Profile: Gail Carson Levine

For New York-area author Gail Carson Levine, fairy tales sometimes do come true.

The highly successful children’s author, who gave a reading recently (2004) at Toronto’s Bialik Day School, is the creator of Ella Enchanted, a young person’s novel that has been turned into a movie by Miramax Films. The film stars Anne Hathaway and opens in theatres April 9.

If being courted by a major Hollywood production house doesn’t seem like the perfect fairy-tale ending for a novelist, Levine has also seemed to live out every writer’s fantasy by getting that first novel written and published at all.

Previously a bureacrat in the state government for twenty-seven years, she faced a daily two-hour commute to work each way from her home town of Brewster, N.Y., which is situated some sixty miles from New York. Seeking to use her time productively, she wrote Ella Enchanted on the commuter train.

Thus, she seems to qualify as one of those isolated “kitchen-table” women writers — the list includes such dedicated souls as Margaret Mitchell and Maeve Binchy — who persevere in solitude for years against great odds and ultimately triumph when their works set the public’s imagination on fire.

Levine must also believe in the power of fairy tales because Ella Enchanted is based on one. “The story more or less follows Cinderella — there’s even a pair of glass slippers and a pumpkin coach — but I tried to make it more believable,” she explains.

The title character, Ella, is subject to an unusual curse, being obliged to obey all commands directed at her. Like Cinderella, Ella inhabits a rich fantasy realm containing princes, ogres, wicked stepsisters and even a fairy godmother who protects her.

The tale’s happy ending may be fit for a princess but not all is a bed of roses for Ella along the way, Levine explains.

“What you want to do as a writer is to make your characters suffer. That’s what makes a good story. It can be serious suffering or it can be comic suffering, but the characters need to suffer.”
Levine has written at least ten books for young people over the last decade, including six in a series she invented called The Princess Tales. Having read the first Harry Potter novel, she expresses gratitude to author J. K. Rawlings “for bringing more kids to fantasy and for getting kids to read long books.”

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Her book Dave at Night tells the story of a boy in a Jewish orphanage in New York and is her only title to reflect a Jewish theme. “It’s a fun adventure story,” she says.

Naturally, Ella Enchanted also contains classic storytelling elements that its author says will appeal to readers of either gender. “Once they get past the cover and the title, boys also like it a lot because it’s an adventure novel.”

She’s currently putting the finishing touches on a new book called The Fairies of Peter Pan, which the publishing arm of the Disney Corporation is due to publish next spring. “They’ve asked me to write the first book and set up the world,” she says. “I’ve been having a ton of fun doing it.”

She also enjoys giving the occasional course at the public library on creative writing for kids. She tells young would-be writers to keep writing, even if they don’t finish their stories. “I don’t think it matters if they don’t finish. As long as they keep writing, they’ll get better.”

Levine’s writerly life isn’t all a fairy tale, of course. For example, the realities of the post-9/11 world recently intruded into her affairs and forced her to change her travel plans at the last minute.
During a planned five-city North American promotional tour, she realized she would have to postpone her last stop — Toronto — because she had left her passport at home. As a result, her publicist was obliged to shift all of her appointments here by a week.

Ella Enchanted is published in softcover by Avon Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. ♦

© 2004