Exclusive Interview: “Darkwood” Author Gabby Hutchinson Crouch
In the animated movie Ralph Wrecks The Internet, there’s a scene in which Rapunzel asks Penelope, “Do people assume all your problems got solved because a big strong man showed up?” This idea — that fairytales have so many female characters, but it’s the men who are the heroes — is something that drives Gabby Hutchinson Crouch’s new fantasy novel Darkwood (paperback, Kindle), the first book in The Darkwood Series trilogy.
I always like to begin with a quick overview of the plot. So, what is Darkwood about?
It’s set in a land where witches and other magical beings are commonplace, but are being persecuted by a draconian military junta of masked Huntsmen. Most of the magical beings have already been forced out of their homes to hide in the forest, so the Huntsmen’s list of behavior that will get a non-magical person — especially a girl — accused of witchcraft is getting longer and stricter all the time. The protagonist isn’t a witch at all, but she’s persecuted as a witch all the same because she loves inventing, and when she flees into the supposedly cursed forest, she meets some actual witches and joins their gang, in order to try to save her village. It’s about opposing racist authoritarianism and being a good ally. But, it’s also about Gretel, the Gingerbread Cottage Witch, Snow White, and Jack of Beanstalk fame forming a gang in a magical forest, falling over in the mud a lot and talking to fairies, sarcastic unicorns and a very enthusiastic spider.
Where did you get the idea for Darkwood and how did that idea evolve as you wrote it?
It started off as so many different ideas. I’ve always been interested in rethinking the logic of fairy tales, because they’re so often about girls and women, and aimed at little girls, but they’ve been rewritten and rewritten by so many (mostly male) gatekeepers that their messages are just so weird these days. I’ve always loved Hansel & Gretel, because Gretel is clever and proactive and her quest is to save her brother, rather than a romantic one. I just didn’t like that the solution was to kill the witch. I tried writing a panto, followed by a sort-of book about 15 years ago where I thought about all of the cake and bread in that story, and explored the idea that maybe the witch’s only magical power is that she can turn things to cake, and she’s ashamed of how non-threatening that power is. That witch became Buttercup.
Another thought I’d been toying with for ages was “Why would Snow White ever want to go back to the humans?” After everything humans did to her, and the kindness shown by the Dwarves, why would she leave her Found Family and go off to marry some passing twerp, who kissed her when she was unconscious, thinking she was dead because for some reason that makes it okay? I started to picture Snow White living as a Dwarf, cutting herself off from humanity, growing bitter and hard. I really liked the image.
I’ve always been intrigued by the story of Jack and the beanstalk too, because Jack’s simply awful, a thief and a killer, yet I like him, there’s something charming about a dirt-poor boy literally hauling himself into the clouds to see what’s up there. So I was interested in the darkness to his character behind the charm, and I also liked the idea that the magical beanstalk didn’t come from a mysterious stranger, that he’s created the beanstalk himself and lied about the beans.
The idea of a talking spider in a hat came from a vague story idea I’d been mulling about a ghost who falls in love with a human. The spider was going to serenade the human, like Sebastian in The Little Mermaid. He was very specifically going to have a bushy moustache, a cartoonish shirt-front and a bow tie.
I actually mashed all of these elements together in a couple of weeks to meet a deadline for a Writersroom kids animation script call. The script got turned down flat but by then I loved the idea of having these guys form a bond, and specifically of them having to defend their whole community from an anti-magic sect. The Huntsmen are drawn from lots of different brutal, oppressive regimes and groups from the real world, past and present, many of which hide their identities as part of their uniforms.
And then, with regards to the plot, that came from watching Shrek 3 — mostly I did not think that film lived up to the first two, but there’s one bit where all the princesses team up to storm a baddie’s castle or something, and I remember thinking “I’d watch a whole film of just this. Retired Fairy Tale Princesses doing Seven Samurai would be amazing.” So basically, I had my characters do Seven Samurai.
Sorry, this answer was really long, but it genuinely was all those different strands I’d been picking at for years, which I ended up weaving together really fast.
No worries. It seems like Darkwood is a fantasy tale, but a comedic one. Is that how you see it, or are there other genres you think either describe this story better or are at work in this story as well?
I describe it as “family friendly comedy fantasy.” I keep saying that Pratchett was my main steer — that warm, irreverent tone to the narrative voice as if an old mate was spinning you a yarn, the social and political satire running deep beneath the gags and the dragons, using a fantasy world as a mirror to hold up to our own — and it definitely was, I’m a huge Pratchett fan, but I keep forgetting how much I was influenced by Shrek as well. Those first two movies are genuinely great satirical fantasy comedies. I really love genre comedy — comedy sci-fi, historical comedy, horror comedy, all that stuff. I just find it very difficult to get people to let me make it, so I jumped at the chance when Farrago said they were looking for a genre comedy series.
In terms of the humor, is Darkwood a jokey tale, like Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, or is it more situational, like John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War? And why did you think this was the right approach for this story?
It has a very Hitchiker’s-y chaotic energy, certainly to begin with. It literally throws an everyman (everygirl?) out of her cozy, quiet home and into the great unknown to make weird allies before she can so much as have breakfast. Gretel at least manages to change out of her pajamas, but she experiences a similar “small town nobody flung into a chaotic situation” event, and I do play a lot with “big picture catastrophe set against the minutiae of day to day life,” which is probably quite Adams influenced. Darkwood doesn’t meander the way Hitchhiker’s does, though. For starters, I know where I’m going when I’m writing a chapter, Adams famously didn’t know where he’d go from episode to episode when writing the radio show, which, as a radio comedy writer working nowadays, is an indulgence that is utterly alien to me. It worked for him. We’d never be allowed to do that now. Again, I’m finding myself steering back to Discworld, and Shrek. Those stories are deeply silly on the surface, but they have a serious backbone, grounded in this world’s problems. That was what I wanted to emulate.
So who do you see as being the biggest influences on the humor in Darkwood?
Pratchett, definitely. I also really love the conversational tone Kurt Vonnegut takes with the reader in his books. I haven’t drawn any bumholes in Darkwood, but I love Vonnegut’s lightness of touch, and I tried to use a similar style. I wanted the reader to feel like I’m a mate casually describing an unfolding scene to them as I watch it.
Aside from the people you just mentioned, are there any writers or specific stories that were a big influence on Darkwood but not on anything else you’ve written?
Obviously, the fairy tales and folk tales themselves were a big influence on Darkwood, Darkwood‘s just where I really go to town on all of my fairy tale obsessions. A couple of reviewers have also likened Darkwood to Pantomime, and I think that’s very fair. Panto is a key part of many British childrens’ lives, it’s often our first experience of live theatre, again it’s tinkering around with traditional folk tales to make them big and bright and anarchic and silly. I gave Jack the surname Trott, which is straight from the Pantomime version of Jack and the Beanstalk. I think there’s something very Pantomimey about giving Hansel and Gretel the surname Mudd, too, and I plan to introduce Cinderella into a later book — I will definitely be giving her her traditional Pantomime surname of Hardup.
I would love to write a pantomime some day, just in case any theatre guys are reading this.
How about movies, TV shows, and video games; did any of them have a big impact on Darkwood?
Shrek, as I mentioned. Usually I write audio & TV comedy, and it probably shows that that’s my background — a lot of the gags are in the dialogue, and the set-up is very sitcom, with the mismatched group forced to live and work together. I could reel off a dozen sitcoms that I love which use that situation. I deliberately made the core five in the Darkwood take on nuclear family roles, since this often happens in comedy shows whether the core group is a blood family or not. Snow and Buttercup are parental figures — Snow is the gruff, hard protector, Buttercup is the gentle, soft nurturer. Jack is the mood swing prone older son, Gretel is the thoughtful middle child, Trevor is the silly kid brother of the gang.
Regarding a found family unit, and family friendly comedy fitting around an exciting adventure story full of weird characters, I was also influenced a lot by Steven Universe and the Avatar: The Last Airbender series. I think both are lovely, really positive shows, I’ve enjoyed watching both with my daughter, and then sneakily watching on without her. As in Darkwood, both have a protagonist in their late childhood who is suddenly tasked with having to change a whole society. While Gretel doesn’t manage to be as persuasive as either Steven or Aang, I found both shows to be good steers for making such a young protagonist likable and believable to kids and adults. I also love the way both shows build a found family for their protagonists so that the audience feels that comfort, even when the protagonist is facing adversity.
I also really loved the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon as both a kid and a young adult. Again, there’s the theme of teenagers from a fairly sedate life being thrown in to a weird world, having to navigate it, having to save it, driven by a yearning to just go home again, dealing with perilous situations with camaraderie and humor. Those stories really appeal to me.
Now, you’ve already said that Darkwood is the first book in a series called The Darkwood Series. What can you tell us about this series going forward?
My plan and my contract is for a trilogy with a strong through-storyline. Books one and two have immediate problems that need to be solved by the end of the book, but a larger, longer term problem still looms for book three, which will wrap the main story up in what I hope is a satisfying manner. I am definitely not above writing spin-off adventures for favorite characters if there’s a demand for it, though.
Why a trilogy?
A trilogy just felt like a good number of books to get the story I wanted to tell out. I’m a comedy writer, so the rule of three is deeply entrenched in me, I suppose. I also wanted each book to unlock a different part of the Darkwood, and the witches therein — like we’re progressing in an adventure video game. Three areas of forest felt right to me, especially with the rule of three in mind. The area we discover in book one establishes the situation, the area in book two continues the pattern but ups the stakes, and the area of Darkwood we discover in book three changes the pattern.
Do you know yet what the other books will be called and when they might be out?
Book 2 is called Such Big Teeth, and is due out in the summer of 2020. As you can imagine from the title, we’re going to meet some new fairy tale characters, including Red Riding Hood.
Book 3 is provisionally titled Glass Coffin. Read from that what you will. I’m not quite as sure about when this one will be out, we haven’t confirmed it yet, but likely it’ll be some time between Christmas 2020 and summer 2021.
Some people are going to wait until Glass Coffin comes out before they read any of them, and some of them will then read all of the books in a row. Is there any reason why you think people shouldn’t do this?
It’s a story in itself. I promise that the first Darkwood book has a satisfying conclusion to its immediate narrative, with a few long-term loose ends that will leave you looking forward to reading more, rather than leaving absolutely everything on a massive cliffhanger.
One very good reason several friends of mine with children have told me about to get Darkwood read sharpish is that their kids have nicked their copy to read themselves before they could finish it. This has delighted me. If there’s one thing better than kids enjoying your writing it’s kids enjoying your writing and feeling a bit rebellious for doing so.
Earlier I asked if Darkwood had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games. But has there been any interest in adapting Darkwood — and, by extension, The Darkwood Series — into a movie, show, or game?
Not so far, but my agent is definitely pursuing that avenue. As I mentioned, Darkwood was initially an animation script, and I would cheerfully take it back to that format. My agent’s been talking movies a lot, which I could totally see, but there’s something about the amount of world expansion I could do in a series that really appeals to me.
I hadn’t even thought about a video game, but goodness me, now I am. I love third-person adventure games, and could see one where Gretel goes from running around the woods on her own, trying to furnish equipment out of sticks, into her utilizing magical allies and impressive inventions.
If The Darkwood Series was to be adapted into an animated movie or TV show, who would you cast in the main roles?
I wouldn’t like to pre-cast Darkwood in case it colors readers’ mental image of the characters — I very deliberately made my physical descriptions of them as minimal as possible so that the reader can create their own mental image. All we know is that Gretel is “short, scruffy, and mostly brown,” Snow is tall, posh, and filthy with very dark hair and eyes, Buttercup is kind of chubby and wobbly, with long black hair, Jack is fairly handsome but scrawny, and Trevor is a largish brown house spider. I’d probably want most of them to have versions of British accents, though. In my head, Jack speaks like an Essex wide boy, Snow has a clipped Keira Knightley voice going on and Trevor is very definitely Welsh Valleys. Oh, and in my head, Charles the Magnificent has the voice of Richard Ayoade [Early Man], and I don’t know why. If he ever wants to play a stroppy unicorn, do I ever have the role for him.
And if it did get made into a movie or TV show, would you want to write the script like you did for episodes of Horrible Histories and Newzoids?
I would absolutely demand to write the script and have a bank of brilliant up and coming comedy writers I could call on to be a writers’ pool on a series or punch-up team on a movie. Let’s bloody do this (as long as we get somebody to actually want some scripts for it).
Finally, if someone enjoys Darkwood, what comedic fantasy novel of someone else’s would you recommend they read next?
I’ve actually been immersing myself in ghost stories for at least the last year instead of reading other comedy fantasies, because I’m ridiculous, but Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On is sexy funny fantasy fun with lots of hot boys kissing. I love that she created Simon Snow as something for her protagonist in Fangirl to write fanfic of, which is essentially Harry Potter but not Harry Potter-y enough to get sued, and then after writing Fangirl went “screw it — I love Cath’s story so much, I’m just going to write the whole thing.” It’s very different in style to Darkwood, but it really is a lot of fun, if you like magical beings spending most of the book going “aaargh, I don’t know what I’m doing.”