Persian Epic Meets Sleeping Beauty in ‘Girl, Serpent, Thorn’

Posted by Sharon on July 1, 2020
Melissa Bashardoust is no stranger to writing queer feminist retellings of popular fairy tales. Her first novel, 2017’s Girls Made of Snow and Glass, has been described as a mashup of “Snow White” and Disney’s Frozen, all tinged with the dark fantastical influence of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber

This month, she returns to the mythic well of folklore and fairy tales with one of the summer’s most anticipated young adult releases, Girl, Serpent, Thorn. Blending the stories of “Sleeping Beauty” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter” with Persian epic, Bashardoust spins a tale about a princess whose very touch is poisonous, a kingdom with a hidden past, and a complex cast of characters all with their own agendas.

Bashardoust spoke with Goodreads about finding inspiration in the folklore of her Persian culture, the moment that reignited her interest in children’s literature, and the best books she’s read so far this year.

Goodreads: Tell us a bit about Soraya, the protagonist of your book. A princess whose touch is dangerous to those around her certainly feels uncannily relevant right now in the age of social distancing!

Melissa Bashardoust: Soraya is a princess who has been hidden away for her entire life because she has a curse that makes her deadly to the touch. (Of course, I had no idea when I was writing the book that it would be released at a time when social isolation would become something we’re all doing!)

I think of Soraya as a character of contrasts, stuck in a kind of stasis as she tries to balance between two extremes. On the one hand, she is literally deadly, so to counteract that she tries to make herself passive and unobtrusive, knowing the kind of harm she can so easily do. But because she has to force herself to be passive, she has all of these volatile, unexpressed emotions simmering beneath the surface that reinforce this belief that she’s monstrous and should be kept away from people.

Over the course of the novel, she comes to understand more about her curse, herself, and her family, because there’s much more to the story than what she’s been told.

GR: How did you come up with the premise for Girl, Serpent, Thorn? What themes were you hoping to explore?

MB: It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how or when ideas come together in your head and start to form something solid, but I had been circling around the idea of combining elements of “Sleeping Beauty” with “Rappaccini’s Daughter.”

Both of these stories had this interplay between apparent harmlessness and actual danger—a sleeping girl surrounded by deadly thorns, or the contrast between the innocuous image of a girl in a garden and the reality of both girl and garden being poisonous.

I wanted to explore that contrast [between the girl and the garden] in more depth, looking at both the drawbacks and the inherent power and protection in having this built-in defense system, and what that might mean for someone living in a dangerous world.

I also wanted to explore familial relationships, the ways we have to untangle the stories told to us by our parents and figure out what they mean for us now—and how we don’t always understand our parents’ choices until we start to grow up and face those choices ourselves.

GR: What was the experience of writing this book like, compared to writing your first novel [Girls Made of Snow and Glass]? Was it easier? More difficult?

MB: I know I definitely felt like this one was harder at the time that I was writing it, but with some distance now, I think it was easier in some ways and more difficult in others. On the one hand, I felt more confident in my voice and my plotting abilities this time around. On the other hand, I had a more complicated plot to deal with, with a lot of moving pieces that needed to come together in a satisfying way (and that often threatened to fall apart on me). Writing a second book is always a bit harder, too, because now you want to both live up to and hopefully improve upon the first book, so there’s that additional pressure to work with. 

GR: This is the second book in which you reimagine a fairy tale, but this time you draw from Persian folklore, which some readers might be far less familiar with. Can you tell us about the decision to tell this story through that lens? 

MB: A few years before I’d even started thinking about Girl, Serpent, Thorn, I’d become interested in reading more about Persian myth and folklore as a way of learning more about my own culture.

Later, when I was brainstorming this “Sleeping Beauty” idea and trying to figure out what the right setting would be, I was struck by the parallels between the good fairy/bad fairy dichotomy in the fairy tale and a similar kind of arrangement in Persian folklore. The way roses and gardens feature so heavily in Persian culture and history was also interesting to me since I was already leaning toward using these motifs.

It all fit together so well in my head that I knew it was the right setting for this story.

GR: Were there any challenges you encountered while writing this book? 

MB: In terms of challenges, it was important to me to find a balance between creating the rules of this fantasy world and putting together different plot threads in a cohesive way on the one hand, but also not straying too far from the world and the mythology I was borrowing from. Also, as a visual person, it was often challenging drawing on such an ancient time for inspiration because you have to put together a lot of fragments to try to form an image of the whole. (It probably would have been easier if I could read the language, too!)

GR: If your readers wanted to learn more about Persian mythology, do you have any suggestions for books or other resources to explore?

MB: Take a look at the Shahnameh, for sure! There are some beautifully illustrated versions out there. For a general overview of the influences behind the Shahnameh, try Persian Mythology by John Hinnells. I have a few other suggestions in my explanatory Author’s Note at the back of the book, as well.

GR: Why do you think readers and writers alike are so drawn to fairy tale retellings?

MB: The story structures of fairy tales are so basic in the best possible way. They’re impeccably constructed skeletons just waiting for you to flesh them out and dress them up in whatever way feels most relevant and resonant to you. As both a reader and a writer, I love playing with archetypes, so I’m fascinated with how we can take these characters and plots that seem thin or unrealistic and turn them into real people with emotional depth in real situations. I love looking at the themes simmering underneath these stories and finding ways to draw them to the surface, because those themes are often still relevant to modern audiences.

GR: Honestly, it’s difficult to talk about this book without giving away any plot twists! Are there authors you look up to for meticulous plotting or great plot twists that you didn’t see coming?

MB: I think Daphne du Maurier and her spiritual successor Gillian Flynn are both fantastic at laying the ground for plot twists in ways that are both surprising and yet fully earned.

GR: Your bio states that you rediscovered your love for children’s literature and fairy tales in college. Can you tell us about that? Was there a particular event, class, or book that reignited that love?

MB: There actually was a particular event: When I was in college, I watched the movie The Company of Wolves, based loosely on the short story by Angela Carter. It’s a weird, dreamy, symbolic take on “Little Red Riding Hood” that I couldn’t stop thinking about, because it was the first time I’d really thought about the themes and layers of meaning beneath the story.

I read Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber shortly afterward, and I’ve been fascinated by the inner workings of fairy tales ever since. In part because of this new fascination, I also ended up taking a couple of children’s literature classes, as well as a creative writing class that reminded me how much I loved to write. It was this perfect confluence of events that eventually led me to try my own hand at writing a YA fairy tale retelling.

GR: What other YA books would you recommend to readers who like your work? 

MB: I am so bad at this question because I tend to stay away from anything that reminds me of whatever I’m working on until well after it’s been released to protect my fragile nerves. But I’d recommend Ash by Malinda Lo, Mechanica by Betsy Cornwell, and Mirage by Somaiya Daud.

GR: Finally, what books have you read lately that you loved? What are you recommending to your friends and family these days?

MB: A few of my favorites that I’ve read so far this year are Things in Jars by Jess Kidd, Version Control by Dexter Palmer, and The Night Country by Melissa Albert.


Melissa Bashardoust’s Girl, Serpent, Thorn will be available in the U.S. on July 7. Don’t forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-8 of 8 (8 new)

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message 1: by Melanie (new)

Melanie i'm so excited for this one ❤

message 2: by Tanya (new)

Tanya Hart This sounds terrific. I want to read the earlier one too.

message 3: by Amy Rhodes (new)

Amy Rhodes I have been waiting for this book...very exciting!

message 4: by John (new)

John Amory I clicked on this thinking it was a follow up to Boy, Snow, Bird. That's a strikingly similar title and cover.

message 5: by Cait (new)

Cait McKay John wrote: "I clicked on this thinking it was a follow up to Boy, Snow, Bird. That's a strikingly similar title and cover."

I was thinking the same thing. Similar references to other Helen Oyeyemi works as well...

message 6: by Juliet (new)

Juliet Smith Ryan wrote: "Interesting. Not...100% sure why such a retelling is necessary, but it does sound intriguing nonetheless. Albeit just for the aspect of it's retelling. Perhaps when it's out next week, I'll take a ..."

Because the majority of fairy tale retellings are still based on European folklore. Plus, there's an F/F romance.

message 7: by Atik (new)

Atik Oh my, this sounds interesting. As a lover of folk- and fairytales from all cultures I have to put this one on my neverending booklist.
Is there a way to save articles as a favorite in my account?

message 8: by Dalia (new)

Dalia Ryan wrote: "Interesting. Not...100% sure why such a retelling is necessary, but it does sound intriguing nonetheless. Albeit just for the aspect of it's retelling. Perhaps when it's out next week, I'll take a ..."

I think the fun thing about YA fantasy is that it’s usually widely unnecessary but it’s super fun to read!

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