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THE 50/50 PROJECT: Standing under a waterfall

Saturday, March 21, 2015

I have a secret page on my website that only those that search carefully can find. I call it The 50/50 Project ...


It is a list of all my hopes and dreams - both possible and impossible - & all the places I hope to one day go and all the things I hope to one day do. I call it The 50/50 Project because it was inspired by the inching closer of my 50th birthday and the realisation that there are still so many things in the world I want to do (I found 50 of them, hence the title). The idea is that - as I go somewhere or achieve something - I'll blog about it, and gradually be able to cross off some of these dreams. 

Today I am crossing off:

No 36: Stand Under A Waterfall

I actually did this last year, when I was touring for THE IMPOSSIBLE QUEST in the Top End. Panos Couras, who was then the director of the Northern Territory Writers Centre, took me to swim at Wangi Falls in the Litchfield National Park, 100 km south-west of Darwin. 

It was the most magical place that felt very secret and ancient (apart from the dozens of people swimming there!) Its surrounded by red desert and grey-green bush for hundreds of kilometres, and the water plummets down a ochre-red rock face in heavy white veils. To get to the waterfalls, you need to swim across the waterhole which is incredibly dark and cold. Your arms and legs are greenish-brown under the water, and I could not help being afraid of crocodiles (even though I knew the waterpool was only opened if no crocodiles were sighted). 

Here is my photographic proof! (Thanks to Panos Couras who took the photos)




And to give you an idea of how tall the waterfall is (about 52 metres): 



HISTORICAL FICTION: how do you stop it being a history lesson?

Wednesday, March 18, 2015



HISTORICAL FICTION – HOW DO YOU STOP IT BEING A HISTORY LESSON?


I am spending my weekend at the first-ever Historical Novel Society of Australasia conference, in Sydney. It's going to be a fascinating weekend, with lots of talk about the fascinating past and ways to bring it to life on the page. It's not too late to join us! You can book it at the HNSA Website

In the meantime, I thought I'd post on one of the great challenges of writing Historical Fiction - how do you stop it being a history lesson?

History as a mere collection of names and dates and facts can - in the wrong hands - be mind-numbingly boring. 

Yet history is not boring. It’s full of terror and joy, hope and hunger, desperation and danger. It is full of stories that have the power to enthrall, disgust, amuse, and frighten those that listen. These stories also have an immense power to teach. I was always good at history at school, but I used to joke that’s because I had Jean Plaidy and Georgette Heyer as a teacher. 


Historians have the same fascination with the stories of the past that historical novelists do, but they approach their work in a different way. A historical novelist has a greater degree of freedom to imagine motives and intentions, to play with possibilities, to put words into their characters' mouths, and to wonder about the stories that have slipped through the cracks and been forgotten. 

Voltaire said that ‘Ancient histories are but fables that have been agreed upon.’ William Stubbs was more direct. He called history a pack of lies. This is the historian’s nightmare, and the novelist’s dream. 


Because a novelist is not interested in pinning down the past like a dead butterfly. They are interested in making the butterfly, miraculously, live again. It can be hard sometimes to realise that the history told in a textbook actually involves real people, who had dreams and were thwarted in them, who had desires that made them act as fools, who had faith in ideas that were proved to be false, or who triumphed against all the odds; people who bled when they were pricked.

This is what historical fiction can do so well. It can make the past come alive again, and seem real, and it can also, very powerfully, illuminate the similarities between the past and the present.

More interestingly, by rendering the past familiar, it can make the present seem strange. We take so much of our lives for granted – health, wealth, long life, i-phones – reading historical fiction can make us startlingly aware of just how much things have changed, as well as how little. 

So how can a historical novelist make sure that their story lives and dances? 

The first thing you need to do is make your characters as vivid and real as possible. History is what happens to people. 

Bring the characters to the history, not the other way around. In other words, know your period of history as intimately as possible and understand how the people of that time thought and spoke and ate and dressed - you must know what forces shaped your character's lives before you can invent them.  

Read as much as you can about your area of interest. Read letters, diaries and newspaper accounts of the time. Read the work of writers who were living and working then, and read the work of contemporary writers who have set their novels at that time. 

To write an historical novel, you must be a glutton for research – and you must be able to resist the desire to prove just how much research you've done. 

The research should make the world come alive for you, so that it inhabits your imagination. It should not be dropped into the text like big lumps of undigested fat. Try and whisk it in well, and strain off what’s not needed. Remember, you are not a history teacher, but a novelist. It is the story that is important, and the telling of the story, not the great globs of historical fact that show you’ve done your research.


A few other tips:


Set the scene and introduce your primary characters straight away – give the reader someone to ‘imprint’ on


Do not litter your speech with too many old-fashioned or foreign words or expressions – think of yourself as a translator who has rendered the speech of their world into the speech of our world. However, don’t use contemporary slang such as ‘OK’ unless writing a time-slip story


Don’t explain too much – allow the reader to pick up historical context by the character’s actions and beliefs – trust in your reader’s intelligence and imagination


Remember the writer’s two secret weapons: suspense and surprise. You create suspense by creating a desire to know in your reader – while surprise stops things from getting boring.


Finally, re-write, re-write, re-write. 


    

Out now! Out now! Out in August!



    
     




SPOTLIGHT: My notebooks for my novel BITTER GREENS

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

My novel BITTER GREENS (a retelling of Rapunzel interwoven with the true life story of the woman who first told the tale) is being studied this semester at the University of Queensland. The class tutor (and one of my all-time favourite writers) Kim Wilkins asked me if it was possible to show the students some of the pages from my notebooks. 

I realised I had never posted about my working techniques for BITTER GREENS, and so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to do so. 

            


I buy a new notebook whenever I begin a new book. Normally, I try and buy something really beautiful and special, but for BITTER GREENS I had been given a pile of plain black notebooks and I thought I had better use those first. 

To make them pretty and special, I stuck images on the front:


       


These are the covers for the notebook devoted to the story of Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, set in 17th century Paris and Versailles and the abbey of Gercy-en-Brie in the French countryside. The paintings are not of Charlotte-Rose herself, but of anonymous 17th century French ladies that spoke to me somehow. This is the only image I was able to find of Charlotte-Rose de la Force:



This is the cover of my notebook for the scenes set in Renaissance Venice, which tell the story of Margherita (my maiden) and Selena Leonelli (my witch). The image is one of Titian's most famous paintings of the mysterious women who was his muse. It is called 'Woman with a Mirror' and you can see the original in the Louvre (I did!) 

       

The opening pages of my notebook - the pink stick-it note was from a dinner party where I met some Germans who told me the perfect place to set my Rapunzel scenes in the tower - Sirmione in Lake Garda.  I ended up setting this scenes a few miles away at Rocca del Manerba:


       

Some early pages from my notebook.


It is always very important to me that I plan my key turning points as early as possible in the writing process. I try and find the underlying pattern in the story, which is a process I find very exciting and liberating - it helps me know my key emotional beats, and the scenes which I wish to foreshadow early in the story. BITTER GREENS was a complicated story, so I created a graph like this for each of my major characters - seeing where their stories intersected and how many words each section should be. I often change my graph as the story develops and I learn more about my story - in which case, I draw this diagram again and again, as I try to understand the key underpinnings of the story's architecture.  

These are the opening lines of BITTER GREENS, written longhand in my notebook. I often write key scenes longhand first, to slow myself down and think through what I want to say. Typing is an amazing technological breakthrough for writers, but it can lead to quick and facile writing. I like to write slow and deep and thoughtful at times - usually for my most important scenes or when a line or paragraph is causing me trouble and always, always, always, when I am writing poetry.

         

I have a very visual imagination, so I like to be able to "see" things before I describe them. Consequently I am always sticking in maps, diagrams, and photos into my notebooks, or drawing little maps for myself (this sketch is of Margherita's tower)

An early chapter outline

  

Lists of characters

              

Random pages I thought you might find interesting

     

My notebooks are not particularly pretty - my handwriting is awful and my drawings even worse. They are, however, a record of the creative process from the earliest ideas through to the finished product. I date my pages, keep a record of my word counts, and say where I am when I am working on that page (Paris, Venice, Florence and the south of France all feature in these pages.) 

Writing BITTER GREENS was an extraordinary experience for me. No book I have written has ever dug so deeply into who I truly am. 

 I have written a lot on my blog about Bitter Greens - I hope you will go and explore further! Or take a look at my Pinterest pages on Titian's paintings of his muse, Rapunzel  or my inspirational pinboard for BITTER GREENS

But - most of all - I hope you love the book!

THE 50/50 PROJECT: Winning the ALA Award for Best Historical Fiction

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

I have a secret page on my website that only those that search carefully can find. I call it The 50/50 Project ...

It is a list of all my hopes and dreams - both possible and impossible - & all the places I hope to one day go and all the things I hope to one day do. I call it The 50/50 Project because it was inspired by the inching closer of my 50th birthday and the realisation that there are still so many things in the world I want to do (I found 50 of them, hence the title). The idea is that - as I go somewhere or achieve something - I'll blog about it, and gradually be able to cross off some of these dreams. 


Today I am crossing off:

No 49: Win A Major Literary Prize

I have been short-listed for lots of awards and won a few. 

'The Wild Girl' was voted The Most Memorable Love Story of 2013 by Australians

‘The Puzzle Ring’ was short-listed for the 2009 Aurealis Award for Best Young Adult Novel, and named an 'Unsung Hero of 2009'  

‘The Gypsy Crown’ was nominated for a CYBIL Award in the US and for the Surrey ‘Book of the Year’ award in Canada in 2009

In Australia, where ‘The Gypsy Crown’ was sold as a 6-book series, Books 2-6 won the 2007 Aurealis Award for Children’s Fiction & Book 5: ‘The Lightning Bolt’ was a CBCA Notable Book 

'The Starthorn Tree' was shortlisted for the 2002 Aurealis Award for Best Children’s Fantasy & the Western Australian Children's Choice Awards and chosen for the One Book, One City campaign in Brisbane

‘The Cursed Towers’ was short-listed for the 1999 Aurealis Fantasy Award.

‘Dragonclaw’ was short-listed for the 1997 Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel and (in the US where it was published as ‘The Witches of Eileanan’), it was named one of the Best First Novels of 1998 by Locus magazine.

Yet I'd always dreamed of winning something BIG, something international ... the Nobel Prize for Literature, for example ....

Well, I'm very happy to say BITTER GREENS, my retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale, has won the American Library Association (ALA) award for Best Historical Fiction in 2015

The ALA  is the oldest and largest library association in the world, and its prestigious awards include the Caldecott Medal, the Newbery Medal, the Carnegie Medal, and the Michael L. Printz Award. 

BITTER GREENS was also a Library Journal US Best Historical Novel, and was shortlisted for the Aurealis Award, the Ditmar Award, and a Norma K. Hemming Award (for which it received an Honourable Mention). 

BITTER GREENS around the world:

               

You may also be interested in my post on THE 50/50 PROJECT: Selling A Million Copies

THE 50/50 PROJECT: Selling 1 million copies!

Monday, March 02, 2015

I have a secret page on my website that only those that search carefully can find. I call it The 50/50 Project ...

It is a list of all my hopes and dreams - both possible and impossible - & all the places I hope to one day go and all the things I hope to one day achieve. I call it The 50/50 Project because I hate the term 'bucket list' (so inelegant). Yet, like many such lists, it is was inspired by the inching closer of my 50th birthday and the realisation that there are still so many things in the world I want to do (I found 50 of them, hence the title). The idea is that - as I go somewhere or achieve something - I'll blog about it, and gradually be able to cross off some of these dreams. 

So its very exciting that my very first blog post for The 50/50 Project is:

No 33: Sell a million books (or more!)

I have written quite a few books - more than thirty at last count. Both books for adults and books for children, ranging from picture books to young adult fiction, plus one collection of poetry. All my books have sold well. Some have sold extremely well. Yet I still had not cracked total sales of more than a million copies. 

Until Bitter Greens, my retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale. I wrote this novel as the creative component of a Doctorate in Creative Arts, along with a 30,000 word exegesis 'The Rescue of Rapunzel: A Mythic Biography of the Maiden in the Tower.' It was published in 2012, the 200th anniversary of the publication of the Grimm Brothers' first collection of fairy tales, a time when interest in fairy tale retellings was at a all-time high.

               

     

The book has since been published in all English speaking territories, particularly Australia, the UK and the US, as well as in Russia and as an audio book. It won the American Library Association (ALA) Award for Best Historical Fiction, was a Library Journal US Best Historical Novel, and was shortlisted for the Aurealis Award, the Ditmar Award, and a Norma K. Hemming Award (for which it received an Honourable Mention).  

It has sold strongly all over the world, but particularly well in Russia, where I sold in excess of a quarter of a million copies in just two weeks. Thanks to my Russian readers, I have finally cracked the Million Copies Sold glass ceiling. Let's hope I sell my next million much, much faster!

So HOW did it happen? I really do not know ... except that I poured my heart and soul into this book! I spent seven years researching and writing it, I took an enormous risk by writing something very different from the books I was known for, I constantly thought to myself 'how can I make the book better? How can I push myself to be bolder, more daring, more innovative, more surprising?' and I brought to it everything I know about storytelling and writing. I think it has paid off (big happy smiley face!) 


I talk about how I found out about my Russian bonanza in this Youtube interview with Booktopia :

Keep an eye on my blog for other updates to the (now-not-so-secret) 50/50 Project!


BITTER GREENS: Charlotte-Rose de la Force in her own words

Thursday, February 26, 2015

To celebrate BITTER GREENS being awarded the American Library Association prize for Best Historical Fiction 2015, I thought I'd run some vintage blog posts about the writing, research and inspirations of the novel. 

When I was researching the life of Charlotte-Rose de la Force, the real life heroine of my novel 'Bitter Greens', my translator Sylvie Poupard-Gould found a description she had written of herself, one of the few pieces left of her own writing.

Here it is:

“If I wished to create a flattering self portrait, as one ordinarily does, and that I wished to infuse it with as much wit as possible, [I would say]

Never would the much celebrated Helen have had such sweet attributes,
Nor the glory of Niquee caused such a stir.

How many lovers would I have defeated by my charms!
I would renew all our old Paladins - I alone would remake their destinies,
And there would be such a display of arms!

You have to admit, my dear Prince, that things only have the value which we believe them to have, and that I could say, for instance, that I have the loveliest height in the world, that height with which poets often endow their Venus.

It seems to me that I have read somewhere in Homer that She had black eyebrows and eyes - I am in possession of these very same ones. Eyes that we ascribe to the Mother of Love must surely be beautiful: Mine are as such- they say that they are touching, and that never a gaze was so full of charm... I have small and well made feet; my legs, my chest and my hands are rather beautiful. My hair is plentiful, and of the same shade as my eyes. My mouth is red, my teeth fair and I look youthful,

A rose complexion,
Hiding other secret delights,
Which are made of such things that we know but of which we cannot speak...

Isn’t it true then, my Prince, that I have just described the most pleasant beauty conceivable?

All that I have just said is true, and so we must stop here in order to delight those who have not yet laid eyes on me- send this portrait to foreigners, enchant nations and sing my future glory!

However, if I am to remain loyal to this austere sense of truth that rules me, I must confess that, far from being beautiful, I am only just pretty in the eyes of those who love me- who knows what I must look like to those who are indifferent!

All that I have said is true, but there are unpleasant consequences. My nose is not beautiful, my cheeks are high, I have a large mouth and facial features that could do with being more regular. It is almost certain that I am not attractive at first sight, but that with time, one gets used to me. So, to come back to my original point, I look cold, which may give me a distinguished air. I do not seek to attract, because it so happens that very few new people attract me; in this, I am different from other ladies, and like to concentrate my energies on that which pleases me:

To see him, to love him and to remember him
To look after only him
Of the object of my affections
My soul will never tire

I am absolutely the enemy of all constraints, even though my life is one perpetual constraint.
Although I am the mistress of my words and of my actions, of my appearance I am not. I change faces frequently, depending on the mood I am in. Sadness leaves a horrible impression, pride and contempt show too much and do not sit well, languor seems touching, but it is happiness and gaiety which open me up and suit me best. All passions are clearly reflected in my eyes (...) they have a beautiful language for those who wish to listen.

I was born independent and haughty, craving glory to excess. It is also from this trait that I have drawn the strength not to be defeated by adversity. The greatness of my courage allows me to defeat all that I find ill; it allows for a display of resolve that is above my gender and that counters the most outrageous attacks of fortune.

My life is an ongoing philosophy, a living morality. I am extremely fair; I know neither resentment nor the satisfaction of revenge. The misfortune of my enemy triumphs over my anger, and therefore, there is no duty that does not benefit from my generosity.

Whilst I fear malicious gossip, I do not dread fair criticism. True to my virtue, I would much less forgive myself a misdemeanour than others. I am hard on myself and so always look to correct myself- I look for my own approval and do not give it lightly.

 


Read more about BITTER GREENS or BUY THE BOOK!

 

Perth Writers Festival round-up - February 2015

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

I spent the last few days in Western Australia for the wonderful Perth Writers Festival. Big congratulations to Katherine Dorrington, the program director, for such a lively and inspirational program, and thanks to Maria Alessandrino and the whole team for taking such good care of all the writers. 

I began my events last Thursday with a wonderful event with Sean Williams. I've known him for years, and love his work, but did not know his favourite book is The Weirdstone of Brisignamen by Alan Garner, which is one of my favourites too! I plan on digging it out and reading ti again - its been years!

Sean has a brilliant new series out called TWINMAKER with Book 1 called Jump in Australia. It's an extremely clever Sci-Fi thriller that imagines a world in which technology has completely transformed the world. One of the most wonderful - and dangerous - inventions is a machine that transports you anywhere in the world in just a moment. Called a d-mat, you can catch it to an extraordinary old observatory in the mountain heights of Switzerland, then to the deserts of the Sahara, all in the time it takes to go down in a lift. Of course everyone wants one! I want one! But the whole book is about what this kind of technology could do to our bodies ... and our souls ...


I then talked about my new children's fantasy adventure series THE IMPOSSIBLE QUEST to a tent full of excited kids. It was great fun (if rather hot!), and I impressed all the boys in the audience with my sword-fighting skills. 

 

Book 3: The Beast of Blackmoor Bog has just been released, and it was wonderful to see so many kids eager to get their hands on it. I also had a number of older kids bringing along piles of my other books for me to sign. 

Then, on Friday, Danielle Wood and I did a panel on Fairy Tales with Delys Bird as our very warm and embracing chair. I have written about Danielle's incredible, intense and surprising fairy tale retellings for The Sydney Morning Herald, saying she "writes with acute insight into the inner lives of women, and all in prose so precise and crystal-cut, the whole shines with an unsettling beauty." It was wonderful to hear Danielle speak of her interest with fairy tales and why she "repurposes" them into contemporary social realism. Our books are very different indeed, but we share the same fascinations with these old, beautiful and sometimes very strange stories.

I sold out of all copies of BITTER GREENS and THE WILD GIRL after our talk, which is always a good sign (though a shame as I had another two days at the festival in which to woo new readers).

On Saturday, I had the whole day off but instead of going shopping, going to the beach, or exploring Perth I went straight back to the festival - of course! And I'm so glad I did. 

I saw a wonderful panel with Liane Moriarty, Liz Byrski and Hanni Rayson - I loved so much my cheeks ached. They were all so warm and clever and funny - the audience was in heaven! I have read Liane Moriarty's brilliantly funny & brilliantly sad The Husband's Secret (you can read my interview with her here), but the other two authors were new to me. Can't wait to discover their books!


Then I listened to Emma Healey, author of Elizabeth is Missing, and John Darnielle, author of Wolf in White Van, talk about their books, about writing from the point of view of a damaged psyche, their lives and much more. It was fascinating. John made my favourite quote of the day when he said "writing a book is like having a vampire living in your home, festering in their coffin, demanding to be fed blood every day."

Another highlight was listening to Georgina Penney talk in 'Romance is Not a Dirty Word', a panel in which Anna Cowan, the author of Untamed, was meant to be sharing but unfortunately could not make it because she is just about ready to pop out a baby. Georgina did a fabulous job despite her absence, being as warm and funny and passionate as she seems to be in her books. Favourite quote from her website is that she likes to spend her days imagining: "buff medieval Scotsmen in kilts (who have access to shower facilities and deodorant) living behind every bramble hedge."

Then I went to see Erik Jensen, Miranda Richmond Mouillot, and Tom Rob Smith talk about their books, all inspired by real lives and real stories. They were discussing the ideas of truth versus good storytelling, who owns their stories, and what right we have to draw upon them, and many other fascinating philosophical  questions that I have grappled with in my own writing. Once again, I feel I have to read all their books! That is the magic of festivals. 

On Sunday, I was on a panel called 'Drawing From History' with Joe Abercrombie, Juliet Marillier and Robyn Cadwaller, with the elegant Natasha Lester as our chair. Everyone knows Juliet Marillier is one of my favourite novelists (you can check out the dozens of blogs in which I rave about her here), but both Joe and Robyn were new to me. I managed to read Joe's new book Half a King (brilliant! I will rave upon it anon) but Robyn's book The Anchoress is still on my tottering to-be-read pile (sorry, Robyn, I'll get to it soon, I promise). 

I enjoyed this panel hugely. It was so much fun, and I wish we could have talked on for another hour.  

I also went to see Andrea de Robilant speak about his new book, Chasing the Rose, which I ended up buying and devouring on the plane home. It was a wonderful story, and I think I want his life (descendant of Venetian nobleman, lives in Venice and travels the world, rose named after his family ... you get the picture).  

I had an utterly brilliant time, and to top it all off, I sold out of all of THE IMPOSSIBLE QUEST as well!

My display box before my event: 

My display box after my event: 

BITTER GREENS: some recipes from the feasts described in 'Bitter Greens'

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Gourmet Delights from Gascony

My books are filled with feasts. 

From larks’ tongue pies to gypsy stew, the food in my books is always carefully researched and vividly described. Part of my research always involves cooking, as far as possible, the meals I describe. (Larks’ tongue pie was a little difficult to achieve, I must admit).

My novel Bitter Greens has a feast scene set in the Chateau de Cazeneuve in Gascony, in which the baroness of the chateau rather reluctantly puts on a meal for the Sun King, Louis XIV, and his corrupt and decadent court.

Gascony is located east and south of Bordeaux, and is a beautiful, rolling, green landscape of orchards and vineyards and tumbledown chateaux, with the snow-capped Pyrenees floating high on the horizon.   

It is famous for its duck dishes – there are far more ducks than people in Gascony – creating the most delicious foie gras, confit and rillettes. Gascony is also the land of the cassoulet, a hearty peasant dish made with duck, sausage and white beans. Pigs hunt for truffles in the forest, and in spring the chestnut trees are in glorious flower along every road. 


Its other most famous invention is the delicious and heady Armagnac brandy.

I tried my hand at a few of the more famous Gascon dishes, with the most delicious results. Here are my favourites: 

Chestnut soup (Soupe aux Chataignes)
Soupe aux Chataignes is a very popular Gascon soup due to the abundance of sweet chestnuts which are grown here.
The primary problem of cooking with chestnuts is peeling them. The old-fashioned way is to score the chestnuts with a knife then bring to the boil in a large pan and simmer for about 10 mins, drain a few at a time and peel off the inner and outer skins while still hot. 
I find it easier to boil a few days in advance and leave– the skins seem easy to remove then. 
Easier still, buy a can of chestnut pureé from your best local delicatessen (cheating, I know, but infinitely easier). 
Serves 6
1 kg of peeled chestnuts or can of chestnut pureé
whites of 4 leeks, washed and chopped
55g of butter
3 potatoes peeled and chopped
4 carrots peeled and chopped
3 tablespoons of crème fraiche
salt and pepper
thin slices of French bread, brushed with oil and toasted
Melt your butter in a large pan with a lid, add leeks and sweat gently for 10 minutes. Add the rest of the vegetables and chestnuts, 2 litres of water and salt and pepper, then bring to the boil. Cover and simmer for 45 mins.
Pureé with a blender and season to taste, stir in the crème fraiche, add the French bread and serve.


Gascon Cassoulet with Duck Confit and White Beans
I travelled to Gascony with my three children, and spent a week staying near Saint-Émilion. We ate this cassoulet  in a tiny stone cafe overlooking the Romanesque church, on a chilly spring evening. I’ve done my best to recreate the dish at home
Serves 4
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
250g pancetta, diced 
1 medium onion, cut coarsely
1 pound dried flageolets or Great Northern beans, rinsed and picked over, then soaked for 2 hours and drained
4 fresh thyme sprigs from the garden
2 litre chicken stock
1 large garlic, broken into cloves and peeled 
salt to taste
4 pieces of duck leg confit, trimmed of excess fat
½ kg of French sausage – duck, pork, garlic – whatever you can get - sliced crosswise 
100g bacon, cut into cubes
2 cups coarse fresh bread crumbs
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
In a large saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the pancetta and cook over moderate heat until the fat has been rendered, about 5 minutes. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 7 minutes. Add the beans, thyme sprigs and stock and bring to a boil. Simmer over low heat, stirring and skimming occasionally, until the beans are al dente, about 1 hour.
Add the garlic cloves to the beans and simmer until the garlic and beans are tender, about 15 minutes. Discard the thyme sprigs. Season the beans with salt and let cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate the saucepan overnight.
Preheat the oven to 180°C. Rewarm the beans over moderate heat. Transfer the beans to a large, deep baking dish. Nestle the duck legs, sausage and bacon into the beans. Bake for about 40 minutes, until the cassoulet is bubbling and all of the meats are hot. Remove from the oven and let rest for 15 minutes.
In a skillet, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the bread crumbs and cook over moderately high heat, stirring, until browned and crisp, about 3 minutes. Sprinkle the bread crumbs and the parsley over the cassoulet and serve.


Apple and Armagnac Croustade (Croustade à l’Armagnac aux Pommes)
This looks and tastes amazing! It’s a little fiddly to make, but well worth the effort.
around 10 tablespoons butter 
6-8 large apples, peeled, cored and sliced as thin as you can
1 vanilla bean
1/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup Armagnac (use brandy or Calvados if you can’t find it)
8 sheets filo dough
1/2 cup caster sugar (or more, as needed)
1/3 cup sliced almonds, divided


For this recipe, I like to use a soft-sided silicon cake pan so you can remove the cake more easily. Spray with cooking oil.
Melt 4 tablespoons of butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Place the apple slices in a bowl. Cut the vanilla bean lengthwise in half and, using the tip of a small knife, scrape the seeds over the apples and drop the pod on top. When the butter is foamy, add the apples with the vanilla and the sugar and cook, stirring very gently but frequently, until the apples are soft and caramelized, about 20 minutes. Transfer the apples to a bowl and allow them to cool to room temperature.


Heat oven to 180°C. Melt the remaining 6 tablespoons butter and set it aside. 
Unfold the filo dough on your work surface and cover it with a damp towel.
Remove the top sheet of filo (re-cover the remaining sheets), brush it lightly with butter, and dust it with sugar. Gently and loosely crumple the dough into a circle and lay it into the cake pan. Sprinkle it with about one-fifth of the almonds. Repeat this procedure three more times, until you have four buttered, sugared and almond-sprinkled sheets of filo lightly layered in the cake pan. 
Spoon the apples into the centre of the croustade, leaving a border of a few centimetres depth. Working as you did before, butter, sugar and crumple a sheet of filo, fitting it over the apples. Sprinkle this layer with the remaining almonds, and cover this with another crumpled sheet of buttered and sugared filo. Do a little styling and draping; arrange the filo so it looks good.


Slide the croustade into the oven and bake for about 10 to 12 minutes, watching the top of the tart carefully to make certain it doesn't brown too much. The top should be just lightly browned. Remove the croustade from the oven.


Increase the oven temperature to 200°C. Butter and sugar another sheet of filo, loosely crumple it and place it on the last layer to make a light, airy crown. Bake the croustade for 5 to 10 minutes, or until lightly browned, then remove it from the oven again.


Butter the last sheet of filo and, once again, crumple it to make a crown. Place it on top of the croustade and dust it heavily with the remaining powdered sugar. Return the tart to the oven and bake until the top layer caramelizes evenly, about 5 to 10 minutes. Check the progress of the sugar frequently because it can go from brown to burned in a flash.

Read more about BITTER GREENS or BUY IT HERE!




A Rapunzel poem by Kate Forsyth

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

BITTER GREENS, my imaginative retelling of Rapunzel, has won the ALA Award for Best Historical Fiction!

I also studied a Doctorate of Creative arts on the fairy tale, writing a thesis called 'The Rescue of Rapunzel: A Mythic History of the Maiden in the Tower tale,' and a poem, 'In the Tower': 




In the Tower


Walled in my old stone tower
the bitter taste of tears
always in my throat
only a slit to put my eye to
yet how full of change is that sky
I watch the stars wheel past
seasons turning and turning
the one tree on that faraway hill
once more bursts into life
green in the shadows
golden in the light 


Walled in my silent tower
how can I frame the words
to tell my story
my heart is a riddle
green sickness in my soul
loneliness the heaviest burden
how I long to slip free
of this empty shadowed tower
fly on muffled wings like the owl
white against the thorns
black against the moon


Walled in my cold stone tower
I conjure a steed from flame
An invisible cloak from ashes
A frail ladder from cobwebs
I make a dagger from ice
A key from bone and wishes
I spin a song from the silence
One day someone shall sing my refrain
Green in the shadows
Golden in the light


Free of my shadowy tower
We shall bind ourselves together
With tendrils of green
With tresses of gold
We shall build a castle of light and air
And banish silence with song
Together we’ll dance in the forest
White against the thorns
Black against the moon


by Kate Forsyth



BITTER GREENS: The story behind my fascination with Rapunzel

Monday, February 23, 2015

BITTER GREENS has won the American Library Association Award for Best Historical Fiction 2015. 


BITTER GREENS is a retelling of Rapunzel and so I thought I would share with you the story behind my fascination with that particular fairy tale.

Rapunzel is one of the most mysterious and enduring of all fairy tales, telling the story of a young girl sold to a witch by her parents for a handful of bitter green herbs. 


I have been fascinated by the Rapunzel tale ever since I was a child myself.

When I was two years old, I was savaged by a dog and ended up with terrible head injuries that resulted in meningitis (infection of the membranes that surround the brain) and encephalitis (a life-threatening inflammation of the brain). I was very ill for months, spending most of that year in hospital and ending with dreadful scars all over my head (thankfully most of them are hidden by my hair). I had half of one ear torn off and my left tear duct was destroyed, and with it my ability to control my tears. My eye wept all the time. 



As a result, I was in and out of hospital for the next six or seven years, half-blind and racked with fever. I used to lie in my hospital bed, all alone in an empty children’s ward at the Sydney Eye Hospital, staring with my one good eye out the window. All I could see was a high green hill, crowned with an ancient Moreton Bay fig tree and the sandstone wall of the Art Gallery of NSW. It looked like a castle. I used to imagine myself galloping away over the hill, on my way to marvellous adventures. 


I think my fascination with Rapunzel began with my own entrapment in that lonely hospital ward. Again and again I write about people imprisoned in towers and dungeons, longing to be rescued. It is a recurring motif in my novels, most recently in my fantasy adventure for children, The Wildkin’s Curse, which tells the story of a wildkin princess kept captive in an impossibly tall crystal tower, telling stories to try and free herself. 

I love the story of Rapunzel because of the ardent love affair between the imprisoned girl and the prince who rescues her, and because of the miraculous healing of the prince’s eyes by Rapunzel’s tears. Rapunzel begins as a powerless child-like victim but by the end of the story she has become a magical agent of healing and redemption. 

Most people think that Rapunzel was first told by the Grimm Brothers in the early 19th century, but in fact it is a much older story than that. 

There are numerous Maiden in Tower stories in cultures all around the world, so many it has its own classification in the Aarne-Thompson fairytale motif index, Type 310. The first may well be from Christian iconography, with the story of Saint Barbara, a virtuous young girl locked in a tower by her father in the 3rd century. She was tortured for her beliefs, but all her wounds were miraculously healed overnight and in the end she was beheaded by her own father, who was then struck by lightning and killed. 

The very first time the motif of the ‘hair ladder’ appeared in a fairy story was in a 10th century Persian tale told by Ferdowsi (932-1025 AD), in which a woman in a harem offers to lower her hair to her lover, Zal, so he can climb up to her. He is afraid he might hurt her and so throws up a rope instead. 

The ‘hair ladder’ reappears in the story, Petrosinella, in the mid 17th century, as part of a collection of literary fairy tales told by a Florentine writer, Giambattista Basile. His collection, Lo cunto de li cunti (The Tale of Tales), was first published in 1634-36 and told the story of a princess who could not laugh. Various storytellers gathered to tell her stories in the hope they can amuse her, including one who tells the story of a girl, Petrosinella (Little Parsley), who is given up to an ogress after her mother steals parsley from the ogress’s garden. The ogress locks Petrosinella up in a tower in the forest, using her hair as a ladder to access the building. Petrosinella escapes with the help of a prince who heard her singing, overcoming the ogress by casting three magical acorns behind her that turn into obstacles that impede the witch and ultimately devour her. 

Sixty years later, the story appears again, this time in France. It is told by a woman writer, Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, who has been banished to a convent after displeasing the king, Louis XIV, at his glittering court in Versailles. Locked away in a cloister, much like Rapunzel is in her tower, Charlotte-Rose was among the first writers to pen a collection of literary fairy tales and one of the world’s first historical novelists. Published under a pseudonym, Madame X, Charlotte-Rose’s tales became bestsellers and she was eventually able to buy her release.



In Persinette, her version of the tale, the mother conceives an insatiable longing for parsley which her husband steals for her from a sorceress’s garden. Caught by the sorceress, he promises her his unborn daughter who the sorceress collects at the age of seven. Persinette is raised by the sorceress until she is twelve and then locked away in her tower (though the sorceress treats her gently and brings the child everything she could possibly want.) In time she becomes a woman; the prince hears her singing and chants the rhyme so he can climb up the ladder of hair to her room, where he seduces her (“he became bolder and proposed to marry her right then and there, and she consented without hardly knowing what she was doing. Even so, she was able to complete the ceremony” is how Charlotte-Rose rather coyly describes his seduction.)

Persinette becomes pregnant as a result, and in her naivety betrays herself to the sorceress when she complains about her dress growing tighter. The Grimm brothers later changed this to Rapunzel complaining about how much heavier the witch is than her prince, which at a single stroke makes Rapunzel seem extremely stupid. 

Then Charlotte-Rose changes the ending so that the prince is blinded, Persinette bears twins in the wilderness, and then heals her lover’s eyes with her redemptive tears. The sorceress continues to torment them, until the young couple’s courage and tender love for each other move her to mercy and she magically returns them to the prince’s loving family.

This story was then retold in Germany by the German author Friedrich Schulz, which is almost identical to Charlotte-Rose’s story except that he changed the girl’s name to Rapunzel, perhaps because it is prettier than parsley. A rapunzel plant is a type of wild rampion. It was then retold by the Grimm Brothers in their 1812 fairytale collection, becoming less powerful, dark and sexy with each edition until we have the tale that most children know today.


It is Charlotte-Rose and her version which provide the inspiration for my book. She was a fascinating woman – strong-willed, intelligent and fiercely independent – who once rescued her lover from imprisonment by going into his parent’s castle with a travelling troupe of performers disguised as a dancing bear! How could I not write a book about her?

This blog was originally published, in a longer form, at the fabulous fairy tale and folklore blog Seven Miles of Steel Thistles

Read more about BITTER GREENS or BUY THE BOOK HERE!

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