Last year I encountered a novel called Bitter Greens (some of you may recall the review of it I posted on here). You know those books that you just cannot put down? The ones that you end up walking down the street holding in front of your face, or sneakily reading by the light of your phone’s flashlight app long after your partner has turned out the lamp? Bitter Greens was one of them for me.
So when I found out that the author, Kate Forsyth, was coming to the UK to do some events, I simply had to attend one. Even the 4-hour train journey to get there & back couldn’t dissuade me!
The book club at Waterstone’s in Bluewater, Kent, had read Bitter Greens and Kate went to visit them to discuss it. The talk was open to the public, not just book club members, but it seems that I was the only gatecrasher. They all knew one another, and produced some beautiful looks of surprise when they asked where I had come from and I said ‘Winchester.’
Bitter Greens is a retelling of the fairy tale ‘Rapunzel.’ It has three narrative strands: One for a young girl named Margherita, who is the Rapunzel figure, one for Selena Leonelli, who is the witch who imprisons her, and one for Charlotte-Rose de la Force, the real-life author of a version of ‘Rapunzel’ entitled ‘Persinettte.’ Altogether, this novel is a unique blend of fantasy and historical fiction.
Kate talked about her process of writing Bitter Greens, from the initial desire to retell ‘Rapunzel’ to how the idea developed. As a child, she spent a lot of time in hospital due to an accident which damaged her eye. Her mother gave her a book of fairy tales to read, and being so shut away from the world she found it easy to identify with Rapunzel. However, she always wondered about the fate of the witch. Did she ever get out of the tower? If so, how? What did she do afterwards? It was this line of thought that led Kate to wanting to write her own version of the story.
As a children’s author, she initially tried retelling ‘Rapunzel’ for this or a YA audience as a fantasy novel. But eventually she realised that it was never meant to be a story for children, because when you stop and analyse it there are some dark themes present (such as violence, sexuality and madness) which could only reach their full potential in an adult novel.
Fairy tales vary depending on the country they’re from, Kate explained. Italian fairy tales tend to be very bawdy and lively, with obvious sexual references. French fairy tales, on the other hand, are more sedate and less explicit. Many were told be aristocratic women, like Charlotte-Rose, in literary salons. Women were heavily restricted by society, having their marriages arranged which often led to miserable lives. To them, thoughts of charming princes and true love were daydreams; a welcome escape from their harsh realities. Fairy tales are constantly borrowing motifs from one another, making many of them similar no matter where they’re from. This makes them both recognisable and different, because not all retellings re-use the exact same set of motifs every time.
Fairy tales also lack what Kate called a ‘crystalised’ form. Because some have so many variations, no definitive original exists. Therefore, when working on a retelling it’s possible to decide for yourself which version is going to be your source. For example, the recent Disney film Maleficent used their own earlier film, Sleeping Beauty, as their crystal. All retellings are a positive thing as they keep the essence of the tales alive, but it’s interesting note which versions are consistently reused.
After the book club meeting, I got the chance to speak to Kate for awhile. I had emailed her a few days before explaining that I’m a fairy tale fanatic and currently writing my dissertation about them, and asking if we could have a chat. She agreed, which made me stupidly excited followed by nervous. What was I going to say? Where fairy tales are concerned, there’s always too much! But it turned out that I didn’t need to worry, because once I got to that moment everything I’d thought about prior to it decided to fly from my brain. I just started mindlessly babbling about Sleeping Beauty and my degree. Classy. But Kate was lovely and reassuring, and gave me some fantastic advice.
She was also desperate to get to Cath Kidston before they closed, since they don’t have that in Australia. I was fine with that — any excuse to go to Cath Kidston is a good excuse!
We walked and talked. I confessed that I’m struggling with my retelling at the moment, mostly because I’m not sure what I want to keep from the original and how it will all fit together. She told me that there are two different types of retellings:
- A pure retelling, which more or less follows the fairy tale exactly (like she did for Bitter Greens)
- A new retelling, which takes themes and/or motifs from the fairy tale and reshapes them into something else
Whichever type you’re doing, the problem with any retelling is that readers already know the story. As a writer, it becomes your job to surprise them. Make it fresh, get some suspense in there and make them feel that perhaps they don’t know what’s going to happen after all.
Kate asked me what the ending of my story is, and I then realised that I don’t yet know. So it’s off to the library for me to do some hardcore work, starting today! Even with these new ideas I’m still scared and confused, but isn’t every writer? I swear it’s what keeps us alive sometimes.
Kate also signed my book for me, not Bitter Greens (my mum was cheeky enough to nick my battered copy, then buy a pristine new one and get Kate to sign that for her & hand me back my old one!) but her other fairy tale based novel, The Wild Girl:
It never ceases to amaze me how versatile fairy tales are, and how many people they captivate for all kinds of reasons. I’m so new to all of this — writing, studying and retelling, and hearing/reading other people’s experiences with fairy tales is rather daunting. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. We’re all just people with a common interest, and we all have our own opinions to bring to the fairy tale table. None are right, and none are wrong. And there lies their magic.
A massive thank you to Kate for agreeing to meet me, and for sharing so many writing tips and ideas. You can visit Kate’s blog to find out more about Bitter Greens, The Wild Girl and her other projects here.
Also thank you to Bluewater Waterstone’s Book Club for being extremely welcoming, it was fun to meet you all!