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BITTER GREENS: Rapunzel, Charlotte-Rose de la Force & me

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Interview with Elizabeth Jane for the Historical Novel Society magazine

I read on your website that you started out wanting to tell the Rapunzel Story as a historical novel, as if it really happened (as part of your PhD?), until, as part of your research, came across Charlotte Rose de la Force who you describe as one of the 'most fascinating women ever forgotten by history,' and knew you had to write about her. Can you tell me about this process and at what point you decided the two stories must connect? 

I began by wanting to rewrite ‘Rapunzel’. I’d been thinking about doing this since I was twelve, which is when I first tried to write a story based on the fairy tale. At that early age I knew I wanted to tell the story from the point of view of the girl locked in the tower. It was in my mid-teens when I realised I also wanted to tell part of the story from the point of view of the witch. So you can see it was a story I’d been interested in for a very long time.

I wrote many other books, but this idea still bothered me. One day I had an epiphany. I realised that I had been thinking of the book has a children’s fantasy, but that was why I had not been able to move forward with the idea. ‘Rapunzel’ was never meant as a children’s tale. It’s very dark and it’s very sexy. It’s a story of obsession, and madness, and desire, and resurrection, and it needed to be written for an adult audience. I also realised that I did not want to set it in a make-believe world. I wanted to set it in the real world, in our world, where girls are still kidnapped and locked up in attics all too often. 

Once I realised I wanted to write the story as a historical novel for adults, I began thinking about the setting. Where and when would I set my Rapunzel retelling? I began to research the history of the tale, a decision that led me to undertaking my doctorate.  

At the same time, I was playing with the idea of having a third narrative thread other than the stories of the maiden and the witch. I wanted the structure of the book to reflect the braid of impossibly long hair that is the most visually arresting motif of the story. I thought about the possibility of having one narrative thread set in contemporary times, with a girl locked away in a cellar, and I also thought about having the third narrative thread being someone – an old woman – telling the story to the Grimm brothers. I liked that idea, and so I began to research the background to the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales. It took me a long time, but eventually I discovered that the story I knew of as ‘Rapunzel’ was far older than the Grimms. I found the earliest known version had been written in the 1600s by Giambattista Basile, a man who was then working for the Venetian Republic. That set my imagination on fire, and so I began to envision the story set in late Renaissance Venice. 

However, Basile’s story was not the story I knew. I wanted to retell the tale that had meant so much to me as a child. I had to track down how the story travelled from Venice to Germany, and how it changed along the way. Again it took me a long time, but eventually I discovered the story of Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, who wrote the version we know now of as ‘Rapunzel’. I knew at once I had to write about her – her life was full of drama and scandal and danger. 

Regarding the viewpoint order in which you told the tale (brilliant, by the way), how did you determine what to reveal when? Did you know from the start that you would need the three viewpoints? Or did you write the three tales in full, chopping them up at a later point?

I knew I wanted three narrative viewpoints from the start, so I could weave them together like a braid. I wrote each strand separately, from the first word to the last word, as if I was writing three individual novels. I wrote Charlotte-Rose’s story first, with breaks to show where I would insert the other stories. Then I wrote Margherita’s story, from first word to last word, and wove it in to Charlotte-Rose’s story. Then I wrote my witch Selena’s story. My original plan had been to break it into sections and weave it through like the other two strands. However, I felt that would dissipate much of the power of her narrative, and so I changed my plan, and put Selena’s story, in its entirety, in the middle of the book. I call it the dark heart of the book. 

You created such a plausible atmosphere of superstition and folk belief in 17th century France that the 'real magic' in the 16th century felt truly believable. How did you set out to achieve this? 

Thank you so much! I always try and make the world of my story as vivid and alive as possible, so that you can really understand the forces working upon the characters. I read a great deal, including primary sources such as letters and memoirs, and I was particularly fascinated by the Affair of the Poisons – a scandal of murder and satanism which rocked the court of Louis XIV to its foundations. 

When writing the sections set in Renaissance Venice, I read the work of an Italian historian, Carlo Ginzberg, who examined the Inquisition’s transcripts of 16th century witch trials. So many of the spells or practices in the book are ones which were actually recorded in Italy in the Renaissance. 

How important is it to keep this element of the mysterious in fairy tale retellings? 

It’s important for me! I think every creative artist brings their own passions and preoccupations to the task, and that is what makes their work so unique. I have always been fascinated by folklore and superstitions and the uncanny, and so my work reflects this interest.   

How important do you think setting the story in a real time and place (as opposed to once-upon-a-time) were to achieving this? 

For me, it was really important. I love the fantasy genre and many of my books are set far, far away, in make-believe lands. One of the great strengths of the fantasy genre is its quality of strangeness, and I love creating that type of world. However, with BITTER GREENS, I very much wanted to make it feel real, as if it had actually happened. I wanted to remind readers that the imprisonment of women against their wills is very much a cultural practice of our society … and it still happens. I did not want the escape hatch of magic, the sense that someone waved a wand and the impossible just happened. I wanted to find other reasons for the mysteries in the story. 

Were the links to Titian art part of this decision? Or a happy coincidence?


I was working on Selena’s sections of the book and wanted to bring the world of Renaissance Venice vividly to life. I knew that I wanted her to be a courtesan, and that she had lived a remarkably long life without visible signs of ageing. I also knew, in the back of my mind, that I wanted to weave in something about Venetian art. 

Then, one day, my son was doing a project on William Blake and I told him I had a book in my library that may be of help to him. I went and pulled the book on Blake out, and the book next to it fell out of the shelf and on to the floor. It was a book on Titian, and it had opened to a page showing colour plates of Titian’s paintings ‘Sacred & Profane Love’ and ‘Flora’, with a caption explaining how he used the same ideal of beauty in many of his paintings. Flicking though the book, I saw the same face appear again and again, and I remembered reading that Titian was thought to have been inspired by his mistress who had been a courtesan. I was absolutely electrified. I went racing to my study and started googling. Hours later, my son plaintively asked me if I had found the book on Blake … I had completely forgotten why I went into the library!

(Check out my Pinterest page on Titian to see all the paintings described in Bitter Greens) 

Were the witches incantations a product of your imagination? Or did you find similar examples in historical sources? For example was bathing in the blood of virgins a real superstition that you utilised for your purposes? Or did you make it up? How important is it to the overall plausibility to find such connections? 

I was inspired by Carlo Ginzberg’s work on 16th century Inquisition court transcripts, which contained a great deal of fascinating information on magical beliefs and superstitions of the time. I was also interested in other medieval accounts of witchcraft such as the Malleus Maleficarum. The idea of bathing in the blood of a virgin to preserve beauty is not new. It was a common belief of the time. The Hungarian Countess Erzsébet Báthory was thought to have murdered hundreds of girls in the early 1600s for this purpose. I always like to have the magic in my stories deeply rooted in the real. It makes it feel more possible. 

How important do you think a surprise ending is to a fairy tale re-telling? How important is it to have a hitherto unexplored perspective?

I think surprise is the magic ingredient of all good storytelling. I am always thinking to myself, how can I best surprise the reader? I think this is even more important in a fairy-tale retelling, because the story’s structure and motifs are so familiar to most readers. ‘Rapunzel’ is one of the best known tales in the world, and so the challenge for me was to transform it into a compelling, suspenseful and unexpected reading experience. 

You worked with a translator? Was this frustrating? Did you have a sense that if you could have just read the materials yourself you might have uncovered more? What did you tell the translator you were looking for? 

My translator translated every single word for me, so there was no need for me to worry about missing things. It was a massive job. Sylvie translated some of Charlotte-Rose de la Force’s fairy tales that had never before been translated, plus a 
brief autobiographical sketch she had written, as well as a biography of Charlotte-Rose written by a French academic. She also communicated for me with some French fairy tale experts, and with the Comte de Sabran-Pontevès, a descendant of the La Force family who still lives in the Chateau de Cazeneuve where Charlotte-Rose grew up. Then, when I went to France and visited the Chateau, I hired another translator to go with me to help me communicate with the Comte (he gave me a private tour of the chateau – it was absolutely amazing! I saw Charlotte-Rose’s pram and her baptismal records which proved her birth age). 

What would you say were the main themes of your novel? If I were to take a guess I would say redemption - which, I believe, is an element of the de la Force version of the tale that appealed to you. 

Yes, I think it is all about redemption. The ‘Rapunzel’ fairy tale has its roots in ancient nature myths. All the characters in it – maiden, prince, crone - journey through death and darkness into light and rebirth again. It’s extraordinarily beautiful and powerful. 

Was this part of your decision to give the witch a viewpoint - indeed, to create an empathy for her in the reader's minds? 

Yes, this was an important aspect of the tale for me. 

Through her life, and that of Charlotte-Rose, did you also want to show the limited options for women apart from the church or marriage? 

This was certainly important for me too. I always think that I am living the life Charlotte-Rose dreamed of. I was free to choose who to love, and free to write as I please. Its important women never forget how far we have come, and how hard the battle has been. 

In Mirror Mirror (Bernheimer, Kate, Anchor Books, 2002), Margaret Atwood describes an antipathy for 'pinkly illustrated versions of Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty stories whose plots were dependant on female servility, immobility or even stupor, and on princely rescue.' I believe one of the reasons you liked de la Force's version of the Rapunzel tale is because the woman in the tower takes a more active role in her own redemption. Indeed, in Bitter Greens, Lucio tells her Margherita, that she must look in her heart and find a way to break the spell. Can you talk to me about your reasoning here? Is your novel a conscious attempt to fight against the helpless princess stereotype? 

It always makes me cross when people call Rapunzel the ‘passive princess waiting patiently for her prince’.  She is not a princess, she does not wait patiently but rather sings with all her heart and soul and so draws the prince to her, and she is the one that saves the prince, not the other way around. She is a mythic figure of feminine power, who frees herself and then heals the blinded eyes of the prince. It is true that she is held in stasis and immobility in the first part of the story, but never forget that she escapes her tower at the end. That is the whole point of the story. 

As you know, the fairy tale was an oral storytelling tradition long before it ever became a literary form, with each teller altering the tale for their own purposes. Do you see your own re-telling of Rapunzel as contributing to this tradition? Would your twenty first century message be that women hold the key to their own destiny? How does Charlotte-Rose de la Force's life further illustrate this theme? 

Yes, I like to think of myself as being the latest in a long chain of storytellers, both oral and literary, who have told and retold the tale from the very beginning of human history. I imagine the story as a flame, passed from hand to hand, casting light into the world.  

And remember that it is not only women who are held captive by the metaphorical towers of society. Men are too. Fairy tales are a window into the human psyche, and hold wisdom for us all. 

A little question aside from fairy tales ... In the chapter A Mere Bagatelle you have a delightful argument between Michel Baron and Charlotte-Rose about their writing. Some of the memorable lines are: 'All these disguises duels and abductions... All these desperate love affairs. And you wish me to take you seriously.' 'I like disguises and duels... At least something happens in my stories.' 'At least my plays are about something.' Etc... How does this describe your own working life? Where you sit on the literary spectrum? Like Charlotte-Rose do you see yourself as an intelligent female writer of fantasy/historical fiction who has a literary turn of phrase yet also wants to tell a good story, with themes like love and redemption, that women in particular will enjoy? 

I’m glad you enjoyed that scene! I have let Charlotte-Rose speak for me there. I too like stories in which things happen, and I too think that stories about love express one of the most universal human longings. Like Charlotte-Rose, I relish language, for its beauty, and for its ability to help us articulate ideas and emotions, and connect with other humans. I love storytelling, and am not interested in books that fail to tell a good story. Yet I want to think as well as feel, and so I love books that are full of big ideas, where I learn new things, and come to understand something that has always eluded me before. I see no reason why a page-turning, compelling story cannot be well-written too!

BITTER GREENS: The history of the Rapunzel fairy tale

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

BITTER GREENS, my retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale, has won the American Library Association award for Best Historical Fiction in 2015. 

Here, for your delight, is a brief history of the 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. 

Most people think that the ‘Rapunzel’ story was first told by the Grimm Brothers in the early 19th century, but in fact it is a much older tale than that. There are so many ‘Maiden in the Tower’ stories in cultures all around the world that it has its own classification in the Aarne-Thompson fairytale motif index (Type 310). 

The first known version is from Christian iconography with the story of Saint Barbara. She was a virtuous young girl locked in a tower by her father in the 3rd century. She was tortured for her Christian beliefs but her wounds miraculously healed overnight and when she was beheaded by her father, he was struck by lightning and killed. Most images of her show her with long, flowing, blonde hair, and in one version of the story her hair miraculously burst into flame when her father seized hold of it.

The first appearance of the motif of the ‘hair ladder’ 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 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 Petrosinella, a literary fairy tale told by a Florentine writer, Giambattista Basile and published in 1634. Basile was living in Venice at the time and so may have heard many tales brought by sailors and merchants from faraway lands. Petrosinella (Little Parsley) 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 in 1698 by Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force , who has been banished to a convent after displeasing the Sun King, Louis XIV, at his opulent 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 also one of the world’s first historical novelists. Published under a pseudonym, Mademoiselle X, Charlotte-Rose’s tales became bestsellers and she was eventually able to buy her release.

In Persinette, Mademoiselle de la Force’s version of the tale, the mother conceives an insatiable longing for parsley which her husband steals for her from a sorceress’s garden. When he is caught by the sorceress, the husband promises the sorceress his unborn daughter. The sorceress comes and collects the little girl at the age of seven, names her Persinette, and raises her until she is twelve. Persinette is then locked away in a tower without a door or stair, deep in a forest. 

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 sorceress is furious. She cuts off Persinette’s hair and banishes her to a far-distant wilderness, then tricks the prince into climbing up the braids to the tower. She then causes him to fall from the tower to the ground, and he is blinded by the thorns that grow about the base of the tower. Persinette bears twins in the wilderness, then finds the prince and heals his eyes with her 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. 

The story was then retold by the German author Friedrich Schulz (1790). His version is almost identical to Mademoiselle de la Force’s, except that he changed the girl’s name to Rapunzel. It was then retold by the Grimm Brothers (1812), becoming less powerful, mysterious and sexually charged with each subsequent edition. For example, Rapunzel betrays the prince by remarking that the witch is much heavier to pull up, rather than by the witch’s realization that Rapunzel is pregnant. 

I love Charlotte-Rose de la Force’s version of the story because of the ardent love affair and the miraculous healing of the prince’s eyes, and also because the heroine takes a more active role than in later versions of the tale. Persinette is imprisoned as a child, but she survives her ordeal, plots her escape, falls in love, and then raises two children on her own. She heals her lover’s wounds with her tears, and she persuades the sorceress to set them free. She becomes a magical agent of healing and salvation, not only for herself and her family, but also for the sorceress. 

I am also fascinated by Charlotte-Rose herself. Strong-willed, intelligent and fiercely independent, she once rescued her lover from imprisonment by disguising herself as a dancing bear and entering his father’s castle with a travelling troupe of performers. Her stories were among the first literary fairy tales to be published, and her historical novels are known to have been read and enjoyed by Sir Walter Scott, who many attribute with beginning the historical fiction genre. Her most famous novel, The Secret History of Margeurite de Valois (1697), was also a strong influence on Alexander Dumas’s novel The Queen Margot (1854). She was an early feminist who believed passionately in free love and fought to live her own life liberated from the rigid hierarchy and etiquette of the court of Louis XIV. I find it interesting that her own story echoes the themes of Persinette – she is locked away from society by the king, but she wins her freedom by telling stories.

In my novel, Bitter Greens, I have entwined a retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale with Charlotte-Rose’s dramatic life story to create a novel of desire, obsession, black magic, and the redemptive power of love. Oh, and Giambattista Basile makes a brief appearance too …

BITTER GREENS: Juliet Marillier interviews me about the writing of my novel 'Bitter Greens'

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

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). 

BITTER GREENS: The story behind my fascination with Rapunzel

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

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


SPOTLIGHT: Fairy Tales Reimagined with Kate Forsyth and Natasha Mitchell

Thursday, February 11, 2016

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! 

A Rapunzel poem by Kate Forsyth

Thursday, February 11, 2016

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

SPOTLIGHT: A Brief History of Fairy Tales

Thursday, February 11, 2016


For your enjoyment ...  a brief history of fairy tales!

Myth, Legend & Fairy Tale

The differences between myth, legend, fairy tale & fable can be can simply described as:

Myths: narratives about immortal or supernatural protagonists
Legends: narratives about extraordinary protagonists
Fairy Tales: narratives about ordinary protagonists
Fables: narratives with animal protagonists which convey a moral

History of Fairy Tales

Fairy Tales have their roots in ancient oral storytelling traditions.
All cultures have their own myths & legends. Many fairy tales wear ‘the easy doublet’ of myth.
A.D. 100-200, Ancient Greece – “Cupid and Psyche” written by Apuleius 

A.D. 850-860, China - The first known version of “Cinderella” is written

C. 1300 – Troubadours and travelling storytellers spread tales throughout medieval Europe 

C. 1500 - One Thousand and One Arabian Nights is first recorded 

1550 & 1553, Italy - Gianfrancesco Straparola publishes The Pleasant Nights - he has been called the 'grandfather of fairy tales'

1600s, Italy - Giambattista Basile writes The Tale of Tales – published posthumously in 1634. This contains 'Petrosinella', the earliest known version of 'Rapunzel' 

1690-1710  - The French Salons invented and played with fairy tales - Marie-Catherine D'Aulnoy invented the term 'conte de fées'

1697 France - Charles Perrault's Mother Goose Tales is published in Paris 

1697 – Charlotte-Rose de la Force publishes her collection which includes the tale we now know of as “Rapunzel”

1740 France - Gabrielle de Villeneuve writes a 362 page version of “Beauty and the Beast”

 1756 France – Jean-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont publishes much shorter version of “Beauty and the Beast” - first tale written specifically for children.

1812 Germany - Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm publish Vol 1 of Childhood and Household Tales

1823 Great Britain - Edgar Taylor publishes the first English translation of the Grimms' tales in German Popular Stories. The book is illustrated by George Cruikshank

1825 Germany – Grimms’ first edition for children - known as The Small Edition - illustrated by Ludwig Grimm

1835 Denmark - Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales Told for Children

1889 England - Andrew Lang publishes The Blue Fairy Book -  the first multicultural fairy tale collection 

1890 Russia - Tchaikovsky's “The Sleeping Beauty” premieres in St Petersburg 

1893 Great Britain - Marian Roalfe Cox publishes her book, Cinderella: Three Hundred and Forty-five Variants of Cinderella, Catskin, and Cap O' Rushes’- the first fairy tale scholarship

1910 Finland - Antti Aarne publishes ‘The Types of the Folktale’. Later, Stith Thompson translates and expands it into English in 1961

1937 United States - Walt Disney's first feature length animated film is released, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Now – fairy tales have never been hotter! They dominate our TV and movie screens, and influence advertising, music, and fashion. Plus of course ... fairy tale retellings ...

Fairy Tale Tropes
Pure distillation of plot

Setting is anywhere and nowhere

Traditional sentences & archaic language: Once upon a time ... Long long ago … Once, twice, thrice …. 
‘Abstract style’  - dark forest, brave youth, golden bird

Fairy tale numbers and patterns: the numbers 3 & 7 & 13 i.e. the third sister, the thirteenth fairy

Magic & metamorphosis – talking mirror, prince into frog, girl into bear

Binary oppositions i.e. good & evil, rich & poor, beautiful & ugly, strong & weak

Memorable language i.e. rhythm, rhyme, repetition, alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia 

Motifs & metaphors: ‘the language of the night’

Structure – a series of trials & tribulations (often three)

The Fairy Tale ‘happy ending’ .. 

(Though not all fairy tales end happily. Many of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales are very sad, for example) 


SPOTLIGHT: 'Rapunzel' in Bulgaria - a magical puppet theatre production

Monday, April 20, 2015

Today I am very happy to welcome Rossitsa Minovska-Devedzhieva to the blog. She is a puppet theatre director from Bulgaria who has put together a magical production of 'Rapunzel' which draws on older versions of the story, including those by Giambattista Basile and Charlotte-Rose de la Force, who both appeared as characters in my novel BITTER GREENS. 

Rossitsa says: 

I am a puppet theatre director from Bulgaria. The puppet stage is a place where children get in touch with literature, music, stage and fine arts and begin to cultivate their aesthetic taste and love for arts – something we are responsible for. 

Throughout the years I’ve put on stage classical fairytales, such as “The Ugly Duckling”, “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”, “Thumbelina”, “The Sleeping Beauty”, “Hansel and Gretel”. 

I “discovered” “Rapunzel” as an adult and was fascinated by the variety of themes weaved in it. Before writing the dramatization, my research led me via Heidi Heiner’s treasury SUR LA LUNE to the wonderful article “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair” by Terri Windling. I was excited to learn about the original of Giambattista Basile and was impressed by the life story of Charlotte-Rose de la Force and the way she rewrote the tale.  

I put on stage “Rapunzel” in 2009 with the Sliven Puppet Theatre and the show had a happy life, winning awards at Bulgarian and international puppet festivals.

My recent work in the State Puppet Theatre of Varna – one of the most renowned Bulgarian puppet theatres  - proved that a good story can be important no matter when it was written. The fairytale about the long-haired girl, locked in a tower is full of questions and problems to discuss. I had a new, fresh look at them now, which reflected upon the analysis, the building of the characters, the mise-en-scene, the approach to the whole… 

Together with the talented actors we started a journey in search for our answers, full of curiosity and love. The main themes in our performance are the right to be free, the consequences of over-control in parenting and, of course, the strength of love!  

Retelling the story through the means of puppet theatre art, with the impressive scenography of Svila Velichkova and the beautiful music of Plamen Mirchev-Mirona, I tried to stay true to the widely known version of the Brothers Grimm, but inevitably changed it in a way, using my own voice as a director and a parent.

It happened so, that during the very last rehearsals, Kate Forsyth published several successive posts about “Bitter Greens” and that remarkable woman - Charlotte-Rose de la Force. I really had the feeling that her spirit was flying over the continents, connecting us with an invisible thread and inspiring me and the actors in a magical way!

Nowadays children are attacked by so many art adaptations of the most favourite fairytales, that they can easily get lost.  I thought it’s necessary to take them a bit closer to the literary roots of “Rapunzel”. That’s why I used some new elements, such as the magical acorns from Basile’s “Petrosinella” with which Mother Gothel was defeated. Yes, I followed the plot of the Grimms, but actually nearly everything in it was written by Charlotte-Rose de la Force. And I want the audience to learn about it!

I am thankful to Kate Forsyth for her interest to our work and for being so kind giving me the opportunity to share my theatre experience with “Rapunzel” – one of the most magical, mysterious and exciting fairytales I know, and am sure that many of you love!

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: A brief interview with Kate Forsyth

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

To celebrate my novel BITTER GREENS winning the ALA Award for Best Historical Fiction 2015, I'm running a brief taster for what the book is about ...

What is the title of your book?
Bitter Greens

Where did the idea come from for the book?
I started by being both enthralled and troubled by the Rapunzel fairy tale and wondering how I would rewrite it to try and make sense of some of the mysteries at the heart of the tale. I wanted to write it as a historical novel, as if it had really happened, as if it was true … and so I began to research the origins of the story. In this way, I stumbled upon the dramatic life story of the woman who first wrote the story (at least in the form in which most of us know it). Her name was Charlotte-Rose de la Force and she was amazing. Once I read that she had dressed up as a dancing bear to help rescue her lover, I just knew I had to write about her. 

What genre does your book fall under?
Historical fiction.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I’d love Molly Quinn, the red-haired actress in ‘Castle’  to play Margherita (my Rapunzel) – she would be so perfect!

I’d like Nicole Kidman to play my witch, Selena – she too has red hair so the film set would be like a redhead convention!

Charlotte-Rose could be played by Penelope Cruz. 

Any gorgeous hunk of a man would do for my male characters.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
A historical novel for adults that interweaves a retelling of Rapunzel set in Renaissance Venice, with the dramatic true life of the woman who first told the tale, the 17th century French writer Charlotte-Rose de la Force, BITTER GREENS is a story of desire, obsession, black magic and the redemptive power of love. 

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
About two years, though I was researching for another two years before that. 

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I’d compare it to books by Philippa Gregory, Kate Mosse, Tracy Chevalier, Sarah Dunant … historical novels with a twist of the  uncanny about them.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?
The story itself inspires me. I get an idea, it sinks its talons into my imagination, and will not let go until I have given it life. I get utterly obsessed when I’m writing a book!

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
You will learn how to curse your enemy with no more than a black candle, a blackberry vine, and a handful of grave dirt …
You will learn why courtiers at the French court always ate their soup cold …
You will discover why witches in Venice were always buried with a brick jammed between their jaws …
You will find out why eating your own hair is a very bad idea … 

Read more about BITTER GREENS and BUY IT HERE!

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