Elisabeth de Mariaffi explores the dark fairy tales of her childhood in her novel Hysteria

Elisabeth de Mariaffi on her new thriller, which combines the dark side of fairy tales with the dark side of the American Dream in the 1950s.
Elisabeth de Mariaffi is the author of thriller novel Hysteria. (Ayelet Tsabari/HarperCollins Canada)

"All the best stories start with a girl alone in the woods." That's a line from Hysteria, Elisabeth de Mariaffi's latest novel. Fairy tales and fear go hand in hand and de Mariaffi pulls the reader in with that unsettling combination in this page-turner of a book.

It's 1945, when the story begins, and the main character Heike is a young girl on the run in the forests of Germany. The story then jumps forward 12 years. Heike is now a wife and mother and the family is enjoying an idyllic summer in Upstate New York, but odd and ominous things start to happen.

Twisted fairy tales

"My family background is Hungarian, but my mother's family grew up right on the border of Austria, so I grew up with fairy tales — not those Disney-fied ones we are more accustomed to now, but some very dark versions of grim tales that also work as allegories and warnings. Those old stories are settled so deeply within us. We know them on an intuitive level, but when I came to writing Hysteria, one of the things I was thinking about was how often we read dystopias.

"I thought, 'When was the last time we really thought about utopias?' As somebody who was born in the 1970s and largely grew up in the 1980s, with the influence of pop culture at that time, I thought the 1950s were held up as this beautiful idyllic time and of course, that's not true. It was a deeply unequal time and as soon as you place a character back in time, you have no choice but to confront that head-on. That fairytale of America in the 1950s began to interest me in terms of the comparison with fairy tales of my own childhood from Europe and everything else that was going on in the 1950s narratively, which is why I became really interested in Twilight Zone, which were largely allegorical tales created for 1950s America."

On the role of women

"At the end of the war, women, who had been in the workplace in a variety of ways, were told: 'This is amazing. Now you get to go back into the home,' when studies from that time showed that 80 per cent of women were not interested in going back to the home. They liked what they were doing. We often think about Rosie the Riveter, but we don't think about Rosie the Engineer, Rosie the Chemist and Rosie the Journalist.

"In that prologue, which takes place in 1945, we see Heike as a 15-year-old girl trying to escape a war zone and she's on her own, so there is a piece there about the trauma of war, but there is also a piece there that is about Heike having this very independent, wild adventure in her adolescence. We learn that in the ensuing years, between then and when she comes to America, is that she's had a very independent life doing a lot of things that women weren't traditionally allowed to do. I was just really interested to see that contrast and the friction it would create, to then find her in 1956 in a very well-kept property, in a very old-money part of the States."

On fear

"'What frightens you?' is one of those deeply intimate questions. It's the sort of question that no one ever really wants to be asked. It is at the core of everything, in terms of your own sense of self, in your powers and ability to move through the world. That's the thing you can give away that will do you in. It is your most true self. When we talk about what frightens us, we go back to our child self. It's wrapped up in memory and you can see why it becomes important to this book."

Elisabeth de Mariaffi's comment's have been edited and condensed.