Interview with Kate Forsyth: Part One

I was recently lucky enough obtain an advance reading copy of Kate Forsyth’s new novel, Bitter Greens, to read during my Christmas break, and was bowled over by its magnificent blend of history, fairytale and sheer storytelling flair. Bitter Greens will be released this month by Random House Australia, and not only has Kate agreed to be our guest on Writer Unboxed for a two part interview, she’s also giving away a copy of the novel to a lucky WU reader. Post a comment on Part One of this interview by April 12 to be in the draw, which is open to readers from any part of the world.

 Kate is an extremely versatile writer, as you’ll see in this interview, and she seems to thrive on challenge. With Bitter Greens she’s done something entirely new. I couldn’t wait to ask Kate about the creative process for this particular project, which combines her scholarly interest in fairy tales with the creative passion of a true storyteller.

To introduce the novel, here’s a quote from Kate’s website

Bitter Greens is an historical novel which intertwines a retelling of the Rapunzel fairytale with the dramatic true life story of the woman who first told the tale – the 17th century French writer Charlotte-Rose de la Force. It moves from the dazzling court of the Sun King in 17th century Paris and Versailles to Venice in the 16th century, and is filled with romance, magic, history and danger.

JM: Kate, congratulations on this wonderful new novel and thanks so much for agreeing to talk to Writer Unboxed. Bitter Greens is one of those books that breaks out of recognised genre moulds – it’s part historical novel, part fairytale, and part serious examination of gender roles, power and cruelty in 16th and17th century France and Italy. I want to start at the very beginning. I know you’ve loved fairytales since childhood. Will you tell WU readers about your first encounter with the Rapunzel story?

KF: I first read the Rapunzel fairytale when I was a young girl in hospital, suffering a series of treatments and operations for a damaged tear duct. I was given a copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and the stories in that little leather-bound book have been my favourite fairytales ever since – among them, of course, Rapunzel. I felt a great affinity with that other young girl, locked away alone in a tower as I was confined alone in my hospital ward. I loved the fact that her tears had the power to heal the Prince’s blindness and wished that my own tears, weeping constantly from the damaged tear duct, would heal mine.

JM: What would you like our readers to know about Bitter Greens?

KF: I began wanting to retell the Rapunzel fairytale, which has fascinated and puzzled me ever since I first read it as a child. I’ve always loved both fairytales and retellings of fairytales, but it seemed to me that most reworkings of the Rapunzel story sidestepped the biggest problems in it. For example, why did the witch want to lock her in a tower. Why was Rapunzel’s hair so impossibly long? Why didn’t Rapunzel ask the prince to bring a rope so she could climb down and escape?

The other big problem with fairytale retellings, I think, is that they can lack surprise and suspense, the two ingredients I consider the most important in creating a compelling narrative. The stories are so well-known that it’s difficult to build suspense, or create switches and reversals, when the reader knows the story so well. Most writers solve this problem by subverting the tale, but this usually fails to surprise as well. I wanted to be faithful to the haunting, beautiful feel of the familiar tale, while still writing a gripping, unputdownable novel.

JM: I understand that at a certain point your publisher took a change of direction about marketing for the novel. Could you tell us about that?

KF: My first published novels were classic heroic fantasy tales, with dragons and sea-serpents and magic weapons and romantic swash-buckling adventures. I loved writing those novels, and they sold very well – in fact, they still sell well, fifteen years after the publication of the first in the series. My first love has always been historical fiction, though, and my later books have tended to be more historical fiction than fantasy. My children’s book, The Gypsy Crown, for example, is set in the last weeks of the reign of Oliver Cromwell, and follows the adventures of two Romany children as they seek to save their family from the gallows. The only supernatural element in the story is the magic that would have been commonly believed in during the mid-17th century – it could just as easily be luck or coincidence.

So my publisher initially thought that my retelling of the Rapunzel fairytale would be a fantasy novel, which is a reasonable enough assumption. Except that my aim was always to write a historical novel, with my action set in real places and real times, and with real people appearing as characters.

My protagonist, Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, was born in 1650 and died in 1724. She was a real woman, and I have been meticulously faithful to the true events of her life. They were so extraordinary that a novelist could scarcely have made up a more dramatic storyline! She was second cousin to the Sun King, Louis XIV, and one of the most active figures in the literary salons of 17th century Paris.

Other historical personages who appear in the novel include Charles Perrault, the playwright Molière, the Venetian artist Tizziano (better known as Titian), and the Florentine fairytale teller Giambattista Basile.

Anyway, once my publisher received the manuscript of Bitter Greens they realised that their early marketing plans were not the right strategy for this book. Although there are magical elements in the book, they are based on the true events and beliefs of 16th century Venice and 17th century France, which means that ‘Bitter Greens’ is really a historical novel.

JM: Charlotte-Rose de la Force makes a fascinating protagonist. Which came first in the gestation of this novel, Rapunzel or Charlotte-Rose?

KF: My first seed of an idea was the desire to write a retelling of Rapunzel. However, I wanted some way to make it seem fresh and surprising, and so I began to look at the historical roots of the tale, to find earlier versions of the story that might help me. At first, thinking it was a Grimm fairy tale,  I toyed  with the idea that it might be told to one of the Grimm brothers , either by Rapunzel or by the witch. It was then I discovered that the Grimm brothers’ source for Rapunzel was literary, not oral, and that the version they retold had first been written by Charlotte-Rose de la Force. I tried to find out more about her, and stumbled on an essay by Terri Windling which recounted a famous anecdote about Charlotte-Rose de la Force – namely, that she had once dressed up as a dancing bear to rescue her much younger lover from imprisonment by his family. I was enchanted by this story. A woman who had so much boldness, so much imagination, so much wit, was my kind of woman! And so began my journey to discover the life of Charlotte-Rose, de la Force, one of the most fascinating women ever forgotten by history.

JM: I loved the complexity of the novel, especially the way you intertwined the stories of three very different women.  Each thread is told in a different voice and each is distinctive in style. Did you plan from the first to structure the book that way? How did you go about putting the three threads together ?

KF: I am a fervent believer in the importance of planning the internal architecture of a story. I think structure is the invisible underpinnings of the narrative, and any book which fails usually does so because of a poor internal structure. So I always think very carefully about how I’m going to build my narrative.

My initial plan was to have the three narrative threads being equal in length, and braided together like a plait, so that the structure of the novel symbolically reflected the key motif of the Rapunzel fairytale, the impossibly long plait.

Usually I write in third person multiple POV, but I felt very strongly that the frame narrative, the story of Charlotte-Rose and how she came to write her fairy tale, should be told in first person. I had never written in first person before, but I really enjoyed it, and I found Charlotte-Rose’s voice came to me strongly right away. I wrote the entirety of Charlotte-Rose’s story, from the beginning to the end, indicating where I thought I would intercut with my other two narrative threads. I then told the story of Margherita (my Rapunzel character) in third person, and in a far more simple style, because this was a tale being told to Charlotte-Rose by another. Once I had finished the whole story, I then wove these two together, making sure I kept a fine balance between the two different tales. Only then did I turn to the third narrative thread, the tale of the witch Selena Leonelli, who is a Venetian courtesan, and muse to the artist Tiziano. Her story was much darker, and seemed to me to have a kind of potency or intensity, that would be dissipated if I broke it up to interweave with the other two tales. It would also mean too much chopping and changing. So I changed my plan, and made the witch’s tale the dark heart of the novel, the unexpected midpoint reversal which changed everything you thought you knew about Charlotte-Rose’s and Margherita’s stories.

JM: There must have been a huge amount of research behind Bitter Greens, though you use your historical material with a storyteller’s light touch – it’s never laid on too heavily. I understand you travelled to France and Italy with your children to do research. Tell us a bit about that.

KF: I did! It was wonderful. I have always taken my children with me on research trips. They’ve been to London, Paris, Venice and Edinburgh, to the Isle of Skye, Sussex, Gascony and Lake Garda. They’re lucky children!

I feel it very important to actually go to the places I describe in my books. A writer doesn’t simply describe a mountain, or a lake, or a castle, or a city street. They need to imbue that scene with some kind of emotional significance. They need to know what the characters would hear, and smell, and feel.

JM: The book is beautifully structured. I particularly loved the Rapunzel poems by various writers that stand at the start of each section.  What do you think it is about this particular fairytale that grabs people’s imagination?

KF: Rapunzel is a tale about love, sex and power. Psychologically speaking, it is normally interpreted as a tale about a young girl on the brink of puberty who is kept locked away from the world by a mother-figure who seeks to protect her. Only by defying her mother, and coming to terms with her own sexuality, is the girl able to grow into maturity. However, like all fairy tales it is open to much deeper interpretations.

Readers, look out for Part Two of my interview with Kate Forsyth here on April 12, when Kate talks about her research for Bitter Greens, tells us about her busy life as a working writer – including her experience running a writers’ retreat in Greece – and gives us a glimpse of her exciting new project.  And don’t forget to comment on today’s instalment to be in the running for a free copy of Bitter Greens, which can be shipped internationally. Also, we’ll tell you where non-Australian readers can purchase a copy.



About Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier has written nineteen novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world, and have won numerous awards. Juliet's new novel, Tower of Thorns, will be published in October/November 2015. Tower of Thorns is the second book in the Blackthorn & Grim series of historical fantasy/mysteries for adult readers. The first Blackthorn & Grim novel, Dreamer's Pool, is available from Roc US and Pan Macmillan Australia.


  1. says

    Bitter Greens sounds fascinating! Great interview! I loved hearing the author talk about creating the structure, and then as she wrote deciding to change it. Look forward to reading the 2nd half.

  2. Jenny says

    Charlotte definitely sounds like my kind of heroine; revolutionary and a complete BAMF. I’m also interested in hearing about Selena Leonelli’s story. Fairytales are a constant source of inspiration for me and I never get tired of new retellings. And I wonder; exactly how did dressing up as a dancing bear help get Charlotte’s love out of jail? ;p. Very interested indeed.

  3. says

    This sounds like a wonderful read, and I’m fascinated by how Kate wrote it — such a complex process. I’m bopping over to add it to my Goodreads list now.

  4. says

    Charlotte-Rose de la Force sounds fascinating, and I am always intrigued by the origins of fairy tales and myths. I agree with Carleen, it was great hearing about Kate’s structure. Her thoughts on fore-planning mirror those of the previous post by Donald Maass. Thanks for a wonderful introduction to Kate, Juliet. Will be back for part two!

  5. says

    Interesting interview! The book sounds amazing~ I love the idea of getting behind the fairy tales, especially Rapunzel. And then to weave in so much actual history! Congratulations on this huge achievement.

  6. says

    Charlotte-Rose de la Force…once dressed up as a dancing bear to rescue her much younger lover from imprisonment by his family.

    She sounds like a true real-life character, and Bitter Greens sounds more than a little intriguing. I love stories that weave tales together. Looking forward to part two of this interview!

  7. says

    Great interview, Kate and Juliet.
    This sounds like a book I’d absolutely love. I’m intrigued by
    how historical and fairytale elements are combined.

    Congratulations and best wishes, Kate!

  8. says

    This is a great interview and sounds like a great book. My current novel also plays with the lines between fantasy and historical and has caused me more than a little trouble in knowing how to pitch it to agents.

  9. says

    Can’t wait for part two, and the book! Searched for Bitter Greens, the book, online, must be a well-guarded secret! But will look over Kate’s other books on Amazon! What a great find! (Hope to know how to buy her Bitter Greens book soon!)

  10. says

    Thank you all for your lovely comments and interest in my book, BITTER GREENS. It is a litle unusual to interweave fairytale and history, but since these are two of my favourites types of tales, I think they work well together. I wish you all the best pitching your work, Marcy! For those of you wondering how to buy BITTER GREENS when its not yet available in the US or the UK, may I suggest – its the Australian and NZ version of Amazon and ships overseas very cheaply. Otherwise, any Australian internet bookstore –, or
    many thanks to Juliet for her thoughtful and insightful questions!

  11. says

    I’m a big fan of fairytales, and all of the stories that spring from them. Especially Rapunzel, which is one of my favourites, in all of its different forms. I can’t wait to read this book!

  12. Kazoua Her says

    This seems like a very good book to read. The title itself already had me hooked as well as the cover. I’ll be looking forward to read this book. ^^

  13. Monica Magann says

    I have a lovely front verandah with a view of a quiet street, a comfortable chair, my ceramic bird of happiness, several types of tea, a quaint teapot and freshly baked biscuits. I would like to warmly welcome Bitter Greens to my neighbourhood! Can’t wait to read!

  14. Belinda says

    A great interview Juliet. I am very much looking forward to reading. Thank you for bring this book / author to our attention.

  15. Jordan Limoli says

    This book sounds very good and I can’t wait to read it! When is it supposed to come out in America?

  16. says

    Two wonderful antipodean writers in conversation–what a treat. Thanks for the insights into Kate’s methods. Now to get my hands on a copy!

  17. Madhura says

    Bitter Greens looks so good! I can’t wait to get my hands on it! Thank you Juliet! :)

  18. Alana says

    Sounds like a great story! I can’t wait to get to a bookshop and start reading

  19. kate says

    I love this concept of historical novel imposed over the fairy tale with a strong female character! What a great interview..I love both you authors’ books and i will look forward to this book showing up in the USA.

  20. says

    Wow! Great interview, Juliet. Congratulations to Kate on yet another fabulous book. ‘Bitter Greens’ sounds like an interesting read. I can’t wait to get a copy, and I’ll be back to read part 2 of this interview.

  21. says

    Wow, that sounds very interesting. I don’t quite understand how the three intermingling storylines work – but they all, individually, sound fascinating! I love historical fiction and fantasy, and love a good fairytale retelling (hence am a huge fan of Juliet Marillier’s tales).
    I found Bitter Greens on, but it’s $49.99 for the paperback – eep! I’m not that rich! But I’ll definitely keep an eye out for it if it’s published in NZ, or if it comes down in price online! :)

    • says

      Dear Ruth
      That does seem very expensive! Its $24.99 on the Dymocks website and $26.99 on Booktopia … BITTER GREENS should be out in NZ though and so readily available. I do hope you love it if you read it!

  22. Liz Dixon says

    Very interesting interview! I wish I could get the book here in the States soon! I am intrigued by the story, especially the weaving of the three women’s point of view. I’ll be keeping my eye out for this one :)

  23. says

    I was completely taken in by Ms. Forsyth’s description of her writing process. Switching to first from third can be tough, but it sounds to me like she took every element into consideration and put together a fascinating and careful narrative. I look forward very much to reading this, hopefully fairly soon!


  24. Constance Garcia-Barrio says

    Several things you said intrigue., including your description of how you wove stories in Bitter Greens. I’ve just finished the upmteenth draft of a novel based on African American history in Philadelphia. In the 1830s, the city had the largest free black population in the U.S., and people who practiced Yoruba, VooDoun, Akan and other West African religions would have lived here. I labored to incorporate Yoruba beliefs and rituals in the story.

    I also note your use of the first person, and I feel heartened by it. My novel has a first person character who pops up, mouths off for a page or so, then disappears until the next time, a half-drunk Greek chorus. I’ll see what comes of it, but you give me hope.


  25. Claire says

    I’ve been looking forward to reading this book ever since I heard about it. Reading this interview makes me want to read it even more :)

  26. Devan says

    That story sounds wonderful! Juliet Marillier’s books have really opened the world of historical fiction/fantasy/fairy tale novels and I am always on the look out for new one to read (and reread!). I cannot wait until I can get a copy of this book. :P

  27. sue knight says

    Count me in!
    This is the second review I have read (the other being by Aussie writer Karen R Brooks ) and it echoes the first review.
    I am a fan of historical fantasy as a genre as I am a humanities teacher and this book will tick all those boxes. Students are more willing to become life long readers if they can be enticed with a little bit of accurate history meandering through and action packed novel.
    I am heartened by her willingness to create strong feminine role models in an age where we think the opposite is the norm.
    Juliet leading the interview was the icing on the cake for me. Her books are equally as enthralling and woven with complexity and a yearning for the olde days.
    I cant wait for part 2 and will be expectantly awaiting this book. Well done everyone.

  28. Sarah says

    This was a wonderful and insightful interview to read! Getting to know the author and the way he or she works to bring a novel to life really excites one into wanting to read that novel. ^_^ Even if I do not win the giveaway, I will make sure to get my hands on a copy of Bitter Greens so that I don’t miss out on such a thrilling sounding retelling of the precious Rapunzel tale!

  29. Vanessa says

    I enjoy fairytales and historical fantasy so I look forward to reading this book. An interesting interview and I will be back to read part 2! :)

  30. Sarah-Jane says

    Any story that evolves from a favoured childhood fairytale is definitely worth adding to the reading list! Recommendationsalways appreciated :-)

  31. Anna Campbell says

    I can’t wait for Bitter Greens to be released! I’m a huge fan of Kate Forsyths work, as is my daughter. Kate’s books are right next to Juliet’s on my bookshelf, what a pair! Looking forward to reading part two of this interview. :)

  32. Kristina says

    I love both of these authors, and the new book sounds intriguing. I’ll be back to read part two.

  33. says

    Wow, after reading this I I find myself newly fascinated with the Rapunzel story. I just did a little surfing online and found the original story (Persinette) much more interesting than the familiar Grimm/Disney version! I can’t wait to learn more, thank you!

  34. says

    “My initial plan was to have the three narrative threads being equal in length, and braided together like a plait, so that the structure of the novel symbolically reflected the key motif of the Rapunzel fairytale, the impossibly long plait.”

    Kate, between this and the tear-duct affinity for your character, I’m fascinated. You sound almost like a Pinkola Estes of the fictional world. Wonderful.

    Great interview, too, Juliet. I can see exactly why you felt compelled to do it. :)

  35. says

    This interview was fascinating! I’ve been a fan of Kate’s books for years and I’m stoked to read this new book!! She is absolutely my favorite author and she inspires me to take risks in my life. Every time I feel defeated I read her Witches of Eileanan series and suddenly I feel like I can do anything!

    Rapunzel has been one of my favorite stories for years and I even make art inspired by it! I’m excited to see Kate’s take on the tale since she’s always so creative and thoughtful.

    So excited!!!

    xo, Alicia

  36. says

    I’ve been wanting to check out Bitter Greens ever since I first say the gorgeous cover. Add in a fairy tale retelling, a lively, imaginative heroine, and a fascinating period in history, and this is my kind of book. I love hearing how other writers are inspired and how they choose the directions to take their stories. A fascinating interview!

  37. says

    Thank you again to everyone for their lovely comments and to Juliet for posting – I do hope that anyone who reads BITTER GREENS is utterly enchanted & enthralled :)

  38. Xiang Xiang Liew says

    This sounds like a fantastic book! I was drawn in immediately by the title and premise, and the more I read about it, the more I want to read it! The character of Charlotte-Rose sounds utterly fascinating. It seriously needs to be brought over to the US ASAP.

  39. says

    fantastic interview. thanks jan and kate.
    Bitter Greens sounds absolutely fascinating,
    and i’m especially impressed by the multiple
    narrations woven together. that is challenging
    indeed! congrats on this novel release, kate!

  40. Diane Watanabe says

    This sounds like a wonderful book to read and I will keep my eye out for it. I was intrigued about how you went about interweaving the different POVs. My novel deals with 4 POVs and a possible 5th and I’m struggling with the transitions. It never occurred to me to write each story separately and then determine how best to weave them together. Congratulations on the novel and thank you for the tip!

  41. Sonny says

    Thanks for the insight on plotting; you make it sound easy, like painting a house – apply a stroke here, a splash there! Looking forward to Part 2.

  42. Chandra says

    I absolutely love fairy tales, and historical fiction and this sounds like a must-read for me. If I don’t get picked for the copy I need to figure out if I can buy it somehow. Is there any reason it wouldn’t be available in the states?

  43. says

    I just added this to my Goodreads list! Can’t wait to read. Thanks for telling us all about it! Authors can reveal so much about their novels beyond the pages of the story. Interviews like this inspire me to keep writing! :)

  44. Sarah Short says

    This sounds like a really great read, and I would love to win the free copy! (Especially since I just checked Amazon and several other U.S. sites, and I don’t see where it’s going to be available here, at least in the immediate future.)

  45. Sharon Farrell says

    This sounds like a wonderful reworking of the Rapunzel fairy tale. I hope that Kate negotiates South African rights soon, as I would love to read Bitter Greens.



  1. […] Juliet Marillier interviews Kate Forsyth about Kate’s new Rapunzel retelling Bitter Greens: ”I first read the Rapunzel fairytale when I was a young girl in hospital, suffering a series of treatments and operations for a damaged tear duct. I was given a copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and the stories in that little leather-bound book have been my favourite fairytales ever since – among them, of course, Rapunzel. I felt a great affinity with that other young girl, locked away alone in a tower as I was confined alone in my hospital ward. I loved the fact that her tears had the power to heal the Prince’s blindness and wished that my own tears, weeping constantly from the damaged tear duct, would heal mine.” (Stay tuned tomorrow for a guest post from Kate!) […]