (as in Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood) is managed differently in different cultures, but it’s a theme that would resonate across them. The same goes for rags-to-riches of Cinderella, and the ageing beauty resenting a young beauty in Snow White. The thing writers and theorists need to be careful of is assuming that characters in all cultures behave according to values and social structures that are in fact specific to modern-day Anglophone cultures.

What are some of your most memorable literary influences? Some artists try to liberate themselves from influence in order to become “truly authentic”, claiming that mentorship is a stifling hindrance on artistic development. Others prefer to rove widely, believing that authors who write without reading might as well be talking without listening and that poor cultivation leads to arid vocabulary or reliance on platitudes. Scientists, by contrast, seem quite happy to reconcile innovation with tradition: “standing on shoulders of giants”. How much merit do you find in the popular notion of total originality?

As with culture, there are different levels on which a writer can be original. I’m not sure whether “total” originality really exists in fiction, and I suspect any work which approaches it would appeal to a small, elite audience at best. Novels are written to be read, and most readers like to identify with at least some familiar elements.

In writing a retelling of Rapunzel, I’m obviously not aiming for an original plot or characters. What’s original in Let Down Your Hair is my interpretation. Setting an old German fairytale in a modern-day English-speaking country takes a fair bit of creativity, especially if you want to avoid all magical elements. At the core of my retelling is tying the main symbols to the idea of the ivory tower, and the links people draw between women’s politics and sexuality and how they wear their hair. I’ve also updated the archetypes in the story and drawn on more recent ones that people will recognise from US popular media—The Humourless Hairy Feminist, The Alpha Girl, The Frump Turned Beauty Queen, The Rich Man Who Dates Blondes—and fleshed them out, giving them personal histories and inner worlds of their own.

What I love about Belinda and Rebecca-Anne at the Monash Fairy Tale Salon is that they welcomed me as a layperson, and trialled a conference format of presenting academic papers between oral storytelling and music. How did you come to hear about the Salon, Fiona?

I discovered the Salon on the night my agent emailed to tell me Momentum wanted to publish Let Down Your Hair. I was really excited, and went online in search of people who were interested in fairytale retellings. When I found out there was a Fairy Tale Salon, I immediately decided to get in touch.

Which other groups in Australia, China, or elsewhere, have caught your interest in recent years? E.g. Writers Victoria, book clubs, blogs, or a journal to which you subscribe?

My recent years have been very full, and I doubt that I’d know of any groups of interest that the Salon don’t already know about! Still, if I discover any, I’ll definitely let you know.

I’m keen to develop links between academia and grass-root folk community across the arts. I’ve attended festivals overseas where book signings occurred in the midst of pageantry. So, thanks for agreeing to speak at future fairy tale event. This would be with related groups including Storytelling Australia (Vic) and Australian Fairy Tale Society. Publishers of fantasy and fairy tales might benefit from such interdisciplinary gatherings. Would you like to recommend a fellow author for a future fairy festival?

Again, no-one specific comes to mind at the moment, but I’ll let you know if someone does!

Anything else?

I’d love to read more fairytale interpretations. If anyone in the Salon has recommendations, please don’t hesitate to pass them on!

Thanks for your time, and please let us know when / where / how to buy your book.

Thank you for asking me to do a Q&A for the Salon! It’s been interesting, with far deeper and more intellectual questions than the ones I’ve answered elsewhere. If you’d like to take a look at Let Down Your Hair, it’s available as an ebook through the publisher at http://momentumbooks.com.au/books/let-down-your-hair/  and through Amazon, iTunes and Kobo. If it sells over 500 copies, it will be available in hard copy as a print-on-demand and Momentum will do a print run if it sells over 2,000. I’ve started a writer’s blog at http://dressingthesalad.com, and I’m now on Twitter as @FionaSLPrice.

I wish everyone at the Fairy Tale Salon and Fairy Rings a wonderful 2015.

Review of the novel “Let Down Your Hair”:

Let Down Your Hair by Fiona Price is crisp, cheeky, savvy, daring, wiry, perky and exceedingly clever. A worthy successor to the legacy of one of my favourite fairy tales, it bears an unapologetic, ruthless grace, like a blade slicing through platitudes.

Sage Rampion’s name hints at the herbs of Rapunzel, as in Giambattista Basile’s Petrosinella (little parsley) of the 1600’s, re-spun as Persinette in 1697 by Charlotte-Rose de La Force, inspiring generations of retelling, e.g. recently by Kate Forsyth in Bitter Greens. In this story space we glimpse a line of herb-gathering hags and incarcerated maidens, who struggle to reconcile intellectual freedom (and its claimants, such as a feminist intelligentsia) with voluptuous sensual bliss, itself a paradox of roses and thorns; and beyond this, reaches boldly for shades of doubt in between, those secret paths or little-trod lanes of depiction, in which gender self-consciousness seeks liberation from its own pre-conceived identity: “I waded through the feathery weeds” (chapter 27), a contemporary mire of doubt and suspicion like the “whiff of fennel” in the salon (chapter 33). Woodland fairy tale foliage later turns up as moss and ferns (chapter 42, Watershed).

In chapter 1, the protagonist leans out of a window in response to a man who has been posing naked in a life-drawing class. Her gesture is prompted by a complex mixture of curiosity, warning and regret, for having inadvertently set her grandmother Andrea – an academic feminist tartar – upon him. He, Ryan Prince, glances up at her and their eyes meet. In that moment, at the closing line of this first chapter, we see the book title playing out with unmistakeable Rapunzel credentials: “The hairnet holding my bun together came free, and my hair spilled out the window, rippling in the wind like a long, pale scarf made of silk.” References to hair are sprinkled throughout the book, centred upon Sage’s own – “though I might let it grow” (chapter 3); “I twisted it into a rope” (chapter 20) – there is also a rope-off function room (chapter 34) – extending to the more wiry hair of Ryan, plus wigs, extensions and hairpieces (chapter 20 and the salon of chapter 33, cheekily entitled “By Extension”), dreadlocks, retro curls, pinned braids, a disembodied ponytail and even the fake beard of Santa.

At times, hair and tears converge within a metaphor, as when Sage’s hair pours onto the futon “like a sea of spilt champagne (chapter 9); “My new hair rippled like a sheet of golden water” (chapter 33).

Speaking of gold: allusions to the golden hue of fairy tale hair recur throughout the book through lavish command of colour: a ginger cat, burning caramel, a mouth that gapes like a goldfish, a gold star in a notebook, the gold brass of a lock and a carved number 1, gold nameplates, gold embossed handwriting, bubbly champagne, a gold coin, a brass pole for dancing, the softer blonde broken halo of her mother’s Emmeline’s hair and the translucent gold of her fingernails.

Pristine references to the classic motif of Healing Tears abound: a rubber band “landed in my palm like a rain drop” (chapter 2); “I pressed my fingers into my welling eyes and fumed” (chapter 3); “the strange ache flooded up my throat and spilled down my face in an unexpected wash of tears” (chapter 6); “pain welled again, like hot liquid poison trickling down the walls of my stomach” (chapter 40); abundant descriptions of eyelashes, eyelids, blinking, lenses, glasses, even safety goggles (a joke about the can of mace that Andrea sprays into Ryan’s eyes); “peripheral vision” (chapter 9); and the tinkling of paint-brushes in a water-glass (chapter 42). The optical theme is expanded to include concentration – “I forced my eyes to focus” (chapter 15) – as well as betrayal: “a treacherous sea of history”; also  a spin on frames in the sense of how we perceive reality: “So did he choose the frames, or you?” (chapter 16); “a loud wave of music” (chapter 35); and an ever-increasing need to avoid the watching eye of Andrea.

Briars and brambles of the fairy tale forest are invoked in a contemporary context by the “busy, gnarled trees” of the library lawns (chapter 8), which become “spiky purple shadows” – like thorns – in the subsequent chapter.

Several fairy tale creatures appear, as similes or poetic metaphors, such as “a cake tin in the shape of a frog” (chapter 45) and “the leather couches were hunched like ogres against a tapestry of stars” (chapter 36). There is also a charming allusion to the French children’s novel The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. And it would be remiss not to mention the inclusion of pregnancy and birth, no less with twins: another reference to Rapunzel, particularly in the independence with which the heroine delivers them before reuniting with her prince.

By part IV, Sage has come into her own, instructing young women in an art class on the transience and misconceptions of beauty. In chapter 45 Ryan Prince recognises her as “sagacious”. The castle he lovingly builds her is made of fruit with cantaloupe bricks, figs like edible minarets, moats of blueberries, honey-dew grass and apple-slice cobblestones. It is also in this segment of the book that its female protagonists strive for a meeting of minds, a compromise or reconciliation, if not perfect resolution. There remain, by the author’s intention, questions for mothers to ask as to how to raise their daughters amidst competing pressures: on the one hand, the rigorous demands of post-feminist academia; on the other, lurid objectification of female bodies. Fiona Price has successfully ramped up both extremes in this story to illustrate this polarity. Both forces are rampant. Therein lies the magical tension in Sage Rampion’s name.

I enjoy the symmetry of structure: four parts marked by Roman numerals I to IV, each title commencing with the definite article that highlights their solidity: The Ivory Tower; The Golden Tower; The Wilderness; The Castle. They signal variant forms of imprisonment – even wilderness, for being lost is a limitation, where boundlessness becomes the ultimate boundary, manifesting in unbridled relativism; as Terry Eagleton has argued in The Illusions of Postmodernism, once we dismiss all morality as merely relative, we can abdicate from any moral responsibility for anything, thus may permit atrocity without condemnation. Yet this novel is not didactic. It is questioning. That haunting, gnawing anxiety is one of its many attributes.

There are many witty, memorable lines that I won’t quote, since part of their charm is their unexpectedness and speed.

By contrast, it took me a while to resolve a technical glitch with Kindle Cloud. Now I can’t stop. Way to drag me into a brave new century! My eyeballs are grateful for enlargeable font. That being said, I still love printed books, so if someone publishes it in that form, I’ll gladly buy it all over again. Meanwhile, I’ll be ramping up sage sprigs for many a brew.