“It may have been that the stories of princesses, for instance, never struck me as very interesting, right?” Balmain says. “They got rescued, they lived happily ever after — yawn!”
The stories didn’t have twists or endings that she found satisfying. Balmain recently set out to change that. Her new book, a collection of poems published in April titled The Witch Demands a Retraction, takes another look at the stories and characters loved by children by putting a more grown-up, contemporary spin on the tales of happily ever after.
Balmain said she was inspired by a poem she wrote called “Fed Up.” It theorizes that Little Red Riding Hood was eaten not by the wolf but by her own grandmother, who was hungry after being put on a low-cholesterol diet. Balmain said at public readings listeners would ask her about other fairy tales she was working on. As she thought more about it, she realized she could probably write a whole book of these stories for adults.
Balmain reread several different versions of the classic stories for the project, including ones by the Grimm brothers and those reimagined by Disney, as well as lesser-known versions from writers like Charles Perrault and Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. “I enjoyed reading all these different versions and then mulling them over and thinking, ‘OK, whose point of view would be interesting to hear?’ Or, ‘what really happened next?’ Or, ‘what was really going on in this story?’” Balmain says.
Once she hit on an idea she was excited to explore, the self-described “obsessive reviser” would work through several versions of the idea. Her final collection features poems including “Pinocchio Runs for Office,” “Sleeping Beauty Talks to Her Therapist a Few Months After the Wedding,” and “Cinderella’s Podiatrist Writes an Amazon Review.”
In addition to humorous writing, the book also features beautiful illustrations by Ron Barrett, who is known for his work in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and his frequent illustrations in the pages of Princeton Alumni Weekly.
Balmain is no stranger to humor writing. She teaches writing courses about humor, features, and poetry at the University of Rochester, has had her humor writing featured in McSweeney’s and Weekly Humorist, among other publications, and edits Light magazine, the longest-running journal of comedic poetry. She’s also the author of Walking in on People and Just Us: Adventures of a Mother and Daughter. She wrote a collection of short stories for her creative thesis at Princeton.
As an editor, Balmain says she finds humor in “something that surprises, something that gets at an essential truth — either a truth about society or human nature.” As a writer, her work takes many forms, from storytelling to social and political criticism, from making sense of the seemingly senseless to making light of what most terrifies her.
“To make people laugh — that’s my main goal.”