Wednesday 29 April 2015

Interview with Kate Forsyth - Gillian Polack

Today's guest is Australian author Kate Forsyth. Gillian Polack took the opportunity to ask her some questions that she's wanted to ask for quite a while.

I met Australian author Kate Forsyth back in 1999. There are a couple of questions I want to ask her. They’ve been lurking, all this time.

Normally, when I interview someone, I have a pile of linked questions and I weave through them more or less elegantly. In your case, Kate, I just want to know everything, instantly, and I’ve given up on elegance. I had to rewrite the questions, in fact, so they weren’t all “Tell me now!”

Kate, to get us started, would you tell us about yourself and your fiction?

I've always known I wanted to be a writer. Even as a small child, I was always writing poems and stories and telling people it was what I wanted to do when I grew up. I wrote my first novel when I was only seven, and have never had a day since when I wasn't writing something (even if its only my diary that I've kept since I was twelve). I am passionately interested in history and folklore and fairy tales, and they weave their way into all of my work, whether I am writing poems or essays or novels. My first poem was published (in the school magazine) when I was eleven and my first novel was published when I was thirty (it was the first in a heroic fantasy series set in a magical world very much like seventeenth century Scotland). I am now the proud author of thirty-six books ranging from picture books to poetry to epic historical sagas for adults. My best-known book is BITTER GREENS, which is a retelling of Rapunzel in a Renaissance Venice setting, interwoven with the dramatic true life story of the woman who first wrote the tale, the 17th century French noblewoman Charlotte-Rose de la Force who had been banished to a convent after a series of scandalous affairs. The book won the American Library Association Award for Best Historical Novel of 2015, and has also just been voted one of Australia's Best 101 Books. I then wrote THE WILD GIRL, which tells the story of the forbidden romance between Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told him many of the world's most favourite fairy tales, against the heart-rending backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. It was voted the Most Memorable Love Story of the year by Australian readers, a wonderful endorsement! It is just about to come out in the US and is already getting some wonderful reviews.

I've also just finished writing a five-book fantasy adventure series for children called THE IMPOSSIBLE QUEST, and am in the final stages of another historical novel for adults called THE BEAST'S GARDEN, which is a retelling of the Grimms' Beauty & the Beast, set in Nazi Germany. So you can see I really do spend most of my time writing!

I’m fascinated by your fascination with fairy tales. Bitter Greens and The Wild Girl instantly come to mind when I think of this, but your work has had an element of fairy and folk since your very first novel, hasn’t it?

Yes, indeed. My early fantasy books all have a strong element of fairy tale and folklore woven through them, from motifs of cursed towers overgrown with roses to girls who change into owls or wolves. And DANCING ON KNIVES (which is the first novel I wrote as an adult but was not published until a few years later) draws upon The Little Mermaid fairy tale even though it has a contemporary Australian setting.

It all began, I think, because I spent a lot of time in hospital as a child after being savaged by a dog when I was just two years old. There was not much to do in hospital in those days except read, and so I read a great deal. I think I was particularly drawn to tales of magic, adventure and escape because my own life was so constrained by illness and the fear of illness. My mother gave me a beautiful red leather-bound copy of Grimms' Fairy tales when I was about seven, and I read the book so many times it fell to pieces. Those wonderful, frightening stories wove themselves into my imagination and have continued to fascinate me ever since.

My greatest interest is that you don’t simply take the tales and re-tell, you find their cultural and historical contexts and weave them into the tales. Would you tell us more about your relationship with fairy tales and folk tales?

I love fairy tale retellings. Growing up I devoured the work of writers such as Eleanor Farjeon, Nicholas Stuart Gray and - a little later, Robin McKinley - who wrote what I call 'pure' retellings - ones set in a fairy-tale-like setting with plots that closely follow the best-known variant of a tale, which is usually the Grimm Brothers'. Such 'pure' retellings have become very popular and we have seen work by such writers as Gail Carson Levine, Shannon Hale, Jessica Day George, and Edith Pattou, who have all written fairy tale fantasies for a young adult market. Then we began to see such fairy-tale-inspired fiction for adult readers, by writers like Juliet Marillier and Margo Lanagan and Jane Yolen, who have taken old stories and reworked them in marvellously new and innovative ways. And I loved their work as well.

I have also always loved historical fiction - its my favourite genre of all. Growing up, I read Rosemary Sutcliff and Geoffrey Trease and Leon Garfield, and now I read as much historical fiction and non-fiction as I can. I think it was because I loved history so much that I first got the idea of re-writing 'Rapunzel' as a historical novel, rather than as a fantasy. Or perhaps it was because I come from an academic family (my father was a scientist and my mother studied psychology & anthropology) and so I was raised to question everything and to dig deeper, to look for facts rather than hearsay. And because I am an oral storyteller as well as an author, I was always going to be interested in who told the tale. All of these obsessions - history, psychology, folklore, storytelling - led me to want to know as much as I could about the background of the tale and the tale's tellers. I ended up doing my doctorate on 'Rapunzel' - since I was doing so much research I thought I might as well use it! - and along the way discovered the extraordinary life of an all-but-forgotten 17th century fairy tale teller. Bringing Charlotte-Rose de la Force's story to life meant trying to understand the milieu in which she lived, and so I was also researching the life and times of her cousin, Louis XIV, the Sun King, and the world of the royal court at Versailles.

In all, it took me seven years to research and write BITTER GREENS and to finish my doctorate. And my later fairy-tale-inspired-historical novels, THE WILD GIRL and the upcoming THE BEAST'S GARDEN, both arose out of discoveries I made during those years of research.

THE WILD GIRL in particular was a challenge, because very little was known about Dortchen Wild, who told a quarter of all the tales collected by the Grimm brothers and published in their first edition of fairy tales. Like so many women of her time, she left very little behind her in the way of letters, diaries, stories and other writings, and I had to use the stories she told Wilhelm as a template for her inner life. It was a truly fascinating process!

Now, of course, you’ve done a doctorate on fairy tales. How does it fit with your earlier work? Has it changed your writing and the tales you want to tell?

As we discussed earlier, I have always been interested in fairy tales and folklore, and so undertaking a doctorate in that area has only fed my obsession. During the time I was doing my doctorate, I also studied oral storytelling and am now an accredited master storyteller with the Australian Guild of Storytellers. So these two interests of mine have continued to lead me deeper onto the dark, tangled woods of fairy tale studies. I cannot tell you if it has changed my writing, though I can see a difference in style to the books I wrote in my 20s and the ones I am now writing in my 40s. I think that is a natural growth and progression.

For the moment, I am bubbling over with ideas for new books that combine historical fiction with fairy tale retellings in new and innovative ways. One that I am just beginning to play with is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty set amongst the love affairs and scandals of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. I am coming to the UK in June to run a writing retreat in the Cotswolds and plan to spend my spare time gazing at paintings and prowling around At and Crafts houses. It's very exciting!

You also have an interest in history. Is it the pull of a period or place? Is it an interest in research and the past? Is it the need to delve into the background of the story and to ground it in something our culture knows? Why history? Which history? Whose history?

It's all these things! And yet, each book is a little different too. Setting is very important to me, and so I am drawn to certain times and places, such as Renaissance Venice or Paris and Versailles in the time of the Sun King, which were the settings of BITTER GREENS. Yet I was not at all interested in the Holy Roman Empire of German Nations during the Napoleonic Wars ... it was the untold love story Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild that drew me to that time and place and I had to do a great deal of research before I could even begin to understand it and bring it to life in THE WILD GIRL. I was always deeply fascinated by the Second World War, and in stories of heroism and resistance during that dark time, and had always wanted to set a book then. Somehow my subconscious mind put that wish together with the desire to retell Beauty and the Beast, and came up with something truly surprising and unexpected.

I am also very interested in art and poetry and music and so these things work their way into my fiction. The Venetian artist Titian was a key character in BITTER GREENS. In THE WILD GIRL, I grew very interested in the German Romantic poet Novalis and also listened to a great deal of Beethoven. And I've always loved the Pre-Raphaelites and their art, and so this new book is born out of a desire to know more about them ... and also to rescue the all-but-forgotten Victorian fairy tale teller, Mary de Morgan, who was a shadowy figure on the edge of their bright circle,

Many of my books are about untold stories ... and forgotten women ... and the redemptive power of storytelling in its many different forms. Why I am drawn to telling these stories? I don't know. Mystery is at the heart of all creation. I suspect it has something to do with a fear of being forgotten myself ... which is in itself a fear of death. I just know that these stories come to possess me, and that I cannot rest until I have brought them to life, in the most beautiful and meaningful way that I can.

Speaking of history, would you tell us something about your work as the patron of the Historical Novel Society of Australasia?

It would be my pleasure. About twenty years ago, when I was a young woman who desperately wanted to be a writer, it was hard to find the kind of books I wanted to read. I felt very alone in my passionate love for historical fiction, and would search the bookshop shelves for anything I could find that had a historical or quasi-historical setting. Some years later, I wrote my first historical novel (THE GYPSY CROWN, a children's adventure story about two Romany children during the final weeks of Oliver Cromwell's life.) I heard that there was a Historical Novel Society, which published magazines of book reviews and held an annual conference somewhere in the world. I was tremendously excited and joined up straightaway. I poured over their magazines and highlighted books I wanted to read, then hunted them down over the internet. When my novel THE PUZZLE RING was published (a children's time travel story about a twelve year old girl who goes back in time to the days of Mary, Queen of Scots), I used my a good portion of my US advance to go to my first-ever HNS conference in Chicago. It was so wonderful! I made so many friends and I learnt so much. If I could, I would go every year - but its hard for me to be away from my little family too often and it can be very expensive. I wished that we could have a conference here in Australia. Other Australian writers and readers wished the same thing. And a few stalwart souls did something about it (Chris Foley, Elisabeth Storrs, Wendy Jean Dunn, Diane Murray, and Greg Johnstone) and put together an absolutely brilliant weekend event in late March. My job as patron was to spread the word as best I could, make a rather alarming amount of speeches, and turn up and smile. Which I was very happy to do. It was a resounding success, and the next conference is already being planned for Melbourne in 2017. Any English historical fiction who have ever dreamed of visiting Australia may want to plan about it (A Tip: Australian readers are big book buyers!)

Kate Forsyth wrote her first novel at seven, and is now the award-winning & internationally bestselling author of 36 books. Recently voted one of Australia's Favourite 20 Novelists, Kate has a doctorate in fairy tale studies and is an accredited master storyteller. Her adult books include The Wild Girl, the story of the forbidden romance behind the Grimm Brothers’ famous fairy tales, and Bitter Greens, called ‘the best fairy tale retelling since Angela Carter’. It won the 2015 ALA Prize for Best Historical Fiction and came in at No 27 in Dymocks 2015 list of Australia’s Top 101 Books. Kate’s children’s novels include The Impossible Quest, The Puzzle Ring and award-winning The Gypsy Crown. Kate is a direct descendant of Charlotte Waring Atkinson, the author of the first book for children ever published in Australia Read more at


Susan Price said...

Thanks for this, both of you. I've only read Bitter Greens, but I loved it, and admired tremendously the way the fairy-tale was linked with history.

I, too, am a lifelong lover of fairy-tales, and it's a pleasure to discover Kate Forsyth's books.

Sue Purkiss said...

This made fascinating reading, and I shall certainly seek out Kate's novels now.