Interview by: Ming I. and Zoe D.
We were so excited to sit down and chat with Jenny Elder Moke, debut author of the Robin Hood reimagining, Hood! Jenny’s local to Austin and we got a chance to see her speak at the virtual Texas Teen Book Festival in October 2020. We asked her all of our burning questions about retellings, research, fairy tales, superpowers, and so much more. Check out our interview below!
Ming: What drew you to the story of Robin Hood?
Jenny Elder Moke: I’ve always liked really big action-adventure stuff. Like when I was a kid, Power Rangers was IT for me. With Power Rangers, and then Sailor Moon, it’s bigger than big. Like, stakes are literally the universe type stuff. Which is not the case for Robin Hood, but that level of stakes being so ultimately high, and there being so much action and adventure and potential for drama- I think Robin Hood was always a story that drew me in. I watched a show in the early 2000s on BBC called Robin Hood and it was this really fun version. I feel like Robin Hood is kind of split into two camps: You have the super campy Men in Tights version of Robin Hood, or the super serious Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood. And Robin Hood’s really kind of down the line. Like, it’s not serious but it’s not just fluff either, and so this BBC version did a really good job of bringing both of those in. I started reading about the history of the time period and I think it was ultimately the history and learning that did it. Because every version of Robin Hood you know is about “the evil Prince John.” He’s always trying to steal his brother’s throne and Robin Hood’s always thwarting him and then Richard the Lionheart comes in and saves the day and everybody’s happy and chickens dance around in a field. Umm… that’s the Disney version. But the real story is that Richard the Lionheart died and then John was king for sixteen years and he was super bad at it. He was so bad that he got overthrown. He caused the first English civil war. So that, for me being a history buff and for me being an action adventure buff, it was like “wow” and all these pieces started coming together for me. And then for me, the young adult writer, it was like, so how do I enter into this world because Robin Hood is actually an adult. So I was like, what if he and Marian had a daughter? And that was the kernel for me supporting the story.
M: What were your favorite and least favorite parts of the classical versions of Robin Hood?
JEM: I think my favorite thing was how cheeky they were about stuff. Robin at his origin point was that he appeared in morality plays in England in the twelfth century, I think. And those were really murdery. Like, the whole point of him was there was a rich landowner who was not treating the peasants well, then Robin would murder him. That was how those plays went. But the version that most people know was written by Howard Pyle in the 1400s and that’s more where you see Alan-a-Dale and the Sheriff of Nottingham and all those characters come in. And so I read that whole version several times just to get a feel for it. And so what I really like was that there was this sense of Robin constantly flipping the bird at everybody in charge. But also he could take a joke. If he got bested, he could accept it. My least favorite thing was that there were just no women. Like, maybe there’s a washer woman in the background. And there’s Marian, but she’s always just the love interest. I feel like a lot of versions of her get presented as milk toast and I don’t think that the kind of woman that would actually draw Robin Hood’s attention– the boring, stand-up-in-a-tower-wishing-for-her-love sort of person. So that is what I set out to do more of in Hood; to have women in the story. Because they are half the population.
“…that is what I set out to do more of in Hood; to have women in the story. Because they are half the population.”
Zoe: Was there anything you wanted to write into Hood but decided against?
JEM: I wrote the very, very first draft ever about ten years ago. And I have torn it down to the studs and re-written it at least five times. But because of that, there are complete storylines that are out there but didn’t end up in the book. In one draft there was a storyline where they went to a village and the village was being attacked by King John’s troops but Isabelle pretended she had the plague so that she could run off the King’s troops. And that’s a very Robin Hood moment of putting on a costume and using berries to stain her skin and stuff. But it didn’t fit in the plot of the final story. I think the one scene that I wrote into one story that had to get cut that I sort of miss was in that same village where they stayed the night on their way to York, Isabelle ruined the habit she was wearing so somebody let her have their wedding dress. So she had to have this whole dance and suddenly Patrick knew how to play the fiddle. Which seems like a thing that Patrick would be able to do. But there was this fun very 90’s YA rom-com of them having a dance in a field and getting to be awkward about it. It was just a separate scene that had nothing to do with the story and nobody’s worried about King John or anything for one night. It had to go, but I was sad to see it go.
M: How much of the writing process was just research?
JEM: I have written quite a few historicals and I like to do one big deep dive before I draft just to understand the time period, and for Hood it was the lore of Robin Hood. Who existed and why did they exist? And I was interested in finding out the different versions. The villain in this book, The Wolf, at some point was a character in one version of Robin Hood. So going through the mythology of Robin Hood and figuring out what pieces I wanted to take and why I was taking them and how they fit into the story I was telling now. I always do one overarching thing so I just understand the world. And then my first draft is just a plot. Then I have to go back and give my characters motivations and feelings. Usually at that point I hit a question like, what would they have eaten or what would they have worn? So I’ll always have to stop and research how a certain plot point would work. Then once I sold Hood and it went through copy edits that’s when the really smart people in the room read it and were like, “Yeah, so you’ve got this scene where someone is wearing velvet but velvet didn’t exist until the fourteen hundreds so do you want to change the fabric or recast this?” and I’m like “Yeah!” There were all kinds of little things like that were people who are much closer readers than I am find that I said this castle had a moat but it didn’t. I try to be as historically accurate as I possibly can without it overrunning the story. But I’m not a medievalist. I’m not a Robin Hood expert. So there will be stuff that I miss. I try to be as accurate as possible but I’m not a scholar.
M: What versions of Robin Hood did you use for the plot concept and how far back in the stories did you go?
JEM: So as far as the main characters appear, I mainly used Howard Pyle’s version because that is the most complete compendium of the Merry Men. Like Little John, Alan-a-Dale, Will Scarlett and all of those characters. Their origin stories are in that version. So that gave me a really good foundation for who you saw in the adult version of the Merry Men in the story. That allowed me to build out the teens- the next version of the Merry Men. It let me build out the stories of who they were and where their parents came from and all of that. But luckily we are able to know who Robin is and who Marian is and where she came from and this is all historically accurate. And what I was mostly amazed by was how I took those very real details and made it fit better. Like, who Marian’s father is is sort of a big background story in Hood. And he was a real person and he had his connections too. And everybody was all very real. And when I researched it I realized the real history was actually working out better for me than what I had in my head. So the Robin Hood mythology and the real history of the time period kind of grafted onto each other.
Z: I noticed Isabelle is very religious. Did you take that from your own life and experiences?
JEM: I don’t think I set out to write it that way. I did go to Catholic school. I was in Catholic school from kindergarten to eighth grade. So I would say my family is super religious, but that was part of the fabric and background of my life. Actually, there was a version that I read where Marian had ended up in a priory and I liked the idea that she would go in hiding. Then I worked that into this version and that’s why Isabelle was there. But the feeling out of sorts and not getting the messaging and the characters who are drawn to that life, like Sister Catherine, I think a lot of that came from my own experience of growing up in a religious setting but not feeling like I fit into that world, that mindset, particularly the mindset of not questioning anything, which is very much a construct of the church. The faith and the belief. And I have a very opposite personality. I question everything. It’s not about disrespect, it’s about genuine curiosity. So I think the way that Isabelle deals with the frustration and the pushback, particularly once she leaves the priory and starts to open her eyes to how different the world is from her sheltered little corner of it, was for me very personal. Especially in the last four years of this country where I have opened my eyes to people that don’t look like me or don’t live my lifestyle, what they have been subjected to in this country. I really had to open my eyes to that as a very privileged white woman. So I think a lot of what Isabelle deals with in the respect was part of my journey and so it kind of worked its way into the story.
Z: What is your favorite fairy tale?
JEM: Fairy tales are interesting. I’ve done a lot of research now because I write a lot of historicals, and the interesting thing that I’ve learned about fairy tales is that I grew up on these sort of sanitized Grimm’s tales. So you had Little Red Riding Hood and The Little Mermaid and those kinds of stories- even Beauty and the Beast– they were these very Disney-fied stories but when you start to look at the real stories and the real origins and what inspired those stories are about, it’s a lot weirder and darker and grimmer (no pun intended). So the things that I found really interesting doing research into fairy tales, and particularly mythology and folklore of ancient cultures, is that stories were not just for entertainment. They were ways for them to understand the world and ways for them to connect with each other and to anticipate bad things happening. It was sort of their way of dealing with what could be their chaos around them and I find that really fascinating. So for me, it’s less about which specific fairy tale is my favorite and more about every time I read about a fairy tale or a myth or the mythology of a culture, I love to ask why was it important to them, why did they need those certain types of gods? My next book is Celtic mythology, so I learned a lot about their gods and their cycles of stories, and they’re really fascinating because they’re so weird. It’s just nonsensical. And I’m sure it made sense to them at the time they were writing it. But it’s like this guy was a god but he was also a horse but then he offended someone so she turned him into a fish. It’s that level. But once you learn their culture, what their systems were, you start to be like, “Oh! So fish were bad but horses were good.” It’s like that level of thinking that is inspiring their stories, so what I look for now is just understanding the why of the fairy tales that each culture chooses to tell.
“…stories were not just for entertainment. They were ways for them to understand the world and ways for them to connect with each other…”
M: Do you have a favorite character in HOOD?
JEM: For me it is probably a tie between Helena and Little. Because Helena is just over everybody in every book, and that’s always me. Her being the contrary old guy from Up. She was the easiest one for me to write because she just says what I would say in situations. The other half of that is Little, who is Alan-a-Dale’s son. They call him Little Alan, which is ironic because he’s six and a half feet tall. And I like him because he is so fun. He’s sweet, but so dumb and always ready to fight and/or drink and/or dance. He’s there for anything that requires energy. He’s like, “We can either go grab a pint or set a castle on fire.” He’s very much like a dog. He really just wants to get in the mix and mess stuff up but in a really pure puppy way.
Z: If you had one superpower, what would it be, and how would you use it?
JEM: I really liked Sailor Moon and I really wanted to be Sailor Moon, but I think I most identified with Sailor Jupiter. I was maybe nine or ten when I started watching it. So there are like five girls and they’re all guardians of their own planet. So there’s like Sailor Jupiter, Sailor Mercury. And they all have different powers. Sailor Jupiter has the power of electricity. She can call the power of thunder and lightning. But she was also just a really good fighter and a really good baker. They did a good job of letting her be a whole person. She was kind of a tomboy but she could be really soft and lovely, she was also a great fighter but was not mean or violent. And I felt that she was a really well-rounded character, which people didn’t always get right about female characters in the 90’s, they didn’t really get to be anything more than one-dimensional. So to be her, to get the power of thunder, but also be a really good fighter and a planetary guardian? I think that’s a good mix. I just assume they can breathe in space, I don’t know how. So I want to be able to breathe in space.