Julia Fine on Fairy Tales, Female Desire, and Empowerment

A sprawling family tree with a history of tragedy. A young girl, born with the ability to kill and revive with a single touch. An ancient forest where wanderers disappear. Julia Fine’s debut novel What Should Be Wild has all the ingredients of a Gothic fairy tale, but expounds upon them in fantastic and modern ways. It’s gorgeous and exhilarating.

Though young Maisie Cothay is only sixteen years old, her upbringing has been fraught with darkness and secrecy. Her mother died before she was born, but Maisie continued to grow inside of her. Her father Peter feared her “curse” of a touch and kept her hidden in their ancestral home Urizon at the edge of the old forest her entire life, trying to learn more about her in a scientific and personal way. His research uncovered an entire line of women from Maisie’s maternal side that have disappeared into the forest, all the way back to the year 591 AD.

When Peter himself disappears into the forest one day, Maisie is forced into a world which has been kept from her, finding allies and enemies alike, in her search for him. In the forest, Maisie will have to confront the lineage of women trapped there and come to terms with the darkest parts of herself — possibly breaking the family curse in the process.

This novel is written in stunning prose, with an urgency that demands the fullest attention, not unlike the magical fiction of Karen Russell or Helene Wecker. Maisie is keen and curious, naïve and fierce, a character that is boldly herself in even the most trying of situations. With the long line of headstrong women rounding out the tale, this is the feminist speculative fiction I’ve been waiting for.

Julia Fine lives in Chicago, and I was lucky enough to speak with about her debut novel, what it was like writing about the female body, and how she balanced weaving together multiple, distinct narratives. Don’t miss her book launch party with Audrey Niffenegger on Thursday, May 24 at Women & Children First.


Sara Cutaia

What was your inspiration for Maisie’s story?

Julia Fine

I was working on something different when I came into grad school at Columbia College Chicago, but I got stuck. One day, I heard something on the radio about a legal case in Texas where there was a women who was 16-weeks pregnant, and she was brain dead. The hospital wanted to keep her on life support, but her husband wanted to take her off of it. It was a terrible situation all around, but I immediately started thinking about a different situation with a twist where the baby was born. What would it be like to be a kid born under those circumstances — where your mother wasn’t alive? That’s what led to Maisie. From there, I knew this story was going to be speculative. Once her “thing” became reviving and killing with a touch, it fell into place from there.

Sara Cutaia

Your book jumps between time periods frequently when revealing the other Blakely women’s history. How much research did you have to do in order to make those sections feel authentic?

Julia Fine

I did a lot of research. I read mostly historical fiction for each of the time periods to get a feel for it. It helps me imagine being in the time more than reading factual lists and such. I also did a lot of research on fairy tales, and the history of fairy tales. I already had a lot of personal interest in these subjects, but writing this book gave me an excuse to read these books that I’d always wanted to.

From the Beast to the Blonde by Marina Warner was hugely influential. It was both about fairy tales and female storytellers. It helped me solve a lot of my plotting problems and a lot of the Blakely women are modeled on the archetypes she talks about in that book.

Sara Cutaia

It was so great to see such a brave and bold feminine protagonist, even with her flaws. I was enthralled with the way the story deals with the body, as well, not only in terms of her curse, but with her space in the world. Were you aiming to accomplish something relating to how women, especially young girls, struggle with their bodies and society’s expectations of them?

Julia Fine

It pretty quickly occurred to me that it was a perfect metaphor — Maisie not being able to touch anything, and being restricted — for the way young girls are taught to think about their bodies. To negate themselves, and to think their thoughts of desires are wrong and dangerous. Our culture is both fascinated and scared of women’s bodies. If you’re a young woman who wants to have sex, it’s both cool and really scary. I wanted to write about taking ownership of that, that it doesn’t have to be scary. Female desire is a beautiful thing. As long as it’s balanced and acknowledged, it can be great. Maisie was the perfect vehicle to do that, because she is so divided.

Back to research, though, I’m really interested in the way we compartmentalize ourselves, especially as women. You take on one role, like motherhood — you’re thought of as just a mother, or just a lawyer if you go to work, just one thing. You’re often told you can’t be both. It feels like it’s harder for women to be more than one thing at a time than for men. I hate that idea, I think it’s ridiculous. So part of this book was trying to show that it’s really dangerous to be labeled as just one thing. Or to try to think of yourself as just one thing. Everything is nuanced, and you shouldn’t restrict yourself and try to fit into one singular role.

Sara Cutaia

There are threads of fairy and folk tales in this story — how much did those types of stories influence your tone when writing?

Julia Fine

I read 19th-century “anthropology” books that talk about rituals, and it was fascinating. I got a lot of pre-Christian religious stuff from those books that show up in my novel. I was reading about a bunch of rich, aristocratic, white men who would be like, “I noticed in X culture they were doing things at the river,” and I just stole that and used it in my fiction but in my own, feminist way.

Sara Cutaia

So was this story always going to be speculative and fantastical, or did reading those types of books push you more in that direction? 

Julia Fine

It was always going to be speculative just because it didn’t make sense otherwise, scientifically. As I was writing Maisie, I was just spitting out whatever was there in the moment. She started telling these fables and folk stories, and I wasn’t looking for it to go in any certain direction. But once I figured out that I wanted to tell the story of her ancestors, and the history of her family was going to be related to her curse, it was clear how the fables were ending up as skewed versions of these women’s lives. It worked out really well to be reading up on fairy tales and the history of all these things.

Sara Cutaia

I was really invested in Maisie’s relationship with those few people in her life, specifically her father and her caretaker Mrs. Blott. How much of your own childhood is represented in Maisie’s childhood?

Julia Fine

My grandmother was always telling stories, and they were very fantastical for a child. She played a huge role in me becoming a writer, and also as a model for the character of Mother Farrow, a woman who has all this wisdom who teaches you via story vs. telling you directly.

I will say there’s a lot of me as a teenager in Maisie, in terms of not wanting to listen to anyone else’s advice. And also in her being super self-conscious, and feeling like she doesn’t belong, but also feeling like she knows everything. That’s probably a pretty common teenage feeling.

Sara Cutaia

How did you plan out this novel? There are different timelines that end up being important when they all converge — what was it like weaving all of those together?

Julia Fine

It was very difficult! It took me the longest, figuring out how things fit together in terms of what would be happening chronologically — like, what’s happening in the forest while Maisie is experiencing things outside of it? But also, where does it make sense technically to put this small vignette? I played around with it a lot. I was really lucky that no one told me “you can’t do this!” When you think about it, I introduce seven women characters in two paragraphs, and they have maybe 15 pages to themselves in the whole of the book. On a technical level, I shouldn’t do that! But it worked.

Sara Cutaia

Though Maisie is a young girl in the novel, both in age and in her worldly experience, the themes and certain scenes are quite dark. How did you balance writing this discovery of the world without weighing down the plot too darkly?

Julia Fine

While I was writing, I was letting the story go where it felt right. And because this is my first book, there was no pressure to slot it or label it in any genre way. I didn’t think about an audience while I was writing, and a lot of people have been kind in their feedback about it not falling neatly into a specific genre or label.

When it did get dark, I let it, because it felt like the natural way. Maisie was making all of these really stupid decisions, which makes sense with her character. But if it had ended up with someone rescuing her, it wouldn’t have felt right or organic. She had to go through it, just like people have to go through it in real life.

Sara Cutaia

What’s next for you?

Julia Fine

I have a very, very early idea of my next novel. It’s going to be about a poltergeist in the first few weeks postpartum of this family in their home. I’ve got snippets here and there. What Should Be Wild has taken up a bunch of my time though, so I haven’t quite gotten back to my good writing habits yet, and also after my own postpartum. But that’s the bones of it so far!


What Should Be Wild
By Julia Fine
Published May 8, 2018

Julia Fine teaches writing at DePaul University and is a recent graduate of Columbia College Chicago’s M.F.A. program. She lives in Chicago with her husband and their son.


1 comment on “Julia Fine on Fairy Tales, Female Desire, and Empowerment

  1. Ooooo – I’m really looking forward to this one!


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