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? Bitter Greens was one of those. So when I found out that the author, Kate Forsyth, was coming to the UK to do some events, it wasn’t a case of if I was going it was a case of choosing the easiest to attend. Even the 4-hour train journey to get there & back didn’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!
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 a YA audience as a fantasy novel. However, 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.
Kate explained how fairy tales can vary depending on the country they’re from. Italian fairy tales tend to be very bawdy and lively, with blatant sexual references. French fairy tales, on the other hand, are more sedate and less explicit. Many were told by 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 reuse the exact same set of motifs every time.
Fairy tales also lack what Kate called a ‘crystalised’ form. There are so many variations of the same stories, it’s impossible to pinpoint a definitive ‘original.’ Therefore, when working on a retelling, it’s possible to decide for yourself which version is going to be your source.
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 prepared fled from my brain. I just started mindlessly babbling about Sleeping Beauty and my degree. But Kate was lovely and reassuring, and gave me some fantastic advice.
I confessed that I’m struggling with my Sleeping Beauty retelling at the moment, mostly because I’m not sure what I want to keep from my crystal 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, and make them feel that perhaps they don’t know what’s going to happen after all.
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!