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Interview: Kelly Barnhill on “Thirty-Three Wicked Daughters”

Kelly BarnhillTell us a bit about “Thirty-Three Wicked Daughters.”

This story is about the numerous daughters of an affable, and often baffled, mostly-good King. The daughters are, both individually and as a group, vigorous and curious women, eager to do good in the world, and too often met with resistance from various entrenched concerns within the kingdom. And they end up finding themselves wedded to grasping and nefarious Barons, without their consent. The story is largely about their resistance to convention, and their efforts to turn the tables on their would-be woo-ers in order to build the sort of kingdom that is, hopefully, more fair, more just and more hopeful than the one they have inherited.


What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

Normally, I would be able to tell you exactly what prompted me to write any given story, but in this case, I honestly don’t know. I simply suddenly found myself writing it. Frankly, I’m as confused as you are. The story itself comes from what’s known as “The Albina Story”, which appears all over the place in early English literature – there’s a reference to it in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, as well as in works by Milton, Wace, Layamon, Holinshed and others. The most complete tellings of the story are in Recuyelle of the Historyes of Troye (a courtly romance written by Raoul Lefevre, and first translated by William Caxton in 1464), Des Grantz Geanz (or On the Great Giants) written anonymously in 1333, and History of the Kings of England, by Gregory of Monmouth in 1136. Now, the purpose of these stories is to tell the history of England, imagined by legend to be populated at first by the wild and wicked progeny of untamed women, only to be eventually defeated by the Trojan heroes Brutus and Corineus. Depending on the version of the Albina story that you’re looking at, there once was a king (or an emperor, or a duke), living in Greece (or Rome, or Troy, or Syria – there is little agreement in these stories on that point), named Diocletian, or Diodicias, take your pick. Now here is where all the stories agree: he had thirty-three wicked daughters who shocked the world with their wanton ways. In order to bring chaste order to presumably sexual chaos, the King orders the daughters to be married to noble Dukes. The daughters, unhappy with this fate, conspire to cut off their new husbands’ heads, and are summarily exiled onto a sail-less, rudderless boat and set adrift at sea, presumably to die. But even here the daughters do not obey orders. Their wandering boat lands on a green island, which the oldest daughter, Albina, names after herself. The island is, at first, inhabited only by incubi and demons, which delight the daughters, who go on to first get busy with their new neighbors, and then birth a nation of giants, who rule Albion until the arrival of the Trojans. Now, obviously, I went in several different directions than the original, but I was fascinated by the ways in which our culture reflexively punishes transgressive women — especially, well-spoken, forceful women who keep showing up even though the world keeps showing them the door, and who speak up even though the world keeps telling them to be quiet. I also wanted to explore the relationships between fathers and daughters, and among sisters, and the ways in which we let people believe wildly untrue things about ourselves because it’s just easier that way sometimes.


Was “Thirty-Three Wicked Daughters” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

Well. Yes? No? Gosh, I don’t know. It was personal to me in the way that every story is personal to me — everything I write comes from this place of vigorous curiosity and prickly questioning. Every story starts at a place of irritation. I can’t remember the first time I ran into the Albina story — probably reading Gregory of Monmouth a million years ago, or maybe it was Spenser. In any case, while I don’t think I’ve ever consciously drawn from my own life with any aspect of my work, it typically resonates with my life in ways that I don’t often anticipate. For example, as a parent of children who are either arriving at, or hurdling towards, their own adulthoods, I sometimes feel like the King in my story — both baffled and delighted at my children who are embracing lives that I can bear witness to and celebrate, but cannot ever truly share or understand. And that is by design: our children never belong to us; they only belong to themselves. Additionally, within this story are aspects of my own frustration with the limits we place on women — discounting their work, downplaying their achievements, erasing their voices. And maybe you might be able to find some echoes to my own interactions with various elements of Men’s Rights Activists over the years. When I write, I never actually think about these things — I only think about the story. It’s only after I’m done that I can find bits and pieces of my life, stitched and woven in, pulled so tight I couldn’t take it out if I tried.


What aspect of this story was the most fun for you to write?

Oh, gosh, are you kidding me? The pigeons, obviously. The pigeons were my favorite, favorite part.

Okay, fine, and the dresses too. And the beads like spiderwebs. And the pick-pocketing children. And the giants, of course.


Why do you write?

Well, mostly because I’ve had a lot of jobs in my life and have been fired from most of them, and I have no other marketable skills. I actually feel pretty grateful that I have a space to write in and time to do it and people willing to read it. I also write because I get agitated, or curious, or restless. I sometimes feel the limitations of my own experience or world or skin or time — it can feel at time like a dress that does not fit, or shoes that pinch the toes. I think the urge to write is the same as the urge to read — it’s that need to have an experience of radical empathy, to live in someone else’s body and point of view for a while. To think as another thinks, and to see as another sees, and to know as another knows. When we write and when we read, we become more than ourselves, and that can feel pretty wonderful.


Who do you consider to be your influences?

Originally? Fairy tales. And Louise Erdrich and Octavia Butler and Diana Wynne Jones, more fairy tales, C.S. Lewis and Tolkein and Baum, more fairy tales, Angela Carter and Borges and Nesbitt, and more fairy tales.


What are you working on now?

Oh, heck. A bunch of stuff. I just sent a story about an Ogress to my agent who will be sending it to my editor, so we’ll see what she thinks. And I attempted to write a short story about a bunch of 1950’s housewives who randomly turn into dragons and devour their husbands (somewhere in the middle of the Kavanaugh hearings, it suddenly became very very important to write an allegory about female rage), but the story accidentally became a novella and that novella is now becoming a novel. And I’m also working on a children’s fantasy about an ex-pirate and a thwarted mathematician and a possibly-sinister alchemist. We’ll see where that one goes. Also I’m writing fairy tales. A whole gaggle of them. We’ll see what I decide to do with those as well.


“Thirty-Three Wicked Daughters” appears in the May/June 2019 issue of F&SF.

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Click on Ms. Barnhill’s photo to visit her website.


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