Today, I have a highly anticipated interview with Australian author Kate Forsyth, who recently published her book Bitter Greens in Australia and the United Kingdom. It’s available online to everyone as well and all readers who love fairy tale re-tellings as much as I do will want to take a look at this book.
Forsyth’s fantastical novel gives us a fictionalized view into Charlotte Rose de la Force, one of the first writers to adapt Rapunzel (before it was even called Rapunzel) in the 17th century, as well as the crafting of her own fractured version of the beloved tale. In our interview, we talk about her writing process, her most loved fairy tales, and the animals of Australia!
Erin: Hi Kate, it’s so nice to have you on my site. A fellow writer and daydreamer, I am so impressed by you and happy to speak with you.
Kate: It’s lovely to be here, Erin – thank you so much for having me.
Erin: I am anxious to ask you some questions, so let’s get started on our walk…..
Q: What is the first thing you’d love everyone to know about you?
A: I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember and spent my childhood daydreaming, making up stories, and playing imaginary games. My grown up life as an author seems a natural extension of that dreamy little girl’s life.
Erin comments: I know that dream well, with many days of childhood spent under a tree with a notebook. But dreams really can come true!
Q: I see you are a reader of fantasy, caught up in the daydreams of life, much as I am. What propels you to exit the real world and into the world of the unknown?
A: I’ve always loved reading books that are filled with history and suspense and romance and magic, and so it feels very natural to me to write those kind of stories now. I love writing more than anything else in the world (apart from my family, of course!), and so I am at my happiest when absorbed in the imaginary worlds of my own creating.
Q: When did you start writing? What do you love to write about?
A: I’ve been writing stories ever since I was old enough to hold a pencil, and wrote my first novel when I was seven. I’ve been working on one story or another ever since then. Most of my books draw on history, myth, fairy tale and folklore for their inspiration – I also love books that have a puzzle or a mystery of some sort at their heart, and so this is also of many of my books.
Q: I am a lover of words and also write poetry, what inspires you most when writing poetry? For me, it’s nature.
A: For me, its feelings. I often write poetry when I’m feeling things intensely – grief, or love, or joy. I wrote a very heartfelt poem when I was pregnant with my third child, my daughter, and another when my grandmother died, for example.
Erin comments: Of course, feelings are the whole reason for poetry. They’re a mode of expression.
Q: I read you are obtaining a degree in Fairy Tales? What an amazing time that must be. What do you study? What is your focus?
A: I love it! I’m in the final year of a Doctorate of Creative Arts, focusing on the history and meaning of the Rapunzel fairy tale. It’s been an utterly fascinating exploration into fairy tales in general, and the Maiden in the Tower tales in particular. Rapunzel has fascinated me since I was a child and I spent a long time researching the tale’s background while I was planning my novel ‘Bitter Greens’, which retells it as a historical novel set in 16th century Venice and 17th century Paris.
Erin comments: Absolutely fascinating!
Q: Is your novel, Bitter Greens, a part of your educational process?
A: Yes, I wrote ‘Bitter Greens’ as the creative component of my doctorate, and I am now working on a critical examination of Rapunzel as the theoretical component. I have always wanted to write a retelling of Rapunzel – from at least the age of twelve – and it seemed to me a perfect project for a doctorate.
Q: Why do you feel that there has been a resurgence of the old fairy tales? I’ve always loved them, but it seems you find everything related anymore appearing as a trend. Do they have lasting quality?
A: I think fairy tales have a universal appeal – we all remember them from our own childhood and then we pass them on to our own children to read, which means the tales survive. Fairy tales are like a manual for life, told in metaphoric code, teaching us that – if we are good and kind and brave and true enough – we can change our lives for the better. This is an important lesson for us all.
Erin comments: With all the advances made, stories still seem to be a thread that binds us.
Q: What are your favorite fairy tales of all time?
A: My favourite fairy tales are Rapunzel, Six Swans, Sleeping Beauty, the Beauty and the Beast, and The Snow Queen. But I love nearly all of them, really.
Q: Do you have any favorite adaptations of some best-loved stories?
A: Oh yes! I love Juliet Marillier’s retelling of ‘Six Swans’, called ‘Daughter of the Forest’’, and her novel ‘Heart’s Blood’ which retells ‘Beauty and the Beast’. I also love Robin McKinley’s retellings of the same tale, ‘Beauty’ and ‘Rose Daughter’ (she retold the same tale twice), plus her novel ‘Deerskin’, a retelling of the incest tale usually known as ‘Donkeyskin’ or ‘Thousandfurs’. Edith Patou’s retelling of ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’ is brilliant too – I think it was published in the US as ‘East’ and in the UK as ‘North Child’. I also loved ‘A Curse as Dark as Gold’ by Elizabeth C. Bunce, a very clever retelling of ‘Rumplstiltskin. I’ve also enjoyed books by Margo Lanagan, Sophie Masson, Shannon Hale, Jessica Day George and Gail Carson Levine.
Q: What are your other books about? Would you like to talk a little about the things you write?
A: Half of my books are for adults and half are for children, and I really love writing for both markets. I’ve spent the last year or so working on a novel called ‘The Wild Girl’ which tells the little-known love story between Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told him many of the famous brothers’ most compelling fairy tales, against the turbulent background of the Napoleonic Wars. One of my children’s books is ‘ The Puzzle Ring’ which tells the story of a 13-year-old girl who must go back in time to the dangerous days of Mary, Queen of Scots, to find a broken puzzle ring so she may break a curse upon her family. My children and I travelled all around Scotland researching that one, and stayed in a haunted tower and an old monastery. It was wonderful. Another book I loved writing was ‘The Gypsy Crown’ about two Romany children and their adventures in the last days of the English Civil War. They have a whole menagerie of animals – a monkey, a horse, a dog, and a dancing bear – and face all kinds of dangers, including highwaymen, smugglers, witches, and a cruel thief-taker.
Q: I imagine it’s fun writing for children. I know I love to read with my three. My youngest daughter, age 5, has a love affair with fairy tales, predominately Rapunzel. We’ve read every adaptation we can get our hands on and she loved to point out to me the differences in each one. What do you love about writing children’s books?
A: I love the joyousness of the story, and the freedom it gives me to invent and imagine and play. I love writing adult books too, but they are generally much longer and much darker. It’s a refreshing change to do something smaller and brighter, in between the larger, more research intensive novels.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from your work?
A: Utter satisfaction, and an urgent need to read every other book I’ve ever written.
Q: Do you have any processes for writing? For instance, do you use an outline or just free write?
A: I always plan my novels – I like to be able to ‘see’ my whole novel before I begin to write. I will usually spend a long time daydreaming about the book and imagining it to life before I begin to write. My plan is usually sketched out quite roughly in my notebook, with lots of scribbles and changes as I think about the best turning points and so on. I’m very open to changing my initial plan as the story grows and changes, and quite often the book goes in unexpected directions – and I will always go with it.
Erin comments: I’d love to see those notebooks! I jest. I also write better, for stories or poetry, starting out with pencil and paper.
Q: What are your biggest obstacles to your writing or publishing process?
A: Lack of time! I have three children too.
Q: How do you make time for your writing? Do you feel it’s important for women to schedule time for their writing and why?
A: Yes, absolutely. I used to write when the kids were asleep, even if it meant getting up at 3.30 a.m. to write at the only time that the house was dark and quiet. Now I write when they’re at school. I’m utterly dedicated to my writing time – I tend do to household chores and grocery shopping and so forth when the kids are around, and work when they are not. Why? Because otherwise I could not write and I would feel a part of me was slowly dying. Women have as much right to be as much as they can be as men – even if it does mean a lot of ball juggling.
Erin comments: I totally agree.
Q: Have you, or will you, publish a book of poetry?
A: Oh yes, I have had a collection of poetry published called ‘Radiance’. You can buy it here: http://www.altair-australia.com/altair/rad.html
Q: What is your most celebrated achievement yet to date?
A: I was recently voted one of Australia’s Top 25 Favourite Novelists – I came in at No 22, just after Peter Carey. I was very happy about that! I was also overjoyed when five books in the ‘The Gypsy Crown’ series won the Aurealis Award, Australia’s award for speculative fiction. That was a wonderful moment.
Erin comments: Congratulations! How incredible!
Q: Who are some of your favorite writers and why? Who has inspired you the most?
A: So many wonderful authors to choose from! I always find this a hard question to answer. I think I was greatly inspired by the writers I most loved as a child. For ‘Bitter Greens’, it was fairy tale retellings by Eleanor Farjeon and Nicholas Stuart Grey that were of paramount importance. Other inspirational childhood authors were C.S. Lewis, Geoffrey Trease, Edith Nesbit, Elizabeth Goudge, Joan Aiken … oh I could list two dozen names! As an adult, I have loved books by writers such as Isabel Allende, Tracy Chevalier, Joanne Harris, Robin McKinley, Kate Morton, Kim Wilkins, Juliet Marillier, Philippa Gregory, Sarah Dunant … again, far too many to list!
Q: What are your future plans for your career and/or studies?
A: I plan to keep on writing till I die. I hope this does not happen for a long while as I have so many brilliant ideas for books. I just need the time to write them!
Q: Do you have any more upcoming books? Any in process?
A: At the moment, I’m writing a five book fantasy series for children aged 9+. Then I plan a novel set in Nazi Germany that retells the beautiful fairy tale, ‘The Lilting, Leaping Lark’, a variant of Beauty and the Beast in which the heroine is far more active and heroic than the version which most people know.
Q: Are many of your books available in the United States?
A: I’m probably best known in the U.S. for the heroic fantasy series, ‘The Witches of Eileanan’ and ‘Rhiannon’s Ride’. ‘The Gypsy Crown’, a historical adventure for children, was also published in the U.S. and was nominated for a CYBIL Award. All my books are available over the Internet, of course.
Q: What do you love most about Australia? Can you describe it to those of us who’ve always wanted to travel there, but haven’t gotten the chance?
A: Oh you must come! Australia has some of the best beaches in the world – miles and miles of white sand and turquoise water. It’s also lovely and warm most of the time. I live in Sydney which is a very beautiful city, full of light because of all the water, and very sophisticated with a lot of art and culture (though anyone from New York would be amazed how small it is). Most Americans also love our wildlife – kangaroos and koalas and kookaburras and so forth. I had a wallaby as a pet when I was a child – she used to hop around our kitchen, and would hold a piece of apple in her tiny, delicate paws and nibble on it … then, to go to bed, she would hop up into its ‘pouch’, a lined sack that hung on our back door handle. We have a blue tongued lizard in our back garden, and possums, and kookaburras, and a water dragon, and tawny-faced frogmouths (an Australian owl). Yet we live only 20 minutes from the centre of the city.
Erin comments: Sounds absolutely amazing!
Q: What is the literary scene there like? Does it differ from the United States? How has the internet and social networking created a better world for authors?
A: The literary scene in Australia is much, much smaller than it is in the U.S. There are not many agents and not many publishers and so it can be very difficult to break into if you are a new author. Our buying market is much smaller too, and the tyranny of distance means it can be difficult for Australian authors to make much impact on the international scene. On the plus side, most Australian writers know each other well, and we are all good friends and very supportive of each other. The internet and social networking and new technologies have been a great boon to us – we can connect with writers and readers all over the world in a way that was utterly impossible before. I have many writing friends all over the world now, and we buy each other’s books over the internet, and review each other books on our blogs, and talk to each other via Facebook and Twitter. It’s wonderful!
Erin comments: Yes, connecting so many people with similar interests that might not have had a chance to meet before. It’s a tremendous thing.
Q: Where can readers connect with you and your books?
A: My website is www.kateforsyth.com.au and I run a book reviewing blog there that is very popular with Australian readers. I’m also very active on Facebook and Twitter and very easy to find there. I’m also on Goodreads and a few other book sites. I love to talk about books and reading and writing!
Erin: Thank you so much for talking with me today, Kate. It was a pleasure getting to know you. I wish you great success in all your endeavors and can’t wait to continue to read your writing.
Kate: I’ve had such a lovely time! Thank you for your fascinating and insightful questions.
Bitter Greens Synopsis~
Bitter Greens is an historical novel for adults which interweaves the Rapunzel fairytale with the true story of Charlotte-Rose de la Force, a 17th century French writer who wrote the version of the fairytale we know best, while locked away in a convent by the Sun King, Louis XIV, for her bold and unconventional views on love and society.
Charlotte-Rose has scandalized the court by falling passionately in love with a young nobleman, then dressing up as a dancing bear to rescue him from imprisonment. Banished to a strict Benedictine convent by the king, she remembers her life and loves at the magnificent and corrupt court of Versailles. Charlotte-Rose is filled at despair at her imprisonment, but she is comforted by an old nun, the apothicairesse at the convent, Sœur Seraphina, who tells her the secret history of a young girl in 16th century Venice, who is sold by her parents for a handful of bitter greens …
Margherita’s parents love her dearly but the penalty for stealing in Venice in the late 16th century is cruel, and so they agree to give up their child at the age of seven to Selena, a courtesan whose walled garden is famous for its herbs and flowers. Selena is the famous red-haired muse of the artist Titian, first painted by him in 1513 and still inspiring him at the time of his death, sixty-one years later. Called La Strega Bella, Selena is at the centre of Renaissance life in Venice, a world of beauty and danger, seduction and betrayal, love and superstition. Selena is determined to never surrender the power that her beauty gives her, and so she turns to black magic and a spell that requires the blood of a virgin. Yet in the decadent world of Renaissance Italy, where courtesans supped with kings, where convents were hotbeds of illicit love, and where a girl’s virginity was sold many times over, how was Selena to ensure her spell would work, not just once, but over and over again? The only way was to build a tower without door or stairs, deep in the forest … and this is where she locks Margherita at the age of twelve. As Margherita grows into womanhood, she sings in the hope someone will hear her. One day, a young man does and climbs her rope of hair into the tower … and so begins a beautiful love story that retells one of the world’s most mysterious and enduring fairytales.
The story of Margherita’s escape from the tower is interwoven with flashbacks that recount Charlotte-Rose’s tragic childhood and her scandalous life at the Sun King’s glittering court, and also the dark and tragic story of the courtesan Selena and how she came to be Titian’s muse. Three women, three lives, three stories, all braided together to create a compelling story of desire, obsession, black magic, and the redemptive power of love.
Praise for Bitter Greens~
“Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens is not only a magnificent achievement that would make any novelist jealous, it’s one of the most beautiful paeans to the magic of storytelling that I’ve ever read.” – C.W. Gortner, author of The Queen’s Vow and The Confessions of Catherine de Medici
Kate Forsyth, Biography~
Kate Forsyth is the award-winning and bestselling author of more than 20 books for adults and children , translated into 13 languages. She was recently named in the Top 25 of Australia’s Favourite Novelists. Since The Witches of Eileanan was named a Best First Novel by Locus Magazine, Kate has won or been nominated for many awards, including a CYBIL Award in the US. She’s also the only author to win five Aurealis awards in a single year, for her Gypsy Crown series of children’s historical novels. Kate’s latest novel, Bitter Greens, interweaves a retelli
ng of the Rapunzel fairytale with the scandalous life story of the woman who first told the tale, the 17th century French writer Charlotte-Rose de la Force. It has been called ‘the best fairy tale retelling since Angela Carter’ and ‘an imaginative weaving of magic, fairy tale and history’. A direct descendant of Charlotte Waring, the author of the first book for children ever published in Australia, Kate is currently studying a doctorate in fairy tales at the University of Technology in Sydney, where she lives by the sea, with her husband, three children, and many thousands of books.