Cassandra Parkin won Salt Publishing’s 2011 Scott Prize. Her new short story collection, New World Fairy Tales, draws on the original, unexpurgated tales collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm to reimagine six of their most famous stories in the rich and endlessly varied landscapes of contemporary America. It has been longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize 2012.
Cassandra can be found at her blog, cassandraparkin.wordpress.com, or on Twitter @cassandrajaneuk. Here she writes about identifying with Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen, falling in love with the real Sam Vimes and finding a caiman in her airing cupboard.
Describe your earliest memory.
I’m about three years old, and I’m in the kitchen with my mother. She opens the door to the airing-cupboard. Inside, sitting on the boiler, is a tiny little crocodile, its mouth open and its feet splayed, hissing at us. Its skin is surprisingly smooth. I ask my mother where it’s come from, and if we’re keeping it. She tells me it’s just staying with us to keep warm.
For years I assumed this was something I’d invented, because it’s such an absurd thing to happen in a small suburban flat in the North of England. However, when I was about twenty-four, I mentioned it to my parents, in a “Ha ha, you won’t believe the weird stuff I used to dream up when I was little” kind of way. To my astonishment, it turned out that this really happened. My dad, who was a biology teacher, had a passion for raising unusual animals as school pets. One day the department boiler broke, and he brought the school’s little caiman home so it wouldn’t get cold.
What was the first book you ever loved? Why?
Beatrix Potter’s books, especially The Pie and the Patty-Pan. She is one of the funniest, cleverest children’s writers I know – she never, ever talks down to her audience, and she has the most incredibly rich vocabulary. She was the reason I knew words like ‘soporific’ and ‘repose’ and ‘retail establishment’ and ‘dignity’ before I could actually read.
Tell us about the first time you realised that the world may not be as it seems.
When I was about six, I jumped down the stairs, because I’d dreamed the night before that I could fly. (It was a very convincing dream.) Unsurprisingly, I couldn’t. It was a big disappointment.
What has been the most formative place in your life? Why?
The port of Falmouth, in Cornwall. My grandparents had a guest-house by the beach, and we spent every summer of our lives there when I was growing up. I’m sure it must have rained sometimes, but I remember every one of those summers as blue and golden and beautiful.
My parents have now retired there, to live in the house my grandparents owned (which could have gone either way, but as it turns out, it’s lovely), and I take my own children to the beach I used to play on, and put them to bed in the room I used to sleep in. It’s a magical place for me.
Which literary or historical character do you most identify with? Why?
The Red Queen from Through the Looking-Glass. Some days I feel like the only words that ever come out of my mouth are “Come on!” and “Hurry up!” and “Get a move on!” and “We’ll never get anywhere like this!” Or if I’m having an exceptionally bad day, I’ll feel like Wonderland’s White Rabbit, charging around on pointless errands and dropping my gloves as I do so. Late, late, late, late, late…
Which literary character could you have a romantic crush on and why? How would you win him/her over?
When I was younger I was all about the smouldering romantic heroes – Mr Rochester, M. Paul, Will Ladislaw. Maybe even Jay Gatsby, poor silly lost boy that he was. They honestly used to turn me weak at the knees. The prospect of fixing them was irresistible.
Having grown up a bit and learned a bit more about gender politics… well, to be honest, I still wouldn’t kick any of them out of bed on a cold morning, but I imagine they’d be awfully hard to live with. These days, the man I most like the sound of most is Sam Vimes from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. Old enough to be interesting, cynical enough to be fun, an excellent father, reasonably domesticated, and a man who wouldn’t expect me to keep my legs perfectly shaved at all times. As for how I’d win him over… I think he’s the kind of man who’d appreciate good home cooking.
I just re-read that, and I think I just described my husband. Reader, it looks like I married him…
What do you do when you’re not reading or writing?
I’m a part-time copywriter, so my working day is also quite a lot about writing. Apart from that, I run the house, raise our children, remonstrate with the cats, bake cakes, make patchwork quilts and plan for the Zombiepocalypse (oh, you know it makes sense). How much of these things I do varies according to how well the writing’s going. If my husband comes home to utter squalor, it’s a fair bet it’s been a good writing day.
Describe your most defining experience with money.
It was when I was about twenty-eight, I think. I’d paid off my student loan, I was earning a decent salary, I had a car that didn’t break down every three weeks and I realised that for the very first time in my life, I was going to have a month where I didn’t have to worry about money. I’d always assumed this only happened to spoilt millionaires and yacht owners. It was a bit of a shock to discover that going a whole calendar month without flirting with bankruptcy was an actual human experience that could be enjoyed by normal people.
If you could time-travel and teleport, which literary world would you want to visit? Why?
I’d go to Germany and visit Johannes Gutenberg, so I could watch while he finished building the first printing-press. I’d love to know if he knew at the time how profoundly his invention was going to change our world, or if he was just one of those cheerful garden-shed types who was doing it for the sheer love of building stuff.
Being a writer can be a strange “brand” of celebrity. Tell us about your most memorable encounter.
My great-grandfather was a Methodist minister, and in his spare time he wrote an insanely popular series of teaching tracts, about the daily lives and experiences of a woman called Mary-Martha and her friends. They sold in the thousands at the time (we have a family photograph of him standing in front of a bookshop, the entire window filled with Mary-Martha books), but of course they’ve long since disappeared from the wider world. Then one day, I found one of them for sale in a charity-shop. That was a very strange moment.
What’s the most extreme thing you’ve done in pursuit of reading or writing?
I once locked myself in the bathroom at a glossy corporate function so I could carry on writing. I was supposed to be schmoozing people and making good contacts, and instead I’d just necked three glasses of champagne, then scuttled off to the Ladies with my notebook. I think this was probably a sign that I wasn’t entirely suited to a career in blue-chip marketing.
If you were to write yourself as a character, what would be your most defining characteristic? (Write us a paragraph, too, if you like.)
One afternoon, she got into a fight with her boyfriend because she caught him putting the toilet-brush in the dishwasher. Not even on its own, mind you, which she could (just about) have understood – but alongside the bowls and the saucepans and the spoons and the plates and the everything. When challenged, he first demanded How else am I supposed to get it clean? and then said smugly, Well, you let the cats sleep on the bed, and that’s much worse…
It took her another three years to get around to leaving him. When her friends found out, they laughed, and told her they’d always known she was an idiot-savant really.
If you were to write a novel about an anti-hero/-heroine, what would his/her central flaw be?
I knew a girl once who had this really odd compulsion to squeeze glass Christmas-tree baubles until they broke. She said she didn’t really know why she did it. She didn’t want to break them, exactly. She just had this consuming desire to keep squeezing a little bit harder and then a little bit harder, just to see how hard she could squeeze before they broke… and then, inevitably, she’d go too far, and smash them, and be in trouble, and have to pick glass shards out of the carpet, and miss one, and stand on it, and cut her foot.
I think a surprising number of us have just that same urge, but with relationships. Not a desire to sabotage, exactly – just an odd need to test the limits of other people’s love and tolerance, which inevitably ends in destruction. So that’s probably the central flaw my anti-heroine would have.
If you could have a superpower, what would it be? Why?
I’d love to be able to stop time – just for a few minutes would be fine. I’d use it for those moments when I have two children, two cats and two guinea-pigs all yelling for their dinners. I’d freeze time, get everyone’s food ready, then re-start the clock again and look like a hero.
If you were to find yourself in a Fahrenheit 451 world, which book would you save and why?
I’m terrible at questions like this because I always want to know more about the details. Am I the only book-saviour, or have other people been allowed to save just one book too? If so, what have they chosen? Will I be allowed access to their just-one-book, and will they be allowed access to mine? Or are we all marooned on our own little literary islands? Am I allowed access to anthologies and compilations? Would it be cheating to say I’d save my Kindle?
Actually, that’s what I’d save: my Kindle. As far as I can remember, there was still electricity in Fahrenheit 451, so I’d be able to keep it charged; and I’d have saved about three hundred books (admittedly, the quality varies a bit) for posterity. Kindles lack the romance of the printed word, but they’re a great way to store a lot of information in a small space.
What is the most valuable piece of advice you would give a person for a life well-lived?
Go everywhere. Try everything. Read everything. Visit everything. Talk to everyone. Listen to the answers. Love every moment.
What question do you wish we’d asked you? Answer it.
For the love of God, please tell us you were making it up about the toilet-brush in the dishwasher.
Absolutely not. That really did happen, he really did believe this was how normal people got the toilet-brush clean, he really did retort that cats on the bed were worse than toilet-brushes in the dishwasher, and it really did take me another three years to get around to leaving him.
What’s next for you (work- and life-wise)?
My first novel, The Summer We All Ran Away, will be published by Legend Press in August 2013 (happy-dance!), and I’m currently working on my next novel, The Beach Hut.
Apart from that, I’d really like to do something about the whole laundry situation. It’s such a stupid process. You wear something once, and then it’s dirty. So you wash it. Then it’s wet. So you dry it. Then it’s crumpled. So you iron it. Then, finally, it’s ready, and you can wear it. Once. There must be a better way.