Exclusive Interview: “Juniper & Thorn” Author Ava Reid


The Grimm Brothers’ fairytale “The Juniper Tree” is considered by many to be their darkest story. Which is just one of the reasons why — as she explains in the following email interview — writer Ava Reid decided to put her own spin on it with the Gothic horror novel Juniper & Thorn (paperback, hardcover, Kindle, audiobook).

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For people who haven’t read it, what is the Grimm Brothers fairytale “The Juniper Tree” about?

“The Juniper Tree” is about a boy who lives with his father, stepmother, and stepsister, Marlinchen. The stepmother loves Marlinchen but despises the boy, who is subjected to daily torments. Eventually, the stepmother decapitates him and has Marlinchen aid her in dismembering her stepbrother and cooking him into a stew. Marlinchen buries his bones beneath a juniper tree, and the stepmother feeds the boy to his father, who is none the wiser. Through ambiguous magical means, the boy is then reincarnated into a bird, which flies out from the branches of the juniper tree. In this bird form, he kills his stepmother, and then transforms back into a human boy. The family celebrates the stepmother’s death by eating lunch, which is probably my favorite detail of the entire story. Oh, and naturally they live happily ever after.

Naturally. And then what is Juniper & Thorn about, and how is it different from “The Juniper Tree”?

Juniper & Thorn is set in a city called Oblya, which is an analogue for Victorian-era Odesa, Ukraine. It’s about a young witch named Marlinchen who lives with her two sisters and her father, a deposed petty feudal lord who also happens to be a wizard. Marlinchen and her sisters are Oblya’s last true witches, and they peddle their minor magic mostly to tourists or to the impoverished underbelly of this swiftly modernizing city. Cursed by a witch to hunger endlessly and tormented by the industrialization that has robbed him of his wealth and way of life, their father keeps his daughters sequestered from the outside world. Marlinchen, the youngest, is his caretaker, acquiescent to his every demand and obedient to his indulgent, often rageful whims.

Her sisters often sneak out to the city’s ballet theater, and, one night Marlinchen is persuaded to join them. There, she meets the ballet’s famous, ethereally beautiful principal dancer, Sevastyan, and is instantly captivated. This leads her to even greater acts of rebellion, and eventually she discovers the twisted lengths her father and sisters have gone to in order to keep her subservient. All the while a monstrous entity stalks the streets of Oblya, and Marlinchen may be the only one who can expose the truth and put an end to its brutal murders.

On the surface, it might seem like Juniper & Thorn has very little in common with the original fairy tale. But at their core, these are both stories about abuse, appetites, and the most intimate forms of violence.

So did you set out to put your own spin on “The Juniper Tree,” did you want to put your own spin on a Grimm Brothers fairytale and thought of “The Juniper Tree,” or did you have the idea for Juniper & Thorn and then realize it would work even better as a rewrite of “The Juniper Tree”?

I’ve wanted to write a retelling of “The Juniper Tree” for a long time because it’s my personal favorite of the Grimms’ offerings. And I was just as much intrigued by the actual content of the story as I was about its reception. Famously, “The Juniper Tree” is considered to be Grimm’s darkest fairy tale, and for centuries it has been censored and bowdlerized. Tolkien even wrote about it in his iconic essay “On Fairy Tales,” in which he criticized versions of the story that omitted the part where the boy is cooked into a stew and eaten. Why, I wondered, is this particular story considered so fearsome when elements of it exist in other well-known fairy tales (cannibalism in “Hansel & Gretel,” brutal violence against children in “Little Red Riding Hood,” an evil stepmother in “Snow White,” etc.)? What is it about “The Juniper Tree” that has evoked such passionate responses — whether that be fascination or revulsion? As an author, I feel like my first duty is to provoke strong emotions in my readers. What better way to do that than to adapt a story which has haunted its audience so fiercely and so indelibly across time and space?

My first idea for a “Juniper Tree” retelling was actually a novel set during the Black Plague, which dealt with myths of blood libel. (For the record, I still think this would be a neat book.) It was more in line with my first novel, The Wolf And The Woodsman, which is a fairly traditional epic fantasy. But it just wasn’t working. I couldn’t find my way into the story; I didn’t have a hook.

So I went back to the drawing board and started thinking hard about the “heart” of the original fairy tale. “The Juniper Tree” really is quite an odd story in that it totally lacks the epic quality of a lot of fairy tales. There are no witches or wizards, no princes or princesses, no kings or queens, no quests, no curses. It’s just an intimate story of domestic abuse within a single family. And that, I think, is what makes it so perennially disturbing. It’s the upending of fundamental expectations that the home is safe and that family is loving. It’s the idea that the most gruesome acts of violence are committed by those closest to you.

Once I realized that, it made sense to pull back the scope of the story and turn it into a gothic horror, a genre known for its claustrophobic atmosphere and exposé of the ugly underbelly of domestic life. And, if you look closely, Juniper & Thorn keeps what I think are the most fundamental elements of the original: violence perpetrated by family members, birth and death and reincarnation, cannibalism, transformation into an animal, and, of course, that mysterious magical tree.

It sounds like Juniper & Thorn is a fantasy story….

It is definitely a fantasy setting, a secondary world where magic is an accepted part of that world. But, narratively, I think it is very much a Gothic horror. It follows the beats of a Gothic novel, and contains a lot of the genre’s well-known themes, motifs, and symbols. Creeping dread, isolation, abuse of power, forbidden romance and incest and monsters in human skin. It’s been interesting to watch people’s reaction to this book, because “Gothic” has blown up in a big way recently, and I think it’s become a little bit removed from its origins, more of an aesthetic than a genre. A lot of the things people have taken issue with in Juniper — particularly its portrayal of incestuous abuse — are very much hallmarks of Gothic literature. But because many readers are new to the genre, they’ve found this book grimmer than they expected.

No pun intended, I’m sure. Speaking of the Grimms, Juniper & Thorn is obviously influenced by the Grimm Brothers, and their fairytales, but are there any other writers or stories that had a big influence on this story as well?

I flatter myself by thinking that Juniper & Thorn is what you’d get if Shirley Jackson wrote a fantasy novel. The biggest influence on Juniper, aside from the original fairy tale, is Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle. It’s pretty easy to see where shades of her book shine through into mine. I hope Marlinchen is at least half as legendarily weird and off-putting as Merricat.

And how about non-literary influences; was Juniper & Thorn influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?

Not particularly, but it was influenced by ballet. Ballet was a very big part of Russian culture in the period where Juniper & Thorn is set, and it remains an important aspect of Russian national identity. Obviously, it also plays a crucial role in the book. Iconic Russian ballets like “The Firebird” and “Swan Lake” draw from fairy tale and folklore, and of course they feature transformation into birds, which dovetails (ha!) very nicely with “The Juniper Tree.”

Now, the reason we’re doing this interview is that Juniper & Thorn is being released in paperback; the hardcover came out last year. Aside from being smaller, lighter, and thus less helpful when some bugs need killin’, is there anything else different about the paperback edition?

Nothing new in the paperback except Samantha Shannon’s lovely quote on the cover. I was initially going to add a bonus, paperback-exclusive chapter from the love interest, Sevas’, point of view, but because of the compressed timeline of the release, there wasn’t a chance to put it in. But I’m very, very happy with the book as-is. I feel like I’ve said all I needed to say, and the people who get it, get it. And those who don’t? Well, I’m perfectly fine with the knowledge that this book has left a bad taste in some people’s mouths. It only seems fitting.

Also, does this version of Juniper & Thorn include the original version of “The Juniper Tree”?

Honestly, I never thought to include the original version of the fairy tale, because I think the book stands on its own and there’s no need to have prior knowledge of the story in order to appreciate it. If people are curious, they can always Google it, and then maybe they can find some Easter eggs in the book, but other than that, I’m not sure it adds anything essential.

I also have…certain feelings about reifying a single version of a fairy tale as the original and therefore preeminent. There’s a reason that folklorists deal in archetypes when discussing fairy tales; because we see the same elements recur in different stories, from different cultures, spanning centuries and civilizations. Grimm has one iteration of a story about abuse and appetites. I have another. Their compendium is, essentially, a work of German romantic nationalism, intentionally neglectful of any “corruptive” non-German influence. I would like to think that Juniper & Thorn (and The Wolf And The Woodsman, for that matter) makes a case for not idealizing one teller’s version of a tale.

Now, along with the paperback version of Juniper & Thorn, you’ve also got a new novel coming out later this year called A Study In Drowning. What is that book about, and what kind of world is it set in?

A Study In Drowning is my young adult debut, and it’s a romantic fantasy / dark academia novel set in a secondary world analogous to 1950s England and Wales. It follows a university student, Effy, who becomes wrapped up in a mystery about her favorite author: did he really write his famous book, or was he a fraud? As she digs deeper — with the help of her infuriatingly handsome and infuriatingly pretentious academic rival — she uncovers a decades-old conspiracy and a secret some would kill to keep. There are both mortal and magical forces working against them, and the truth may bring everything, from Effy herself to her war-torn country, to ruin.

Think A.S. Byatt’s Possession, but with magic.

Do you think rewriting someone else’s story into Juniper & Thorn had any influence on how you wrote A Study In Drowning?

I don’t necessarily see it as rewriting someone else’s story, but rather paring a timeless tale down to its essentials and then letting it flower up again into a new tree. But the process of doing that influenced the way I explored the themes of A Study In Drowning, which is, essentially, a book about who has the right to tell a story…and who is believed when they do. Does a story belong as much to its readers as it does to the writer? Can a story ever exist in isolation, or do new interpretations and political and social contexts transfigure and pile on new meanings? These are questions that I’ve always been interested in, and that I have probed (and probably will continue to probe) over the course of my career.

Going back to Juniper & Thorn, Hollywood has adapted a couple of the Grimm Brothers fairytales into movies. Do you think your Juniper & Thorn could also work as a movie?

I would love to have Juniper & Thorn adapted as a movie, though I’m dubious that Hollywood would see much earning potential in this weird cannibal book o’ mine. But hey, maybe Bones & All broke the cannibal glass ceiling. (Timothée, call me?).

And I have always pictured Taissa Farmiga as Marlinchen. She’s a well-known scream queen, and she even played Merricat in the movie adaptation of We Have Always Lived In The Castle. It would just be too perfect. Her hair, makeup, and costuming in The Gilded Age give such strong Marlinchen energy, too.

Oh, and as long as I’m indulging this fantasy, Hozier definitely contributes a song to the soundtrack.

So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Juniper & Thorn?

It’s probably best enjoyed on an empty stomach.

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Finally, if someone enjoys Juniper & Thorn, what novel of someone else’s that’s a rewrite of a different Grimm Brothers fairytale would you suggest they read next?

People are probably sick of me talking about this book because I’ve recommended it so many times, but Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan, which is a retelling of Grimms’ “Snow-White And Rose-Red.” It’s a young adult novel about a girl named Liga who is subjected to such brutal abuse that she disassociates herself and her two daughters into a fantasy world. She raises them in this safe haven, but as the girls grow, new dangers begin to wear down the sea-wall that Liga has constructed, and the seam between the real world and the imaginary one grows murky and thin. It’s a beautiful, ugly, immersive, sickly-strange tale, veering at times from fantasy to folk horror. If you enjoyed Juniper & Thorn, I’m absolutely certain you’ll love this book, too.



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