Kate Forsyth always wanted to be a writer. She was writing stories and poems from the time she could first hold a pencil and she wrote her first novel when she was only seven. Now, she is the internationally bestselling author of more than thirty books, including The Witches of Eileanan and Rhiannon’s Ride fantasy series for adults. She completed a doctorate in fairytale retellings and the novels that have come out of this fascination include the winner of the 2015 American Libraries Association Prize for Historical Fiction, Bitter Greens, The Wild Girl and the forthcoming The Beast’s Garden. Her books have been published in seventeen different countries, including Japan, Poland, Spain, Russia and Turkey. Kate has also written series for children of all ages and the contemporary novel Dancing on Knives. The Beast’s Garden will be published in August and I will be reviewing it as part of a blog tour. You can keep up with Kate at her website, or follow her on Facebook or Twitter.
Monique: Your novel, The Beast’s Garden, is due for publication soon. Can you tell readers a bit about it?
Kate: The Beast’s Garden is a retelling of the Grimms’ ‘Beauty & the Beast’ fairy tale set in the underground resistance to Hitler in Berlin during the Second World War. It tells the story of a young woman, Ava, who marries a Nazi officer to save her father but secretly works against the Third Reich, trying to save the lives of those suffering under Hitler’s brutal regime. Unbeknownst to Ava, her husband Leo is involved in a conspiracy to assassinate the Fuhrer. As the Gestapo hunts down any who dare to resist and the Allies close in on Berlin, Ava must risk everything to save the man she loves.
Monique: What do you like most about The Beast’s Garden?
Kate: In my novel, Ava joins an underground resistance movement called The Red Orchestra by the Gestapo. This is a real group, made up of a diverse array of aristocrats and actors, scholars and sculptors, authors and academics. Many of them lost their lives in their fight to resist Hitler, yet few know about their courage and strength of spirit. I have done my best to bring the real-life heroes of the Red Orchestra to life on the page, and hope that this will raise awareness of the sacrifices they made.
I also love the fact that Ava is a jazz singer – the book is full of the most beautiful defiant music.
Monique: Many of your novels reimagine fairy tales, particularly Grimms’ Fairy Tales. What attracts you to fairy tales, both as a writer and a reader?
Kate: I have always loved the way that fairy tales twist together peril and beauty, darkness and brightness, in such magical and compelling ways. I also love the message of hope and triumph that fairy tales carry. I’ve been fascinated by such wonder tales since I was a child, and they have worked their way into all of my writing.
Monique: Which fairy tale is The Beast’s Garden based on? What made you chose this tale?
Kate: The Beast’s Garden retells the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale ‘The Singing Springing Lark’, which is a variant on the well-known French fairy tale ‘Beauty and the Beast’. The first half of the tale is very similar to the French one, except that the girl’s father steals a lion’s lark, instead of the more usual rose. In order to save her father’s life, the girl must go and marry the lion – he is a beast by day but a man at night. She falls in love with her beast-husband, but unwittingly betrays him by allowing a ray of light to fall upon him while he is in human form. He is transformed into a dove, but lets fall a single white feather and a single drop of red blood every day so that his wife can follow him. She follows this trail of blood and feathers for seven years, but eventually loses him. So she asks the help of the sun, the moon, and the four winds, who all help her find her enchanted love and fight the sorceress who had first cursed him. She rescues him from captivity and they escape to live happily ever after. It’s a very beautiful and romantic story, with echoes of the Greek myth Eros and Psyche in the series of trials and ordeals that the heroine suffers in order to win back her lover. I had wanted to retell this tale ever since I first read it, and was utterly electrified once I got the idea of retelling it in Nazi Germany.
Monique: How do fairy tales and older stories relate to present-day life?
Kate: Tolkien said ‘Pay heed to the tales of old wives. It may well be that they alone keep in memory what it was once needful for the wise to know.’
I think this is very true of myth and fairy tales and old folklore – they carry encoded messages about how to live one’s life and overcome the obstacles in one’s ways. They are full of wisdom.
Monique: What are some of the themes you aim to address through reimagining fairy tales?
Kate: All of my books are a kind of journey through darkness into brightness, through fear and despair into hope and joy. They are stories about being true to oneself, about having the courage and strength to stand up for what is right, for being brave and loving and kind. They celebrate the redemptive power of storytelling, and the importance of love.
Monique: What are some of the myths about fairy tales you’d like to bust?
Kate: Well, firstly, fairy tales were never meant to be told only to children. Many of them are filled with sexual desire, cruelty, and horror. They have teeth and claws and a blood-red lining.
Secondly, I think its important to understand that the famous happy ending of fairy tales is not an empty illusion. It is possible to triumph over all the odds, it is possible to find true love, and it is possible to change the world for the better. The fairy tale ending gives us all hope that, if we are only steadfast and true and brave enough, we can overcome all those things that hold us back from becoming our greater selves. This is very important. The only way to make a better world is to imagine one first … and fairy tales help us to do that.
Monique: Which version of Grimms’ Fairy Tales would you recommend to an adult reader?
Kate: I like The Annotated Brothers Grimm, edited by Maria Tatar and with an introduction by A. S. Byatt. It is beautifully illustrated, and has a short introduction to each tale that helps readers understand its history and meaning. I also like Philip Pullman’s Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version, because he retells the stories so beautifully and because he adds a little personal commentary at the end of each tale in his characteristic wry voice.
Monique: What led you to become a storyteller? Why is it such an important part of life?
Kate: I grew up in a family of wonderful storytellers. My grandmother and great-aunts and my mother were always telling us amazing tales from history and myth, or from our own family’s past. Our house was also full of books, and I read hungrily from a very young age. My sister and brother and I were encouraged to write our own poems and stories, and to act out plays, and to make up imaginative games, and so our childhood was rich with stories of all kinds.
I think storytelling is tremendously important because it is the way we connect to other humans. By telling other people our stories, we build a bridge of understanding between us. Through stories we share passions and sadness and fears and hopes. We also heal the wounds of the past and find new ways to go forward into a psychologically stronger place.
Stories also connect us to the past, and help us illuminate the future. It helps us make sense of the world. The human brain is hard-wired for story; it is how we think.
Monique: What’s your writing process like? Where do you write? Do you need complete silence or can you cope with noise? How do you get into the “zone”?
Kate: Mostly, I write in my study at home but I can write anywhere – in bed, at the beach, on a train, in a plane. I prefer silence but rarely get it, since I have three children, a large and rambunctious dog, and a cat that purrs very loudly. I write every day as a rule, though sometimes it’ll just be in my diary. Some days I might write a poem or a song (I wrote one this morning as I walked the dog, and had to stop and scribble it down on a scrap of paper, leaning it up against a tree.) It’s not all writing as well. I do a lot of day-dreaming and thinking and plotting and planning, which I can do as I go about my day, and of course there’s reading and research and tweeting and rewriting and editing and proofreading. I travel a lot, for research and teaching and publicity, and so I write wherever and whenever I can. It’s a very rare for me to take a whole day off – and even then my brain is busy with ideas.
How do I get into the zone? I approach my writing time and space with a feeling of anticipation and joy. I think through what I plan to write and imagine it in my mind’s eye before I put fingertips to keyboard. I make sure, as far as possible, that I’m not hot or cold, hungry or thirsty, because the only way to sink into the created world of the book is to forget myself and my body entirely. I set myself challenging targets and reward myself when I achieve them. I approach my work with a sense of humble awe, so grateful that I can spend my days doing something so strange and marvellous and beautiful as making up stories.
Monique: What do you do when you’re having doubts about your writing?
Kate: I remind myself that I must not allow my own anxieties and fears to prevent me from giving this story life – there is no room for ego in writing, only dedication and steadfast effort. I go back and read some of the amazing fan mail I have received over the years, to remember that there are many people who love what I do. I keep on doggedly working, taking the time to stop and scrutinise my work to see what I can do to make it better.
Monique: When you write, what is your biggest weakness?
Kate: I always write too much. I try and cut my early drafts by as much as a third, trying to keep the pace swift and the story compelling.
Monique: What’s the biggest myth about being a writer?
Kate: That you cannot make a living by writing. I heard that so many times as a young woman who desperately wanted to write, and it makes me proud that I’ve been able to prove them all wrong.
Monique: You wake in the middle of the night with a brilliant book-ish idea. What do you do?
Kate: Get up and write it down! This happens to me all the time. I won’t be able to sleep again till I have got the idea down.
Monique: Do you become emotionally attached to your characters?
Kate: Of course! I live inside their skin for months and months. I care for them intensely, and lie awake worrying about ehat’s happening to them and how I can save them.
Monique: What happens when the book is finished? Do you close the door or wonder what they’re getting up to?
Kate: I always have a period of grief at the end of a book. I find it hard not to think about the book obsessively, running it through my mind over and over again. I’ve had to learn to shut the door, else I’d never be able to let things go. Its one reason why I can never re-read my own work – I’d immediately want to start re-writing it!
Monique: One (or more) of your characters is not behaving, or does something unexpected. How do you handle this?
Kate: Oh I do as I’m told. I’m always very obedient to the demands of my characters.
Monique: Have you ever cried while writing an emotive scene?
Kate: All the time!
Monique: Which book are you reading now?
Kate: I have just finished Affinity by Sarah Waters – it was utterly brilliant! I went and downloaded another of her books as soon as I had finished it, and I’m looking forward to launching into it.
I am also reading a whole pile of books on the Pre-Raphaelite circle as research for a new novel I am planning.
Thank you for answering my questions, Kate.