A Whole New World
By Dawn Ius
Menna van Praag is no stranger to “magic”—five of her previous novels have included a sprinkle of magical realism. But for her latest book—THE SISTERS GRIMM—van Praag kicks the magic up a notch with a book that challenged her to not only revisit an iconic body of work, but also create a whole new world.
It was a daunting task she says she wasn’t equipped to tackle until she experienced a bit of personal magic—the birth of her daughter.
“I stopped sleeping, and all at once, this strange nocturnal world opened up to me,” she says.
THE SISTERS GRIMM, conceived in between rocking and nursing and lullabies, is a bewitching tale that follows four sisters—separated at childhood—who must navigate the dark underworld of Everwhere to find each other, and combine their supernatural strengths to stop a war heralded by the most dangerous and evil man in the world—their father.
It’s an action-packed tale of mystery, love, and yes, magic, but at its core, this is a story of female empowerment and self-realization. Those themes, too, were inspired by van Praag’s daughter.
“Of course, I began [reading her] stories of my own childhood, which were all fairy tales. And perhaps because she was a girl, it made me think about the stories differently,” she says. “I wanted her to grow up as a strong, independent woman, which necessitated that I make significant changes to those decidedly un-feministic stories. I wrote THE SISTERS GRIMM for her.”
But there are also messages embedded in the novel for all of van Praag’s readers, particularly the girls.
“I want readers to feel stronger after reading, I want them to be able to say ‘no’ more easily, to take care of themselves and not allow others to take advantage or abuse them,” she says.
To do that, van Praag has created a dynamic cast—four distinctly different girls, each with her own elemental powers, tied together in blood and magic. Liyana is able to control rivers and rain, Scarlet’s fingertips emit electricity, Bea can fly, and Goldie, the primary protagonist, manipulates plants and gives life. She was also the most difficult character to write.
“She was too much like me for me to have any perspective—I needed to make her more complex and with more flaws. She was a little bland to begin with, but as soon as she became a thief I was excited,” van Praag says. “Now her opening is one of my favorite lines in the book. ‘I’ve been a thief for as long as I can remember, a liar too. I might even be a murderer, but you’ll have to make up your own mind about that.’”
By contrast, Bea was one of the easiest characters to flesh out because “she said things I could never dream of saying in real life,” van Praag says. “It was very cathartic to write her scenes.”
That’s important to note because much of this book stretched the author’s skills, almost to the breaking point. The structure, for instance, is complicated and ambitious. While van Praag has tackled multiple POVs before, she’s a pantser by nature, and this lack of plotting, coupled with time jumps and complex world-building, made the story sometimes difficult for her to navigate.
“I was sometimes driven to tears at the keyboard trying to make it all fit together and make sense,” she says. “I was nervous of the sheer amount of work involved in this one. It took me three years to write (many drafts, and [I] probably cut out over 250,000 words in the end) and I did a great deal of research. Which wasn’t easy with a baby/small child on my lap—thank goodness for the internet!”
The extra effort paid off. THE SISTERS GRIMM has been aptly compared to the work of V. E. Schwab and Neil Gaiman, two masters of the genre who—along with several others—van Praag says have certainly influenced her writing and immersed her further in the fantasy world.
In fact, response to THE SISTERS GRIMM has been so favorable, van Praag says she’ll be hanging with these fictional siblings for at least another two novels.
“I’ve already handed in the second one, and am waiting on the edits for that,” she says. “Book Two is out in spring 2021 and Book Three spring 2022, so I’d better get cracking!”
Menna van Praag (home) photo credit: Rafal Lapszanski