The magic lives on in suburbia: Kristen Caven’s The Souls of Her Feet
From Disney to Rebecca Solnit to several memes about abuse, we’ve all got a take on the Cinderella story. Takes a brave author to attempt a fresh take on the old tale, and here I interview author and California bon vivant Kristen Caven on her novel.
What about the Cinderella story resonates with you? Why did you rewrite it?
Cinderella has this mysterious hold on the psyche. We resent its messages but on the other hand we adore them. It’s a story about ascendancy from a low state to a higher one, about getting what you deserve because you have a good heart, and about being accepting of your circumstances but dreaming they will change. It works well as a feminine archetype, since women everywhere all over time find themselves in the position of being household servants! Plus there’s that whole Disney gorilla, you can’t go a month online without seeing that icon in some form or another.
When I was a high school senior I wasn’t sure where I stood with my stepmother (did she hate me or love me?), and we fought a lot about chores in our family. When I was in college, I took a trip to Bavaria, and while touring Neuschwanstein Castle I felt possessed to write a Cinderella movie that took place in the surrounding woods. A few years later I had the opportunity to write a libretto, and thought it would be funny to ‘translate’ Cinderella into modern Midwest American life. Then, as I got deeper into the story, I found so much empathy for this character, caught in a world she didn’t create — a bird in a cage; a saint among sinners; a genie trapped in a bottle; a philosopher slave. Once I started writing, the beats of the story (housework, shoes, mice) all became these playthings for my imagination.
What’s different about The Souls of Her Feet is the absence of magic. Or rather the presence of everyday magic, the kind that manifests with imagination, communication, and sometimes just a bit of (okay, a lot of) interesting coincidences. I also rewrote it just to crack myself up with emotional or hilarious interpretations of story beats. The pumpkin coach, for example, is a P.E. teacher named Jack Pupkin who coaches the squash team. And that whole thing about Cinderella having “such tiny feet that no one could fit in her shoes?” I burst out laughing once, while scrubbing the floor for my stepmother. I had just had the thought: “If she worked barefoot all the time, she probably had big flat feet and her shoes would fit the ladies of the court like boats!” That led to even funnier what ifs…once I got writing, the plot fell together like so many dominoes.
How and where did you learn so much about fashion and shoes? Who were your design inspirations?
When I was in college, my prized possessions were mom’s hand-me-down bridesmaids outfits from the 1950s. I’d wear them to college dances and just wow my peers. The taffeta skirts, the wicked curvy pointed pumps. I got some great looks going with thrift store vintage, then found myself, after college, in a community of real fashion nerds, to whom these old clothes really meant something. The women of the Art Deco Society and other costume guilds would talk endlessly about period designers and costume details (YAWN!) when I just wanted to dance. But slowly I began to understand the fascination, and relate to the stories embedded within costume history. Couture is really high art, and fashion has endured through history as a resilient marker of every time period.
I had a few friends in this club who just always wore The Most Amazing shoes. One of them has a cascade of shoes marching down her front stairs, two pairs on each step. I have another friend who does a lecture on the history of shoes, and another who gets her shoes made for her in Paris. This group displays shoes like art, tells stories about where they’ve been. Through their tutelage I’ve become somewhat of a fashion and shoe nerd myself, even a secret designer. I know the shoe hat from the movie Brazil is based on an Elsa Schiaparelli collaboration with Salvador Dali the year my dad was born, but before I ever saw, it I tied a shoe on my head. I have a dress that was made from a Ginger Rodgers movie, and sketches in my notebook of dresses I wore in dreams (also, before I cut my hair, I always create “hairstyles of the future” for selfies I’ll never show anyone.) And yes, I’m obsessed enough with the mysterious and futuristic Stephen Arpad to have invented a character who knew him well enough to copy a pair of his shoes that fit a man’s feet.
I also think I like shoes because I like feet. They’re funny and interesting. I have a lot of paintings of feet in my studio. And I do love the rustle of taffeta around my knees, it’s a pretty unique feeling that more people should enjoy.
Who’s the intended audience for your book? Teens, new adults, older people who get nostalgic about high school?
Actually, I kind of wrote it to entertain my girlfriends in our early thirties! I set the story in high school because it’s a coming of age story… Cinderella’s a girl… wait now, she’s getting married? All those princesses in stories are weird twilight ages. I settled on high school because proms are the relatable modern equivalent of a medieval European town ball. And being a high schooler, you’re really trapped in this world you can’t control… school, family, curfews.
Souls is positioned as a YA book because it’s about a teenager. And it’s got the b- word in it. But the sequel will be about college kids, and the third will be about graduate students. So who knows what will happen? It’s also got a truly wonderful gay character — two of them actually — and a drag show drama. I first wrote Harry in the early 2000s when a homophobic America really needed more family friendly gay icons. When Ru Paul showed up, everything turned out okay. So yes… people who get nostalgic about sneaking out to see Rocky Horror will really love this.
Is it different to write teenage characters than to write adults? How do you get back into the teen psyche?
As teenagers we experience changes in our brains that result in a flood of emotions. We are in touch with our essence in a new way, and blind to ourselves as well. I started working on this story, as a musical, when I could still remember being a teenager (ha ha), and could also see the bigger picture of my life. I enjoyed filling the scenes with emotion and also crafting the family dynamics that were far out of Ashley’s control. When writing the book, I was surrounded by teens, teaching and mothering big groups of them, and they helped bring new sensibilities to my characters. Teens these days live in a weird world of sexual exposure and sexual innocence, of emotional rawness and emotional insecurities. I enjoyed writing this sweet romance with subtle shifts of arousal to first love, the kind where you really want to hold hands, not “hook up.”
The really poignant characters in Souls are the Hills, Ashley’s stepfamily. There’s this adult who wields power because she’s falling apart at the edges, and her daughters who are all edges — and falling apart in the middle, empty. They are sort of mirror-image psyches. I make terrible fun of this group, as an author, because they are so careless with themselves and each other, but in the end, when we see them behind their facades, Ashley shows her true strength and leadership. There’s hope for the girls. They’re still young.
What did you want to change about Cinderella? What do you think of Rebecca Solnit’s Cinderella Liberator (if you’ve read that?)
I love feminist takes on Cinderella. I’m adding Solnit’s book to my Cinderella shelf, which includes The Paper Bag Princess, Princess Smartypants and Bubba the Cowgirl Prince. The Cinderella Story can handle endless changes and send-ups. It can stand up to massive deconstruction yet it always just works, on so many different levels.
In the musical version of Souls there’s a song by Ashley where she imagines what it would mean to be queen for a day. In contrast to her steps, who imagine the glory and the fancy treatment of being homecoming queen, Ashley realizes the true gift of that level of power is the ability to help others. Cinderella is a story is about ascendancy. In my book, Ashley ascends to her own power as well.
What would you say to those who critique the story of Cinderella by saying it’s too focused on the heroine’s appearance, or that she should rescue herself instead of depending on the prince?
I understand the feminist backlash to all princess stories that teach girls they need to be rescued. But there is a misogynistic reality out there. Girls, women — and for that matter all kids, all people — really do need a rescue now and then. Souls also tells the story of the rescuer — not Jeff Prince, a wonderful ally, so much as Harry, the fairy godmother, who really steps in as the only responsible grown-up in her world. I hope he inspires others to think about how they can help lift young people out of bad situations.
There’s a lot of exploration of appearance and self-esteem in this book, contrasting the Hills’ twisted views of beauty as self-worth with Harry’s strategy of using drag to grab the spotlight. Ashley also struggles with Jeff’s attraction to her, now that she is ‘beautified,’ but he helps her work through that as they really do have a deeper connection.
The sequel to this book will focus even more on beauty and narcissism, as it’s a Snow White story. The third book, which is all about Beauty and Beastliness, is less about appearances, oddly enough!