J. M. Stengl writes stories full of hope and light. When she’s not writing, she’s wrangling cats and grandchildren, perfecting pastry, and working with model horses.
Tell us about your fairytale retellings and what inspired you to write in this genre:
I have always loved fairy tales. I grew up reading them in various collections, and as a child, I “retold” them to my friends at sleepovers. When I was in college, working at a children’s camp, I lulled my campers to sleep with fairy tales. Although I loved reading fairy-tale retellings, I never thought of writing them myself until my daughter (also a writer) suggested it to me. We brainstormed ideas for the first few books, using some of my experiences and interests (guinea pigs, gardening, marine biology, horses, etc), and I took off writing! The main series of Faraway Castle infuses fantasy creatures and magic into our modern-day world at a resort for royals, nobles, and the well-to-do. It is squeaky-clean and escapist, with sweet romance and mostly non-violent action.
How does the theme of hope fit into your books, particularly your Sleeping Beauty retelling, The Rose and the Briar?
All of my books are upbeat, but The Rose and the Briar is possibly the most hope-filled tale in the series so far.
Orphaned at sixteen, my heroine inherited the weighty responsibility of hiding a dangerous enchanted princess from any prince who might kiss her awake. Rosa now works as head gardener at Faraway Castle, using her horticultural and magical skills. This position is a lifeline—she can conceal the beautiful princess in the gardens while earning her keep. Yet she lives in constant fear of discovery and in outright terror of handsome princes. Her future seems bleak and loveless, devoid of hope. Then, help arrives, although Rosa doesn’t trust him an inch! An irritating and nosy young man who conceals a secret of his own keeps prying into her affairs. Worse yet, a sneaky royal nemesis from her past arrives, determined to ruin everything!
Rosa must learn to trust her true friends, outwit her enemies, and possibly offer a hero with secrets of his own the chance to prove himself faithful.
You used to write romance and are now writing fairy tale retellings. What are the challenges (or advantages!) of the new genre?
I would say the greatest challenge for me is keeping a light, fun tone. Not that my stories are pure fluff—some lean more that way than others, but most hold a meaningful core.
I’ve always heard that writing humor well is difficult. Indeed, it has nearly conquered me more than once. I so easily slip into a serious voice where a light touch is required! I don’t always recognize the problems, so I end up rewriting. A lot. Which is frustrating, because it slows my production to a crawl.
Even so . . . I love my story world and characters! Tweaking our own world just slightly offers me a lot of leeway for history, plot, geography, and characters. When the humor works, it’s really fun to write!
What do you want readers to take from your books?
Speaking of hope . . . I hope my readers chuckle a bit, maybe groan and smile over the bad puns (and have mercy if they’re too bad!), and possibly view their own world through a different lens. Mostly I hope they find joy and a sense of hope in these light stories.
“I hope [readers] find joy and a sense of hope in these light stories.”– J. M. Stengl
What’s your favorite film adaptation of a fairy tale?
Disney’s original Beauty and the Beast. It has its flaws, but the combination of romance, characters, and humor . . . I mean, Gaston’s song in the pub had me in tears of laughter the first time I watched the movie (in an Air Force base theater in England), and I still smile more than thirty years later. So clever!!
What’s something readers might not know about you?
Let’s see . . . well, I tend to add or subtract a decade or two when speaking of past events (I could stand in as the definition of “absent-minded”), and I was voted “Most Shy” in my senior year of high school. Oh, and, by God’s grace, I just celebrated my 40th year of marriage with my handsome fighter-pilot husband and best friend.
Tell us about your fluffy writing companions.
I have two faithful mewses, McLaren the Meezer (Siamese), age 3, and Mercedes the (slightly) Tubby Tabby, 2, who hold me into my writing chair and remind me to take frequent breaks when I get lost in my fantasy world. Mac’s hobbies are strolling on his harness in our back garden and “flying” like Superman around the house (with a bit of mom-help). Mercedes nags for “chase treats” (which often get nabbed by quick paws and devoured before they hit the ground!) and kisses (warning: she goes for the lips).
What fairytale do you really want to retell but haven’t yet?
I have ideas for Mother Holle and The Nutcracker, but other books must come first!
When you’re not writing, you are…?
My hobbies are gardening, reading, or collecting (a childhood joy) and restoring model horses and dolls to ride them, and learning to make tack and embroider saddle blankets, and . . . Okay, it’s kind of an obsession. Without the “kind of.” My dear husband only asks that I keep the herd corralled in my craft room. Although, he does enjoy using one or two as holiday decorations . . .
“I would say the greatest challenge for me is keeping a light, fun tone. Not that my stories are pure fluff—some lean more that way than others, but most hold a meaningful core.”– J. M. Stengl
What can readers expect next from you?
I am working on book 6 in the Faraway Castle series, which is the most difficult one yet for me, and I’ve had to take several breaks to rethink it all . . . But don’t despair! I am finally having a breakthrough and becoming excited to make the necessary revisions. Again, it’s a difficult story to write with a light touch.
Bonus question: What’s the secret to the perfect pastry crust?
Perhaps, once I have perfected it to perfection, I shall let you know. At present, it’s hit-or-miss for me!
J.M. Stengl is a native of southern California who, after a whirlwind life as a military wife, now makes her home with her husband in North Carolina, where she serves at the beck and call of two spoiled cats and five adorable grandchildren. Obsessions include all things animal rescue, fairy-tale romances, collecting and customizing model horses, and perfecting the perfect pastry crust.
During her former career as a romance novelist, Stengl won both the Carol Award and RWA’s Inspirational Readers’ Choice Award. Now she prefers her novels to include a dash of magic along with the heart-melting romance.
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