I first read Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens in 2013 and I fell in love with the story, its characters and Kate’s writing. Reading her next novel The Wild Girl only strengthened that love. Her previous book, The Beast’s Garden has only been published in Australia (get on that, UK publishers!) and as such I haven’t yet managed to get my hands on a copy, because it’s really expensive to order books from Australia. But I plan on getting my hands on it somehow in the future. All of this goes to say that I was really interested in reading Kate’s non-fiction collection, The Rebirth of Rapunzel, which I reviewed yesterday, and which left me with some questions to ask Kate. Luckily, she’d already agreed to be interviewed and you can find the results below. Can I just say I can’t wait for Beauty in Thorns? It sounds amazing! If you haven’t read Kate’s work before and you love fairytale retellings or historical fiction, I highly recommend checking out her writing.
Let’s start with the basics. Who is Kate Forsyth?
I am an Australian-born author who spends her days daydreaming, reading, making stuff up and writing it down. I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I began writing stories as soon as I could hold a pencil. I’ve now had almost 40 books published, ranging from historical fiction for adults to fantasy for children and young adults, to picture books to poetry. I live in Sydney, Australia, but love to travel and have adventures and tell stories.
How would you introduce people to Rapunzel?
‘Rapunzel’ is one of the world’s best-known fairy tales. It tells the story of a girl imprisoned in a high tower by a witch. The only way in and out of the tower is by climbing up Rapunzel’s impossibly long golden hair. One day a prince riding in the forest hears Rapunzel singing, and follows the sound to the tower. He hears the witch chant her rhyme, ‘Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair, so I may climb the golden stair.’ Once the witch has gone, the prince calls out the same words and so climbs up to the imprisoned girl. They fall into love and into bed, and plot together to find some way to escape. However, the girl becomes pregnant and unwittingly betrays herself to the witch. Her captor cuts off her hair and casts her out into the wilderness. She then lowers the severed braid to the prince, who climbs up expecting to find his beloved Rapunzel but instead being confronted by the witch. She cries: “Ah, ah! you thought to find your lady love, but the pretty bird has flown and its song is dumb; the cat caught it, and will scratch out your eyes too. Rapunzel is lost to you for ever—you will never see her again.” She pushes the prince out of the tower and he falls among thorns and is blinded. He wanders sightlessly through the wilderness and is found by Rapunzel, who has given birth to twins – a boy and a girl. Rapunzel weeps and her tears fall upon his eyes and heal them. Joyously the young family is united again, and in the best fairy tale fashion, they live happily ever after.
‘Rapunzel’ is best known as one of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales, but it was written by a French noblewoman named Charlotte-Rose de la Force some 115 years earlier and – like all stories – was inspired by earlier Maiden in the Tower tales that stretch back into the very beginning of human storytelling traditions.
The Rebirth of Rapunzel is very much a companion to your novel Bitter Greens. Each stands alone, but reading them both enriches the overall reading experience. Could you explain how the two fit together?
I first read the ‘Rapunzel’ fairy tale when I was a little girl sick in hospital. Something about the story really sang to me. I think it had a lot to do with the motif of the healing tears – Rapunzel weeps on the blinded eyes of prince and restores his sight. My tear duct had been destroyed in a dog attack when I was a baby, and so my tears were the source of my own illness and blindness, and my ‘imprisonment’ in the hospital. I felt some kind of affinity with Rapunzel, who must have been as lonely and frightened as I was.
The fairy tale troubled my imagination for a long time, and eventually I was compelled to examine it. I wanted to write a retelling of ‘Rapunzel’, but I also wanted to go much deeper into the history of the tale and understand its power. So I decided to undertake a doctorate on the subject. It was an utterly fascinating project, and I think I now know more about Rapunzel than anyone should.
For my doctorate, I needed to write a novel and a creative exegesis. I wrote the novel first. Called Bitter Greens, the story entwines an imaginative retelling of the ‘Rapunzel’ fairy tale with the true life story of Charlotte-Rose de la Force, who wrote the tale as it is best known. Mademoiselle la Force was the second cousin of the Sun King, Louis XIV, but she scandalised the court with her love affairs and her subversive writings, and so she was banished to a convent. She wrote a collection of fairy tales while incarcerated there, including ‘Persinette’, the story now known as ‘Rapunzel’. The true story of her dramatic life was such a gift for a novelist – she was implicated in a famous witchcraft trial that involved a plot to poison the king, she dressed up as a dancing bear to rescue her lover from his prison, and she stood trial for indecency and corrupting a minor and was found guilty.
Bitter Greens went on to sell a quarter of a million copies and won the American Library Association’s award for Best Historical Fiction, which was just wonderful for me as I had devoted seven years to researching and writing it.
I wrote my creative exegesis next. Essentially it’s a mythic biography of the Maiden in the Tower, which examines the evolution of the tale from its very earliest appearances in pre-literate storytelling traditions all the way through Greek myths, Persian love poems, the French troubadour tradition, the bawdy Italian court amusement, the French conteuses, the Grimm brothers, and so on all the way through to Disney’s fantasy comedy Tangled.
I also examined my own creative processes in writing Bitter Greens and what helped shape my creative choices.
My exegesis was published, along with a collection of articles and essays on fairy tales and folklore, as The Rebirth of Rapunzel.
The French conteuses, of which Mlle De La Force was one of the more well-known ones, are an important, though oft overlooked, part of “fairytale as literature”-history. Have you ever considered writing about one of the others, instead of or in addition to Charlotte-Rose?
Indeed, yes. I have played with the idea of writing the life story of Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville, Baroness d’Aulnoy, who was a contemporary of Mademoiselle La Force. She is the woman who coined the term “conte de fees” which was translated into English as “fairy tales”. Her life story is absolutely fascinating (it includes murder, treason and spying), but I felt it was a little too similar to Bitter Greens. I like to do something different with each book I write.
In The Wild Girl you explored the story of the young woman who first told many of their tales to the Grimm brothers. You discovered Dortchen Wild’s story through your Rapunzel research. You’re currently working on Beauty in Thorns about Janey Burden, the wife of William Morris, who is the pre-Raphaelite who created a famous poem of Rapunzel. Do you think Rapunzel will be a continuing (golden) thread through your writing?
I did indeed discover the beautiful love story that lies at the heart of The Wild Girl while researching ‘Rapunzel’. However, the novel is much more deeply concerned with the fairy tales that Dortchen Wild told Wilhelm Grimm – tales such as ‘Hansel & Gretel’, ‘Six Swans’, ‘The Singing Bone’, ‘All-Kinds-of-Fur’, and so on. Dortchen (who grew up next door to the Grimm family) told almost a quarter of all the tales in the Grimm brothers’ first fairy tale collection, and so I was most interested in discovering her life story and in giving her a voice.
I have always loved William Morris’s work – both in art and design and in his poetry – and I examined his ‘Rapunzel’ poem in my exegesis. However, the primary focus of my work-in-progress is the story behind Edward Burne-Jones’s famous ‘Sleeping Beauty’ paintings. He painted the Sleeping Princess numerous times over his long career, and so I look at each new depiction in light of the dramas and scandals and tragedies that beset the women of the Pre-Raphaelite circle. I have eight female voices in the book, including Janey Burden who married William Morris, Georgiana Macdonald who married Edward Burne-Jones, Lizzie Siddal who married Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his sister Christina Rossetti, and Mary de Morgan, who wrote a number of extraordinary and beautiful fairy tales in the second half of the 19th century.
I think the golden thread that ties all my recent books together is fairy tales in general, and also the true-life stories of forgotten female fairy tale tellers.
Rapunzel clearly still fascinates you, but is there any fairytale that might come close to it in terms of interest to you?
I am absolutely obsessed with ‘Sleeping Beauty’ at the moment! It’s always been one of my favourites, but I am very much enjoying delving deeper into its motifs and metaphors.
What’s next for you? Any appearances or conventions planned?
I have an absolutely hectic schedule of festivals and conferences over the next few months, plus I am coming to the UK in late June to run my annual writer’s retreat in the Cotswolds. http://www.kateforsyth.com.au/writing-retreat-in-the-cotswolds
I will also be doing a trip around the UK and France for my final research into Beauty in Thorns, which will be wonderful. I also need to finish writing the novel!
Is there something else you’re passionate about other than writing and books?
I love art and music and dance and theatre, and so try to see as much as I can. I’m also a passionate gardener and I love to cook, both of which are lovely earthy grounding activities. I have a family too, and love to spend time with them and go on adventures with them. It’s busy but wonderful!
As a book reviewer, I’m all about the book enabling; I can’t help but want to make people read all the good books out there. But I can always use help. What are your top recommendations of books we should look out for in the coming months?
I can tell you the books I’ve read recently which I really loved. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters was absolutely brilliant, and I really enjoyed Tipping the Velvet too. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr was beautiful and moving. The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge is one of the best YA books I’ve read in a long while. H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald and The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane were stand-out non-fiction reads for me. The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley was a delightful timeslip romance. The Observations by Jane Harris was a clever Gothic mystery with a wonderfully original voice. And The Quality of Silence by Rosamund Lupton was an extraordinarily powerful and chilling suspense thriller.
Finally, I have to stay true to my roots and ask a librarian question to finish off with: Do you shelve your books alphabetically, by genre or do you have an ingenious system?
I have so many thousands of books that I need a system!
Basically, books I haven’t read yet go in a bookshelf in my bedroom. I buy so many books, and am sent so many books by authors and publishers, that there’s well over two hundred books there waiting for me to meet them.
Once I have read a book, it is shelved in the appropriate place. First by genre – classic, contemporary, crime, historical, fantasy, children’s or non-fiction – then alphabetically. The non-fiction is divided first by subject, and then alphabetically. I have a library, where most of the books belong, but I also keep many reference books in my study. Books on writing, fairy tales and folklore, my dictionaries and encyclopedias are all in the study, plus the research books for the novel I am working on (at the moment its all Victorian social history and biographies and letters and poems of the Pre-Raphaelites.) Once I have finished a novel, all the reference books for that project return to the library, and I began to compile books for the next project.
I like being able to put my hand on whatever book I want, whenever I need it.
Her books for adults include ‘The Beast’s Garden’, a retelling of the Grimm version of ‘Beauty & the Beast’, set in the German underground resistance to Hitler in WWII; ‘The Wild Girl’, the love story of Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told him many of the world’s most famous fairy tales; ‘Bitter Greens’, a retelling of the Rapunzel fairytale; and the bestselling fantasy series ‘Witches of Eileanan’ Her books for children include ‘The Impossible Quest’, ‘The Gypsy Crown’, ‘The Puzzle Ring’, and ‘The Starkin Crown’
Kate has a doctorate in fairytale studies, a Masters of Creative Writing, a Bachelor of Arts in Literature, and is an accredited master storyteller.