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Thursday, April 4, 2013

Interview: Kate Forsyth, author of BITTER GREENS ~ from Renee!

A few days ago, we had a guest interview with Sophie Masson, conducted by the ever-fabulous Renee. Today, Renee is back with another Aussie-licious chat, this time with Kate Forsyth, author of Bitter Greens, The Wild Girl, and more!

Check it out below, and make sure to leave Kate and Renee some love in the comments!!

Kate Forsyth is an Australian author. She is best known for her historical novel Bitter Greens, which interweaves a retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale with the true life story of the woman who first told the tale. Forsyth is also the author of several children's books, and has published two heroic fantasy series, The Witches of Eileanan and Rhiannon's Ride, the poetry collection Radiance, and the novel Full Fathom Five under her maiden name, Kate Humphrey.
Kate Forsyth is currently undertaking a doctorate in fairytale retellings, and her latest adult novel, The Wild Girl, which tells the story of Dortchen Wild, who grew up next door to the Grimm brothers, formed a romantic relationship with Wilhelm and told him some of the most powerful and compelling stories in the famous fairytale collection.

1. You have mentioned before the personal connection you felt towards the Rapunzel tale, and it's influence in your writing your novel Bitter Greens. Could you share with readers where this connection stemmed from?
The inspiration for BITTER GREENS reaches far back into my own childhood, back to the time when I was first beginning to walk and talk.
I was savagely attacked by a dog and spent weeks in hospital, suffering terrible wounds to my head and face. One of the dog’s fangs penetrated straight through my tear duct!
As a result, I spent many years in and out of hospital with chronic eye infections. I’d be feverish, in pain, half-blind. My only consolation was stories – the ones I read and the ones I made up in my imagination. Anyone who came to visit me knew they had to bring me a pile of books. One day someone brought me a collection of fairy tales. One of the stories was Rapunzel.
I felt a great affinity with that other young girl, locked away alone in a tower as I was confined alone in my hospital ward. I loved the fact that her tears had the power to heal the prince’s blindness and wished that my own tears, weeping constantly from the damaged tear duct, would heal mine.
I was as haunted by the story as the prince was by Rapunzel’s singing, but I was puzzled too. Why did the witch lock Rapunzel away? Why didn’t the prince fetch some rope? What happened to the witch? Did Rapunzel ever find her true parents?
These questions and mysteries became like the grit in an oyster, that over time grows into a pearl.

Also, are there any other fairytales that especially resonated with you, at any age?
Oh yes, I've always loved 'Beauty and the Beast'and am actually working on a retelling of that tale now, set in Nazi Germany. I've also always loved 'Six Swans', 'Sleeping Beauty', 'The Snow Queen' and 'Cinderella'.

2. Bitter Greens certainly breaks down the notion of more sanitised version of the Rapunzel tale that perhaps people are more familiar with today. Many of the original folk tales didn't disassociate sex and violence with magic and romance.
No, that's so true. The early versions of Rapunzel were unashamedly erotic. The Grimm brothers were harshly criticised for including a story about an unwed teenage mother in their first edition of fairy tales, published in 1812, and so they removed any reference to sex and chidlbirth from the story in later editions. Other translators and adaptors of the tale diluted it even further.

3. What do you think accounts for the 'toning-down' of fairytales? Are the Disney films entirely to blame?
Many fairy tales were originally written for an adult audience, while others came from an oral tradition, with the teller changing the tale according to its audience. The Grimms' original aim was to simply collect and preserve the tales as they were told, but they soon realised that there were many different versions of the same tale, some of them only fragments. They then began to blend the stories, and rewrite them, looking for the best version. Their audience was still primarily adults, however, particularly scholars of folklore. Then, in 1824, an English lawyer called Edgar Taylor translated some of the Grimm tales into English, with children as the target market. His translation was a wild success, and led the Grimms to bring out their own Children's Edition in 1825. This too was a big success, and led to many more collections of such tales for children. Each editor made changes according to their own taste and sociopolitical environment, which usually resulted in the removal of anything even remotely erotic or sensual. Disney then added his own brand of whimsy, humour, and a hefty dose of middle-class morality, changing many tales to fit his template of romantic happy endings. Other contemporary writers have gone the other way, returning to the stories their erotic charge, or their atmosphere of fear and horror.

4. The very nature of fairy tales carries with it some predictability, pattern and expectation in the narrative construct. Does this limit or liberate the author when you're approaching these tales to craft your own?
Yes, absolutely. I saw it as the primary challenge. How can I create an atmosphere of unbearable suspense, how can I surprise the reader, how can I create a compelling narrative full of twists and turns, when the audience knows the story so well? I had to find new ways to frame the story, and I had to find unexpected answers to some of the mysteries in the tale. Part of the surprise lay in me drawing upon the true life story of the woman who first wrote the tale, for her life was so full of drama. The other thing I did was tell the story as a historical novel, not a fantasy, so that it felt very real and very possible. This made the story feel new and fresh as well, I hope.

5. Your latest novel, The Wild Girl, concerns itself with Dortchen Wild, who was the source for a great many folk tales that the Brothers Grimm collected for their anthologies.
Likewise, Bitter Greens featured Charlotte-Rose de la Force, who crafted and told one of the original Rapunzel tales.
How much of a role have women traditionally played in the telling of fairytales?
Well, women have always told stories. They told stories to entertain their children, and to teach them how to go on in the world, and they told stories to each other, to while away the hours of work each day. In some cultures - in the troubadour tradition of southern France, for example - women were also professional storytellers and singers. The invention of the printing press meant that many stories - mainly written by men - began to be printed and circulated more widely, but women continued to tell stories at home and at their work. As women began to be better educated, they began to write their own tales, like Charlotte-Rose de la Force did with 'Persinette', her version of 'Rapunzel', in the late 17th century. Many, many women wrote their own fairy tales, both in France and Germany and other countries, yet their names are not instantly recognisable like Charles Perrault or Hans Christian Anderson. This is changing, however.

6. Do you consider it a shame that the more immediate association with fairy tales is often that of male authors and contributors, such as the Grimms, Charles Perrault, Hans Christian Anderson - even (incorrectly) Walt Disney?
I do! Indeed, I just wrote an article on that very subject for Aurealis Magazine (you can buy a copy for only $2.99 here: http://www.aurealis.com.au/current.php)

7.. Do you have a favourite writer or collector of 'canon' fairy tales? Any favourite modern authors of fairy tale works?
I love reading fairy tale retellings, and have collected over a hundred of them. My favourites include books by the classic children's authors, Eleanor Farjeon, Nicholas Stuart Gray and C.S. Lewis, who wrote wonderful retellings of a number of different fairy tales, including Cinderella, Rapunzel, Six Swans, Rumplestiltskin, and, in C.S. Lewis's case, the myth of Cupid and Psyche. Contemporary writers whose books I love include Robin McKinley, Juliet Marillier, Sophie Masson, Kim Wilkins, Gail Carson Levine, Edith Pattou, Jessica Day George, Cat Wetherill, and Donna Jo Napoli.

8. You are hosting a fairy tale dinner party, and you may invite 5 villains, 5 heroes and/or heroines, and 5 fairy tales authors. Who would you invite, and what food and drink would you serve?
Oooh, tricky question. Would I really want to invite fairy tale villains? They were rather a nasty lot and might poison my apple pie.
I'd rather invite some of the more intriguing fairy tale tellers. I'd have to invite Giambattista Basile, who was rather a saucy fellow as we can tell from his Tales of Tales. Charlotte-Rose de la Force, of course, and her cousin, Henriette-Julie de Castelnau, the Coumtesse de Murat, who was nearly as wild and wicked as Charlotte-Rose. I'd also include the Countess d'Aulnoy who had a most dramatic and scandalous life (I might have to write about her one day too).
To balance out my numbers, I'd invite Giovan Francesco Straparola, who some call the inventor of fairy tales, and Antoine Galland who first translated 'A Thousand and One Nights'.
Of course Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild would have to be invited. I'd so love to ask Dortchen if I captured her inner life truthfully, or whether I have just spun a complete bag of moonshine. I'd also want to know - who told her the stories?
They might find the scandalous and sensual French and Italians are little confronting, so I'd also invite their friends Bettina von Arnim, a fascinating German writer and fairy tale inventor, and her husband, Achim. Then, of course, Oscar Wilde! And I'd have to invite Hans Christian Anderson, else his feelings would be hurt. Oh, my numbers are unbalanced again! So let me throw in Angela Carter and Marina Warner too.
What would I cook? How about Princess and the Pea soup, sausage and magic beans cassoulet, a salad of bitter greens and rapunzel, with hot gingerbread with caramel sauce to follow.

My thanks to both Kate Forsyth and Renee for being part of Fairy Tale Fortnight!
You can find Kate at www.kateforsyth.com.au
and you can find Renee on her youtube channel, Nehomas2, or on YA Book Reads and  Burn Bright, where she is a frequent contributor.

Click here to go back to the Fairy Tale Fortnight Main Page,
where you can access the schedule! Or go here to get involved!
Credit to these awesome Deviants for our button [ 12 & 3]!


  1. Fascinating blog post. I don't know most of the people invited to dinner but I'm sure it would be lively and imaginative. I'd love to attend if she has room for one more!


  2. I'm so intrigued by the history in here. And in a fairy tale written as historical fiction; it does indeed add a bit more suspense and, well, reality to it all.


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