Kate Forsyth is the author of a large number of wonderful novels, mostly for children and young adults and, more recently, for adults as well. Bitter Greens, her Rapunzel novel has been shortlisted for both the Aurealis and the Ditmar Awards. The Wild Girl (reviewed on this site) is too new to be up for any awards as yet, but I will be very surprised if it isn't on someone's list next year, perhaps a Premier's Award?
Kate very kindly agreed to be interviewed and a fabulous interview it is. Welcome to The Great Raven, Kate!
SB: You're best known as a children's/YA writer, but your last two books have been for adults(although The Wild Girl might *just* wriggle under the YA/NA fence). First question: do you intend to keep writing for adults or, like Catherine Jinks, do some stuff for adults, but mostly continue with books for young readers?
KF: I love writing for both adults and for children, and so in an ideal world I’d like to alternate between them. I am working on a 5-book fantasy adventure series for children right now, which will be published next year, then I am contracted to write another historical novel for adults. I try as much as possible to build my writing schedule around my family’s needs, and so I’m always thinking ahead, deciding what year would be best to do which project. For example, my eldest son will be doing his final school exams in 2015 and so I will choose a smaller, easier project to focus on that year. I have so many ideas for novels its always simply a matter of deciding between them.
SB: As well as being for adults, your most recent books - Bitter Greens and The Wild Girl - have had fairy tale/fairy tale teller themes. What has particularly interested you in this area recently?
KF: I have always been fascinated by fairy tales and fairy tale retellings since reading them as a child. Many of my books draw upon the structures and symbols of the genre, and I first studied them academically in my first degree. I knew I wanted to retell the Rapunzel fairy tale from the age of 11 or 12, and thought about the idea off and on for years. Eventually all that thinking led me to the writing of ‘Bitter Greens’. The idea for writing ‘The Wild Girl’ sprang out of my research for that ... Ii often happens that way – researching & writing one novel throws up ideas for the next.
SB: How did you get the idea for The Wild Girl?
KF: When I was first thinking about Bitter Greens, I imagined a frame tale in which someone – perhaps an old woman – would tell the Rapunzel tale to someone else – perhaps one of the Grimm brothers. I wanted to tell Rapunzel as a historical novel, not a fantasy … I wanted it to feel as if it might really have happened, as if it was – perhaps – true. I thought Rapunzel had been told to the Grimm Brothers, you see – that it was an oral story recorded by them. However, once I began researching the sources of the tales, I discovered that the Grimm story had a literary source and had, in fact, been written by the 17th century noblewoman Charlotte-Rose de la Force. It was during that research that I stumbled upon the beautiful, heart-breaking love story of Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild, the young woman who had grown up next door to the Grimms and who told them many of their most famous fairy tales. I knew at once I had to tell their story. I had to put it aside, however, and focus on the novel I was then working on, which was Bitter Greens.
SB: Bitter Greens was a very complex read, with three streams - the stories of Charlotte-Rose, Margherita and Selena, intertwined. You could have stuck to either the story of Charlotte-Rose, as straight historical fiction, or the adaptation of the fairy-tale itself. Yet you did both. Why?
KF: I always felt the greatest challenge to rewriting such a well-known tale was creating suspense and surprise, the two ingredients I think are most vital to a compelling narrative. Everyone knows the basic storyline of Rapunzel and everyone knows how it ends (happily ever after). I needed to find some way to make the story fresh and new and surprising. Even shocking. I also wanted to have three narrative threads, three points of view, so that I could braid them together in such a way that the structure of the book would symbolically reflect the braid of hair, the key motif of the story. I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to tell the story from both the maiden and the witch’s point of view, but who could be the third important character? I played with writing a section from the POV of the prince – in fact, I wrote about 20,000 words from his POV – but then I felt instinctively that this was a women’s story, and I wanted to know who had told it. I began to research the sources of the tale, and that was when I first stumbled upon the extraordinary tale of Charlotte-Rose de la Force … and of course she became my heroine, my primary protagonist, simply because her true life story was so dramatic and so fascinating.
SB: What's your favourite way of doing historical research? On-line, for example? Books? Both? Do you use a lot of primary sources?
KF: I begin by reading everything I can find on the subject. I create a library, usually by buying masses of books, both new and second-hand, I need to own the books, as I’ll go back to them again and again and again. I will research on the internet too, basically to create a solid base of knowledge, and to identify what else I need to know. I take copious notes, keeping track of what I read where and when, so I can find it again. I also read as many novels as I can set in the same time and place as my own novel – I’ll read everything from classic novels to historical romance and historical murder mysteries to memoirs, biographies and scholarly non-fiction. I want to know everything! My research will throw up ideas for my story, and will also help me create the milieu – the setting and the inner life of the characters. I’ll also read as much primary material as I can – with ‘Bitter Greens’ I read many letters and memoirs of the Sun-King’s court to help me find my ‘voice’. I also paid to have many of Charlotte-Rose de la Force’s own writings translated into English for the first time. The internet is also great for visual stimulation – I look at photos and portraits and maps and I print them out and stick them in my notebook.
When my first draft is almost done, I’ll travel to the places I have featured in the book. I like to see the setting, and hear it, and taste it, and smell it. I like to imagine the emotional reaction of my characters, and test for myself how long it might take to walk from one place to another, and so on. For me, this is an important part of the process.
SB: Tell us about the research you did for The Wild Girl.
KF: I began by building a time line of the key years, and assembling my cast of characters, and finding out everything I could about them. The Grimm brothers are extremely well-documented but the life of Dortchen Wild, who became Frau Wilhelm Grimm, is nothing but a footnote in history. I found out what stories she told Wilhelm, and when, and I looked at what clues the stories gave to her inner life. I read everything I could find on the Grimm brothers and their lives – dozens of books – and then I studied society in Germany in the early 19th century, and life under Napoleon. That took ages! I hired a German translator and researcher to help me, as many of the key academic studies have not been translated into English. All the time I was building the story, planning my plot-line, assembling my key thematic symbols and structures. As I wrote, I’d need to do more research …and my plans would change and evolve. I travelled to Germany for a few weeks close to the end of the first draft, and visited all the key places in the book (the ones that hadn’t been bombed to smithereens in the Second World war). I also read a lot. Jane Austen was a contemporary of the Grimms, and so I read all her books again for the umpteenth time, trying to get a sense of the times. I read Goethe, and the works of the German romantic poet Novalis, and some of the letters of Beethoven, and of course I read the fairy tales, studying the earliest transcriptions and all the later variants, and I corresponded with many top Grimm scholars. I was lucky enough to read Wilhelm’s own diary, never before translated into English, and Dortchen’s memoir, dictated to her daughter on her deathbed. I could go on and on and on – this was a very research-intensive book – but I don’t want to bore you!
SB: You have written a lot of fiction set in your own universes - how much connection did they have with our own world? The universe of The Starthorn Tree series, for example?
KF: I think fantasy must always be strongly rooted in the real, and so when I am writing a fantasy novel, like The Starthorn Tree, I always have a strong sense of where it might stand in our own history. I think of the world of Estelliana, the world of The Starthorn Tree, as being very like central Europe in the early 15th Century. The world of the Witches of Eileanan is like an alternative 16th century Scotland. This means I know whether they have invented spinning wheels yet, or cannons, or lead-paned glass, or corked bottles of wine, and I know what they would wear, and what musical instrument they might play. I always try and create as vivid and real a world as I can, regardless of whether I am writing historical novels or fantasy, and knowing these things can really help.
SB: What do you do for pleasure when you're not writing?
KF: I don’t think you’ll be surprised to hear I’m an avid reader. I read a lot! I also love to cook and garden and dance and swim in the ocean, and spend time with my loved ones. And I love to travel and have adventures.
SB: So, what are you working on now?
KF: I’m working on a fast-paced fantasy adventure series filled with dragons and unicorns and all things fantastical, and I’m busy studying for my doctorate on Rapunzel. As soon as I’ve finished that, I’ll start researching a new historical novel for adults, which retells the Beauty and the Beast, and is set in Nazi Germany.
Wow! That sounds worth looking forward to! Thanks for visiting The Great Raven.
If you'd like to find out more about Kate and her books, her web site is at: