We craft and tell stories because we’ve stood on the uncertain edge between the waking world and our imagination, between enchantment and fear. And we remember other stories that help us build our own stories, scraps of lumber and fragments of narrative we gather together to make stories for ourselves.

Bitter Greens

An Interview with Kate Forsyth

Kate Forsyth is an Australian writer of fantasy novels for both adults and children. Her first book ‘The Witches of Eileanan’ was named a Best First Novel of 1998 by Locus Magazine, and since then she’s been shortlisted for many awards, including a CYBIL Award in the US and the Surrey Book of the Year award in Canada. In 2007, five of her ‘Chain of Charms’ series were jointly awarded the 2007 Aurealis Award for Children’s Fiction. Her books are inspired by a deep love and knowledge of European folk-and-fairylore. Unsettling Wonder is delighted to welcome Kate to the site to celebrate the UK publication of her adult novel Bitter Greens (Allison & Busby, £12.99), and to talk about the retelling of fairy tales.

UW: Kate, besides being a highly successful writer for both children and adults, you’re also undertaking a doctorate in the re-telling of fairy tales, which sounds fascinating. Can you tell us something about that?

KF: It is utterly fascinating! I am doing a doctorate of creative arts, focusing on ‘Rapunzel’ by looking at the ancient roots of the fairy tale, and then examining creative and critical responses to the story, including my own. My novel ‘Bitter Greens’ was written as the creative component of the doctorate, and I am now working on the theoretical aspect. ‘Bitter Greens’ is a retelling of ‘Rapunzel’ but I have interwoven with the story of the woman who first wrote the tale as we know it. She was a strong-willed French noblewoman who defied social strictures and so was banished to a run-down convent in the country. It was while incarcerated there that she wrote ‘Persinette’, which was later told in Germany as ‘Rapunzel’.

Bitter GreensYour adult novel ‘Bitter Greens’ is a reworking of the tale of Rapunzel, which braids together three narrative strands: those of the historical Charlotte-Rose de la Force, author of the fairy tale ‘Persinette’, and of the fictional characters Selena, Titian’s muse, and Margherita, imprisoned in a tower. With each story we are dipped a little deeper into fantasy. What led you to choose this triple braiding of narrative strands? Was it a conscious structural echo of Rapunzel’s hair?

Yes, it was very much a conscious decision.
I wanted the novel’s structure to symbolically represent Rapunzel’s braid of impossibly long hair, the key motif in the fairy tale. It took me quite a while to find the right balance of narratives. I had wanted to tell part of the story from the witch’s point of view right from the beginning, and obviously I knew I would be telling the story of the girl in the tower, who I named Margherita. However, I felt I needed a third narrative strand, which would tie all the stories together at the end. It took me a while to stumble upon Charlotte-Rose’s story, but as soon as I read about her life I knew it contained all the elements I needed – romance, drama, scandal, magic and her own struggles to escape her imprisonment and the confines of a seventeenth century woman’s life.

Do you feel ‘fairy tale’ is a subgenre of ‘fantasy’, or is it the other way around?

I think fantasy fiction draws its inspiration from fairy tale, as well as from myth and legend and history. Fairy tales are shape-shifters; they constantly change as they are retold and reimagined by different tellers. So one is not so much a sub-genre of the other; it is more like a source well of ideas and motifs and narrative patterns that is dipped into again and again and again.

How should one approach the retelling of a fairy tale?

I think the main problem with retelling such a well-known tale is that everyone knows the story (or at least they think they do.) And so the challenge for me as a writer was to find some way to make the story compelling and surprising, full of unexpected turns, while still being true to the narrative. One way for me to do that was to write it as a historical novel; that way, I could not rely on convenient magic to explain the mysteries of the story, such as Rapunzel’s fathoms-long hair, or the tower with neither door not stair. I had to find logical, realistic explanations instead.

Using the life story of the woman who first wrote the tale was another way to make the story feel real, as if it might have really happened, and of course had the added benefit of giving a voice to a woman who has been rendered mute by the patriarchal society in which she lived.

I also drew on earlier variants of the Rapunzel story to add that element of the unexpected, to shake up the reader and unsettle their expectations.

However, I did not want to lose that quality of strangeness and wonder which gives fairy tales their extraordinary magical atmosphere. It was also really important to me to stay true to what I saw as the inner meaning of the tale. ‘Rapunzel’ is a story about imprisonment and escape, and so it speaks compellingly to anyone who has ever felt themselves powerless, or trapped within their own life. I felt I wanted to understand what it must have been like to have been that young woman, locked away against her will, lonely and terrified. I wanted to understand the witch too, if I could.

I think each creative artist brings their own passions and preoccupations to the job of reinterpreting and reimagining old tales. I did not want to subvert or make mock of the original story, but to breathe new life into it.

What relevance do you feel fairy tales have for us today?

I think fairy tales continue to endure because their messages, hidden within the metaphoric codes of princes and witches and curses and towers, still speak as strongly and clearly to humans today as they ever did. We all share universal terrors and longings, which walk through our dreams and our nightmares as symbolically powerful archetypes. Fairy tales tell us it is possible to face these fears – the ogres of our darkest imaginings – and triumph over them. Fairy tales tell us it is possible to change our world.

Must a fairy tale, to be authentic, always descend to us through the oral tradition? Is it possible to write a brand new fairy tale?

Of course! Although fairy tales have their roots in ancient tales told by oral storytellers, new ones have been invented and written down and published since the invention of the printing press. Giambattista Basile wrote the first recognisable version of ‘Rapunzel’ in the 1600s (his tale was called ‘Petrosinella’, and was published after his death in 1637.) Charlotte-Rose rewrote it as ‘Persinette’’ sixty years later, changing its end to suit her own purposes. Many of Hans Christian Andersen’s most famous fairy tales were invented entirely out of his own tortured imagination. Oscar Wilde wrote fairy tales, and so did the poet Robert Southey, who wrote ‘The Story of the Three Bears’ (the inquisitive intruder was an old woman in his story – Goldilocks came later). I have a wonderful collection of fairy tales written by contemporary authors such as A.S. Byatt, Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Jorge Luis Borges, Jim Crace and Ben Okri. All of these, of course, are influenced by the rich oral and literary tradition that preceded these writers’ work. Jane Yolen says that stories are like cities, they are built on the stones and the bones of the past. I think that says it beautifully.

Your next adult novel, The Wild Girl, explores the relationship between Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild, who was the source of many of the Grimm’s Household Tales. Could you tell us a bit about the book, and whether you weave fairy stories into the narrative?

‘The Wild Girl’ is the story of Dortchen Wild, who grew up next door to the Grimm Brothers in the cramped, medieval quarter of Cassel, in what was then Hessen-Cassel (Kassel is now spelt with a K). She was best friends with their sister, Lotte, and the source of almost a quarter of all the tales in the first 1812 edition of Çhildren’s and Household tales’. Dortchen told Wilhelm such well-known and powerful fairy tales as ‘Six Swans’, ‘Hansel and Gretel’, Áll-Kinds-of-Fur’, ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’, ‘Sweetheart Roland’, ‘Fitcher’s Bird’, and ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, which is a beautiful variant of ‘Beauty and the Beast’. It was a time of war and tyranny. Hessen-Cassel was one of the first German countries to fall to Napoleon’s army. His wastrel brother ruled Hessen-Cassel for six years, and bankrupted them. War and famine and social unrest followed. Dortchen and Wilhelm were in love, but unable to marry because of the Grimm family’s desperate poverty. At last, though, the fairy tales began to sell and the two were able to marry. It’s a story of love, drama, heartbreak, and yes, fairy tales. Dortchen’s tales are woven through the book, showing uncanny echoes of her own tumultuous life.

Finally, what are your favourite fairy tales, old and retold?

I love so many. ‘Rapunzel’, obviously, but also ‘Six Swans’, ‘The Goose Girl’, ‘The Snow Queen’, ‘Beauty and the Beast, ‘Snow White’, ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, ‘Two Brothers’, oh, I could go on and list them all! My favourite fairy tale retellers are Robin McKinley and Juliet Marillier.

Bitter Greens is released on February 25.
Available wherever good books are sold.

Kate Forsyth was interviewed by Katherine Langrish.

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