Molly Lazer, one of the fine purveyors of professional critique in our Creators Workshop won honorable mention in the North Street Book Prize competition for her Lentils in Black Rice: Myths and Fairy Tales! You can read the wonderful review of her work and why it deserved recognition above tough competition here.
Lentils in Black Rice remixes familiar, traditional folk tales, mythology, and bible stories into one another, with fresh, layered interpretations of the material spanning multiple genres. It challenges how we share and perceive narratives over time and geography and how values and tastes shift.
We spoke with Molly about the honors she earned, as well as her thoughts on storytelling in different media.
Comics Experience: How does your experience in comics inform your approach to prose? How does your experience in prose inform your approach to comics?
Molly Lazer: Comics are obviously a very visual medium, and I like my stories to have vivid imagery. Since I don’t have art to go with the words, I have to paint a picture using just the right phrases to make my settings and characters come alive. There may also be something to the fact that super hero comics tend to have a never-ending parade of horrible things happening to their protagonists–and yet the protagonists soldier on. I tend to do awful things to my characters, and they still persevere. Perhaps that’s something I learned from reading comics!
I talked about this a lot on the Comics Experience podcast I did with Joey Groah, but my experience in prose informs my approach to comics quite a bit. I have a great deal of experience workshopping prose with colleagues and as a teacher, since I teach creative writing to high school students. The workshop is so important when it comes to honing people’s writing skills, and the lessons I learned in my prose workshops translate directly to the critiques I give people when I read their scripts for the Creator’s Workshop. I have also learned and practiced story structure and character development through my prose writing, and those are other essential story elements that translate directly to writing comics.
CE: What draws you to folktales, myths, and bible stories? What inspires you to remix them?
ML: I’ve always loved classic fairy tales, myths, and bible stories. There is something fascinating about those archetypes that translate from culture to culture, existing in different-yet-similar forms depending on who is telling the story. I have a whole shelf at home dedicated just to fairy tales, fairy tale retellings, and literary criticism about fairy tales. (One of my favorite classes in college was called Feminist Fairy Tales, in which we read different cultures’ versions of classic tales as well as modern interpretations and discussed them through a feminist lens.) Even though I love them, though, there are elements that bother me about them, and that is usually what inspires me to remix them. My novel, Owl Eyes: A Fairy Tale was formulated based on my trying to work out the answers to two questions about Cinderella: if he is not dead, drunk, or otherwise incapacitated, why would Cinderella’s father allow her to be a servant in his own household, and other than the fact that she’s pretty, why, really does the Prince want her?
My short stories usually come out of just thinking a lot about the stories and drawing connections between them–like when I recently reread Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” and noticed that there were a number of lines in it that reminded me very strongly of the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, so I decided to mix them together and have the mermaid fall in love with the statue of the human prince instead of the man.
CE: What is your approach to reworking the familiar in new and novel ways?
ML: As I mentioned, I like drawing connections between various stories and just seeing what happens. I ask a lot of questions, like what would happen if Sleeping Beauty never woke up but had the King’s baby in the tower anyway (as happens in Giambattista Basile’s Italian version of the tale)? That child would be trapped in a tower…like Rapunzel. Or what would happen if Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother wanted to eat her and the wolf instead of the wolf being the villain? The story would turn in to Hansel and Gretel.
I think that the fact that I have a pretty big knowledge base of myths and fairy tales is helpful, like when I wrote the last story I wrote for my collection and wanted it to be about parents who eat their children. I was able to come up with five stories in which that happens pretty easily!
Sometimes, though, my approach is to just have a myth in front of my or a really vague idea in my head, and start writing. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing when I started “Hatchlings,” the story that retells the myths around the children of Leda and Zeus. The three parts of the short story just kind of happened as I wrote them. Or when I decided to do something with the ten plagues and ended up taking a metaphorical look at each of them. That’s a really weird piece. I had the flu while I was writing it, so you can see what happens when I write while not altogether there in the head.
CE: Tell us the story of your big North Street Book Prize win!
ML: Yay! I entered the North Street Book Prize, which is for self-published books and small press titles, last year. I wasn’t totally sure about doing it, because I didn’t know how a book of short stories would fare among all the full-length works that were going to be entered, and also because the only two categories I could enter it in were “literary fiction” (which it is not, really) and “genre,” which is literally anything that is not literary fiction, graphic novel, children’s picture book, nonfiction, or poetry. But I figured what the heck, and entered anyway. I got news about two months before the winners were announced that I was a semi-finalist and that they wanted to see a hard copy of the book (I had entered with a .pdf file), so I mailed that in. And then the winners were announced, and I was awarded an honorable mention! It was really exciting for me because there were 1,600 entries in the contest. I don’t know how many were in the genre category, but I have to assume it was a lot since the category is so broad. The book got a really nice writeup, which you can see here.
You can purchase the award-winning Lentils in Black Rice: Myths and Fairy Tales in paperback or ebook format here.