‘I’ve always been interested in Fairy Tales’: A Conversation with Hannah Jansen
by Hannah Laker
Mid-afternoon on Easter Monday, I sit down for a chat with writer, artist and art museum grants manager, Hannah Jansen. As I join the call from my little flat in Nottingham, Hannah logs on from across the pond in Maine, dealing with a five-hour time difference that means she hasn’t yet had the chance to grab her morning coffee. For the next half hour or so, we talk fairy tales, Anne Sexton and the importance of letter writing in today’s world.
Hannah has had poetry, prose and non-fiction work published across a variety of publications, and her latest piece, a letter to Snow White from the wicked queen, has just been published as the first letter of Vol.6 of The Letters Page. I’m keen to know if fairy tales inspire a lot of Hannah’s work and why she chose this specific tale as a basis for her story. ‘I’ve always been interested in fairy tales, though I wouldn’t say all of my writing is inspired by them. For this piece, at the time I was reading Anne Sexton’s retelling of the Grimms’ fairy tales in Transformations and was particularly struck by the poem, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.’ As context, Sexton’s Transformations is a collection of poems, published in 1971, which retells seventeen of the Grimms’ fairy tales, including Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood and Rumpelstiltskin, in both dark and humorous ways.
‘There’s so much to explore with fairy tales. They are condensed in a way that leaves the reader with a lot to imagine, offering so many opportunities to further explore a world we’re only getting a glimpse of. It seems kind of endless, there are scholars who devote their whole lives to studying them. I never studied them, it’s just personal interest and reading them in my own time.’ We laugh as we briefly discuss the constant need for more time, a running theme throughout the conversation as we both agree we wish we had more time for our own reading and writing.
‘I think with this particular poem, I was struck by the language and how it was written almost conversationally. When I went to write this piece, I originally didn’t start it as a letter, I knew I wanted to write in the voice of the queen, but it naturally translated to a letter.’
Hannah goes on to discuss her own feelings toward the queen and we talk about the idea of both characters perhaps having more depth to them than has previously been explored. ‘We think of the queen as such a villainous character, and I wanted to see what happened if she had another aspect to her that was almost maternal, in the way she was speaking to Snow White. Not that I want to have empathy for the villain, but I think she’s a really fascinating character. Also, Snow White, at the surface, doesn’t seem very interesting and so I wanted to explore both of them in a new light. I tried to have the queen suggest that there is more to Snow White than she’s given credit for.’
We delve a little deeper into the complex character of the queen and discuss what other avenues Hannah explored in order to find her voice. ‘Another thing I was thinking about was loneliness. I thought about her being in that space, the place where she is exiled, and I was trying to embody her now that she’s by herself, what does that look like and is it sad, in a way?’
I ask Hannah if there was anything particularly challenging about the process of writing in response to other writers’ work, in this case the Sexton poem as well as the Grimms’ tales. ‘I don’t think it was a battle or a big challenge, but certainly because it was such a direct response to that poem, the challenge was how to construct a piece of writing with language that belonged to someone else in a way that made it new or went in a different direction.’
‘It struck me that I needed to make it clear that some of this language was directly from the poem. I think sometimes you have to step back and ask, what is the background knowledge of the reader who is coming to this piece for the first time? It’s certainly not going to be the same as mine.’
Hannah than goes on to elaborate more on the logistics of her writing process. ‘But I would say writing is hard and with this piece, I’m not going to say it was easy, but something about the letter form opened up the process for me. When getting into this voice, there was more ease than there usually is.’
Along with a big smile, Hannah makes sure to caveat this. She admits, ‘That’s not to say it didn’t go through many revisions and edits, it took me a long time to write, but everything takes me a long time to write.’ We laugh again as I tell her I feel exactly the same about my own writing.
Hannah had explained earlier in the conversation that she has recently moved from Brooklyn to Maine, partly for a new job, but also in part for a desire to be closer to nature. With such a strong setting within Hannah’s letter, I had been wondering whether this was inspired by a real-life place. Almost as if she’d read my mind, Hannah goes on to explain, ‘I would say I really enjoyed writing about the setting. I grew up in a small coastal town which is not unlike the one I live in now. With both of these places, I was always struck by the fact that in the winter it gets very quiet and there is a feeling of isolation at times. The landscape can be really raw and I was interested in the idea of illuminating the bareness of a small town by the water in winter, when there is no one around and the feeling that this brings up.’
We had briefly touched on the importance of letter writing earlier in our discussion, but I wanted to circle back to this point, being that we are such champions of the letter form here at The Letters Page. ‘Obviously letters in this day and age are not as common and I think there’s something really exciting about getting a letter in the mail. I have one friend in particular I write letters with. I’ve always written, if not letters, then cards with family. I always really love getting something in the post and I tend to find that other people do as well. I think I’ll always write them. I write long emails too, but I just think there’s nothing quite like getting a physical letter in the mail.’
Hannah’s letter ‘You Must Still Beware the Wolves’ is available to read in our archive. To stay up to date and receive the latest The Letters Page publications straight to your inbox, subscribe to our mailing list here.
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