Robin McKinley
The Story Behind Rose Daughter

I had no intention of ever doing anything with Beauty and the Beast again. Absolutely.

My first book, Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty & the Beast, was published in 1978. First books are often rather strange creatures, isolated — at least in the writer's mind — from the rest of that writer's work. Writing what turns out to be your first published book, you probably don't know what you're doing — I didn't — and no one besides yourself, except maybe your family or a few friends, knows you are a writer. You can't help having daydreams about your story being published, but mainly you are absorbed in the story itself. If you weren't, you wouldn't be writing it. Prepublication writing is one of the purest forms of very, very hard work there is.

It's indescribably different being someone whose name is on the spine of a book that people can buy or check out of the library from being someone who simply has stories running through her like blood or synaptic electricity. You are no longer the person you were before that first amazing, intoxicating, shattering letter saying, "We would like to publish your novel." It's one of those enormous, everything-you-know-about-yourself-and-the-world-is-changed crisis points. You will never again have the same innocence about your writing: the same longings, the same exuberance, the same freedom to listen only to yourself if you want to. Never. Not only have you accepted money for what is now your work, instead of the defining element of your inner life (and money is always a mixed blessing, even when you're lucky enough to be given it for doing something you love), but you have this awareness of people out there, strangers, who have read your book, and have opinions about it, and about you, and about what you should, or shouldn't, write next....

Some of my readers tell me Beauty is still their favourite of my books, although I've written four novels (Rose Daughter is now the fifth) and a couple of books of short stories since then. It's on some "best books" lists, too, as a "modern classic." This can be hard to listen to sometimes. Of course you want to be read; of course it's wonderful to be told by readers that you've written one of their favourite books, that they reread it at least twice a year, that they've given copies to their friends and their friends love it too. At the same time no writer wants to think that it's all been downhill since her first book, that she hasn't learned, because she knows she has fought for the learning, something good and wise and creditable in all the time and work since.

There's a last factor to my... call it involuntary alienation... from my first book, which is perhaps not part of the common first-book experience. Beauty and the Beast has been my favourite fairy-tale since I was about six; I still have the book I first read it in. When I wrote Beauty, I sat down, as I thought, to write a short story, and found I had more to say than I expected. I'd been going to that place in my head where my favourite fairy-tale lived for nearly twenty years; a lot had happened there in that time. But I found, to my dismay, that writing the story exorcised it. I couldn't go there any more. And for the first several years after the book was published, when readers told me it had become a place in their heads where they liked to spend time, I was jealous. Because it was no longer available to me.

Now we fast-forward almost twenty years.

I have lived in Hampshire, in southern England, for five years now, with my English husband, the writer Peter Dickinson (and, as the flap copy will tell you, three whippets and over three hundred rose-bushes). I used to live in Maine. I moved over here to marry Peter five years ago. I came gladly, eagerly wrapped in my own deliciously romantic fog about Peter, and about England, even though my grown-up, rational mind was trying to remind me that even the best and most desirable life crises (like selling your first book to a publisher) are always a little... tumultuous. Well, the last five years have been tumultuous all right, but they've also been deeply and satisfyingly worth it. Which is not the same thing as saying that my life in Maine had not been a good life, nor that I had not lost something worth having when I left it.

Last winter I sold my house.

The heart of my loss — of my country, my old friends, of an easier sense of belonging than I'll ever have in England — is, for me, my little house, my little lilac-covered cottage two-thirds of the way up the coast of Maine. I put the down payment on that house from the Newbery Honor royalties of The Blue Sword; I was sitting in my office in it the snowy January morning when I received the phone call that The Hero and the Crown had won the 1985 Newbery Medal. I — the ex-Navy brat and peripatetic young adult — learned about home, living in that house. You can stay in touch with your friends when you move three thousand miles away although it will be a terrible wrench which some friendships will not survive; there's nothing at all you can do about a house, a home, when you've moved out of it. A home has to be lived in.

I had made the decision for both Peter and me that one of us had to emigrate, so that we could have a home, and as the ex-Navy brat who had many times uprooted herself and moved on — and who therefore presumably knew how — it had to be me. It took me four years of putting down new roots in England before I was ready to cut myself loose from my old home and from that last great anchor of owning property in my native country.

Peter and I went back to close up and say good-bye. I hadn't been in my house for four and a half years; when we visited my old friends in Maine during those years, we avoided driving down that street, seeing my house, where I was no longer allowed to put my key in the door and go inside. It turned out that my rental agent had not been doing her job, and my tenants had trashed both house and yard, and the sale itself, even after the contract was signed, did not go smoothly. I could hardly bear to see my beloved little house in the condition my tenants had left it, and I felt numb and stupid and bewildered and sore under the many small bludgeoning horrors of the business of the sale. I've never cried so much in my life, those three weeks last winter when we went back to Maine to say good-bye to my house.

We stopped in New York City for a few days before we went home, to see friends and publishers there. I was in a state of shock. My house was gone; America was no longer mine; I was a stranger in a strange land not just in England but now in America too.

Among the friends we visited were my old friends Neil and Tom. Neil now runs an intimidatingly grand SoHo art gallery; he was a little less dazzling when I met him fifteen or so years ago, when he came to my first New York City autographing to meet the author of Beauty. He said to me last winter, "Do you know what I would really love? If you would do a short-story retelling of Beauty and the Beast. I have an artist who wants to illustrate it."

"Don't be ridiculous," I said irritably, wandering around Neil and Tom's amazing library, stuffed with gorgeous objets d'art, and, if the truth be known, attending to the conversation with only about half my mind. "I've said all I have to say about Beauty and the Beast. And you know what a slow writer I am. The last thing I need is to promise even a short story to anyone new. I mean," I added, belatedly remembering my manners, even to an old friend who is accustomed to my crotchets, "thank you very much, I'm very flattered. But — no."

On the plane coming home I had the sort of half-vision that very often heralds the beginning of a new story. I thought: Her earliest memory was of waking from the dream. It was also her only clear memory of her mother. I thought: This is something to do with Beauty and the Beast. How very extraordinary.

I had other things on my desk waiting pressingly for my attention. I always do. But I had a kind of hiatus, shortly after we returned home, between several short things I had had to do and getting back to the half-million seriously out-of-control words that I've been trying to hammer into a novel, or, as I think at present, series of novels, off and on for about the last six years. I thought, lightly, carelessly: What if I have a go at this short story for Neil?

I wrote Rose Daughter in six months. Since Beauty, since that first novel, when I still had the liberty of not knowing what I was doing, I don't write nearly that fast; indeed, I am always behind, behind where I think I should be, behind where my agent and editor wish I were. Writing Rose Daughter was a bit like being possessed; it was glorious, but it was alarming. When I tell the story of writing Beauty, I say, "I sat down every evening (after my half-time day job), for about five months, saying, 'I am going to finish it tonight.'" It was a bit like that all over again — only different. Much different.

Beauty is not merely a first novel; it is also a young writer's first novel. I wrote it when I was twenty-four. I wrote Rose Daughter when I was forty-three. A lot has happened. I've learned a lot, experienced a lot, thought a lot, written a lot. Despite Beauty's exorcism, Beauty and the Beast is still my favourite fairy-tale; I can't change that any more than I can change having grown up in the fifties when it was the only fairy-tale around that didn't have the heroine waiting limply to be rescued by the hero. It's never again become a place in my head where I go, but then I don't seem to need quite the same sort of haven from the real world that I did when I was younger. But quietly, when I wasn't looking, it regrew.

The other thing is that in the last five years, since I moved to England, I have become a gardener.

This is one of the central facts about my learning to live in England — and another story I often tell. I never gardened — not enough to call it that — in Maine. (The lilac hedges around my house were there long before me.) In Maine gardening is an adventure for the heroic, where the joke is that there are two seasons, winter and August; where the soil is a thin, grudging top-dressing over granite bedrock; and where the deer and moose and bears and porcupines and coyotes and beavers and raccoons and chipmunks — among others — are always hungry.

Coming from Maine to southern England is, in gardening terms, something like moving from Gotham City to Camelot. Furthermore, Peter has been a passionate gardener most of his life. I thought I would give this gardening thing a try as a way of hanging out with my new husband a little more — lightly and carelessly I thought this, rather in the same spirit as I sat down to write another short story about Beauty and the Beast. Five years on, gardening is so crucially important in my life that my American memories are eerily, retroactively dimmed because they haven't got gardening in them.

Early in my first week in England as Peter's fiancée, he was showing me around his big, crammed, very English garden, saying, half-hopefully and half-worriedly, "You know, you don't have to take gardening on just because you're taking me on."

"No, no, that's okay," I said. "Really, this is interesting."

And it was. We arrived at the bed in the walled garden which has been full of roses since Peter's first wife's mother's day. He looked at the roses, looked at me, and said, prophetically, "We're going to have to put more roses in to keep you happy, aren't we?" Peter had read Beauty. He knew better than I did.

"Er," I said, the nongardener. "Er, roses. Er. Sure." It wasn't that I hadn't always loved roses, at least in theory, in photos, at the florist's; it's just I'd never grown one, nor had the faintest idea how. The rest, as they say, is history, and it is true that I've thought of Beauty and the Beast more often in the last five years, out in the garden, planting more rose-bushes, feeding, pruning, swearing at, being torn to ribbons by, agonizing over, and adoring my rose-bushes, than I had for most of the dozen-plus years between Beauty and moving to England. And it had occurred to me more than once that it was perhaps slightly a pity that I'd already shot my bolt on Beauty and the Beast, because there was all that stuff about roses at the heart of it that I had done almost nothing with, had known nothing to do with, in Beauty.

I wrote Rose Daughter, as I say, in a six-month hurtle. And in hindsight I realize what fueled the hurtle, why, having tapped into a new lode of Beauty and the Beast in my mind and heart and bloodstream, the story shaped itself and shot out onto the page as it did. It is my grief for the loss of my little lilac-covered cottage in Maine. It's as if my lost home has given me a last gift: this book. It's as if my old American life and my new English life have wound themselves together — and from her heart a red, red rose, and from his heart a briar — and produced Rose Daughter between them.

Beauty deserves to have some of its readers love it best of all my books. But I hope some of you will love Rose Daughter best.

It's funny. We went to Maine last February, and dragged our weary and disheartened selves back to England in March. March should be spring in southern England. It wasn't this year. We had shivering crocuses and stubborn anemones in thin, invidious veils of wet snow; the wonderful, magical green mounds that start bursting through the brown rubble of last year's borders didn't burst; the cherry trees never bothered to blossom at all. About mid-May, when there weren't even minuscule green flower bumps peeking through the leaves at node points on the rose-bushes, I began striking poses (I am perhaps a tiny bit given to melodrama under certain circumstances) and declaring that my roses were never going to bloom again. They did, of course, though they ran six weeks late throughout the season.

And now, as I write this in late October, I can took out my windows at the loveliest, mellowest autumn that Peter, who has been coming to this house for over forty years, can remember, and my roses are rioting with flowers. Bushes that in most years only flower well once look like midsummer. Where we are, chilly evenings and sunless days have pretty well shut them down by the end of September — and late springs say nothing about the behaviour of the following autumns.

What I'm saying is, You never know. Often this is just as well for all the worst reasons; at least you didn't have to worry about it before fate dropped the anvil on you. But sometimes it's six weeks of Indian summer or a book you didn't know you were going to be given to write.

Maybe I'll get to do it all over again in another twenty years.

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