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'A Wild Swan' Flies Beyond Happily Ever After

Author Michael Cunningham was fascinated by fairy tales as a child — but he always wondered what happened after the story ended. His new collection, A Wild Swan, tries to answer that question.

Cunningham spoke with NPR's Rachel Martin on how one story ends and another begins.

Interview Highlights

On what happens after the happily-ever-after

When I was a kid, my parents, God bless them, read to me every night. Because I insisted, I was like an addict. I needed a story or two, or three, or however many I could get. ... l was big on fairy tales, and I was also one of those, oh, ever-so-slightly irritating children who ask unanswerable questions. A couple of my favorites were, one, the prince and the maiden go off to his castle together and lived happily ever after, and I sort of thought, well, go on! And my mother and father would look at me and say, that's the end. It was unsatisfying to me, because I felt, okay, one part of the story is ending, but another part of the story is beginning. She's been awoken from slumber, she's been rescued from the tower, her foot fits the slipper, now what? So part of this collection is my attempt to think and write about the question, now what?

On deciding what to include

There's no real organizing principle beyond that these were my favorites, and I think they were my favorites ... because they were the ones that were the most baffling to me, the ones that elicited the most questions. Because not only was I big on, so what happens when they get to the castle, there are some of the stories in the collection where what the people were doing just didn't make any sense to me. Like in Rumpelstiltskin, which is one of the stories in the book, the miller's daughter is made to spin three rooms full of straw into gold — one, two, three — and each time, if she fails to spin the straw into gold, the king will have her executed ... and then the king marries her ... and all I can do is say, why would she marry him? This guy was going to have her killed three times in a row if she couldn't perform the impossible! ... In my Rumpelstiltskin, we get into a little bit of, "what's that about?"

On his take on Hansel and Gretel

My Hansel and Gretel is really about the witch ... about why would you want to built a house made of candy deep in the woods? What's that about? And of course, the original offers a perfectly plausible answer; it's about eating children. But I somehow wasn't quite satisfied with that. I thought, isn't there something sexual and desperate and more than just cannibalism going on here?

It's one of the writer's jobs to, how to put this, complicate the world ... it's why we can be irritating. It's part of your job to say, oh, I don't think it's that simple.

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