The Sweet Life

I’ve been on a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory kick lately. I reread the 1964 novel by Roald Dahl and watched not only the Tim Burton 2005 movie of the same name (starring Johnny Depp and Freddie Highmore), but also the 1971 classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, starring Gene Wilder and directed by Mel Stuart. I’ve seen Charlie and the Chocolate Factory twice recently. Slight spoilers ahead.


Charlie’s story is a Cinderella story—a good, but poor kid desperately wants to gain one of five golden tickets which allow the bearers to visit the world-famous chocolate factory of the reclusive Willy Wonka—the prince of the story. Charlie doesn’t stand much of a chance, since anyone in the world could find a ticket. But that’s what makes the book/movie such a delight.


Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka


Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka

Why the obsession? Fairy tales are the ultimate comfort food for me when life is tough and I feel overwhelmed by it. (Like when two computer viruses almost crashed my computer recently.) It’s great to know that good things can happen to nice people, especially when the news is full of stories of brutality and hate—proof that life is often anything but a fairy tale.

I’ve heard men quip that women are obsessed by chocolate. How interesting that this book was written by a man and both movies adapted from it were directed by men. Seeing all of that chocolate flash across the screen is fun, but dangerous. I usually need to have some chocolate on hand to satisfy the cravings inspired by the movie. (Same with the 2000 film Chocolat, based on the novel by Joanne Harris and directed by Lasse Hallström—a film that also starred Johnny Depp and also Juliette Binoche. I highly recommend the book and the movie. I might have to revisit both soon.)


While Dahl’s story, like others he’s written, has enough of an acerbic edge to delight twenty-first century children, Charlie’s family interactions, by contrast have a sweetness that I appreciate. But the best parts of the book and films are when the extremely bratty kids receive their just desserts at the factory. (Nanny McPhee, a 2005 film written by and starring Emma Thompson and directed by Kirk Jones, is another good film for that. It’s based on the Nurse Matilda stories by Christianna Brand.) Those moments are a catharsis for me.

Nanny McPhee

Yeah, I know. A fairy-tale like story with a happy ending won’t solve all of the world’s ills. But it can make a bad day—or a bad week—a little sweeter. If only real life was just as sweet.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory photos from and Book cover from Goodreads. Nanny McPhee poster from

A Writer’s Process (2b)


We’re back for round 2 of the writer’s process discussion with the marvelous Miriam McNamara. And thanks to Dreamland’s Insurgents, you can hum along to the suggested theme music here. Meanwhile, I’m really wishing I had a bagel right about now.

For those of you just tuning in, this is part two of the discussion, so you might want to refer back to part 1 if you haven’t already done so. You’ll find Miriam’s bio there. And as a reminder, Miriam’s young adult novel is The Unbinding of Mary Reade. Thanks to all of you for your comments. They really mean a lot. Now, on with the discussion.

El Space: Tell us about your main character. How is she like you? Different from you?
Miriam: Mary is raised as a boy—her dead half-brother Mark—in order to scam money out of Mark’s relatively wealthy grandmother. This deception keeps them out of utter poverty, so their lives really depend on Mary pretending to be someone she isn’t from the time she is very young. This shapes her character in a profound way. She yearns to be like other girls, but her upbringing ensures that she is like no one at all.


She’s not a boy, but she’s not a proper girl either. Her desire for the neighbor boy, and eventually for Anne Bonny, push her to explore different identities throughout the novel as she tries to figure out who she is.

I gave Mary my own confusion about who I was when I was a teenager. I also spent many years as a young adult trying on different identities/presentations in my quest to figure out who I was. I’ve also given her the strength of my desire and my imagination; the way she fantasizes and desires authentic love and belonging comes straight from my own heart. And I’ve given her a fluid sexuality like mine; she is attracted to boys and girls. But she’s very different from me, too.

I based some elements of her character on boys and girls I know that struggled even more with gender identity than I have. Her childhood was radically restricted by having to pretend to be a different gender than she knew she was inside, similar to the experience of some transgender and genderqueer people. She falls a lot closer to “boyish” on the gender spectrum than the average eighteenth-century girl, but she still identifies as female—the sex she was born with. She isn’t transgender, but she does fall somewhere that isn’t easily categorized. I love that complexity.

El Space: And the more complex the character, the more compelling the story. Intriguing, Miriam! Okay, we all know about the success of Pirates of the Caribbean. How did the success of this series affect the way you approached your story? Was it more or less difficult to write because of characters like Elizabeth Swann (played by Kiera Knightley) and Captain Jack Sparrow (played by Johnny Depp)? Why?
Miriam: You know, the pirate captain in my story is the very pirate that the character Jack Sparrow is based on. Isn’t that insane?


His name is Jack as well, and I’ve had people tell me that I need to change his name, and make him less flamboyant. But those are two things I just can’t change—that’s who the real Jack Rackham was! I didn’t base my character on the movie character at all—so in my head, at least, Jack Rackham is a very different person than Jack Sparrow.


El Space: Johnny Depp showed such complexity in his performance. He definitely marked this character as his own. How did you shape Jack’s character in your novel?
Miriam: In the first scene that Jack appears in my novel, he makes a very flamboyant entrance—but as the novel progresses, he becomes more and more intricate and human, while I think Jack Sparrow remains that flamboyant, fantastical character throughout the movie series. My story is not fantasy, which POC and most well-known pirate characters are.

El Space: Your Jack sounds colorful and alive in the way of great characters in great fiction. Awesome! To wrap up, any advice for someone about to use a well-known trope in a story?
Miriam: There are reasons that we are attracted to tropes and use them in our stories over and over again. Strong desire and powerful conflict are embedded automatically. For me, I was attracted to pirates in general, and Mary and Anne in particular, but the initial reasons were shallow. Romance! Adventure! I didn’t know what I really wanted to say. But as I started exploring these characters and their world, I realized this story communicated important ideas that I hadn’t read before.

Mary ended up being a unique character that helped me explore my own thoughts on issues that matter a lot to me. I guess that’s the challenge: taking a trope—a ready-made, flat character—and making it into something that can surprise people and make them question the stereotypes they have. If you, the writer, can look beyond the trope and find a unique character, you can force your readers to look more closely at their own assumptions about the world.

Sadly, we’ve come to the end, as all good things do. Thanks again, Miriam, for sharing your process. This has been great! Give it up for Miriam, everyone! If you have questions or comments for Miriam about her process, please comment below.


From LOL Cats

Photo of Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow is from Mary Reade image from Calico Jack image from For more information on Mary Reade, click here and here.