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THE IMPOSSIBLE QUEST: Book 1 launched!

Monday, September 01, 2014

I am very excited to announce that Book 1 of THE IMPOSSIBLE QUEST is being launched today

Four unlikely heroes 
Four mysterious gifts 
Four impossible tasks 
Five thrilling books

‘Tell your lord to beware,’ the wild man said, gripping Tom’s arm with a dirty hand. ‘The wolves smell danger in the wind.’

The Impossible Quest is set in the faraway land of Wolfhaven. It tells the story of four friends who are forced into undertaking an impossible quest to try and awaken the legendary sleeping warriors of the past.

Tom is the son of the castle cook, trained to scrub pots, not fight. Lady Elanor is the daughter of the Lord of Wolfhaven. She has been protected all her life and is not equipped for a dangerous journey through the wilderness. Sebastian is a squire who dreams of being a knight, but has a tendency to fall over his own feet. Quinn, an orphan, is apprenticed to the Grand Teller, and likes to think she knows everything.

Wolfhaven Castle has been attacked by deadly enemies, and the lord and his people have been forced into slavery. An ancient prophecy says that four sleeping warriors are hidden deep beneath the castle and that, with the help of a spell, they can be awoken to fight for Wolfhaven. The only problem is, the spell calls for seemingly impossible ingredients:

When the wolf lies down with the wolfhound 
And the stones of the castle sing, 
The sleeping heroes shall wake for the crown 
And the bells of victory ring. 
Griffin feather and unicorn’s horn, 
Sea-serpent scale and dragon’s tooth. 
Bring them together at first light of dawn, 
And you shall see this spell’s truth.

Hunted by sinister bog-men, led by a knight with a helmet of boar tusks, Tom, Elanor, Sebastian and Quinn have only the last gifts of the Grand Teller to help them – an old flute that makes no sound, a wooden pendant of a dragon curled around amber, a moonstone ring, and a wooden talisman of an old man’s face with a beard of oak leaves.

Together they must learn about courage, compassion, and trust, if they are to survive and succeed in their impossible quest.

Watch the cool THE IMPOSSIBLE QUEST trailer or go THE IMPOSSIBLE QUEST website to read a sample chapter! 


Why I Love Fairy Tale Retellings

Sunday, August 31, 2014

I have loved fairy tales since I was a little girl. 

I was first given a book of ‘Grimm’s Fairy Tales’ when I was seven, and in hospital. I had been cruelly savaged by a dog as a baby and spent the first ten years of my life in and out of hospital, suffering high fevers and seemingly endless operations to repair a damaged tear duct. 

Reading that book of fairy tales were such an escape for me, and yet, also a comfort.
I could imagine myself riding a winged horse, soaring free of my narrow white hospital bed, escaping to have marvellous adventures somewhere else. 

The world of fairy tales was filled with beauty and mystery and romance and strangeness, all the things my hospital ward was lacking. In fairy tales, blinded princes were healed as I wished to be. In fairy tales, imprisoned maidens won their way free. 

I read that collection of fairy tales to tatters, and was always hungry for more. 

One day, when I was about ten, I discovered a book called The Glass Slipper by Eleanor Farjeon on my school library bookshelf. I began reading it as I walked home from school and was instantly entranced. It’s a retelling of the Cinderella fairy tale and is full of charm and whimsy. I was so engrossed I walked straight past the end of my street and could possibly have kept on walking for miles, if a neighbour had not driven past and honked me back to the real world. 

That book has been such a talisman for me all of my life that I named my own daughter Eleanor (after the writer), nicknamed Ella for short (after the heroine). 

That book began my love of fairy tale retellings. A year or so later, I read The Stone Cage by Nicholas Stuart Gray, a retelling of ‘Rapunzel’ told from the point of view of the witch’s cat. Of all the fairy tales I loved, ‘Rapunzel’ one resonated with me the most – perhaps because I too had been a young girl locked away from the world, longing for escape, perhaps because the injuries to my eye meant that for long periods of time, I was half-blind and in pain, as the prince had been.

I began to imagine writing my own retelling of Rapunzel before I had even finished reading the book. I love The Stone Cage, and Nicholas Stuart Gray is, I think, one of the greatest children’s writers ever. Nonetheless, I needed my own retelling of the tale to be from Rapunzel’s point of view, and to give some sense of the terrible loneliness, fear and despair she must have endured. 

When I was twelve or thirteen, I read When We Have Faces: A Myth Retold, by C.S. Lewis. I had found it on my great-aunt’s bookshelf while staying there one summer, and I read the whole book, cover to cover, while lying on the floor on my stomach behind her over-stuffed tapestry armchair. It was an utter revelation. Dark and strong and full of anger, it showed how well-known tales – in this case, the story of Cupid and Psyche – could be turned utterly inside-out when told from the point of view of the supposed villain of the tale. 

I began to imagine writing part of my own Rapunzel retelling from the point of view of the witch. She had always puzzled me. Why had she wanted to lock Rapunzel in the tower? What happened to her after the story ended? 

As I grew up I devoured the work of Robin McKinley, reading her wonderful retellings Rose Daughter, Spindle’s End, Beauty and Deerskin. I also loved Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, North Child by Edith Pattou (also published as East), and Briar Rose by Jane Yolen. 

Then I read Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier, the first time I had read a retelling of a fairy tale written for adults. I knew at once that was what I wanted to do – write a retelling of ‘Rapunzel’ for an adult audience.

For me, it was always a story about sexual desire and power. I never understood how it could be told as a pretty bedtime story for little children, with pictures of a smiling girl combing her hair in a tiny tower wreathed with roses. I knew, gut-deep, that Rapunzel was a far darker story.

So I began to think seriously about my own retelling. It took me seven years to write Bitter Greens – a powerfully symbolic number in fairy tales – and the book ended up very different to how I had first imagined it. As well as telling the story from the point of view of the maiden in the tower, and the witch who put her there, I also tell the story of the woman who first wrote the tale – the utterly fascinating 17th century French writer, Charlotte-Rose de la Force.

So why do I love such retellings? Because they illuminated the dark and hidden depths of fairy tales, the most mysterious and magical of all narratives.  

INTERVIEW: Josephine Pennicott, author of Currawong Manor

Friday, August 29, 2014

I'm very happy to welcome my dear friend and writer Josephine Pennicott to the blog today. She is the author of the brilliantly creepy and suspenseful Gothic murder mystery Currawong Novel, which I enjoyed immensely.

Are you a daydreamer too?

Definitely! I’ve always felt as if I straddle different worlds. I do meditate a lot in an attempt to quieten my mind, so I can receive the impressions of the project I’m working on. I believe in the power of daydreaming, and not overstimulating your brain in order to access deeper levels of imagination. It’s something I’ve actively pursued over many years. I’m just about to take up transcendental meditation, so I’ll be interested to note the effects on my writing. When you stop trying to control and distract your mind and allow your brain to become bored, ideas can be whispered by the muses. I often feel uneasy, when on public transport or out and about, to see so many people strapped to their little machines, not allowing the quiet space to unfurl in their mind for daydreaming and creativity to flourish.    

Have you always wanted to be a writer? 
From when I first discovered books such as Enid Blyton’s, I wanted to be a writer. I was an insatiable reader as soon as I learnt to decipher the mysterious markings that made my heart race just to look at them. Words always had a calming, soothing effect on me. I remember my mother removing my book from me at the dinner table once and I immediately began reading the labels on jars. I find bookstores and libraries calming spaces. I just didn’t think it was possible for me to actually become a writer. My classmates can still relate stories of how I held them spellbound with tales made of simple props in the classroom, such as a biro and its cap (a gnome and his helmet). My English teachers were very disappointed when I chose to enter nursing rather than pursue my writing.

My father always encouraged my love of words but I had a couple of beliefs that blocked me. One was that you couldn’t make money from writing; and I was in a hurry to leave school, see the world and make money. The second belief was that to lock yourself away writing was a self-obsessed pursuit, when you could be actively pursuing a path of service. It seems blindingly obvious to me now how foolish and untrue those mental blocks were – but I believed them. It took me becoming incredibly burnt-out and despairing about the career path I was on – and travelling to India to consult with a well-known guru – to return me to my childhood dreams and fantasies.

It’s a long story, but his basic statement was: “If you don’t use the gifts you are born with, it’s an insult to God.”

Or as that American guru, Bob Dylan also says, “Do what you must and do it well.”

When people going through cancer treatments and difficult circumstances say how much my book helped take their mind off their problems, I realise I’m actually doing the service I always wanted to do. I will always consider nursing to be one of the greatest service professions, but I knew inside myself it wasn’t my soul’s calling. 

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?

I was born in Tasmania in Oatlands, a small village in the Tasmanian midlands. It’s a very pretty historic village which boasts of having the most sandstone buildings in Australia. I spent my early years in Papua New Guinea having a most Papuan Swallows and Amazons type childhood. I now live in the inner-west of Sydney in a tiny brick cottage with my writer husband, David Levell and our daughter, Daisy. I like to write, read, go for walks in nature. I enjoy the opera, art gallery, theatre, spiritual and cultural pursuits, but mostly I enjoy simple pleasures – a walk in nature, my book-club, birdwatching, a picnic, excursions with my family around Sydney or the Blue Mountains, a pot of tea, a good book and a bath. I am happiest when I’m in my garden shed, writing. I’ve worked a wide variety of jobs over the years to support my writing at different times. I also have a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the College of Fine Arts where I majored in painting.  

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for Currawong Manor?

I had the opening line: The bush kept its secrets well. I also had an image of a young blonde-haired girl running through the Australian bush in a long white dress. I could see around her currawongs that appeared to be menacing the child as she ran through the bush. I also saw that same little girl drowned in a waterhole, and her father was holding her:  I didn’t know if he was screaming in anguish, because he had attempted to rescue her, or if he had killed her. I was curious to find out... I had the symbol of keys in my mind and a strange-fairy tale looking house in the Blue Mountains. I knew all of these elements would work well together in the gothic landscape of the Blue Mountains.

The story was also inspired by a real life murder in the Blue Mountains when my husband was working at SBS television. It made me realise how vulnerable we are when we’re alone in the bush. I spend a lot of time in the bush alone and often spook myself speculating what could be around the next corner.

And throughout my art school years I was always drawn to the 1940s Australian Modernist painters such as Albert Tucker, Arthur Boyd and Sidney Nolan. And I was also fascinated by the glamorous lives and personalities of the life models for artists such as Pearl Goldman, Norman Lindsay’s life model who modelled for him between 1938-1945.   

Poet’s Cottage, my Tasmanian sea-fishing village mystery, was inspired by a real-life cottage I fell in love with on a Tasmanian family holiday. The house was called Poet’s Cottage and I had several major scenes of that book down before I left. I also had an image of a little girl playing in the snow with her sister and she walks into the house and down the cellar steps where she witnesses her mother being murdered. 

I’m really very visual when I work.  

How extensively do you plan your novels?

It varies with each book. For Poet’s Cottage, which was written out of contract, I plotted very loosely and free-fell into the story. I didn’t know who had killed Pearl Tatlow until I came to that point. I remember the shock I felt when I realised the killer, and when I looked back over the manuscript I saw the plot threads had led me to that point. I love it when the subconscious works so cleverly. 

With Currawong Manor I had tighter deadlines and plotted it out a bit more. The book I’m working on now needs to be written fairly quickly, so I have to know exactly where I’m going. Because my books have twists, I need prior knowledge of some of them, but it’s always a delightful experience when the book starts to emerge on its own and surprises you. My favourite way of working is to begin with the images and ideas that I’ve been brewing away with for years and allow the story to dictate itself.  

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?

I’ve actually woken from a dream today, which I might be able to use for a darker crime novel further down the track. Dreams often give me titles and images to work with. When I was at art school I was fascinated by the surrealist painters and their work with the unconscious. I still find dreams a really fabulous place to connect with muses.  There’s a quote by Jorge Luis Borges: “Writing is nothing more than a guided dream.”

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?

One thing that did surprise me when writing Currawong Manor was the character of Dolly. From the very beginning of the book, I knew she was going to be an important character. I couldn’t figure out exactly why, or where she had come from. I realised months after finishing the book, that when I was growing up there was a young girl who lived with her mother in the bush and attended school every day. I knew they lived a very simple lifestyle in the wild and didn’t have electricity or any mod cons. She would walk for miles to attend school. I hadn’t consciously thought of this girl for many years, but my unconscious had remembered her and she became a part of Dolly. There’s also another part of the story (which I can’t mention because of spoilers) but as soon as I began writing the scenes, newspapers began reporting the twist I was writing about!

Also – Pearl Goldman turned up to speak at Norman Lindsay’s house in the Blue Mountains when I was working on an early draft. This was an amazing bonus to hear stories from one of the life models who had inspired the character of Ginger in Currawong Manor.

And in 2012 when I was working on the book, the Sydney Museum kindly put on an exhibition called Homefront Wartime Sydney: 1939-45. Perfect timing for scenes I was working on!  

Where do you write, and when?
I have a garden writing shed which we had built in our courtyard garden amongst the palm trees and large tea tree. It’s a very lovely space, and without internet access I tend to get a lot of work done. 

Elizabeth Taylor is the patron saint of the shed. I have wallpapered it in a Laura Ashley paper; my German publishers liked it so much they used it for their Poet’s Cottage cover (Dornentochter in Germany).

If I’m not in the mood for the shed, I write in bed (which I find cosy and womb-like) using a wooden lap table for my computer that my father-in-law made.

I try to write every day, seven days a week. With a nine-year old daughter, it’s not always possible, but that’s what I aim to do. I show up when I’m feeling deflated, over-it, joyous and every mood and shade in-between. My best writing is often done in the very early hours (from 4am). It’s hell to get up, but once I’m writing the words flow so much faster when the moon is still in the sky, the birds have yet to begin their morning cries and I’m surrounded by the dreaming household.

What is your favourite part of writing?

My favourite part is the early drafts of a book when the story is emerging onto the page. I love filling notebooks with images and ideas and getting to know characters. I find that process so exhilarating and joyous. It’s the work that brings me all the satisfaction.  

What do you do when you get blocked?

I don’t tend to get blocked. But when I feel I’m falling out of the story, I would try to meditate. I limit the internet and either take a walk or have a bath to find what I’m attempting to bring forth from inside myself.  

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?

Reading poetry and reading across all genres of writing. Looking at art books, Pinterest online for visual imagery. The Art Gallery of New South Wales. Nature itself always inspires me. Being in the bush, or by the ocean. I keep scrapbooks and clippings of newspaper articles that interest me. I use everything around me for inspiration. I play games with myself when I’m out, trying to notice as many things as I can, because I feel we are all on auto-pilot a lot. I un-name things as well for example: if I didn’t know that was a tree, what would I call it? If I had just arrived from another planet, what would I think a supermarket was? These games might sound silly, but they help you to think outside the box a lot and wake your brain up. Biographies of other artists help as well. You realise that success often has a huge back-story to it and it gives you inspiration to keep going.      

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?

I do tend to follow moon cycles with a lot of my writing as I believe in there being more opportune times in the natural world for new beginnings and endings. For example, with my blog, I would do posts on favourable moon days, rather than a ‘negative’ cycle. I have a few crystals around and before starting work every morning, I say a prayer, an invocation to the muses to be with me. I also find it helpful to write the journal pages that Julia Cameron talks about in her book The Artist’s Way, but I don’t do the journal pages every day. I also try to avoid social media and read instead from a few pages of a book that inspires me or a poem before I start. I’m actually a big believer in the power of ritual for creative projects. Affirmations, visualisations. I’m a believer!

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
This is an almost impossible question as there are so many I really love! Plus, I have so many writer friends that I’m terrified of leaving someone out, so to be careful I won’t name any contemporary Australian writers. But some of my long-standing other favourites are: 
Agatha Christie
Erin Kelly 
Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine 
Mo Hayder 
Donna Tartt 
Kate Mosse 
Daphne du Maurier 
Robert Louis Stevenson 
Sarah Waters 
Isabel Allende. 

What do you consider to be good writing?
Writing that doesn’t sacrifice page-turning absorption for strong, poetic imagery. And vice-versa. Characters that remain in your marrow long after you’ve closed the book. Writing that makes you see the familiar in a different way. A book that transforms your present circumstances, making you dread the last page approaching: you keep trying to slow down your reading, but you have to keep turning the pages long after the witching hour. The book you close and think, ‘God, if only I could be that good! Even half that good.”

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Just DO IT. Don’ t talk about doing it on blogs, twitter or Facebook. Just do it. Read a lot, write a lot. Write every day when possible, even if it’s only for twenty minutes. Support the industry you want to be a part of by buying books and don’t only buy books that you see featured in Spectrum. Support all sorts of authors. Don’t wait for the perfect moment or circumstances to evolve before you begin. Now is the perfect time. Don’t overstimulate your brain; quieten your brain. Believe in yourself even when the rest of the world doesn’t. Write the book you would love to read. Create a space where there’s no internet access to write. Don’t give up. Don’t give up. Don’t give up. Too may people give up too easily. As Stella Adler says: ”You really do have to have the skin of of a rhinoceros but the soul of a rose”.  

What are you working on now?
I’m working on another mystery novel, set in Tasmania between the 1950s and 1920s. It’s an idea I’ve had brewing for quite a few years. It relates the ripple effect of what happens in a small village when the town’s most popular girl is murdered. The working title is Sweetwater and I’m loving watching it emerge.

You can read my review of Poet's Cottage or visit Josephine Pennicott's website


SPOTLIGHT: Josephine Pennicott on Picnic at Hanging Rock

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Today on the blog, Josephine Pennicott talks about the haunting Australian classic Picnic At Hanging Rock and how it helped inspire her new Gothic mystery, Currawong Manor, which is set in the Blue Mountains.

Please welcome her! 

A Dream within a Dream” – Joan Lindsay and some other influences on Currawong Manor.

One of the cinema experiences that haunted me throughout my adolescence was Peter Weir’s 1975 film of Joan Lindsay’s mystery novel Picnic At Hanging Rock (1967). The dreamy, surreal juxtaposition of Victorian schoolgirls and the Australian bush seemed to imprint itself through my being. Even discovering later that the dreamy on-screen effect was achieved by placing a bridal veil over the camera has never diminished its power. It remains one of my very favourite movies to this day.

When I came to Joan Lindsay’s book, I was relieved to see how faithfully Weir kept to her story. Joan must surely give hope to all aspiring novelists, as she wrote Picnic At Hanging Rock in her mid-sixties – her only work of adult fiction – in just four weeks. It was written in a frenzy where she felt as if she totally lived the novel. Lindsay's original draft had a final chapter in which the mystery was resolved. 

At her editor's suggestion, Lindsay removed it before publication, but it eventually appeared as The Secret of Hanging Rock in 1987, three years after Lindsay’s death. The lost chapter suggests that the girls encountered some sort of time warp, which fits Lindsay's interest and emphasis on time.

I believe the editors and publishers were correct in cutting the original ending, because Picnic At Hanging Rock works best as a unsolved mystery.  The girls have somehow succumbed to a magical, yet natural Australia, and are forever lost - possibly within a remnant of ancient dreamtime. 

It was genius marketing at the time, because nearly everyone I knew believed it was genuinely a true case. Joan herself refuses to discuss how true the book was, which has only added to its appeal. In the book’s forward, she says, “Whether Picnic At Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year 1900, and all the characters who appear in the book are long dead, it hardly seems important.”

But there was another mystery regarding Picnic At Hanging Rock and the author. Watching a documentary where Anne Lambert (who played the bewitching, enigmatic Miranda) recounts that one day she wandered away from the crew in full costume, to explore some of the rock. A middle-aged woman seemed to come from nowhere, rushing at her in great excitement, calling her Miranda and saying how much she had missed her. This woman was Joan Lindsay. She never referred to Anne by her name and seemed to really believe she was the Miranda of her book.

Another Joan Lindsay  mystery is that Picnic At Hanging Rock has watches stopping when they are at the rock. Through this device, we know we are now in a world without time – a world between worlds. There have been several reports from people of their watches stopping at Hanging Rock:  Joan Lindsay was a ‘watch-stopper.’ She claimed just by sitting next to somebody she had the power to stop their watch. She had this gift all her life, but could not explain it. Her absorbing autobiography is called Time Without Clocks.

I relate deeply to Joan Lindsay with her fascination with the mystical and her appreciation of the Australian landscape. in my novel, I used currawongs as a link to the eerie natural world which remembers through some primordial brain a wrongdoing long-forgotten by recorded history.  

Birds represent life in the heavens, higher paths of knowing. Birds that are black represent mystery, magic, secrets, transition and transformation. In the early days of European settlement in Australia, the unfamiliar currawong calls were mistaken for the cries of ghosts, so haunting and unfamiliar were they. Just as Joan Lindsay’s Picnic At Hanging Rock has long haunted me.

BOOK RVIEW: Currawong Manor by Josephine Pennicott

Monday, August 25, 2014

Currawong Manor
Author: Josephine Pennicott
Publisher: Macmillan Australia. 
Age Group & Genre: Contemporary/Historical Parallel Narrative; Gothic Mystery. 
Reviewer: Kate Forsyth
Source of Book: I bought it. 

The Blurb:
When photographer Elizabeth Thorrington is invited to document the history of Currawong Manor for a book, she is keen to investigate a mystery from years before: the disappearance of her grandfather, the notorious artist Rupert Partridge, and the deaths of his wife, Doris, and daughter, Shalimar. For years, locals have speculated whether it was terrible tragedy or a double murder, but until now, the shocking truth of what happened at the Manor that day has remained a secret.

Relocating to the manor, Elizabeth interviews Ginger Flower, one of Rupert's life models from the seventies, and Dolly Shaw, the daughter of the enigmatic 'dollmaker' who seems to have been protected over the years by the Partridge family. Elizabeth is sure the two women know what happened all those years ago, but neither will share their truths unconditionally. And in the surrounding Owlbone Woods, a haunting presence still lurks, waiting for the currawongs to gather...

An evocative tale set in the spectacular Blue Mountains, Currawong Manor is a mystery of art, truth and the ripple effects of death and deception.

What I Thought: 
Currawong Manor

is an atmospheric and dramatic Gothic mystery set in the Blue Mountains of Australia. The narrative has two threads. The first is that of a modern-day photographer who is invited back to the house that once belonged to her grandfather, a famous artist in the 1940s who disappeared mysteriously after the tragic death of his daughter and wife on the same day. Elizabeth interviews one of her grandfather’s muses, an elderly, flamboyant and quite fabulous former model and actress named Ginger. Her story provides the second narrative thread. Ginger is the only one still living who remembers what happened on that tragic day so long ago.

But as Elizabeth digs deeper into the mystery of her grandfather’s disappearance, she begins to fear that someone at Currawong Manor may not want her to discover the truth …

The two stories intersect in all sorts of interesting ways, and the whole book is imbued with a Gothic atmosphere of menace and strangeness. I was kept guessing right up to the end, and was still surprised by the denouement which deftly tied all the threads together in a most satisfying way. 

Josephine's blog


SPOTLIGHT: Fairy Tales Reimagined with Kate Forsyth and Natasha Mitchell

Sunday, August 24, 2014

I've been chatting about the strange, dark history of well-known fairy tales with Natasha Mitchell on ABC Radio National's LIFE MATTERS show over the last four months. 

Here are the links to all the podcasts for your listening pleasure, plus the round-ups I've been posting on the blog. 

Read on  ... if you dare ....

Edward Burne-Jones, 'Sleeping Beauty'

Sleeping Beauty Podcast


Snow White Podcast

My post on SNOW WHITE

Aya Kato, 'Rapunzel'

Rapunzel Podcast

My post on RAPUNZEL

And the talkback session with me, Natasha and Jack Zipes from last year! 

SPOTLIGHT: Spike Dean & her fairy-tale-inspired art

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Spike Deane is a friend of mine who does the most exqusite fairy-tale-inspired art - she is exhibiting her work at the moment and I just had to share some of it with you. It is so beautiful.

Spike says:

My inspiration comes from stories, particularly those of folk and fairy tales, and I like to read them all! I can’t say enough how reinterpretations and retellings inform my visual arts practice. 

Collecting different impressions of a story, from old tales and new, academic papers, poems, short stories, comics, novels and of course lots of images of illustrations and sculpture (hello Pinterest) assists in critically examining the tales and feeding the creativity well.  All the words and ideas bubble around in my head until one particular concept comes forward, demanding to be made. 

In my work I focus on the narrative elements of metamorphosis and becoming, for folk and fairy tales for me encourage us to believe that change and transformation are essential aspects of the human condition. That is why, I think that Kate’s character Isabeau/Khan’tinka from the ‘The Witches of Eileanan’ series is a favourite of mine, she very much embodies the power of transformation and personal growth.

Whilst many of my glass pieces draw on the magic of the woods and forests my newest body of work is based on the shape changing Selkie. It was Margo Lanagan’s novel ‘Sea Hearts’ which rekindled my interest in Selkie tales. 

From that point I read every Selkie retelling I could get my hands on, though it was an article on Midori Snyder’s blog (on the Swan Maiden’s feathered coat) that really got me thinking about the role that the ‘Selkie’s Coat’ plays in the tales. The skin/coat then became in my interpretation, the symbolic core of the myth. It signified change, transformation or becoming within the story. The shed seal skin, rendered someway in glass was the image in my head, demanding to be made. That was the beginning to these works in glass and textiles.

Thank you to all the folk and fairy tale writers and researchers. Know that your words and ideas have an ongoing effect on my arts practice.

Fragments of poems often become my titles, two pieces I named from Carol Anne Duffy’s ‘Little Red Cap’: ‘the breath of the wolf in my ear…’ & ‘he held a paperback in his hairy paw…’ Duffy’s words are so fitting for the pieces I couldn’t imagine anything better.

One of my favourite quotes from Jack Zipes:

"Inevitably they find their way into the forest. It is there that they lose and find themselves. It is there that they gain a sense of what is to be done. The forest is always large, immense, great and mysterious. No one ever gains power over the forest, but the forest possesses the power to change lives and alter destinies.”

My next exhibition is a group show called Silhouettes - Red Gallery, Fitzroy. September 24 - October 11 2014.

The works for this exhibition are inspired by the fiction subgenre ‘urban-fantasy’; where folk tale creatures dwell in city streets, where a sliver of magic stands out like a rainbow on a rainy day, a glimmer of elusive enchantment. The outline of the silhouette, like a folktale offers us just enough clues to fire up the imagination and then asks us to fill in the detail from our own store of memories and dreams. 

Charles De Lint is one of my favourite authors in this genre. I always loved his character Jilly Coppercorn who paints fae folk in city streets. In my early 20's I wanted to be just like Jilly. Does anyone else have a fictional role model?


Friday, August 22, 2014


I've spent the past few years studying the 'Rapunzel' fairy tale for a Doctorate of Creative Arts. As part of my work of the doctorate I wrote an imaginative retelling of the tale - my novel BITTER GREENS


I also wrote a mythic biography of Rapunzel, that looked at the history of the tale from its oldest roots all the way down to Tangled (check out my deconstruction of the Disney film). As a consequence of my fascination with fairy tales, I've been talking all over the place about them, including a series Fairy Tales Reimagined with Natasha Mitchell on ABC Radio National's Life Matters show. 

Aya Kato 'Rapunzel' 

History of the Tale

‘Rapunzel’ is one of the best known stories in the classic Western canon of fairy tales. It tells the story of a young woman - named Rapunzel – who is locked away in a tower by a witch. The heroine is named for a plant which her father stole from the witch’s walled garden. The only access to Rapunzel is via her own impossibly long hair. A prince climbs the ladder of hair and falls in love with her, setting in motion a chain of events which results in the expulsion of the maiden from her tower, the blinding and subsequent healing of the prince, and the coming together of maiden and prince in the essential ‘happy-ever-after’ ending. 

Most readers of the Western canon of fairy tales are familiar with ‘Rapunzel’ thanks to its inclusion by the Grimm brothers in their famous collection of fairy tales, first published  in 1812 and then edited, emendated, and embellished in later volumes, culminating in the final 1857 imprint. 

However it is a much older story. 

It seems to have its roots in ancient oral tales of a Great Goddess who manifested herself in three faces. The first was the Maiden, the goddess of spring and new growth. Her realm was the heavens, the high places (the tower). The second was the Woman, the goddess of summer and fertility. Her realm was the earth and all living things upon it (the walled garden). The third was the Crone, a wintry goddess of death. Her realm is the Underworld, where all living things must travel and be transformed before they can return once more to the light (darkness, blindness, cutting of hair). 

It seems the first recorded ‘Maiden in the Tower’ tale appeared in ancient Greek mythology, in the story of ‘Danaë and the Golden Shower’. Danaë is locked in a brazen tower by her father, King Acrisius of Argos, following a Delphic prophecy that he would be killed by his daughter’s son.  However, Zeus visits her in a golden shower of rain and she falls pregnant. Her son, Perseus, grows up to accidentally kill his grandfather. Other similar tales in Jewish and Islamic traditions, the French troubadour tales, and Christian legend. 

In the early 1600s, a Neapolitan courtier named Giambattista Basile (1566-1632) included a tale named ‘Petrosinella’ (meaning ‘Little Parsley’) in a collection of bawdy stories aimed at amusing the highly educated crowd in which he moved. He was arguably familiar with many of earlier ‘Maiden in the Tower’ tales and drew upon them to create a new tale of a girl who escapes from her tower with the help of her princely lover and three magical acorns. 

Sixty-three years later, in 1697, a French noblewoman called Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force (1650-1724) created a new collection of fairy tales that included the story ‘Persinette’ (also meaning ‘Little Parsley’. 

Although she was clearly influenced by Basile, La Force’s version is the first to contain the interlocking chain of causes and consequences, motifs and metaphors, which is widely recognised today as the memeplex of ‘Rapunzel’  – the theft of forbidden food; the surrender of the child named for the plant; the woman of mysterious magical powers; the maiden locked in the tower; the ladder of golden hair; the seducing prince; the maiden’s impregnation; her exile to the wilderness; the blinding of the prince; Rapunzel’s healing tears; and the final redemption of the witch. 

Charlotte-Rose de la Force is the heroine of my novel Bitter Greens

Motifs & Meaning Of The Tale

In ' Rapunzel', desire is the engine which drives the plot. The mother’s craving for parsley, the sorceress’s wish for the child, the prince’s lust for the imprisoned maiden, and her longing to be free.

It was never meant as a story for children!

It's a fairy tale replete with memorable and significant motifs and symbols. 

The most instantly recognizable is, of course, Rapunzel's' impossible long hair.

P.J. Lynch, an illustration of 'Melisande', a short story by Edith Nesbit

Hair is a symbol of life, strength, sexuality, and regeneration.

Hair is thus linked to the magical thread of life which is spun, measured, and finally severed by the Three Fates of ancient Greek mythology. The witch’s scissors are reminiscent of what Milton described as the “abhorred shears” of Atropos, the third of the Fates. 

The cutting of the girl’s hair can be seen to be symbolic of both the loss of her virginity and a kind of metaphoric wounding, or death.  However, the cutting of the braid can also be interpreted as the cutting of a symbolic umbilical cord, and Persinette’s expulsion from the small tower room as a kind of birth. 

The tower symbolizes anything which cribs and confines us - whether emotional or psychologival or physical. 

In the original versions of the tale, it was parsley which was stolen from the forbidden garden. 

Parsley is a symbolically significant plant, which has long been associated with death and sex. Legend says the plant first sprouted in the blood of Archemorus, the old fertility king, whose very name means ‘forerunner of death.’ Wreaths of parsley were laid on tombs, and the expression ‘to need only parsley’ was a euphemistic expression that meant someone was only a step away from death. In medieval times, it was believed that it was unlucky to transplant parsley, with sayings such as ‘plant parsley, plant sorrow’ persisting for many years. 

Parsley's long association with death led naturally to an association with evil. For example, virgins could not plant it without risking impregnation by the Devil, and its slow germination was because the seeds had to travel to hell and back two, three, seven, or nine times (depending on sources) before they could grow. 

Parsley was also associated with sexuality and fertility. Another old saying is ‘sow parsley, sow babies’, and it was believed that a garden in which parsley refused to grow was sign of barrenness in the house. 
Parsley contains the compound apiole, a uterine stimulant, and so the herb was an abortifacient if taken in the early stages of pregnancy, but would be given by midwives to hasten along a slow and difficult labour.
At the end of the story, Rapunzel weeps and her tears fall upon the blinded yes of the prince and heals them. 

Tears are seen as divine: ‘the eyes of the goddess are the source of life-sustaining water’.  Symbolically tears are linked to life-giving rain and the salty waters of life-endowing amniotic fluids, and to the ocean, cradle of all existence.


Bruno Bettelheim argues that Rapunzel and the witch are locked in an ‘oedipal conflict’ where Rapunzel longs for her father’s love but is stopped by the jealous mother-figure. 

Feminists usually see Rapunzel as the typical passive princess waiting patiently for her prince .- but I refute that vigorously! 

Mythological interpretations link Rapunzel to spring goddesses and themes of the cycle of life, seasons, birth, death, rebirth. 


Here are just a few of the hundreds I have collected.

Adult Novels

Kate Forsyth - Bitter Greens

Children and Young Adult Novels:

Cameron Dokey, Golden: A Retelling of ‘Rapunzel’
Adele Geras,The Tower Room
Nicholas Stuart Gray - The Stone Cage 
Sophie Masson The Crystal Heart,
Donna Jo Napoli - Zel 
Carolyn Turgeon - The Fairest of Them All. 


Monday, August 18, 2014

There are many different versions of ‘Snow-White’- one scholar has counted as many as 400!
The oldest seems to be the medieval Norse saga written by the 12th century poet Snorri Sturluson, which sets the tale in the time of Harald Fairhair in the 9th century. 

The story is called ‘Snow Beauty’, and tells the story of how, one snowy winter’s day, Harald Fairhair fell in love with the most beautiful woman in the world and married her. When Snow-Beauty died, however, her body did not rot and her cheeks were as rosy as they had ever been. The king sat beside her, thinking she would soon come back to life. He sat so for three years, neglecting all his kingly duties, until his wise councillor bade him lift up the dead queen so they could change the bedclothes below her. As soon as she was lifted up, a rank smell of rotting rose with her, the body turned blue, and worms and adders and frogs and toads crawled out. So she was burned, and the king returned to his wits. 

Another tale with similar motifs is ‘The Young Slave’ by the Neapolitan writer Giambattista Basile, written in the early 1600s and published in his ‘Tale of Tales’ collection in 1634. 

A young woman became pregnant after swallowing a rose petal. She sent her daughter, named Lisa, to the fairies to give her good luck charms. However, the last fairy slipped and twisted her foot as she was running to see the child, and uttered a curse against her - when the child was seven, her mother would leave a comb in her hair, from which the child would perish. 

At seven, the child died in this manner. The mother lamented bitterly, and encased the body in seven caskets of crystal, each one within the other, which she put in a distant room and locked, keeping the key in her pocket. When she was dying, she gave the key to her brother, begging him to never open the last room in the house.

The brother was faithful, but when he left on a hunting party, he gave the keys to his wife, telling her not to open the last room. The wife grew suspicious, and opened the forbidden chamber. Lisa had grown into a woman in her sleep, the caskets lengthening with her, and the wife found a beautiful woman hidden in the caskets. Convinced she was her husband's mistress, she opened the caskets and dragged Lisa out by the hair, causing the comb to drop and Lisa to awake. The jealous wife began to beat Lisa, tearing her hair and clothes, giving her bruises all over, and kept her as a slave.

One day the husband was going out of town again, and asked everyone in the household what presents they would like him to bring them, "even the cats." The wife became furious when the husband asked Lisa as well, but the husband insisted it was only courteous to offer Lisa a gift. Lisa demanded a doll, a knife, and a pumice-stone, and added that if the husband forgot them, he would be unable to cross the first river he came to on his return.

The husband did initially forget the gifts, but upon being unable to cross water on his way home, he remembered, and bought the gifts for Lisa. When Lisa had her doll, she began to tell the doll her story, which the husband overheard. Lisa was weeping and sharpening her knife, telling the doll, "Answer me, dolly, or I will kill myself with this knife." The husband, her uncle, kicked down the door and snatched the knife away. He then drove his cruel wife away and gave Lisa a husband of her own choice. 
Of most interest here, in regards to Snow-White, are the poisoned comb and the seven crystal caskets - motifs which later appear in Snow-White. However, this story also shares motifs with Sleeping Beauty (the fairy's curse), Bluebeard (the forbidden room), Cinderella (the girl used as a slave), Beauty and the Beast (requests for gifts) and even the Goose Girl (telling her tale to an inanimate object). 

The tale ‘Little Snow White’ was first recorded by the Grimm brothers in 1808, and sent to a friend in 1810 (the poet Clemens Brentano) (source unknown – but in my novel about the Grimm Brothers - THE WILD GIRL - I give it to the Wild family’s housekeeper Old Marie to tell). 

In this version, there is no huntsman – the Queen takes her daughter into the forest to gather roses and then abandons her there. 

A fuller version of the tale was then collected by the Grimm Brothers from three sisters – Marie, Jeannette and Amalie Hassenpflug - who lived near the brothers in the small town of Cassel. Their version was published in the first edition of tales in 1812. 

The story begins with a queen who sits sewing by the window in winter. She pricks her finger with her needle, causing three drops of blood to fall on to the snow on the black windowsill. Admiring the beauty of the colours, she says to herself, "Oh how I wish that I had a daughter with skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as black as ebony". 

Illustration by Charles Santore from a gorgeous picture book of Snow White 

Soon after that, the Queen gives birth to a baby girl who is named her 'Snow White' for her rare colouring. As the child grows her beauty makes her mother jealous. When Snow-White is seven years old, the queen orders her huntsman to take her daughter into the forest, murder her, and bring back her lungs and her liver to eat. The huntsman is moved by the child’s beauty and terror, and kills a wild boar instead. Snow-White seeks shelter in the house of seven dwarves.

The queen consults her magic mirror:

Mirror, mirror, on the wall,
Who in this land is fairest of all?
The mirror answered once again:
You, my queen, are fair; it is true.
But Little Snow-White is still
a thousand times fairer than you.

The queen makes three attempts to kill her daughter: once with by lacing her bodice too tight, once with a deadly hair comb, and finally with a poisoned apple. 

The dwarves cannot revive her the third time and so they put her in a glass coffin. The prince comes by and falls in love with the dead girl, and insists on taking her everywhere with him. After a long while, one of his servants grows angry and opens the coffin, lifted Snow-White upright, and said, "We are plagued the whole day long, just because of a dead girl," and hit her in the back with his hand. ‘Then the terrible piece of apple that she had bitten off came out of her throat, and Snow-White came back to life.’  

The prince and Snow-White are to be married, and send her mother an invitation to the wedding. 
Wondering who this new princess is, the queen asks: 

Mirror, mirror, on the wall,
Who in this land is fairest of all?

The mirror answered:

You, my queen, are fair; it is true.
But the young queen
Is a thousand times fairer than you.

The queen was horrified to hear this, unable to believe that Snow-White could still be alive. She goes to the wedding to see for herself, and the prince and princess ‘put a pair of iron shoes into the fire until they glowed, and she had to put them on and dance in them. Her feet were terribly burned, and she could not stop until she had danced herself to death.’ 

The Grimms noted there were a few variations to this version. In one, it is a count who wishes for a girl with this combination of colours, and his love for the child makes his wife jealous. In another tale, it is three ravens who fly over who provide the colour black. 

In the next Grimm brothers’ edition, Snow-White’s mother dies at birth and so it is her step-mother that tries to kill her; and the piece of poisoned apple is dislodged when the prince’s servant stumbles over a root. 

When the story was translated into English by Edgar Taylor, he softened the cruelty and violence of the tale, taking out the queen’s desire to eat her step-daughter’s liver and lungs, and changed the ending so the queen choked in her rage rather than being made to dance in red-hot iron shoes. And although Snow-White (called Snow-drop) is still only seven years old, Edgar Taylor describes her lying in her glass coffin ‘a long, long time’ with the inference, perhaps, that she grows up before the prince comes along. 

Illustration by Charles Santore

In 1912, the story was made into a comic Broadway play called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The dwarves were named for the first time: Blick, Flick, Glick, Snick, Plick, Whick, & Quee (the youngest of the seven, at nearly ninety-nine years old) 

Famously the story was then made into Walt Disney's 1937 film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Dwarves’ names changed; Dopey, Grumpy, Doc, Happy, Bashful, Sneezy and Sleepy. 

Instead of her lungs and liver, as written in the original, the huntsman is asked by the queen to bring back Snow White’s heart. Snow White is no longer a little girl (though she is still very young-looking). The evil queen tries to kill Snow White only once (by a poisoned apple). Disney also added the famous awakening by the prince’s kiss, while the queen dies by falling down a cliff, after being hit by lightning.

Interestingly, in 1994 a German scholar Eckhard Sander published Snow White: Is It a Fairy Tale? He wonders whether the story of Snow White was in any way inspired by the life of Margarete von Waldeck (1513-1534), whom he suspected was poisoned by her jealous step-mother.  

Motifs & Meaning Of The Tale

Snow-White is a resurrection tale, and thus in mythological terms her ‘sleeping death’ can be linked to the idea of the coming of spring and the rebirth of life after the dead of winter.  

The use of the three colours is very striking. Snow White has skin white as snow, lips as red as blood and hair as black as ebony.

Each of these colours has significant symbolic implications and represents a time of life. 

White, representing birth, is for purity, virginity, and innocence. 

Red, representing life, symbolizes blood, in the menstrual flow and the breaking of the hymen and childbirth.

Black, symbolizing death, connotes the absolute and eternity. 

In some interpretations, the bodice-laces, the comb, and the apple are all seen as erotic symbols. 

Certainly, the red apple has always had connotations of sin and the loss of innocence, with its links back to Adam & Eve and the fall. 

The mirror can be seen as a projection of the queen’s unconscious. 

Most Freudian interpretations see the story of Snow-White as the playing out of Oedipal conflicts (called the Electra complex by Jung). Both female characters try to gain the father's affection (although he is absent from the tale). The father raises an unconscious conflict between mother and daughter, because the daughter’s beauty makes her more desirable and so arouses the mother's jealousy which makes her wish to get rid of the daughter. This has been called the Snow White complex. 

Feminist readings of the tale also focus on the difficulties of the mother-daughter relationship, with some seeing Snow-White as an image of patriarchy’s ideal female (beautiful, youthful, passive, silent) contrasted against the vigorous, strong-willed, outspoken and vain mother. 

Finally, it can simply be seen as a parable for the dangers of vanity. 
Modern Retellings (films)

Snow White (1988). Michael Berz, director.
With Diana Rigg as the Evil Queen and Sarah Patterson as Snow White. 

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012, Rupert Sanders (director), With Charlize Theron as the Evil Queen and Kirsten Stewart as Snow-White. 

Mirror Mirror (also in 2012), stars Julia Roberts as Evil Queen and Lily Collins as Snow White (directed by Tarsem Singh)

Modern Retellings (novels)

Jane Yolen - Snow in Summer: Fairest of Them All. 

Carolyn Turgeon - The Fairest of Them All

Gregory Maguire - Mirror, Mirror

Tanith Lee - White as Snow

Gail Carson Levine - Fairest

Adele Geras - Pictures of the Night

If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy my posts on The Little Mermaid and Sleeping Beauty 

You can also listen to me talk about Snow White with Natasha Mitchell on Radio National


SPOTLIGHT: Diana Wynne Jones

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Yesterday would have been the 80th birthday of the great children's writer, Diana Wynne Jones, if she had lived to see it. 

When I heard - three years and five months ago - that Diana Wynne Jones had died, I grieved as deeply as if I had known her. Part of my sorrow came from the thought that there would be no more Diana Wynne Jones books ... no more funny, wise, magical stories that never fail to enchant and surprise.

I was 11 years old when I read Charmed Life, which has remained my favourite book of hers ever since. It was published in 1977, and was commended for a Carnegie Award and won both the Guardian Award and the Preis der Leseratten in Germany.

The hero of Charmed Life is a boy called Cat Chant. Her and his sister Gwendolen are sent to stay at Chrestomanci Castle after their parents are drowned in a steamboat accident. The castle is the home of the Chrestomanci, a powerful enchanter with nine lives whose job is to manage and control the use of magic in all the many worlds. 

Cat thinks he is a very ordinary sort of boy, but his sister Gwendolen is a talented witch. However, as the story progresses we learn that Cat is indeed a very special boy, with strong magical powers of his own which his sister has been using for her own gain.   

Diana Wynne Jones has gone on to write a number of other books about Cat, the Chrestomanci and the castle, all of them with her own particular brand of warmth, charm, wit and unpredictability. 

Diana Wynne Jones wrote: ‘Why do I write for children? There is one good reason. I would hope to encourage some part of one generation at least to use their minds as minds are supposed to be used. A book for children, like the myths and folktales that tend to slide into it, is really a blueprint for dealing with life. For that reason, it might have a happy ending, because nobody ever solved a problem while believing it was hopeless. It might put the aims and the solution unrealistically high – in the same way that folktales tend to be about kings and queens – but this is because it is better to aim for the moon and get halfway there than just to aim for the roof and get halfway upstairs. The blueprint should, I think, be an experience in all the meanings of that word, and the better to make it so, I would want it to draw on the deeper resonances we all ought to have in the other side of our minds.’

(I originally wrote this blog post for Michael Pryor's wonderful blog Narrative Transport - check it out there, or read this brief review of one of my favourite SWJ's books Cart & Cwidder)


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