Multi-award winning novelist Kate Forsyth has written work spanning from the smallest of tales to the biggest of epic sagas. But her latest works have centred on fairy-tales, the women who write them and the women who live them. Earlier this month, AWM intern TJ Wilkshire spoke with Kate about writing, retreats, and Rapunzel.
I loved your novel Bitter Greens. It has that fairy-tale magic, yet still deals with the suffering and inequality women have dealt with through the ages. Would you consider Bitter Greens a feminist novel? Was a feminist approach something you considered when you began writing the novel?
I’m so glad you loved ‘Bitter Greens’ – thank you. And, yes, the novel is absolutely a feminist text. It is a retelling of ‘Rapunzel’ – a fairy-tale about the actual & metaphorical locking up of women – interwoven with the true life story of the woman who first wrote it, a 17th century proto-feminist, Charlotte-Rose de la Force. She was a highly intelligent and rebellious woman who wrote the story we know as ‘Rapunzel’ while locked up in a convent – she had been banished there for writing subversive novels and daring to try and choose her own husband. So Bitter Greens explicitly deals with women’s struggle for empowerment and freedom. In ‘Rapunzel’, the tower stands as a metaphor for anything that ties back the human spirit from growth but, in particular, what entraps and imprisons women. I knew from the very beginning what I was hoping to do – tell a story of one woman’s struggle for a self-determined life that would, I hope, cast light on all of our struggles.
Do you think fairy-tale stories will always be relevant in the literary landscape, as a means for readers to experience a kind of escapism from reality? Do you think that’s what draws people to your books so much?
I think that fairy-tales, myths and legends offer us a great deal more than simply escape from reality. In fact, I think they offer us the exact opposite. These are the oldest of all human stories, and have been passed down through generations for thousands and thousands of years. Myth and fairy tale speak in metaphor and symbol and archetype of the most universal of human longings, desires and fears, and they have a potent pedagogic function: to teach those that listen how to negotiate the traps and terrors of human existence. They do not deny that cruelty and injustice exist, but instead offer us hope that such dark forces can be overcome. The journey is never easy. It is strewn with sharp thorns and mountains of glass, and terrifying ogres guard every bridge and every gateway. However, if the hero can remember to be kind and brave and steadfast, he or she have a hope of winning through and gaining their heart’s desire. Along the way, they change their world… which teaches all of us that we too can change ours.
So yes, of course I think myth and fairy tales will always be relevant in the literary landscape. They are the rich soil of human storytelling that nourishes all new stories. They are encoded into our DNA.
In answer to the question about what draws so many people to reading my books, I’d like to think it’s because I write vivid, compelling and intelligent narratives filled with drama, suspense, romance and wonder that illuminate something of what it is to be human. But the truth is I don’t know why – I’m just very glad that people love them!
You’ve previously said that you started writing from a very young age. How important do you think it is for children to have the opportunity to creatively express themselves through writing at school?
Absolutely crucial! And not just through writing. Through as many different artistic forms as possible. I’d love to see a school system where children were encouraged to play and explore and create as wildly and freely and boldly as possible. Creativity is the most human of impulses, and I hate to see it quenched.
Next year you’re hosting a writing retreat in the Cotswolds in England. Can you tell us a little more about that? Do you think it is important for writers to have space and time away from their everyday life to write?
Every year I run a writing retreat and literary tour in the Cotswolds, with the aim to help people reconnect with their daydreaming and writing selves. The first afternoon is spent wandering the streets of Oxford, and seeing the places that inspired J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll and other authors. Then we head to Broadway, the most enchanting village in the Cotswolds, where we stay in a 16th century old coaching inn with a secret stair which Charles II used to smuggle up his mistresses up to his room. The inn is meant to be haunted, and has the most beautiful gardens where you can sit and write. We spend every morning together, talking about books and writing and creativity. There are no writing exercises, and no-one is ever asked to read out their work. However, we do talk a lot about everyone’s work-in-progress, and ways to help bring it to life. Every second afternoon we have a tour to somewhere amazing nearby. One day we go to Stratford-upon-Avon for lunch, another day we take a look at some of the hidden treasures of the Cotswolds, and on the final tour, we go to Stonehenge. We have our own private bus and tour guide, who knows everything there is to know about the history of the area. On the last day, we have a literary dinner with a Mystery Guest at the most amazing old manor house at Buckland. It really is the most wonderful week!
Your research for your PHD thesis on the history behind Rapunzel formed the research for Bitter Greens. What was it like turning the history of a fairy-tale into a PhD? Is Folklore commonly discussed in the academic community?
It was actually the other way round – I wrote Bitter Greens first and so my research for the novel then helped inform my doctoral exegesis. It was a fascinating process and I learned so much. It all began with my desire to retell ‘Rapunzel’. I discovered so much remarkable history to the fairy-tale and I realized that no-one had really examined it in depth before. So I decided I would. I applied to do a Doctorate of Creative Arts, with my novel Bitter Greens as the creative component and then a history of Rapunzel as my theoretical (it was later published as The Rebirth of Rapunzel: A Mythic Biography of the Maiden in the Tower.) The two works complement each other, and can be studied as a whole.
The whole process was utterly fascinating, but it was challenging at times because fairy-tale studies are not a usual choice for a doctorate. However, I had a great deal of support from my university and supervisors, and also from international fairy-tale scholars such as Jack Zipes and Marina Warner, which was wonderful for me.
You can read more about Kate Forsyth here.
The History, Mystery & Magic Retreat with Kate Forsyth runs from Sunday 27 August to Sunday 3 September 2017 – email Bookshop Travel for cost and other details.
TJ Wilkshire is a twenty-something Brisbane based artist and writer. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Writing and English Literature and is currently studying the WEP Masters at the University of Queensland. Her work focuses on birds and she hopes to one-day turn into one. Wilkshire’s poetry has been published in Peril and Uneven Floor, and won the NotJack Competition.