Kate Forsyth

Kate Forsyth

Both Bitter Greens and The Wild Girl entwine history, romance and fairy tale together, yet they are very different books.

BITTER GREENS is a retelling of Rapunzel, which imagines how the author of the tale – a 17th century French noblewoman named Charlotte-Rose de la Force - may have come to write it. BITTER GREENS is told from the point of view of three very different women. The first strand is the voice of Charlotte-Rose, who was related to Louis XIV and was an active participant in the famous literary salons of the 1690s in Paris and Versailles. She was a bold, unconventional woman who believed in romantic love and the rights of women to determine their own fates, both of which were shocking views for her time. She was banished to a convent after a series of scandalous love affairs and wrote the first true version of ‘Rapunzel’ while locked behind its high, grey walls. Her sections are based on historical fact and her own writings.

The other two strands are told from the point of view of the maiden and the witch, the two central characters in Rapunzel. Their sections are set in Renaissance Venice, and in a tower on the shores of Lake Garda, a deep lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains in the north of Italy. The stories of these three women are woven together in – I hope – a new and utterly surprising interpretation of Rapunzel.

THE WILD GIRL tells the story of the forbidden love affair of Wilhelm Grimm and the young woman who told him many of the world’s most famous fairy tales.  Her name was Dortchen Wild and she grew up next door to the Grimm family in Cassel, the main town in a small German electorate called Hessen-Cassel. When she was still a teenager, their country was invaded by Napoleon’s army and the Wilds and the Grimms lived under French occupation. Wilhelm and his elder brother Jakob were unable to find work, and so – as a small act of defiance against the cultural domination of the French – began to collect old fairy tales and folklore. The girl-next-door, Dortchen, had a head stuffed full of the most extraordinary stories – beautiful, romantic, and haunting tales like ‘Six Swans’, about a girl who must weave shirts from nettles to save her brothers who had been transformed into swans; ‘The Frog King’, the story of a girl whose golden ball is rescued by a frog and who must learn to honour her promises; and ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, a gorgeous variant of ‘Beauty & the Beast’. Dortchen also told Wilhelm such well-known tales as ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’, ‘The Singing Bone’, and many, many more. She and Wilhelm fell madly in love, but they were forbidden to meet by her autocratic father and so had to meet clandestinely. Meanwhile, the Napoleonic Wars was tearing Europe apart, and their kingdom was at the heart of the conflict. Very little of Dortchen’s own writings remain to us, and so I looked to the stories she told (and when she told them) to find the shape and structure of my novel. Her tales are woven all through the book and may surprise you – they are very different from Disney’s versions!

You write in many different genres, so do you have a preference for one?

I love writing historical novels for adults and so I have to say that is my favourite genre. However, they are very research-intensive and challenging books to write, and so it’s wonderful for me to have a break and write for children for a while, before tackling another huge project.

Your escapism was fairy tales after you were in hospital a lot as a child, please can you tell us a bit more about this?

I was attacked by a dog when I was a toddler, and my injuries were so bad I spent quite a bit of my childhood in and out of hospital. Books were absolutely my salvation during those years. I especially loved books full of adventure, mystery and magic, books which allowed me to escape my prison of pain and loneliness. When I was about seven, my mother gave me a copy of Grimm’ Fairy Tales, and I loved that book so much, I read it to absolute rags.

Of all the tales in the book, it was the ‘Rapunzel’ fairy tale which haunted me the most. I think I felt a strong affinity with the heroine as I too was a girl locked away from the world, though my prison was a hospital ward, not a tower. The other reason Rapunzel resonated with me so strongly was because the dog had destroyed my tear duct when it had attacked me as a toddler, and so my eye wept all the time and was constantly getting infected. At the end of the tale, the prince is blinded by thorns but Rapunzel weeps on his eyes and restores his sight. My tears made me sick; her tears healed. This really felt strong and powerful to me – Rapunzel is a story about escaping and healing and I needed to know that these things were possible. In the end, I did escape and I was healed, thanks to the implantation of an artificial tear duct.

I continued to read fairy tales and fairy tale retellings, however, and began to study them in my first degree. I’m actually doing my doctorate on the subject right now.

Can you please expand on your doctorate for us?

I wrote my novel BITTER GREENS as the creative component of a Doctorate of Creative Arts, and am now looking at the history of the Rapunzel tale as my theoretical component. I examine the ancestors of the tale from the very earliest fragments of myths right through to the tale written by Charlotte-Rose de la Force, and then I look at the key retellings of the tale, from William Morris all the way through to Disney’s Tangled and my own work. I’m interested in why stories such as Rapunzel survive when so many others are lost, and how the tale transforms and yet still carries with it ancient lessons hidden within metaphoric codes. It’s absolutely fascinating and has only fed my interest in these ancient and enduring stories.

Where did your inspiration come from for Bitter Greens?

I had wanted to write a Rapunzel retelling for many years, and I had wanted to do my doctorate for many years. When I began work on BITTER GREENS, it was quickly clear to me that it would make an absolutely brilliant doctoral project. It tied together many of my interests – history, fairy tales, the redemptive power of stories, new feminist theories … so I applied for, and won, a scholarship at the University of Technology, Sydney. I’m at the end of my third year now and hoping to finish in the next few months.

Why do fairy-tales interest you so much?

I love fairy tales because of their haunting beauty and magical strangeness. They are set in worlds where anything can happen. Frogs can be kings, a thicket of brambles can hide a castle where a royal court has lain asleep for a hundred years, a boy can outwit a giant and a girl can break a curse with nothing but her courage and steadfastness. Fairy tales are stories of triumph and transformation and true love, all things I fervently believe in.

You have kept a diary since you were 12, so why was it important to you to keep this record?

I was given a pile of old diaries by my father when I was twelve and wrote my first entry on 15/8/1978. I wrote:

‘Dear Dairy,

Your name is now Carrie. You’ll be my confidant and my port in which to lay my head and my poor worn-out hopes, thoughts and ambitions.’

Why did I begin? Why did I call her Carrie? I have no idea. However, I have written in my diary nearly every day since (though I stopped calling her Carrie soon after I started.) That’s 35 years of diaries, taking up more than 50 volumes.  The longest breaks from diary writing happened in my teens and early 20s; now it is very much a natural and important part of my writing process. If I haven’t written in my diary for a few days, I feel a growing anxiety or unease. Writing in my diary calms me and centres me and helps me work out problems in both my writing project and in my life. It helps me clarify my thoughts and keeps me on track (I write long lists of things to do in it as well as expressing my innermost thoughts). For a long time, I just wrote in old exercise books but now I buy beautiful journals. I carry them with me everywhere I go. I’ve described my travels all around the world, drafted poems, argued with myself over a chapter I’m writing, recorded the books I’m reading, wept tears over fights with my husbands and the births of my beautiful children, recorded the funny things people say and moving and inspirational quotes I’ve read, scribbled down ideas and flashes of inspiration as they come, tried to pin down my dreams … everything goes into the diary. I see it as a form of free expressive writing that helps me gear up for the day.

What is your writing process?

I always start with a notebook in which I write all my early ideas for the novel, make research notes, and stick-in photos and maps and anything else that helps inspire me. My notebooks are usually very messy and haphazard, as I scribble in ideas and images as they come to me. I spend a lot of time in the early months reading & researching & thinking & visualising my story. Gradually I begin to build timelines and get a sense of the shape of the story. I think about my plot-line, and my characters, and their voices, and how I’m going to structure the novel, and technical things like that. I don’t usually begin to write in earnest until I see my story clearly, and feel like I hear the characters’ voices. Then I like to write swiftly, with long hours put in at the computer. I’m constantly reworking and rewriting the text as I go along, but I don’t do a heavy edit until I have the first draft finished. Then I spend quite a long time cutting, polishing, and re-writing. Then I send it to my agent – she’s always the first person to see it!

What is next for you?

I hope to finish my doctorate in the next month, and then I begin work on another historical fairy tale retelling. I plan to retell ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, Dortchen’s version of ‘The Beauty & the Beast’, set in Nazi Germany. I’m already beginning my research and early reading, and am very keen to get deeper into the idea.


Bitter Greens and The Wild Girl are published by Allison & Busby www.alisonandbusby.com.

For more information about Kate Forsyth visit www.kateforsythe.com.au or follow her on Twitter @KateForsyth.

by for www.femalefirst.co.uk
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