When BITTER GREENS was first published, Juliet Marillier interviewed me on Writers Unboxed - here is that interview for your reading pleasure:
Kate, congratulations on this wonderful new novel and thanks so much for agreeing to talk to Writer Unboxed. Bitter Greens is one of those books that breaks out of recognised genre moulds – it’s part historical novel, part fairy tale, and part serious examination of gender roles, power and cruelty in 16th and 17th century France and Italy. What would you like our readers to know about the story ?
I began wanting to retell the Rapunzel fairy tale, which has fascinated and puzzled me ever since I first read it as a child. I’ve always loved both fairy tales and retellings of fairy tales, but it seemed to me that most reworkings of the Rapunzel story sidestepped the biggest problems in it. For example, why did the witch want to lock her in a tower. Why was Rapunzel’s hair so impossibly long? Why didn’t Rapunzel ask the prince to bring a rope so she could climb down and escape?
The other big problem with fairy tale retellings, I think, is that they can lack surprise and suspense, the two ingredients I consider the most important in creating a compelling narrative. The stories are so well-known that it’s difficult to build suspense, or create switches and reversals, when the reader knows the story so well. Most writers solve this problem by subverting the tale, but this usually fails to surprise as well. I wanted to be faithful to the haunting, beautiful feel of the familiar tale, while still writing a gripping, unputdownable novel.
JULIET: I loved the complexity of the novel, especially the way you intertwined the stories of three very different women. Each thread is told in a different voice and each is distinctive in style. Did you plan from the first to structure the book that way? How did you go about putting the three threads together ?
I am a fervent believer in the importance of planning the internal architecture of a story. I think structure is the invisible underpinnings of the narrative, and any book which fails usually does so because of a poor internal structure. So I always think very carefully about how I’m going to build my narrative.
My initial plan was to have the three narrative threads being equal in length, and braided together like a plait, so that the structure of the novel symbolically reflected the key motif of the Rapunzel fairy tale, the impossibly long plait.
Usually I write in third person multiple POV, but I felt very strongly that the frame narrative, the story of Charlotte-Rose and how she came to write her fairy tale, should be told in first person. I had never written in first person before, but I really enjoyed it, and I found Charlotte-Rose’s voice came to me strongly right away. I wrote the entirety of Charlotte-Rose’s story, from the beginning to the end, indicating where I thought I would intercut with my other two narrative threads.
I then told the story of Margherita (my Rapunzel character) in third person, and in a far more simple style, because this was a tale being told to Charlotte-Rose by another. Once I had finished the whole story, I then wove these two together, making sure I kept a fine balance between the two different tales.
Only then did I turn to the third narrative thread, the tale of the witch Selena Leonelli, who is a Venetian courtesan, and muse to the artist Tiziano. Her story was much darker, and seemed to me to have a kind of potency or intensity, that would be dissipated if I broke it up to interweave with the other two tales. It woudl also mean too much chopping and changing. So I changed my plan, and made the witch’s tale the dark heart of the novel, the unexpected midpoint reversal which changed everything you thought you knew about Charlotte-Rose’s and Margherita’s stories.
JULIET: You’re an extremely versatile writer, with a body of published work including award-winning novels for children and young adults, two best-selling fantasy series for adult readers, collections of poetry and an earlier literary novel. What drives you to keep challenging yourself as a writer?
I always think that the great dangers for any creative artist are smugness and predictability. Market pressures mean that writers are constantly being asked for more of the same, yet it is very difficult to keep writing the same storyline, with the same characters, and not start to feel stale and monotonous.
I always want to write better than I have before, to keep pushing myself to create something fresh and unusual and exciting. I want my readers to know they will find a vivid, compelling, surprising and emotionally moving story every time they sit down with one of my books. It’s easier to win new readers than it is to win back dissatisfied readers.
Of course, every time someone loves one of my books, they write to me begging me to write a sequel, or another just like it. I always tell them that I hope they’ll read my other books too, and love them just as much.
I know Bitter Greens was written as part of your work on a doctorate in fairy tale retellings at the University of Technology in Sydney (correct me if this is wrong.) How different was this experience from writing your earlier adult novels? Did the academic side of things put any constraints on the way you created the book? Was your process different?
I thought, when I first began to conceive and develop the idea of doing a retelling of Rapunzel, that it would make a fascinating doctoral project. ‘Bitter Greens’ was a very research-intensive book to write, and it seemed a good way to maximise all those long hours reading through scholarly fairy tale articles. I had actually written a novel before under university supervision – my novel ‘Full Fathom Five’ was written as my thesis for my Master of Arts in Writing. (Although I wrote it in my 20s, it was my eighth published novel).
I do not feel my doctorate put any constraints on me in a creative sense. My supervisor, the novelist Debra Adelaide, was more concerned in helping me find the voice of my protagonist, and to help me learn to be a better writer.
I am always eager to learn, and so I was grateful to her for her close scrutiny of my work. I’m not used to showing my early drafts to anyone and so I did find that difficult, but she was very tactful.
I actually love writing articles and essays as well as poems and novels, and so I’ve been enjoying the theoretical aspect of the doctorate as well. I like to know everything I possibly can about a time or a place or a person or a subject before I write about it, and so I would have studied just as intensively for the novel as I am now doing for my exigesis. I am writing about the many different retellings of Rapunzel, from the earliest Maiden in the Tower tales right down to Disney’s ‘Tangled’ and the use of Rapunzel motifs in advertising and popular culture. It’s fascinating.
JULIET: There must have been a huge amount of research behind Bitter Greens, though you use your historical material with a storyteller’s light touch – it’s never laid on too heavily. I understand you travelled to France and Italy with your children to do research. Tell us a bit about that.
I did! It was wonderful. I have always taken my children with me on research trips. They’ve been to London, Paris, Venice and Edinburgh, to the Isle of Skye, Sussex, Gascony and Lake Garda. They’re lucky children!
I feel it very important to actually go to the places I describe in my books. A writer doesn’t simply describe a mountain, or a lake, or a castle, or a city street. They need to imbue that scene with some kind of emotional significance. They need to know what the characters would hear, and smell, and feel.
Kate writing in Florence
The book is beautifully structured. I particularly loved the Rapunzel poems by various writers that stand at the start of each section. What do you think it is about this particular fairy tale that grabs people’s imagination?
Rapunzel is a tale about love, sex and power. Psychologically speaking, it is normally interpreted as a tale about a young girl on the brink of puberty who is kept locked away from the world by a mother-figure who seeks to protect her. Only by defying her mother, and coming to terms with her own sexuality, is the girl able to grow into maturity. However, like all fairy tales it is open to much deeper interpretations.
JULIET: Some passages of Bitter Greens must have been exceptionally challenging to write. I’m referring in particular to scenes of sexual violence, part of your realistic depiction of the society those women lived in. I found parts of the book extremely disturbing to read. What were your reasons for choosing to present this material so openly?
It is true a few scenes were exceptionally difficult to write. In particular, the gang rape of Selena’s mother. I had to get up and leave the computer, and come back to it, only to flee again. Yet it felt important to me, both psychologically in the development of an understanding of what drove Selena to do what she did, and historically, to illuminate what life was like for women of that era. One of the things that most fascinated and disturbed me about the Rapunzel tale is that it is a woman who imprisons another woman. Why? What led her to do such a terrible thing? Most retellings of Rapunzel never truly examine this, and yet it was one of the questions that first spurred me to explore the tale.
Although it was so awful to write, it seemed to have a ring of truth about it.
When you were first considering writing this, you said it would be ‘a dark gothic retelling of a dark gothic fairytale.’ It’s certainly a gritty and challenging story, revealing among other things the unsavoury reality behind the frothy and glamorous French court. Do you think most fairytales have that shadow about them, the darkness beneath the charming surface?
I do indeed. It is one of the things that most intrigues me about fairytales. I love the haunting beauty of them, the magical strangeness, the joyous triumph over adversity. Yet I am also drawn by the darkness of them, the sense of a cost to be paid for that joy.
JULIET: I understand you’re already well into a new project, a novel about Dortchen Wild, the Grimm Brothers’ ‘girl next door’. And it includes a retelling of a Grimm fairytale, ‘Allerleirauh’ or ‘All Kinds of Fur.’ Can you tell us about the new novel?
KATE: Oh, yes, I’m completely obsessed with Dortchen Wild now, just like I was completely obsessed with Charlotte-Rose de la Force last year. I think I’m drawn to the forgotten, cobwebbed corners of history, particularly when it relates to extraordinary, neglected women.
A drawing of Dortchen Wild by Ludwig Grimm
Dortchen Wild was twelve when she met the Grimm Brothers. She lived next door to them, above her father’s apothecary shop, and was the source of some of their most compelling and unusual stories. She told Wilhelm Grimm ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘The Frog King’, ‘Six Swans’ (a favourite of mine as you well know, Juliet!) and ‘The Singing Bone’ (about a murdered boy whose bones are used to make a harp that then sings to accuse his murderers). She told a very gruesome version of ‘Bluebeard’ called ‘Fitcher’s Bird’, the primary difference being that the heroine saves herself and her sisters, and a very beautiful version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ called ‘The Springing, Singing Lark’. A key tale of hers was ‘Allerleirauh’ or ‘All Kinds of Fur’, better known as ‘Deerskin’ or ‘Catskin’ about a princess whose father wants to marry her.
I’m interweaving the beautiful and rather tragic story of Dortchen and Wilhelm’s love affair with her tales, drawing upon ‘All-Kinds-of-Fur’ in particular (Dortchen’s father was a very stern and strict man who forbade her to see her one true love, and who may indeed have abused her).