T. Coraghessan Boyle on Crimes and Fairy Tales

Your story “Princess” reimagines the fairy tale “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” as a contemporary home invasion. How did that idea come to you?

Stories are everywhere, sprouting like fungi after a rain. I’d just delivered my next novel and was looking for a story to tell when this one was presented to me by my sister-in-law, who had a similar experience, in which a girl came into her house in the middle of the night, turned on the lights, flushed the toilet, and fell asleep in the back bedroom until the police were summoned to remove her. Afterward, my sister-in-law called and told me the story over the phone, baffled and relieved and not knowing quite what to make of it. Who was this girl? What did she want? Why didn’t she take anything? And what was with the barbecued ribs she brought with her? As my sister-in-law spoke, I pictured the details: her house, her dogs, her kids, the errant, drug-addled girl in search of something very much like what my sister-in-law has created for herself and her family—a home, a real home, a place of refuge and surcease. The fairy-tale connection came to me in the first line, and I followed it from there. Here was the archetypal wanderer looking for something she couldn’t name, and the need of it pushed her to enter where she wasn’t wanted.

You tell the story through two voices: the voice of Tanya, a homeless young woman on meth who makes herself at home in someone else’s house; and the voice of Dawn, a single mother of two teen-agers, who owns the house. Why did you choose that alternating structure?

The magic of fiction is that it allows us to project ourselves into the point of view of characters whose perceptions and belief systems are different from our own. It was essential for me to explore Tanya’s psyche, but to limit the action to her point of view would have diminished the story because there would have been no pushback from the victim. How does it feel to have your private space violated? What is the value of the fence, the gate, the locked door? If the three bears had employed a locksmith, there would have been no story.

“Princess” involves two crimes: Tanya’s trespassing and the murder of a little girl, whose body is dumped in the park. How do you see these two things—at opposite ends of the spectrum of criminal depravity—playing against each other?

There are degrees of criminality, and, of course, the murder of the child stands as the ultimate. Wandering heroines, innocent or no, don’t always escape unscathed or live happily ever after. The forest is dark and deep and menacing, and that menace lies at the heart of the whole corpus of the fairy tales and folktales that form the foundation of our literature.

Tanya is twenty-two, with a drug habit, sleeping wherever she can, unable to find enough money to fly home to the East Coast. What do you think draws her back to Dawn’s house a second time?

Just what drew her there initially—that was where she belonged, and she belonged there because she knew that the normalcy of that household would have grounded her, whether she could have articulated that or not.

Dawn is constantly at battle with her daughter, Tammy. Tanya has been more or less disowned by her alcoholic mother. And the only other girl in the story is a murder victim. You don’t paint a very pretty picture of American girlhood or motherhood in “Princess.” Are you as pessimistic as the story is?

I can’t decide whether I’m an optimistic pessimist or a pessimistic optimist. But, in truth, I’m just following the story on a thematic level, and of course the reader can see how the mother-daughter situations reflect on one another. Again, there are gradations here—normal teen rebellion, as opposed to a more extreme variety, and the very grim way in which the real world can resolve those rebellions. Does the darkness swallow up the light? Flick on the news channel, read the newspaper: you tell me. ♦

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