Once Upon a Lair: Kate Forsyth

Art by Kathleen Jennings

The Evil Drs Brain are very happy to welcome multi-award winning bestseller Kate Forsyth to the Lair. We’ve brought out the champagne flutes, a bottle of Bolly and some rather delicious pink cupcakes. A writer for both adults and children, Kate’s Bitter Greens, a re-telling of Rapunzel, has been described by Margo Lanagan as ‘a rich and lively story, presenting historical realities that seem fantastical, and fantastical elements that feel real’. Her very-soon-to-be-released The Wild Girl, is the tale of Dortchen Wild, one of the storytellers who gave the Brothers Grimm much of their material. Having written over twenty books and been published in fourteen (and counting!) countries, Kate is also doing a PhD in fairytale retellings at the University of Technology.

Dr Angela: How did you get started as a writer? Were you always a storyteller?
I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember – it was always a passionate and deeply-held longing, my destiny rather than a career choice. I began writing poems and stories as soon as I could hold a pencil, and wrote my first novel in the year I turned eight. I have always had a novel in progress since then – I have half-a-dozen hand-written, hand-illustrated novels in school exercise books from my childhood. I never gave up my dream, though it took me a little longer to achieve than I had imagined. 

Dr Lisa: Your books – both for adults and children – often delve into and reimagine English and Scottish history and folklore. What keeps bringing you back to these sources?
I think it has a lot to do with my favourite books when I was a child. All my most beloved authors were British – Enid Blyton, C.S.Lewis, Eleanor Farjeon, Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, Joan Aiken, Rosemary Sutcliff, Geoffrey Trease, Nicholas Stuart Grey, Phillippa Pearce, Frances Hodgson Burnett … they  all drew upon British history and folklore and landscapes for their inspiration. Then, of course, there was my own family history and background, which was resolutely British. Both my grandmothers came from Scottish stock, one grandfather’s family was Irish, another’s was Welsh … I grew up on their tales and that helped shape my imagination. It’s not just Britain, though. I also love France and Italy, where ‘Bitter Greens’ is set, while ‘The Wild Girl’ is set in 19th century Germany. I think I’m just naturally drawn to landscapes that are deeply steeped in history, mythology, fairy tale and folklore.

Dr Angela: Your new adult books, Bitter Greens and The Wild Girl, both have fairly strong historical spines as well as fairy tale flesh – how much of a departure are they from your other adult books, such as The Witches of Eileanan series?
All of my novels – fantasy or otherwise – have a strong historical feel to them. The Witches of Eileanan drew on 17th century Scottish history and folklore for its inspiration, referencing the famous witch-hunts instigated by James VI of Scotland, who in time became James I of England. Many of my children’s books are historical as well. For example, the six books of the Chain of Charms series are set in the last days of Oliver Cromwell’s rule, in the mid-17th century, and touch upon the secret intrigues to restore Charles II to the throne of England. The Puzzle Ring is a time travel adventure, featuring a bittergreens13-year old contemporary heroine who travels back to the dangerous days of Mary, Queen of Scots. I have always been passionately interested in history, and books with a historical setting are my favourite genre to read, whether it be a historical fantasy/romance or a medieval murder mystery. I usually like books that mix it all up – history and romance and suspense and fantasy, all creating one utterly delicious recipe.

Dr Lisa: Judging from your Goodreads page, you are a voracious reader with wide-ranging tastes! When working on a new book, do you continue to read/research throughout the writing process? Or do you alternate research with bouts of writing? And when do you squeeze in reading just for fun?
I do read a lot – it’s one of the great joys of my life. I read for two main purposes – for my own selfish pleasure – and, mostly, according to the demands of the story I am writing. 

In general, when I’m working on a novel everything I do is in thrall to that novel. I cannot read something unless it is set in the time or the place that I am writing about. When I was working on The Wild Girl, I read many novels written in the 19th century, particularly by women writers such as Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte. I also ploughed through a great many non-fiction books about Napoleon and his times. For relief from the non-fiction, I read novels set during that period – from Regency romances and murder mysteries to serious literary fiction such as The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald. I always become so obsessed with the place or the period that I’m writing about that I begin to cook their food (bread soup and potato dumplings), listen to their music (in this case it was Beethoven, so no true hardship), and even begin to dress in their style (this was puzzleparticularly true of me while writing the Gypsy Crown books – I have a wardrobe full of multi-layered gypsy skirts that I haven’t worn since). It makes it hard for me to belong to a Book Club because they will all want to read a book something that normally I’d delight in – like a love story set in Paris in the 20s – but I just can’t do it. It breaks me out of the total absorption in the particular world that I am trying to create. 

I usually read up on the place and time very intensively before I start. Once I feel I know everything there is to know, I begin writing. I always like to write very fluidly and quickly, but inevitably I will discover gaps in my knowledge (what kind of underwear did they wear, if any? What did they do with their chamber-pots?), but I will simply jot down a little query in my notebook and keep on writing. Then, at night, I check what I need to know in the library I’ve accumulated (I create a new mini-library of research books for each novel). So I generally write during the day and read and research at night.

Sometimes I allow myself a little break from research and read purely for pleasure. However, deeper I get into a novel, the less likely this is to happen. Once I have finished the novel, I have an absolute orgy of reading only for pleasure. I’ll sometimes read more than one book a day. I’ll catch up on all my friends’ books, and on the new releases of all my favourite writers, and read all the hot new books that everyone read months ago. It’s heaven!

But then the next book grips hold of me … and once again I crouch down in my new obsession … and read nothing that will not help me …

wildkinDr Angela: What attracts you to fantasy and fairy tale as a means of telling a story?
I have always written what I like to read. When I was a child, my favourite genre was fantasy – and I still love to read children’s fantasy, I have to say, as well as fantasy written for a more grown-up audience. I have also always loved fairy tales and fairy tale retellings. Why? It’s hard to know. Perhaps it’s because I spent a lot of time in hospital as a child, and so was drawn to books that offered me an escape from pain and fever and loneliness into worlds filled with beauty and marvels and wonder and adventure. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always had an over-active imagination and so longed for books that fed me richly. Perhaps it’s because I was the sort of child that desperately wanted fairies to be real and wishes to come true. Most probably, it’s because of all of these reasons, and other deeper, hidden ones that I don’t fully understand. I know that I still love to be enchanted by a book, and that is what I hope to give to my readers too. 

Dr Lisa: How have you found balancing PhD research/writing with your other publishing projects? A pleasure – or a pain?
Mostly a pleasure – I find it all utterly fascinating and fun. I just wish there was 3 of me. Mummy-Kate. Writer-Kate. Student-Kate. At the moment it’s a desperate juggle to stop the balls from crashing down. Still, I love a challenge … wild 

Dr Angela: Your sister Belinda Murrell is also a writer – growing up, did you tell each  other stories or steal each other’s books?
Oh yes! My sister and I wrote plays together and dressed up and acted them out; we invented intricate magical worlds with strict rules that must not be broken; and we wrote many poems and stories both together and separately. Belinda is two years older than me – one of my earliest memories is her telling me a story, very late at night, in the darkness, because I had woken from a nightmare (as I often did). It was a wonderful story, about a girl called Katie who visited fairyland, and was given wings to fly, and a bag of golden fairy-dust that vanquished all ogres just by throwing a handful over them.  I loved it, and she told me various different versions of it as I grew up.

Another early memory of mine is sobbing heart-brokenly because Belinda had taken one of my stories and rewritten it ‘to make it better’. I didn’t think it was better; I wanted my story to be the way I wrote it. I can remember my grandmother Nonnie comforting me. ‘It’s only because Belinda loves you so much that she wants to help you,’ she told me. Belinda loves telling people that she was my first editor. We also read and loved all the same books, and played many a game pretending we were in Narnia, or that we were the Famous Five, off on some adventure. We used to fight over who would be George. Because Belinda is the older one, she always tried to make me be Anne. We had quite a few battles over that one. Interestingly enough my brother Nick has also had quite a few books published, though his are mainly about tax and property and business and boring things like that.  

lightingDr Lisa: You’ve visited so many fascinating historical periods in your fiction: if you had a time machine and could travel to any era/place in the past, where – or when – would you go first?
Nowhere! Are you kidding? Who would want to be a woman any time but now? Not to mention flushing toilets and hot running water. And contraceptives and epidurals. And microfbres and microwaves … 

 Dr Angela: Who would you say have been the biggest influences on you as a writer, from childhood to adulthood?
As a child, the writers I loved best were Enid Blyton, C.S. Lewis, Eleanor Farjeon, Joan Aiken, Lloyd Alexander, Elizabeth Goudge and the Little White Horse, Nicholas Stuart Grey, Geoffrey Trease, Rosemary Sutcliff, Susan Cooper – writers like that. 

As a teenager I discovered Georgette Heyer and Jean Plaidy, which built on my love of history, and Mary Stewart, both her romantic suspense novels and her historical fantasies. I read all the classics, and particularly loved Jane Austen, Mary Webb, and the Bronte sisters. I devoured a lot of Romantic poetry, and was blown away by Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson. I also began to read Agatha Christie and Ellis Peters and Alastair MacLean in my late teens, and still love a good murder mystery or action-packed thriller. 

I was brought back to reading fantasy by David Eddings and Marion Zimmer Bradley, and fell in love with Robin McKinley’s fairy tale retellings and Isabel Allende’s magic realism. I was writing all this time, and my early novel attempts can tell you what I was reading at the time. As an adult, the books I have loved the most are by authors such as Tracy Chevalier, Philippa Gregory, Joanne Harris, Robin Hobb, Juliet Marillier, Kate Morton,  cursedSarah Zettel, Kim Wilkins, Lian Hearn, C.J. Sansom … the list could go on forever. I’m always discovering amazing new writers – hopefully ones with a long backlist!

The books that always entranced me were ones that were written beautifully – with what I call a ‘silver tongue’ – and ones in which the plot mingled history, suspense and magic, making a compelling and surprising read that kept me turning the pages late into the night. That is what I love to read and that is what I try and write. 

Dr Lisa: Bitter Greens was a great success last year and The Wild Girl is all set to make a splash this year – what other treats have you got in store for us next?
ravensBless you! And thank you! I’m so glad you think so well of my darling books. What next? I’m writing a five book fantasy adventure series, which is such fabulous fun it’s like splashing about in lemonade. I’m enjoying each unicorn gallop and dragon flight immensely. Once that is done, I’ll plunge into the deep murk and misery of Nazi Germany and the untold story of the German Resistance. Ok, maybe not entirely untold. Untold by me, though, and I’m desperate to get at it. I have such a scathingly brilliant idea … Can you bear to wait?




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2 Responses to Once Upon a Lair: Kate Forsyth

  1. Thank you Angela, Lisa and Kate for a wonderful interview. I have just finished The Wild Girl, tough going emotionally in some parts, but so rich and beautiful a story.