January 2020

Anna-Marie McLemore

Finding yourself in a fairy tale
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From Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes” to a journey of historical and personal discovery. 

When asked to briefly describe Dark and Deepest Red, Anna-Marie McLemore is more than ready to reel off three snappy summaries. “The very short description is ‘Red Shoes’ plus medieval queers,” McLemore says. “[A different] way to describe it would be a reimagining of the fairy tale ‘The Red Shoes’ through the lens of the 1518 dancing plague. And another way I like to talk about it is sort of the secret history of a fairy tale.” 

The original Hans Christian Andersen tale is about a girl named Karen (after his own half-sister, whom he despised) who refuses to take off her bright red shoes in church and so is cursed to never be able to take off the shoes while dancing ceaselessly—even after she successfully begs an executioner to chop off her feet. It’s a story so unsubtle that its subtext is essentially its text. It’s also ripe territory for McLemore’s queer, feminist reimagining.

Deftly plotted in sharply evocative prose, Dark and Deepest Red follows two parallel and sometimes intersecting narratives, the first of which takes place in medieval Strasbourg and involves a young Romani named Lavinia and the trans boy she loves, Alifair. The pair are caught up in the mysterious 1518 dancing plague, an actual historical event in which about 400 Strasbourgeois danced uncontrollably, some to the point of collapse and death.

Deftly plotted in sharply evocative prose, Dark and Deepest Red follows two parallel and sometimes intersecting narratives in medieval Strasbourg and the modern-day USA.

The second narrative follows modern-day Mexican American Rosella Oliva and her Romani American friend Emil, who keeps his heritage secret, fearing prejudice. During their small town’s annual “Glimmer,” a week each autumn in which surreal and magical things happen, a pair of red slippers attach themselves to Rosella’s feet, making her dance wildly while heightening her passion for Emil—and she can’t remove them.

“There’s something so powerful about the motif of shoes, and in fairy tales, they come up all the time,” McLemore says. “I also love what color can signify in stories, how it can become its own language.” 

At the time of Dark and Deepest Red’s genesis, McLemore, a Californian whose award-winning novels include The Weight of Feathers and When the Moon Was Ours, identified as a queer Latinx Christian. Unexpectedly, however, creating the story turned out to be a journey of further personal discovery.

“I wrote this book not realizing that I was nonbinary,” says McLemore, who now uses the personal pronouns they/them and whose husband is trans. “So it’s very strange having this story come out with Alifair as a main character, whom I had something in common with without realizing it. Obviously our gender identities are different. I’m much more gender fluid, but I wrote him not knowing that. My identity is evolving alongside my books. . . . Our identities and our history are constantly evolving. We all have histories that we’re writing every day.”

As a ballet lover who grew up competing in traditional Irish dancing, McLemore has personally experienced “this sort of spell of the dance when your body takes over” and has always been “enthralled” and “horrified” by Andersen’s “The Red Shoes.” After deciding to pair that fairy tale with Strasbourg’s dancing plague, McLemore was delighted to discover scholarly evidence that Andersen may have also had that plague in mind while writing his story. “I just had that sense of history kind of whispering secrets to you,” McLemore says.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Dark and Deepest Red.

Research for the book involved a trip to Strasbourg, where McLemore reveled in walking cobblestone streets and soaking up the past. While generally welcomed with kindness and generosity, the author and their husband had one unfortunate experience of being “shamed” out of a church by another visitor. “It was a bad moment of paralleling the story,” they recall. “You’re going to run into people who have a problem with who you are wherever you go. So I’m just grateful for the people who want to be in community with us.”

McLemore’s own community includes a big Mexican American family. “When I talk about community, my family was my first,” they say. Although dyslexia caused them to struggle with reading, McLemore loved stories from the start, and both parents helped to instill a love of books. (Dark and Deepest Red is dedicated to McLemore’s father.) 

In high school, McLemore started writing in secret, worried that their reading issues precluded a writing career. Two teachers, however, encouraged and challenged the budding author. One pivotal reading experience was Ash by Malinda Lo, which McLemore loves for “this idea that there are spaces for queer characters in fairy tales.”

As McLemore adds more of their own work to the YA and queer canon, readers reach out to the author, either on Twitter or via email. “Reader responses are part of what makes me keep writing the stories I write,” they say. “It’s a moment of tremendous magic when you realize you not only needed to tell it, but somebody needed to read it.”

Get the Book

Dark and Deepest Red

Dark and Deepest Red

By Anna-Marie McLemore
Feiwel & Friends
ISBN 9781250162748

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