Jessie Burton on The Restless Girls & feminist fairytales


With her first two novels, The Miniaturist and The Muse, becoming New York Times and Sunday Times bestselling novels, Jessie Burton is no stranger to writing. However, September saw the release of her debut children’s novel, The Restless Girls. We were fortunate enough to catch up with Jessie Burton and discuss her reimagined feminist fairytale.

For those who haven’t picked up a copy of ‘The Restless Girls’ yet, how would you entice them to go grab one?

The Restless Girls a feminist fairytale for modern day readers. I’ve tried to keep the glamour and magic of a traditional fairytale but I’ve given my characters control over their own destiny and the ability to save themselves rather than wait for someone to rescue them!

‘The Restless Girls’ is a feminist reimagining of the Grimms’ fairytale ‘The Twelve Dancing Princesses’ why did you pick this tale to catapult into the modern day mindset?

As a child, I was captivated by The Twelve Dancing Princesses. I loved the dancing, the secrecy and the glamour of it all.

When I read the story again as an adult I was quite horrified to discover that though the story is about the princesses – none of them have names and their lives are essentially ruined by a man who stalks them, reports on them and is rewarded with one of their hands in marriage and the kingdom! I just thought that was deeply unfair. I wanted to turn the camera around and show readers the world that the princesses inhabit as well as their personalities, skills and passions! I wanted to ensure they had agency over their own lives, just like modern-day readers. The energy and exuberance of the girls was a really lovely starting point to write a fairytale for the twenty-first century.

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The book is accompanied by Angela Barrett’s glowing illustrations, what was it like working with her?

Working with Angela was a dream come true and one of the nicest writing experiences I’ve ever had! We were just so lucky that she agreed to be part of this project, her illustrations are incredible and she is so supremely talented. When we saw the initial illustrations I was speechless, she’s captured the detail, humor and sisterliness of the girls so perfectly.  I feel so lucky to get to work with someone was talented.

The ending is really touching, what do you hope young readers can take away from this reimagining?

I hope it shows them that a princess can be smart, kind and thoughtful as well as resourceful. That she can be more in control of her own destiny than she might think. Most of all I hope they absorb it and grow up thinking it’s perfectly normal for girls’ voices to be heard, and their talents appreciated.

 Can you describe what your typical writing day looks like?

I am careful about not being too enslaved to the perfect writing ritual. If I need to write then it can happen anywhere. In practice, I try and write a thousand words a day but if I end up with much less than that I don’t beat myself up over it. The important thing is to get the words on the page – I can always go back and edit. Although I’m an early riser I often work best at night, so if I get stuck during the day I sometimes give up and have another go at it later.

What is the best response you’ve gotten from a reader about your books? How about the strangest?

I can’t think of anything strange but the best response to The Restless Girls was very recently from an eight-year-old reader. She said she loved the determination of Frida and how she did everything she could to make her sisters happy. She wrote, ‘I couldn’t take my eyes off the book because it was so interesting and tempting to read on’. She said I had written just the type of story she loved and that I knew exactly what she would enjoy. It was incredible to have that kind of approval from a young person!

What advice would you give to others starting to write their own novels?

If you want to ‘be’ a writer, you have to write. On a piece of paper, on a laptop, on the back of your hand: it’s that simple. It’s not a state of ‘being’, it’s a state of doing. And doing quite a lot of it, at the expense of quite a lot of other things. If you want to be a writer, you have to read. Read widely, read for love, read for analysis, read to be disgusted, read to be delighted. It is not as romantic a job as you might think, but it is certainly a rewarding one. You have to be determined, bloody-minded yet highly sensitive, willing to take knockback after knockback, cheerful in the face of daily misery, and happy with your own company. I’ve written more about this on my website.

 What one book could you read over and over again and not get bored?

Matilda by Roald Dahl. For so many reasons. Matilda is so fizzing with intelligence, fire and courage. It’s a funny book, a rebellious book! And I love that Matilda finds that everything she needs to rescue herself is already inside her.

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The Restless Girls is available to buy in the UK and pre-order in the US now. 

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