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Kate Forsyth. Giving Fairy Tales a Whole New Meaning.

August 13, 2013

Bitter Greens book cover

Doctorates are hard work, something I currently very aware of. But when you get someone doing a doctorate where she is so passionate about her research, it bubbles over into two historical novels that weave reality and fairy tales together, you get a powerful combination in terms of storytelling. This is what happens with Bitter Greens and The Wild Girl. Kate Forsyth’s interpretation of fairy tales would certainly appear to be carrying on the great tradition of storytelling for a whole new generation.

You’re a prolific writer

I tend to lose track, but it’s about 27 or so books. But that includes picture books and a collection of poetry, as well as small (in words) books for children and large books for adults.

I know that some writers can’t switch from one age group to another, because they’re so strongly identified with writing for one particular age group or genre, but you don’t seem to have this problem.

It might be due to the fact I’m Australian, and we’re given a lot more freedom in Australia than in the US or the UK. It may also be due to the fact that the publishing industry is quite small in Australia, so I know all the publishers. So if one publisher doesn’t want to publish me, another one will.

Generally, if I have an idea for a story and I want to write it, I’ll present it to my existing publisher and if they don’t want it, I’ll take it to someone else. So I’ve never had any problems finding a publisher for my work. I guess the secret is that I’ve always been very reliable and continue producing books in the same genre for my existing publishers. So if I write a story for someone else, my publishers don’t mind as long as I keep on doing what they want me to do. I can do this quite easily, because I always enjoy the things I write.

It would seem that the publishers in Australia work in a slightly different way to those in the Europe or the US, and there is a different market.

There are fewer publishers here and everyone knows each other. Because it’s a small industry and a large population, that gives us a certain freedom, perhaps that you might not get elsewhere. Also I’ve been published now for 17 years and I’ve found that the big dangers for writers are smugness, or complacency and the fact that they get bored with what they’re doing. If authors are forced to keep writing the same thing over and over again, they get bored; and you can see it in the writing. Or they get very complacent and think, ‘Oh I’ve done this before and I can knock another one off really easily and I don’t have to think about it too much.’

If you think that way, then you can tell when that also starts happening to an author.

So always running across genres, age groups, being adventurous, being bold and challenging yourself, leads to a better standard of writing.

Bitter Greens and The Wild Girl are certainly very adult and different type of book to your children’s books. What made you decided to write these two very detailed historical books blended with fairy tales.

One of my favourite genres has always been historical fiction. I’ve always loved to read it and write it. I have written a number of historical fiction books for children, so writing historical fiction for adults is only a jump in size and commitment, but not in genre. My earlier books for adults were also chunky and also research intensive. Again they were historical fantasy and so the difference is that Bitter Greens and The Wild Girl were about real people, in a real place, which of course has its own challenges; but I’ve always loved a challenge.

The Wild Girl book cover

How long did it take to research Bitter Greens and The Wild Girl?

The research was intensive and massive. The research for The Wild Girl led into the research for the other. I’m also doing a doctorate in fairy tale telling, and one of my novels is also the research I had to do for my exegesis (critical analysis or explanation of a text) for my doctorate. So to do the research for all three major projects would have been seven or eight years. I’m not that old to have such a large chunk of my life taken out of it, but I’ve enjoyed every second of it. It was the most marvellous experience and adventure. I love doing research. To me research is reading with a purpose and I love to read, and I love to learn and discover new things. So to be able to read in order to find out what I need to know for these books was wonderful.

What is your doctorate?

I’m doing a doctorate in Creative Arts and so my novel Bitter Greens was written as a creative component of the doctorate, and I now have to write the exegesis. Which is like a long thesis, which examines my subject and also examines my own pedagogic processes. So I’m doing my exegesis on Rapunzel, the history of the story and on modern retellings of the story. It’s an extremely narrow focus, but within that focus I’m looking at the subject very deeply. I tend to think that more you study something, the more fascinating you find it.

With Bitter Greens, particularly, I get a sense of Angela Carter’s presence.

I have been compared to Angela Carter a lot, and I’m very proud to be compared to Angela Carter. That’s because I’m writing for adults and not for children. Most fairy tale retellings tend to be children’s fantasy, but I’m writing historical fantasy for adults, which is a new direction. Angela Carter and Terry Windling have these beautiful, dark, intense fairy tale retellings; ones that are driven by an awareness of the political and feminist re-readings of fairy tales, and are determined not to surrender the haunting beauty of the fairy tale. That is very much the school of thought I hope to be included in.

Originally fairy tales weren’t children’s stories, where they?

It really depends on what school of thought you follow. Fairy tales have their roots in old tales. Old tales were told to children, and to the workers in the field and to the women at the spinning wheel. There were many different audiences for the tales.

The first literary fairy tales were written in the Italian Renaissance. These were written for the ladies and the gentlemen of the court, the nobility. They were clever, witty and bawdy and often quite dark, with a nasty undertone. Then there are the literary fairy tales, written in the seventeenth century at the French court. They too were written for an adult audience. They were quite subversive. Hidden within them were messages about women’s rights and rebellions against the church and state, but so cleverly disguised within the fairy tale that the King and Church would not recognise them.

Even in those days, those literary fairy tales were being retold for children as well, so there’s always been a blurred line, depending on who the intended audience is. Some tales are suitable for children and some suitable for adults, some have been retold so many times that it depends on the teller and their particular audience.

What is also interesting about your novels, is that you have women who are very oppressed, by the society they live in. They have very little ‘elbow room’ for manoeuvre. There would appear to be no magical rescue from this situation. How much work did you have to put into researching the women’s positions in their respective societies?

There was a great deal of work involved in understanding the times. One of the challenges of writing historical fiction is that one has to write what was real and what was believable in those times. Because I’m writing about real women like Charlotte Rose de la Force, was born and lived and died within the society, I would not have been truthful to her if I had lifted out of her milieu. So I had stick to the truth as much as I could, even with being imaginative and playful with that as well. Dortchen Wild was also a real woman. She lived in the German kingdom of Cassel (now Kassel) in the early nineteenth century, and she suffered in those times. I feel I have a duty to those women to be truthful to them, because I feel as if I’m rescuing them from the oubliette of history.

They’ve been forgotten and swept under the carpet. The male fairy tellers of that time are extraordinarily celebrated. They’re household names, and yet the women of their time were extraordinarily forgotten. So I felt that it was my job to bring them to life. So I thought I should be truthful, without sacrificing the shape of the power of the story, so I couldn’t save them.

But I was partly drawn to their stories, because they were, even within those very narrow confines of their society, able to live extraordinary lives and do extraordinary work. That’s what drew me to them in the first place. Although, if they’d ended up dying horribly, I don’t think I would have liked to have written their stories.

They were very strong women within their constraints.

Absolutely. That’s what I feel. I’ve read as many of their stories as I can find. One of the things I love about Dortchen’s stories is that they’re nearly always about a strong and active heroine that has to overcome great difficulties and enormous obstacles. But she does overcome them, because of the beauty of her soul, her wit and her wisdom. These have always been the fairy tales I’ve been drawn to, without knowing what I know now. Many of my favourite fairy tales were Dortchen’s. I never knew there was this young woman who told these fairy stories to Wilhelm Grimm.

Do you feel history puts you in a literary straitjacket, because you’re writing about real people and real events. Did that create problems in terms of how far you could go with the story.

Yes. But it’s a bit like saying that writing a sonnet means that you have to work within the constraints of that form. Part of the beauty, power and the challenge, comes from working within these constraints. When you read a sonnet you can immediately tell the difference between a great sonnet and a poor one. A great poet is the one who works with those constraints and transcends them. For me, yes, the constraints are there, but I would take the known facts and make them the immovable pegs around which I weave my fancy.

You’re in Australia and born in Australia. So you’re immersed in the Australian culture and yet you’re writing about European history. Do you feel you have a cultural connection with European history?

I do, because my own cultural ancestry is from Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland. They were the stories I was brought up on. Apart from that, I think the literature we read as children helps to shape our imaginations to an extraordinary degree. All the books I read as a child were by British authors, except perhaps for Laura Wilder Ingalls. The other thing is that, as Australians, we have enormous freedom, in that I’m drawn to stories set in France, Italy and Germany. I feel I’m a global citizen and that I can use or draw upon anything which chimes with me, or speaks to me. I don’t feel I need to be limited to very narrow cultural, geographical, socioeconomic or religious confines. I feel one of the marvellous things about being a twenty-first century person, is that you can transcend those boundaries that people try to put upon us and we can do whatever we like, as long as we do it respectfully and to the best of our ability.

So I see no reason why I can’t write any story that sings to me. If I want to write from the point of view of a man, I will write from the point of view of a man. If I want to write from the point of view of a cat, I will. If I want to set my books in imaginary worlds, I will. If I want to set them in the cultural milieu of my own ancestry, I will or I will not. So I do feel that we should embrace this enormous freedom and I also think that, putting confines on the imagination only leads to narrow and shallow work. I want to burst all those bounds open and I want to burst them open for all people, all artists, no matter what they’re doing.

Your novels are dense tapestries of all sorts of emotions, ideas and history. They’re not the types of book that can be written very quickly. How did you write them? Do you write straight through, then edit, or do you edit as you go along? Do you use a synopsis?

It’s hard to describe my creative processes in short, but I’ll do my best. First of all I totally immerse myself in the period that I’m working in. I find it difficult to read anything, or watch anything that isn’t going to help me in my job. This meant, for example, with The Wild Girl I read every single book ever published by the Grimm brothers; from the most popular to the most obtuse. I read a great deal on Napoleon and life under Napoleon. I read the writers of the time such as Goethe and the German romantic poets.

I also read Jane Austen, because most people don’t realise that Jane Austen is a contemporary of the Grimm brothers and that Pride and Prejudice, was published 1813, and a matter of months after the first collection of fairy tales. For me Jane Austen is about young women who have to find their voice, and that is what The Wild Girl is for me. It’s a story about a young woman who is trying to find her voice and be able to speak out and overcome the gag that her society and her patriarchal system of her father put upon her. I read Persuasion in particular, which was a touchstone for me in this time. I read all the letters related to The Wild Girl, I read Beethoven’s letters and diaries, the letters of Betina von Arni, who was a contemporary of Dortchen’s and a German poetess and novelist in her own right.

While I’m doing this I start building my stories. I build timelines. I think about possible scenes and possible key events. Because The Wild Girl is told completely from the viewpoint of Dortchen, that made it easier for me.

With Bitter Greens I had three different historical periods with three different women. So I wrote each of those sections as if they were separate novels. I began with Charlotte Rose de la Force, and totally immersed myself in the period of the seventeenth century French court. I read her own book and her own biographical notes and wrote her story from the first word to the last in its entirety.

Then I put it aside and completely immersed myself in the world of Renaissance Venice. I read everything I could find about it, in particular anything to do with day to day life. Then I wrote the sections set in Venice and Lake Garda. The third and final section was then written, which was the middle section, and was told from the viewpoint of the author, and Titian’s muse, Selena. That was easier, because I’d already immersed myself fully in Renaissance Venice, but I had to go back and look at Venetian history, during the key periods of what I had established to be her life.

So it was difficult and challenging, but at the same time totally enthralling and exciting.

Then I interwove the three novels and found the best places to break and move between them. That was a lot of work in itself, but also, by that stage, I had a very strong intuitive sense of the structure of the novel, and so I was able to make those decisions, quite swiftly, easily and joyfully. In fact most of those stories found most of those moments for me and told me where I wanted to go.

You said that the reason your publishers don’t mind you diversifying in your writing is because you are able to consistently keep up writing the books they want. How are you able to do this while writing books like Bitter Greens and The Wild Child?

Bitter Greens took me seven years. I did write other novels in that time. So what I would do is write children’s books, during the day and do my research at night. Because I knew it was a massive job, and I hadn’t really realised when I began, how big it would be. People always ask me, ‘How do you know how much research you have to do?’ and I tell them, ‘It’s like asking how long is a piece of string? You do as much research as you need to do to make the novel the best it can be.’

If that’s going to take you seven years then you just knuckle down and do the work. So the actual writing of Bitter Greens, took two years and the same amount of time, if I had done nothing but research at the same time. But I was researching and planning the story, for quite a few years before then.

People don’t realise just how much time research can take.

I feel that I need to do the research, because I often don’t know what I need until I find it. Yes, someone could do the research for you and bring you a two page report, but they won’t have known what I need, because I don’t know it until I find it. Often I don’t know I need a particular piece of research until months afterwards and I’m getting very annoyed saying, ‘Now where did I leave that?’ So I do try and keep really good notes. Because I’m doing my doctorate, I’m quite good at that so everything I read, I keep notes on and I keep them typed along with information, like the page numbers. If I find something on a website, I make a note of the website address. A lot of my notebooks are full of research that doesn’t end up in the book, but can lead me to the one thing that brings the book, or scene to life, or makes it feel real. And I really don’t know what it is until I’ve found it. I know it’s right because of that surge of excitement through my veins. If I hadn’t done the research, it might have been weeks of research before I found that one thing.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on another children’s book at the moment. It’s a five book children’s fantasy series. Then I plan to return to writing another historical novel; one of Dortchen’s fairy tales. It’s in The Wild Girl. The story’s called ‘The Singing Spinning Lark’. It’s a very beautiful retelling of ‘Beauty and the Beast’, but with a far more interesting heroine and ending. Here’s the clincher, here’s what makes me so excited. I’m retelling the story set in Nazi Germany.

Kate Forsyth

Kate Forsyth

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From → Historical

5 Comments
  1. What a rich and impressive post. I very much like the idea that these books are the result of intense academic research. And how wonderful that Kate can extend her research into the creative field as well. I shall look out for these two books! I am not a fan of fantasy, but traditional fairy tales are wonderful stories, so I hope I will enjoy these too.

  2. Thank you so much for your lovely comment – I’m glad you enjoyed the interview. I do hope you love the books too!

  3. Ashleigh Meikle permalink

    I am looking forward to your next historical fiction book! It sounds great.

  4. Thanks Ashleigh! It’s simmering away in my back brain even now …

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