I am absolutely delighted to be able to bring you yet another awesome interview in our ongoing series focusing on local (and awesome) writers. This week, Kristy (from the awesome Book Frivolity blog) and I had the amazing pleasure to chat to the legendary Kate Forsyth. Kate has had such an incredible impact on the speculative and historical fiction scene here in Australia, and it was such an honour for Kristy and I to sit down and shoot the breeze with her about writing, her latest book The Beast's Garden, and how she goes about her research and investigating for a book. (note, my questions are in black and Kristy's are in blue. Be sure to check out her amazing site too over at Book Frivolity... she's a very cool cat!)
Kate Forsyth, welcome to Smash Dragons and Book Frivolity!
First up, tell us about yourself.
Why did you start writing? Was it something you always envisaged doing professionally even when you were young?
I have always wanted to be a writer. There was never a moment of epiphany in which I thought: that’s it! That’s what I have to do! I just always knew. I began writing stories and poems as soon as I could hold a pencil, and I wrote my first novel when I was seven. I have never stopped since. As soon as I finish one novel, I begin thinking about the next.
Your latest book, The Beast’s Garden, is a fascinating retelling of Beauty and the Beast that is set in Nazi Germany. I’m curious, what inspired this particular story and its setting?
The idea first came to me as a kind of dream. I was drifting between sleep and awakening, in that hypnopompic state I call the shadowlands. A lot of my best ideas come to me in that state – not quite a dream, not quite a daydream. I call it ‘liminal dreaming’.
I saw a young woman dressed in a long golden dress, leaning on a black piano and singing in a very sensual way to a nightclub full of SS officers in their sinister black uniforms. Somehow I knew that the woman was German, and she was some kind of resistance fighter seeking to cajole secrets from the Nazi officers. More images came – I imagined her hiding in the rubble of a bombed out city, and scrabbling for something to eat in a wintry forest. I knew that she had an old battered copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales that was like a talisman for her.
At the time, I was struggling with my novel The Wild Girl, which tells the story of the forbidden romance between Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told him many of the world’s most famous fairy tales. One of the stories she told him was ‘The Singing. Springing Lark’, an utterly beautiful version of ‘Beauty & the Beast’ which I loved because of the courage and steadfastness of the heroine, who must follow her beloved beast-husband for seven years and battle with the enchantress who first cursed him. I was trying to find ways to weave Dortchen’s tales through my novel, and had not yet seen my way clear.
I was, at the same time, also working on the chapter on the Grimm brothers in my doctoral exegesis. I had discovered that Adolf Hitler had been a great fan of the Grimms, and that the Allies had banned their books and stories after the end of the Second World War. This really troubled me, as I had loved the Grimms’ fairy tales since I was a child, but had hated all that Nazism stood for since I had read Anne Frank’s Diary when I was twelve.
These worries and anxieties had kept me from sleeping, and so I had read an old World War II thriller into the dark hours of the night. My subconscious mind connected all these different things, and somehow put them together into my vision of the girl in a golden dress (which is a key motif of ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’.)
I knew at once I was going to write a story about the German resistance – even though I did not yet know there had been one!
When re-imagining such a well-known tale, are there confines that you find you need to write within, so it doesn’t stray from the initial essence of the story?
For me, yes. It is always very important that I am true as possible to what I see as being the spirit of the original story. This is because I love the stories so much, and believe passionately in their hidden meanings. However, I would never set those constraints upon other creative artists. I think fairy tales and myths and legends are extraordinarily versatile, and open to interpretation, and that there are many ways to turn them inside out and upside out, and shake new stories out of them.
If so, do you write the story within the confines, or do you mould the story to them once you have the initial story down?
I write my story within the confines as I see them.
There are a number of books that deal with the horrors of Nazi Germany, and recently some that have caused some outrage due to the indecorous ways they deal with it. How do you go about creating three dimensional characters and scenes, in a way that doesn’t infringe on the memory of those that survived such a horrific time in history, especially when it is still so fresh in our cultural memory?
You have put your finger firmly upon what was my greatest challenge in writing The Beast’s Garden. It was soul-harrowing research, and I felt very strongly the need to be as sensitive and truthful as possible. I kept imagining myself into the skin of my heroine, Ava. She was just an ordinary young woman, who had to make very difficult choices about how to live her life. She tried to be brave, she tried to be kind, she tried to be steadfast in her loves and loyalties … yet she was living at a time of terrible fear and tension, where the cost of bravery was torture and death, not only for herself but also for the ones she loved. Would I have been able to be as brave? I hope so … and yet I wonder. I am just an ordinary woman too, and it takes such courage to stand up for what you believe is right.
Did you face any particular challenges whilst writing this book?
The whole creative process was a challenge! The research was enormous, and horribly upsetting. I had to stare into Hitler’s face, both literally and metaphorically, day after day, week after week, month after month. I had to find some way to make my story believable (it is, after all, a fairy tale retelling!) I wanted to show something of the dreadful reality of living in Berlin during those tumultuous years. I also wanted to do my best to honour those brave souls who stood up to Hitler and paid the price for it.
It is impossible not to study Hitler and the Holocaust without suffering some kind of existential crisis. I had to think about the very nature of evil, and what is the right way to fight against it.
I suffered unspeakable nightmares and inexplicable anxieties the whole time I was writing the book. It made me fear for the world we live in, and wish that I could be a better person – braver, stronger, more outspoken. I am trying now to be that person, but it is hard to know sometimes what is the best thing to do.
How much research did you undertake prior to writing it?
A great deal! Dozens and dozens of novels, non-fiction books, diaries, memoirs, poems, and documentaries. It took months.
Thanks to social media we get to follow you on some of your research travels, which is incredibly interesting for those intrigued by historical fiction research. Do you have an idea of the story before researching, or does the idea stem from the research?
Thank you so much! I’m glad you love following my strange and wild adventures.
Essentially, before I start writing a novel, I do as much reading and research as I can, so I am deeply immersed in the time and the place of the story. I plan my narrative arc carefully, and lay out as much of the skeleton of the plot as I can.
I began with a strong sense of the story I want to tell, but the process of research throws up many more ideas, and previous ideas may change and grow.
I do not start writing the novel until I have a strong feeling for my characters. Their voices, their inner lives, and, of course, the world in which they live.
Writing the novel then presents me with many new and unexpected questions, and I return to my research books again and again, and usually realise that I need to do more.
I do not usually go on a research trip until the first rough draft of the novel is written. By then, I know what I need to discover and where I need to go. Also, by that time, I have been inhabiting the skin of my characters for a long time, and so everywhere I go will be experienced through their eyes, their ears, their soul. I cannot always control the timing of my research trips, though, as I build them around other commitments such as teaching and touring.
For the first time ever this year, I went on a research trip for a book that I was only just beginning. This means I will need to go again next year. It is, however, a very complex and challenging novel, and so I think I will need the extra time.
Have you ever uncovered something when researching that you surprised you, something you didn't expect to find?
Of course! All the time. That is one of the primary purposes of the research.
When writing a Historical Fantasy like Bitter Greens (2014), that spans time and continents, interweaves them with real life and fictional characters, then adds the irregularity of magic (I’m tired just thinking of it all!) - How do you keep everything from tangling, when there are so many elements intersecting and interacting at different points? When reading them, it’s easy to imagine you plotting over a huge corkboard with pins, and strings in knots!
I record all my ideas and inspirations in a notebook, which then travels everywhere I go. I stick in maps, diagrams, photographs, copies of paintings and poems and quotes, sketches and doodles and lists of things to do, character outlines, chapter breakdowns, timelines, research notes, books to buy and books to read. The timelines and plotting plans slowly grow and develop, and I constantly type them up as they evolve, and stick them in the notebook again. Planning is everything in a book as complex as Bitter Greens, but luckily I love the planning process.
You have written many different titles across genres ranging from fantasy through to historical fiction and children’s books. How do you think you have grown as a writer since your debut Dragonclaw was first published in 1997?
It’s hard for me to tell! I don’t read my novels again after they are published, and I wrote Dragonclaw so long ago. I was 30 when it was published, and next year I will be 50, and I have lived a rich and full life in the meantime, so of course my writing must have changed as I have.
However, I think all of my books are woven with threads of suspense and romance and history and magic. It’s just that some are more suspenseful or romantic or magical than others, according to the story’s need. I always say that the story demands its own shape. By that, I mean that the story tells me what it needs to be, and all I do is listen and try to do my best by the story as it is shown to me.
Is there a process involved when deciding what genre/audience age to write for next?
It mostly has to do with what story has grabbed hold of my imagination and won’t let go. I have been contracted for books that I very much wanted to write, but then have had a new and brilliant idea electrify my imagination, and been compelled to sit down and try and give it life.
I have many more ideas than I could ever write, though, and sometimes I need to think about my husband and my children, and their needs. For example, I badly wanted to write Bitter Greens, my retelling of ‘Rapunzel’, for a very long time. However, I knew it would be a very difficult and time-consuming book, and so I waited until my youngest child had started school. That meant I could write full-time for the first time. Similarly, my son has been doing his final school exams this year, and so I’m having a much quieter year, and not touring the world!
When world-building for your Fantasy novels, are you a Gardener or An Architect?
I’m both, of course. And neither. I really dislike this kind of simplistic approach to the creative process. Each book develops differently, and throws up new challenges and offers new rewards. I think planning is a very important part of the process, but I also believe passionately in the importance of intuition, spontaneity, and surprise. Each new book is a new emotional and psychological journey for me, and calls on a whole range of different creative tools.
What is your take on the state of Australian speculative fiction?
I think it’s wonderfully diverse and fresh, and has a strong sense of community and camaraderie. I love the work of so many Australian writers, and am very glad I can call so many of them friends.
In your opinion, what do we need more of?
What has been the best thing a fan has ever said to you in regards to your work?
I am so blessed in the love and support of my readers, and get so many wonderful, heart-warming and uplifting letters and emails and artworks. I actually print the loveliest ones out, and stick them in my diary, so that whenever I’m feeling a little low, I can read them again and remind myself that there are many people who love what I do.
The best messages are always the ones that say, essentially, ‘your books helped save my life.’
It’s always a humbling and sobering experience, and reminds me to always take what I do seriously. Art must have serious intent.
Hypothetical question… if you could become a character in another fantasy writers universe who would it be and why?
I’d want to be Lucy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe!
Obligatory Top 5 Fantasy Reads?
(If you don’t mind, I’m going to answer this in two parts.)
1) The 5 Fantasy Reads That Shaped Me (not counting children’s books)
J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings
Terry Brooks, The Sword of Shannara
Mary Stewart, The Crystal Cave
Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Mists of Avalon
Tad Williams, Memory, Sorrow, Thorn
2) My favourite Australian Fantasy Reads
Garth Nix, Sabriel
Juliet Marillier, Daughter of the Forest
Lian Hearn, Across the Nightingale Floor
Alison Croggon, The Riddle
Kim Wilkins, Daughters of the Storm
Obligatory Top 5 Historical Fiction Reads?
1) The 5 Historical Novels that Shaped me (not counting children’s books)
Isabel Allende, The House of Spirits
Tracy Chevalier, Girl with a Pearl Earring
Sarah Dunant, The Birth of Venus
Philippa Gregory, The Other Boleyn Girl
Susan Vreeland, Girl in Hyacinth Blue
2) My favourite Australian Fantasy Reads
Jesse Blackadder, The Raven’s Heart
Geraldine Brooks, Year of Wonders
Kate Morton, The Forgotten Garden
Kim Wilkins, The Angel of Ruin
Marcus Zusak, The Book Thief
Everyone needs to know – Are you an e-booker or dead tree collector?
I prefer p-books, because of their beauty, and also because I like to read in the bath. I also find my eyes are tired after a long day in front of the computer, and printed books are more soothing to tired eyes.
However, I read a lot on my i-pad as well, particularly when I’m travelling. And I love the instant gratification of getting a book as soon as I want it!
I also buy a lot of old books, particularly if they are signed by the author!
What authors/genres/books are you reading at the moment?
In the past week or so I have read:
Jane Yolen, Snow in Summer (YA fairytale retelling)
Anne Gracie, The Spring Bride (Regency romance)
Angus Donald, Outlaw (historical fiction)
Michael Morpugo, Kaspar, King of Cats (illustrated children’s book)
Martin Walker, Children of War (contemporary crime)
Jan Marsh, Christina Rossetti: A Writer’s Life, (literary biography)
So you can see I have a very eclectic reading diet!
Complete the following sentences –
Fantasy and Historical Fiction rocks because… they open our eyes to other ways of living and thinking.
If I were Empress of the Earth I would… make sure every child had enough to eat and enough to read.
Vegemite flavoured chocolate is… a terrible waste of chocolate.
I am taking Kristy on my next (all expenses paid) research trip to… Let’s make it France and Italy, shall we? Got your passport?
What’s next for you?
I am working on a new novel about the painting of the famous ‘Briar Rose’ series of paintings by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones.
Can we expect to see you at any events or conventions over the next few months?
My son is beginning his final school exams in a matter of weeks, and so I am keeping a very low profile till he is finished. I am at the Jewish Literary Festival in Sydney on 30 August, at the ASA National Congress in Sydney on 11 September, and I might be coming up to GenreCon in Brisbane in late October (the week my son’s exams finish!) Then I’ll be at Supanova in Adelaide on 21 & 22 November. That’s it! Hopefully I can gets lots of writing done.
And finally, best advice for any aspiring authors out there?
I think the best advice I can give anyone is to have courage, and to keep the faith in yourself and your story. Writing is a very challenging occupation, for so many reasons, and the only way to triumph is to never let yourself believe the dark voices in your head. Be brave, stay strong, and never give up!
Kate Forsyth, thank you for talking to Smash Dragons and Book Frivolity!
The Beast's Garden is available for purchase at all good online and bricks and mortar retailers. Be sure to check out Booktopia for a signed copy (if they haven't already sold out mind you) of it! Also, Random House has recently released new jacketed versions (see photo above for Dragonclaw cover) of Kate's wonderful Witches of Eileanan series. We recommend you purchase these books immediately! Finally, be sure to check out Kristy's Book Frivolity webpage here. She is an amazing reviewer, and a passionate supporter of all things historical and speculative fiction.
Until next time people, be nice to each other, and keep on reading!