Fantasy author enchants

When Gail Carson Levine was writing “Ella Enchanted” in the 1990s, “it never occurred to me that anyone would have to say these words out loud.”
When Gail Carson Levine was writing “Ella Enchanted” in the 1990s, “it never occurred to me that anyone would have to say these words out loud.” Photo by Alison Griswold.

Gail Carson Levine has a passion for fairy tales. But that doesn’t mean she thinks that classic children’s stories — or their characters — are all perfect.

That’s why acclaimed children’s fiction author Levine is in the business of writing fantasy with a twist. And the writer who captured the hearts of children with “Ella Enchanted” held a crowd of more than 80 college students spellbound as well in a Davenport Master’s Tea on Tuesday as she talked about her works — past, present and future.

Levine began by reading lines from her most acclaimed work, “Ella Enchanted.” A loose retelling of the classic Cinderella story, the tale traces the adventures of Ella — a young woman “blessed” by a fairy with the gift of obedience — as she struggles to overcome the curse-in-disguise. But Levine tells the story without all of it’s traditional sugary-sweetness.

“Cinderella is so disgustingly sweet and I just didn’t like her,” Levine said. “I didn’t understand why she was so obedient, and it’s very hard to write about a character that you can’t understand and don’t like.”

Levine discussed fairy tales with an energy that seemed to surpass her 4-foot-11-inch frame. She spent the first 30 minutes of her talk addressing upcoming works before taking questions from the audience — which included only five males (not counting Davenport Master Richard Schottenfeld ’71 MED ’76).

Witty moments defined Levine’s talk, and they also characterize her writing style and life outlook, she said.

“Humor is part of my approach to, I guess, everything,” she said. “Writing is hard, and so finding ways to have fun is important.”

Levine drew laughter and applause from listeners when she attempted to read from certain passages from “Ella Enchanted” written in her self-created fantasy dialects. As Levine stumbled through the “ogre” language, she paused to remind her audience of one thing:

“Now remember, when I wrote ‘Ella’, I was entirely unpublished,” Levine said. “It never occurred to me that anyone would have to say these words out loud.”

Still the confident, composed speaker who has authored more than a dozen works — one of which is now a major motion picture — admitted that her early career was quite a different story.

Levine recalled taking a creative writing course in high school that devastated her youthful ambitions. Informed by her teacher that her problem was her “pedestrian” style, Levine did not seriously write again until age 38.

“I accepted his judgment utterly, and there is a sense in which he was correct, because I am very, very practical,” Levine said. “I write fantasy but it is fantasy that is grounded.”

The author only began to pursue creative writing again when she took a course in illustrating children’s books and realized that her true passion was for the text — not the pictures.

When asked by one student what advice she would offer aspiring authors, she did not need to think twice before answering.

“Read what’s being written, cultivate some patience, cultivate a lot of patience and then cultivate some more patience,” Levine said.

There is no magic formula, she added. She said a common adage is that there are three rules to writing — and following those rules leads to a flawless work every time.

“Unfortunately no one knows what those rules are,” Levine said, to appreciative laughs.

Michael Haycock ’12, one of the few men in attendance, said he had never read any of Levine’s works but came to the event with high recommendations from his mother and two younger sisters.

“Part of it was being here in their stead,” Haycock said. “Beside that, I find it very interesting to hear different writers who come to Yale and talk about the process of writing.”

Dilan Gomih ’13, who used the question-and-answer session to proclaim her love for Levine, said hearing a favorite childhood author speak was an incredible experience.

“It was amazing to meet as an adult, someone that I enjoyed so much as a child,” Gomih said. “The fact that I’m 18 now and can still identify with the fairy tale world that she has created says something about how gifted she is as a writer.”

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