This post is part of Witch Week, an annual celebration of fantasy books and authors. This year’s theme is New Tales from Old, focusing on fiction based in fairy tale, folklore, and myth. For more about Witch Week, see the Master Post.
Today, I’m delighted to welcome Australian author Kate Forsyth, who was kind enough to answer some questions about two of her fairy-tale-related novels that were recently published in the US. I highly recommend both Bitter Greens, an opulent variation on the theme of Rapunzel, and The Wild Girl, a historical novel about Dortchen Wild, who told many of the stories collected by the brothers Grimm — click through the links for my reviews. And be sure to enter the Witch Week giveaway for a chance to win a paperback copy of Bitter Greens!
ECBR: Your novels Bitter Greens and The Wild Girl, first published in Australia in 2012 and 2013, took a couple of years to make it into print here in the US. Can you tell us anything about that process – why did it take so long, and how were the books finally picked up for publication here? How has the US reception been?
KF: My books are always published in Australia first, because of a publishing law here that tries to protect the local book industry from cheaper US imports. Books are much more expensive in Australia, and so the government tries to encourage Australians to buy the local products rather than purchasing the cheaper US editions over the internet.
Bitter Greens was even later than usual, however, because the US publishers of my earlier books was a fantasy fiction imprint and was not interested in publishing a historical novel, even though it does have a fairy tale element. That meant we had to find another US publisher, which took a while. This is quite usual in the publishing industry – it can be quite a long and anxious process finding a home for a new work.
The US reception has been wonderful. Bitter Greens was widely reviewed and got some great press, and then it won the American Library Association Prize for Best Historical Fiction, which was the most incredible and exciting surprise. The Wild Girl has only been out for a few months, but I am hoping it will win as much acclaim.
Bitter Greens took you seven years to write and was somewhat different from the books you were known for. What inspired you to make this journey as a writer and what carried you through it? What have the fruits of it been for you?
I am best known in the US for my series of heroic fantasy The Witches of Eileanan but in Australia I am well-known for a variety of different types of books, including a series of historical novels for children called The Chain of Charms. (It was published as The Gypsy Crown in the US and was nominated for a CYBIL Award). I have also written a timeslip adventure for children called The Puzzle Ring, which was published in the UK but not in the US.
So writing a historical novel was not actually a new direction for me. What was new was the combination of a fairytale retelling within a historical setting, but then many of my other books – which range from fantasy to contemporary magic realism to historical fiction – are infused with fairytale settings, symbols and structures. So again it was not a radical departure for me.
I had wanted to write a retelling of Rapunzel for a long time, and the idea became more and more urgent in my imagination. I did not want to write a conventional retelling – I wanted to do something bold and new and surprising – and so I began to wonder where the story came from, and who first told the tale. The research ended up being so fascinating (and difficult), I decided to turn it into a Doctorate of Creative Arts. Altogether the writing of Bitter Greens and my doctorate on the history of the tale took me seven years, which is a long time. However, I loved every step of my journey and grieved deeply when it was all over, and I had to leave it all behind me.
Bitter Greens has been an astonishing success for me, however, and so all the thorns and stones of my road were absolutely worth it.
The Wild Girl was, in one way, a new direction for me, because it was the first book I have ever written that did not have any purely fictional characters in it. Up until The Wild Girl, most of my books have been peopled with entirely fictional characters. The Puzzle Ring had a cameo appearance by Mary, Queen of Scots, and other real life people of her court, but my major characters were all imaginary. In The Wild Girl, all the major characters were based on real people who had once lived and breathed and loved. This was very challenging, and involved a great deal of research to try and make them as true to life as possible.
The Wild Girl is also historical social realism. I worked hard to be as true as possible to the life of my heroine Dortchen Wild, and there is very little that is magical or fantastical in the story. Bitter Greens, however, can probably be best described as historical magic realism – all the spells and curses and superstitions in the book are inspired by real beliefs of the time, recorded in the 16th century witch trials of the Italian Inquisition, but just pushing at the boundary between what was considered possible in their world.
In both of these books the central characters are brilliant female storytellers who have been overlooked by historians and largely forgotten. How can reviving and honoring their memories help us to find our own voices?
I was drawn to tell these stories by the desire to – as you say – revive and honour their memories. Most people know the names of Charles Perrault, the Grimm brothers, and Hans Christian Andersen, but the names of the extraordinary female fairy tale tellers has been forgotten. I was hoping to rescue Charlotte-Rose de la Force and Dortchen Wild (among others) from the oubliette of history, and to foreground the importance of women’s lives and women’s voices.
How do you balance your exhaustive research with the creative process? Do you ever find the factual basis of the story threatening to overwhelm its imaginative power, or vice versa?
For me, the story always comes first. No matter how fascinating the fact, it has no place in my novel unless it helps propel my plot forward, deepen the reader’s understanding of, and connection with, my characters, and create a vivid and deeply immersive sense of place. It must do all three of these things.
The research can sometimes feel overwhelming, particularly in the beginning, when I am made acutely aware of how little I actually know. However, the more I research, the more I know, and the more clearly I see my story, and so gradually I become less overwhelmed and more excited by all the possibilities.
I actually love the research process! So interesting.
Your new book, The Beast’s Garden, takes place much closer to modern times, being set in Nazi Germany, yet you are still working with themes and motifs from traditional stories (here, the “Beauty and the Beast” tale and its variants). How did it feel to bring these elements into our own day?
The Beast’s Garden was a really challenging book to write, and took me much longer than I expected. Right from the very first flash of inspiration, I knew that I was working with the Grimm brothers’ version of the Beauty & Beast tale, which is called The Singing, Springing Lark, but that I intended to only use its structures and symbols to tell a story that was as real as I could possibly make it. The difficulty lay more in the massive amount of research I had to do, and in the harrowing nature of what I discovered. I am interested in using fairy tales in bold and unexpected ways, and seeing how their inner truths and wisdom can enrich a story set in the real world.
Can we look forward to this book also being published in the US?
I hope so! Time will tell …
What’s next for you? Will you continue to weave fairy tales into your novels? Are there any stories that are calling for you to explore them?
I am now working on a new historical novel that tells the story of the passions, scandals and tragedies behind the creation of the famous ‘Briar Rose’ series of paintings by Edward Burne-Jones in late Victorian times. Once again I’m interested in the women – the wives and muses and mistresses and daughters of the Pre-Raphaelites circle of artists and writers.
Sounds fantastic! Many thanks to Kate for taking the time to answer my questions and for writing such marvelous books. I hope that Witch Week readers will check out her available titles, and petition the publishers to let us have more of them!