“The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things,” J.R.R. Tolkien says in the opening of his essay “On Fairy Stories.” Author Karen Ullo is one storyteller willing to brave this fantastical land, embracing both its highs (fairies) and lows (vampires in search of salvation and the next kill).
Months ago I read Ullo’s first novel, Jennifer the Damned (Wiseblood Books, 2015), as someone little interested in stories about teenagers, vampires, teenage vampires, bloodlust, or gore. Verdict? I loved it. Jennifer the Damned is the work of a mature and skilled writer with a thoroughly Catholic imagination; God is present at every twist and turn.
Ullo is a graduate of Louisiana State University and the University of Southern California, where she earned an MFA in screenwriting. She blogs for the Catholic literary magazine Dappled Things and serves as the print magazine’s managing editor. Recently, Ullo was a panelist at the University of Notre Dame’s Trying to Say God conference, where she discussed the topic of women in writing. She also presented, “Horror: the Genre of the Sacred,” at this year’s Catholic Writers Guild online conference.
Ullo recently released her second novel, Cinder Allia, in which she turns the Cinderella story upside down—Cinderella’s Prince Charming dies before they’ve even met. She recreates it as another fairy tale, but this time one of political intrigue, espionage, and (of course) romance and magic. On the occasion of Cinder Allia’s publication, we sat down to discuss fiction writing, fairy tales, and Catholic literature.
Rhonda Ortiz, for CWR: Let’s begin with a short introduction. Who you are, where you’re from, a brief account of what you’ve written?
Karen Ullo: I’m pretty much your average suburban housewife. I live in Baton Rouge, Louisiana with my husband and two sons, ages nine and six. I go to a lot of YMCA basketball games and Cub Scout meetings, and I work as the music director at the same Catholic parish where I was baptized and grew up. So far, I’ve written two novels, Jennifer the Damned, which was published in 2015 by Wiseblood Books, and Cinder Allia, which just came out on July 6 of this year. I’ve also been writing for Dappled Things literary journal on their blog for about four years, and I just became the managing editor of the journal.
CWR: As you’re a storyteller, I am hoping you could shed some light on one of my pet peeves, one that, as it turns out, C.S. Lewis shared. In his essay, “On Juvenile Tastes,” Lewis complains that no one cares anymore if a writer can tell a good story:
Fashions in literary tastes come and go among the adults, and every period has its own shibboleths. These, when good, do not improve the taste of children, and, when bad, do not corrupt it; for children read only to enjoy…Those who have a story to tell must appeal to the audience that still cares for storytelling. The literary world of today is little interested in the narrative art as such; it is preoccupied with technical novelties and with “ideas,” by which it means not literary, but social or psychological, ideas. (Lewis, “On Juvenile Tastes,” On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, pp. 50-51)
Lewis is pointing to a false dichotomy between story and literature that we readers sometimes hold. Homer, Shakespeare, Austen—they all could spin a yarn.
So, speaking as one, do you think today’s fiction writers care more about “ideas” than about telling a good story? Or is it only the critics who are “preoccupied with technical novelties and ‘ideas’”?
Ullo: I can only speak for the writers I know, and of course, I tend to gravitate toward the ones I have things in common with. But the fiction writers I know consider story to be paramount. We write because we want to tell good stories. Toni Morrison said, “If there’s a book you want to read that hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” That’s what I do, and I think it’s what most fiction authors do. I write the books I want to read, and I do it because the story grips me. The characters grip me. I want to find out what happens! (I don’t outline. That takes all the fun out of watching the story unfold.)
But I do agree with Lewis in the sense that I have no use for “technical novelties and ‘ideas,’” whether they come from authors or critics or academia, which I think might be the real culprit in turning the emphasis of literature away from story. The reason I don’t have an English degree is that in my first semester of college, I took a course in literary criticism. I realized that if I wanted to finish college with my love of stories intact, I had to get out of the English department. It’s a very violent thing, to “deconstruct” a story, or twist it into a parable of some political agenda that didn’t even exist at the time the author wrote it: a Marxist reading of Frankenstein, for example, which I had to study in my terrible class. That kind of “criticism” disrespects the authentic nature of literature, which is (as I like to call it) the laboratory of the soul. As Ray Bradbury says, “Fiction is a lie that tells us true things over and over.” Story is where we practice empathy and discover what it means to be human.
CWR: You hold an MFA in screenwriting from the University of Southern California, which is famous for producing Hollywood screenwriters. How has this training helped your novel writing?
Ullo: Movies have really changed the way people read. If you go back to the 19th century, before movies, novels tended to do more “telling”—that is, simply stating what people think or do rather than dramatizing it—and even when they’re “showing,” so to speak, they often do it in great, sweeping descriptions that are sometimes whole chapters long. (I’m thinking of Victor Hugo’s, “Bird’s Eye View of Paris,” in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as an example.) Movies are the biggest reason why all of that changed. The writer’s cliché of “show, don’t tell”—that’s a screenwriting mantra. You can “tell” all you want to in a novel because it consists only of words. A movie consists of pictures, so you have to “show.” Movies have also sped up the pace that people expect from stories. Short descriptions that get right to the heart of what an image is supposed to convey: again, that’s a screenwriting technique. Or cutting quickly between multiple locations and points of view.
I think the advantage of being a novelist with a background in screenwriting is that I’m able to write in a way that modern readers, whose ideas about storytelling are so deeply rooted in movies, can easily respond to. Of course, I also use the techniques of novelists; Jennifer the Damned is told in first person, so there’s a lot of interior monologue, something movies never do well. But I have a screenwriter’s sense of pacing and very sensory-oriented storytelling.
CWR: Not to be ironic, but I’d like to move on to “ideas.” Even I can’t help myself. Sorry, Mr. Lewis.
Ullo: If we let Mr. Lewis make “ideas” a taboo, we’re going to have a hard time discussing much of anything.
CWR: True. And, of course, Lewis did care about ideas—just not “ideas,” if you catch my drift. My next few questions are on a topic he’d appreciate: the nature of fairy tales.
The premise of your newest novel, Cinder Allia, is a great “what if” question: “What if Prince Charming dies before he meets Cinderella?” What I like about this premise is that it upends the familiar fairy tale by calling into question its Happy Ending—if the Prince is dead, then the Prince cannot marry Cinderella and rescue her from her life of forced servitude. If Tolkien is right, that the “Consolation of the Happy Ending” is a fairy tale’s “highest function” (J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”), then your “what if” question messes with the fundamental guts of Cinderella. Is Cinder Allia still a Cinderella story, then? Or is it something else entirely?
Ullo: I haven’t thought about it in quite those terms before. I think it’s still a Cinderella story. The elements people expect are still there: the ball, the lost slipper, the fairy godmother. But all of those elements are transformed, broken—you might say, fallen—as a result of the prince’s death. They’re all shadows of the first paradise. I think the original Cinderella escapes this world to go back to a kind of unspoiled Eden. But Allia has to suffer and struggle and wait for what is ultimately a greater kind of redemption—just like the rest of us.
CWR: Many fairy tales are images of our “sharing in the divinity of Christ,” or what the Church Fathers called theosis. One example I have in mind is Pinocchio: Pinocchio’s nature is to be a wooden puppet, but the fairy transforms him into a real boy. Cinderella is another theosis story. Interesting to me is that Cinderella’s transformation from maid to princess is largely a passive process. Her fairy godmother and the prince do most of the work while Cinderella’s one job is to get home by midnight. But in Cinder Allia, you give Allia, your Cinderella character, a more active role in achieving her Happy Ending. Does this change the tenor of the story’s theosis theme?
Ullo: Absolutely. I think one of the reasons people tend to dismiss fairy tales as not being “serious literature” is the passive, deus-ex-machina quality of the ending. Cinderella’s one job is to get home by midnight, she can’t even manage to do that, and yet she still gets to be rescued. On the one hand, that’s a beautiful image of the free gift of God’s grace. On the other hand, it’s incomplete. Once we’ve received grace, we can’t just hide away in a palace living happily ever after; we have to go out to bring that gift to others. And most of the time, it takes us a while to put ourselves in a position to receive grace in the first place. That’s why Allia’s theosis only comes after she does the hard work of repentance, and even then, her work still isn’t done. There’s a whole kingdom full of people who still need her to share her gifts.
CWR: Your first novel, Jennifer the Damned, is also theosis story, about a vampire whose driving desire is to be fully human again. It seems to me that almost all deeply Catholic stories deal in some way with redemption. Yet it never gets old! Why is that?
Ullo: Because we never get tired of being redeemed. No matter how many times we’re forgiven, we always sin again; every day in the life of every human is a story of sin and redemption. We enact a new one almost hourly. So, redemption stories never get old. Jennifer is a mass-murdering vampire; Allia is just holding a grudge. Their inner lives are very different, but they both need redemption.
CWR: What other themes do you see in Catholic stories besides redemption?
Ullo: Mercy, of course, which is a prerequisite for redemption. But it’s not just God’s mercy; I think it’s important to offer examples of human mercy, too. And hope. That’s something we need so badly in our culture. But it’s equally important that Catholic stories acknowledge and demonstrate the effects of sin, because that’s where people really live: inside the chains and blinders of our own sinfulness. Words like mercy just don’t mean anything until you understand the hopeless bondage of sin, and it’s our duty as Catholic writers to portray that side of truth, as well as the truth of God’s love.
CWR: Which contemporary authors do you read and recommend? Any Catholic ones?
Ullo: Of course! There are so many bright Catholic fiction writers right now, in every genre. If you’re inclined toward the Southern Gothic/Flannery O’Connor school, there’s Kaye Park Hinckley. I’m in awe of her ability to get at the heart of things, especially when she writes from a child’s point of view. If you’re hungry for more vampires beyond mine, Eleanor Bourg Nicholson has a book that I think is due out in 2018 called A Bloody Habit that I had the privilege to preview. For YA, check out A.J. Cattapan. And I’ve got a stack on my nightstand that includes Suzanne Wolfe and Tim Powers that I can’t wait to read.
CWR: Do you have any new stories in the works right now?
Ullo: Yes—though this one scares me with the depth of work I’ll have to do. It’s a sequel to Jennifer the Damned. If you read that one, about halfway through, you’ll meet a budding vampire who’s also an astrophysics student. I’ve decided to try to give him his own book, set 15 years later, after he’s become a professor…provided I can learn how to think like an astrophysicist. It’s terrible to say, but for me, thinking like a vampire is much easier!