Last week I talked to Australian author Kate Forsyth about her new novel, Bitter Greens, which is being released this month by Random House Australia. This week Kate discusses the novel further, talks about her life as a working writer, and gives us an intriguing preview of her new project.
JM: I know Bitter Greens was written as part of your work on a doctorate in fairy tale retellings at the University of Technology in Sydney. How different was this experience from writing your earlier adult novels? Did the academic side of things put any constraints on the way you created the book? Was your process different?
KF: I thought, when I first began to conceive and develop the idea of doing a retelling of Rapunzel, that it would make a fascinating doctoral project. Bitter Greens was a very research-intensive book to write, and it seemed a good way to maximise all those long hours reading through scholarly fairy tale articles. I had actually written a novel before under university supervision – my novel Full Fathom Five was written as my thesis for my Master of Arts in Writing. (Although I wrote it in my 20s, it was my eighth published novel).
I do not feel my doctorate put any constraints on me in a creative sense. My supervisor, the novelist Debra Adelaide, was more concerned in helping me find the voice of my protagonist, and to help me learn to be a better writer. I am always eager to learn, and so I was grateful to her for her close scrutiny of my work. I’m not used to showing my early drafts to anyone and so I did find that difficult, but she was very tactful.
I actually love writing articles and essays as well as poems and novels, and so I’ve been enjoying the theoretical aspect of the doctorate as well. I like to know everything I possibly can about a time or a place or a person or a subject before I write about it, and so I would have studied just as intensively for the novel as I am now doing for my exegesis. I am writing about the many different retellings of Rapunzel, from the earliest Maiden in the Tower tales right down to Disney’s ‘Tangled’ and the use of Rapunzel motifs in advertising and popular culture. It’s fascinating.
In April, I am giving the keynote speech at a conference on Folklore & Fantasy at the University of Chichester, in Sussex, England. I’ll be talking about how deeply the roots of fantasy fiction run into our past, into the archetypal stories of myth, legend, fairy tale and folklore. This is something I find absolutely fascinating, and so I’m looking forward to it!
JM: Some passages of Bitter Greens must have been exceptionally challenging to write. I’m referring in particular to scenes of sexual violence, part of your realistic depiction of the society those women lived in. I found parts of the book extremely disturbing to read. What were your reasons for choosing to present this material so openly?
KF: It is true a few scenes were exceptionally difficult to write. I had to get up and leave the computer, and come back to it, only to flee again. Yet it felt important to me, both psychologically in the development of an understanding of what drove Selena to do what she did, and historically, to illuminate what life was like for women of that era. One of the things that most fascinated and disturbed me about the Rapunzel tale is that it is a woman who imprisons another woman. Why? What led her to do such a terrible thing? Most retellings of Rapunzel never truly examine this, and yet it was one of the questions that first spurred me to explore the tale.
Although it was so awful to write, it seemed to have a ring of truth about it.
JM: When you were first considering writing this, you said it would be ‘a dark gothic retelling of a dark gothic fairytale.’ It’s certainly a gritty and challenging story, revealing among other things the unsavoury reality behind the frothy and glamorous French court. Do you think most fairytales have that shadow about them, the darkness beneath the charming surface?
KF: I do indeed. It is one of the things that most intrigues me about fairytales. I love the haunting beauty of them, the magical strangeness, the joyous triumph over adversity. Yet I am also drawn by the darkness of them, the sense of a cost to be paid for that joy.
JM: I’m thinking of another confronting fairytale-based novel, Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan, which is as dark as they come in its treatment of Snow White and Rose Red. What do you think of Margo’s work?
KF: I love Margo’s work. Her writing is like fireworks, dazzling, illuminating, yet with a whiff of gunpowder about them. I must admit that I found some of the scenes in Tender Morsels confronting and difficult, yet it is the work of a novelist to confront and trouble, just as much as it is to enchant and console.
JM: You’re an extremely versatile writer, with a body of published work including award-winning novels for children and young adults, two best-selling fantasy series for adult readers, collections of poetry and an earlier literary novel. What drives you to keep challenging yourself as a writer?
KF: I always think that the great dangers for any creative artist are smugness and predictability. Market pressures mean that writers are constantly being asked for more of the same, yet it is very difficult to keep writing the same storyline, with the same characters, and not start to feel stale and monotonous.
I always want to write better than I have before, to keep pushing myself to create something fresh and unusual and exciting. I want my readers to know they will find a vivid, compelling, surprising and emotionally moving story every time they sit down with one of my books. It’s easier to win new readers than it is to win back dissatisfied readers.
Of course, every time someone loves one of my books, they write to me begging me to write a sequel, or another just like it. I always tell them that I hope they’ll read my other books too, and love them just as much.
JM: Your website reveals that you are an extremely busy working writer. You seem to fit in numerous workshops, school visits, appearances at writers’ festivals and so on, and you always have a new writing project on the go. Not to speak of being a mother of three school age children. How do you maintain the energy?
KF: Sometimes I’m not sure myself! I do keep a lot of balls in the air, and sometimes I trip and fall flat on my face and all the balls crash down around me. However, I love what I do passionately. I feel writing is not so much a career as a vocation for me, and I would not be happy unless I was exerting all my energy on making sure I keep being able to do what I love. I try and make sure that my obsession with my work doesn’t impact too much on my husband and my family, but inevitably it does at times. Luckily they love me and know I love them, and so forgive me.
JM: There are some pretty exciting things on your CV, including tutoring at a writer’s retreat in Greece. How was that experience?
KF: I did indeed run a writer’s retreat in Greece a few years ago, on the island of Skyros. In fact, I did the early planning for Bitter Greens while I was there. I love teaching, and a writer’s retreat is always a very intense experience. Usually most, if not all, of the participants will have had some kind of major creative breakthrough by the end of the week, often accompanied by tears and confessions. Friendships are formed which often endure, and I’ve even seen romantic relationships develop too! My aim in running a writer’s retreat is always to make it a peak experience for those who are there. I like to help people to learn to play, to be bold, to be unconventional, to have fun – all while taking the learning of the craft very seriously.
JM: I understand you’re already well into a new project, a novel about Dortchen Wild, the Grimm Brothers’ ‘girl next door.’ And it includes a retelling of a Grimm fairytale. Can you tell us about the new novel?
KF: Oh, yes, I’m completely obsessed with Dortchen Wild now, just like I was completely obsessed with Charlotte-Rose de la Force last year. I think I’m drawn to the forgotten, cobwebbed corners of history, particularly when it relates to extraordinary, neglected women.
Dortchen Wild was twelve when she met the Grimm Brothers. She lived next door to them, above her father’s apothecary shop, and was the source of some of their most compelling and unusual stories. She told Wilhelm Grimm’s Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel and Gretel, The Frog King, Six Swans (a favourite of mine as you well know, Juliet!) and The Singing Bone (about a murdered boy whose bones are used to make a harp that then sings to accuse his murderers). She told a very gruesome version of Bluebeard called Fitcher’s Bird, the primary difference being that the heroine saves herself and her sisters, and a very beautiful version of Beauty and the Beast called The Springing, Singing Lark. A key tale of hers was Allerleirauh or All Kinds of Fur, better known as Deerskin or Catskin, about a princess whose father wants to marry her.
I’m interweaving the beautiful and rather tragic story of Dortchen and Wilhelm’s love affair with her tales, drawing upon All-Kinds-of-Fur in particular (Dortchen’s father was a very stern and strict man who forbade her to see her one true love, and who may indeed have abused her).
JM: Sounds wonderful! Kate, thank you for this insight into your work. I wish Bitter Greens a future of great reviews and brilliant sales (at the time of writing this, it’s already received some stellar reviews.) I know there’s a possibility of American and English editions at some time in the future, but for now, where can readers outside Australia purchase the book?
KF: The best place for overseas buyers is through www.fishpond.com.au, which has very reasonable prices and cheap shipping.