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.