Witch Week 2015: Interview with Kate Forsyth

Kate by tree smlThis 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?

BitterGreensI 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.

WildGirlHow was writing The Wild Girl similar to or different from that process? Did you feel it was a natural continuation of what you had already begun, or did it take you in a different direction?

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?

The Duchess of Orleans, who mentioned Charlotte-Rose in her memoirs

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?

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

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.

Painting by Edward Burne-Jones

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!

Witch Week 2015 Giveaway

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.

Welcome, Witch Week participants! I’m SO thrilled to have two wonderful books to offer this year, thanks to the generosity of their publishers.

BitterGreens smallBitter Greens by Kate Forsyth was one of my favorite reads in 2015, a lush, opulent retelling of the Rapunzel story that also illuminates the life of a long-forgotten storyteller, Charlotte-Rose de la Force. I loved how Forsyth intertwined history and legend together in such a compelling and dramatic way, and I hope you will too. Thanks to Thomas Dunne Books for offering a paperback copy to one lucky entrant, and to Kate Forsyth for kindly answering some questions about her books and writing process. The interview will appear on November 4. This giveaway is international (Book Depository must ship to your country).

BloodyCFolioThe Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter is our reader-chosen readalong book this year, a dark and sensuous retelling of traditional tales that influenced many later writers. The Folio Society, publishers of beautiful illustrated editions of classic and contemporary literature, is offering their gorgeous version illustrated by Igor Karash and introduced by Marina Warner. This copy is also signed by the award-winning illustrator! Please check out more images from the book at the link, and peruse the Folio catalog while you’re at it. Don’t forget to come back for the readalong on November 5, though. This giveaway is US only.

If you have a US address, you may enter one or both of the giveaways. Two different winners will be chosen. Both giveaways will close at 12 a.m. Eastern Time on November 8. Good luck!

Bitter Greens cover courtesy of Thomas Dunne Books
Bloody Chamber cover courtesy of the Folio Society, copyright 2012 by Igor Karash

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New Release Review and Giveaway: The Wild Girl

Kate Forsyth, The Wild Girl (2013, US edition 2015)

WildGirlOnce upon a time, there was a young girl who fell in love with the boy next door. He was handsome, clever, and kind, but much too poor to think of marriage, and her stern and forbidding father kept her closely guarded. Only after many years of trials and delays were the couple able to marry, and build a happier life together.

This is no fairy tale, but the true story of Dortchen Wild, who became the wife of Wilhelm Grimm, editor with his brother Jakob of the famous German story collection Kinder- und Hausmärchen. While little is known about her — not much more than the bare outline above — out of these scraps of material Kate Forsyth has woven a moving and compelling novel that demonstrates the power of stories to reveal and heal our innermost souls.

For one thing we do know about Dortchen is that she was a storyteller. She told Wilhelm a quarter of the tales included in the first edition of the Grimm collection, although she and other contributors were uncredited and remained largely ignored throughout most of the ensuing reprints and revisions. The brothers wanted to emphasize the roots of the tales in old Germanic tradition, not how they were filtered through the imagination of a nineteen-year-old girl. And while their deep universality and archetypal value have become clear over the past two centuries, it’s still intriguing to wonder what individual experiences might have shaped the stories and their tellers. With so little else to go by, what do Dortchen’s stories tell us about her? They are some of the most beautiful, extraordinary, and puzzling of the whole collection, including the disturbing “Coat of Many Furs,” with its themes of incest, oppression, and silence. Where did they come from, and what happened to the girl who told them?

Without reducing these stories to mere personal allegories, Forsyth imaginatively reconstructs a possible life for Dortchen that is as dark and grim as the tales themselves, but ultimately as uplifting and redemptive. Along the way she also illuminates the place, time, and people that gave them birth, to which I’m embarrassed to say I never gave a thought before. I never considered the plight of the Germanic kingdoms under Napoleonic rule, the fight to preserve their heritage as they were being overrun by French and Russian soldiers, having their young men conscripted into a doomed army, their wealth and resources ruined and lost by puppet kings. I never thought of how determined and brave the Grimm brothers were to keep at their task of preserving stories and poems that many must have thought useless at such a turbulent time, even though they were so poor they could hardly keep body and soul together. And above all, I never wondered who told them these stories, or what gave them their sources of spiritual strength and power.

I’m so glad that Kate Forsyth brought these questions to light, and that in The Wild Girl she has crafted them into such a rich story of love, suffering, and redemption. We may never know most of the objective facts of Dortchen’s life, but for the time of this telling she can live for us again, in a way that is true to the nature and essence of her marvelous tales.

I’m delighted to be able to offer a copy of The Wild Girl courtesy of Thomas Dunne Books. This giveaway will run through July 7 and is open to US entrants age 18 and over. Please use the Rafflecopter widget below to enter, and good luck!

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Once Upon a Time: Bitter Greens

Kate Forsyth, Bitter Greens (2012)


We tend to think of the tellers of fairy tales as anonymous, their personalities smoothed out and obscured by time, details of their lives irrelevant to the archetypal stories that have come down to us. But in fact the tellers and writers of these familiar tales were often real, individual women, who were known by name to the male collectors and anthologizers who took over their work and put their own stamp on it. The erasure of this female literary history is an injustice that has yet to be corrected.

In Bitter Greens, Kate Forsyth brings to light — in decidedly fictional, quasi-fantasy form — the story of one of these creators, the French writer Charlotte-Rose de la Force, who set down the tale we now know as “Rapunzel.” She wasn’t the first or the last to do so, but she introduced important elements that we now take as essential to the story, including the healing of the blinded prince. In layers of tales within tales, Forsyth brings us into Charlotte-Rose’s glittering and precarious world, the court of the Sun King Louis XIV, then moves into stories of a century and more earlier, of a Venetian girl captured against her will, and of the witch whose revelation of her own dark history gives us insight into the origins of this tragedy and the elements of its redemption.

It’s a complex narrative to construct, and Forsyth does it well. She builds up her historical settings in rich and convincing detail, making us see and feel with the three women at their center. Only at the end does she falter a bit, in a rather hasty resolution that had less ambiguity than I personally would have preferred. But this didn’t diminish my pleasure in the book as a whole, or my interest in the fascinating, forgotten character of Charlotte-Rose herself. She illuminates much about the plight of women denied a way to express themselves other than through sexual means, and amazes us with the strength of her drive toward freedom. For all girls and women who are still locked in the tower of their own fears and uncertainties, she can be an inspiration.

I’m counting Bitter Greens for the “Fairy Tale” category of the Once Upon a Time challenge, Quest the Second.

Paperback release date: May 19 from St. Martin’s Griffin