Q & A with Kate Forsyth


Q:  What is the first thing you’d love everyone to know about you?

A: I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember and spent my childhood daydreaming, making up stories, and playing imaginary games. My grown-up life as an author seems a natural extension of that dreamy little girl’s life.

Q: You famously love fairy tales, and you draw upon them in your own work in very interesting and surprising ways. What propels you to exit the real world and into the world of the unknown?

A: I’ve always loved reading books that are filled with history and suspense and romance and magic, and so it feels very natural to me to write those kinds of stories now. I love writing more than anything else in the world (apart from my family, of course!), and so I am at my happiest when absorbed in the imaginary worlds of my own creating. 

Q:  When did you start writing? What do you love to write about?

A: I’ve been writing stories ever since I was old enough to hold a pencil, and wrote my first novel when I was seven. I’ve been working on one story or another ever since then. Most of my books draw on history, myth, fairy tale and folklore for their inspiration – I also love books that have a puzzle or a mystery of some sort at their heart, and so this is also of many of my books. 

Q: Your fairy tale retellings are so lyrical and poetic, do you ever write poetry as well?

A: Yes, I do. I’ve written it ever since I was a child. I often write poetry when I’m feeling things intensely – grief, or love, or joy. I wrote a very heartfelt poem when I was pregnant with my third child, my daughter, and another when my grandmother died, for example. I had a collection of poems published as a young woman, and I still write it for my own secret pleasure. 

Q: I believe you have a degree in Fairy Tales? What an amazing achievement. Tell us about it.

A: Yes, it’s true. I have a Doctorate of Creative Arts which focused on the history and meaning of the Rapunzel fairy tale. It was an utterly fascinating exploration into fairy tales in general, and the Maiden in the Tower tales in particular. Rapunzel has fascinated me since I was a child and I spent a long time researching the tale’s background while I was planning my novel ‘Bitter Greens’, which retells it as a historical novel set in 16th century Venice and 17th century Paris. 

‘Bitter Greens’ was the creative component of my doctorate, and I also wrote a critical examination of Rapunzel as the theoretical component, which was published as ‘The Rebirth of Rapunzel: A Mythic Biography of the Maiden in the Tower’. I have always wanted to write a retelling of Rapunzel – from at least the age of twelve – and it seemed to me a perfect project for a doctorate. 

Q:  Why do you feel that there has been a resurgence of the old fairy tales? I’ve always loved them, but it seems you find everything related anymore appearing as a trend. Do they have lasting quality?

A: I think fairy tales have a universal appeal – we all remember them from our own childhood and then we pass them on to our own children to read, which means the tales survive. Fairy tales are like a manual for life, told in metaphoric code, teaching us that – if we are good and kind and brave and true enough – we can change our lives for the better. This is an important lesson for us all.

Q:  What are your favorite fairy tales of all time?

A: My favourite fairy tales are ‘Rapunzel’, ‘Six Swans’, ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Snow White & Rose Red’, a beautiful Grimm version of ‘The Beauty and the Beast’ called ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, a Scottish tale called ‘Tam Lin’ which is one of my favourites to tell as a live storytelling performance, another Scottish tale called ‘Katie Crackernuts’ … oh, too many to list! I love nearly all of them, really.

Q. You are best known as a writer of historical novels for adults. What do you love about re-telling these old forgotten fairy tales? 

A: I love the joyousness of the story, and the freedom it gives me to invent and imagine and play. 

Q: What are your future plans for your career and/or studies?

A: I plan to keep on writing till I die. I hope this does not happen for a long while as I have so many brilliant ideas for books. I just need the time to write them!

Q: How did you first get published?

A: I always knew I wanted to be a writer – it was like a mystical destiny for me. I never changed my mind or wavered from my course. I first tried to be published at sixteen and got a very nice encouraging letter from the publishing house to which I had sent my manuscript. I went to university and studied literature, and began to get poems and short stories published. I was working away on a novel the whole time. After I graduated, I worked as a journalist until I was in my mid-twenties and then I quit fulltime work and went back to university to do a Master of Arts in Creative Writing. I could not believe that I was 25 and still had not had a novel published! I felt as if I had to do something drastic to make my dreams come true. I worked part-time as a freelance journalist and tried to make sure I got at least two or three days a week to work on my novel, which I planned to use as my major thesis. By the end of the year, that novel was finished and so – in the summer holidays – I began to write another. I threw myself into it with absolute passion and commitment, and by the time the university term began again, I had written about fifty thousand words. I felt, with a little fizz of excitement in my stomach, that it had something … and so I sent it off to a literary agent in the hope she would represent me. She loved the book, and put it up for auction in Australia and overseas … and before long I found myself with an international three-book deal. My life was changed forever! I have been a full-time writer ever since. 

Q: Where do you write? 

A: I have a study at home where I write. It is painted pale green and is lined with books and framed book covers and artworks that inspire me. I have a beautiful view over my garden to the harbour and the ocean. On my desk I have a jar stuffed full of raven feathers – they are always dropping them at my feet! I also have a piece of broken glass that looks like an angel wing that I found when I was a teenager. I also have a comfortable wing armchair where I like to sit and read. It is a very beautiful and tranquil space, and I miss it terribly when I’m away from home touring and doing research trips. 

Q: What does a typical writing look like?

A: I like to have a cup of tea and write in my diary first thing in the morning, preferably while I’m still in bed. I’ve kept a diary since I was 12, and so I have a whole shelf of them in my study – about sixty volumes in total. I write most days – and miss it when I’m too busy.

I have a quick look at my emails and social media, then I have a quick whizz around and get as much housework done as I can. I then walk with my dog along the ocean for an hour, then go home. I make a cup of tea, turn on my computer and answer any important emails. Then I settle down to work. I read through what I wrote the day before, and cut and polish and rewrite, then I try and push the story forward. My husband makes me lunch, which we eat together (he works from home too), and then I go back to work. My daughter gets home from school around 4.30pm, and I usually stop for a chat. My sons are both older and are at university; they still live at home so we tend to all come together at dinner time. After dinner, I usually settle down with a book for a couple of hours. This is often reading for research. If I’m deep into a scene and want to finish it, I’ll go back to work for a few more hours after dinner – but I only do this when I’m getting close to the end of a novel and its consuming all my attention. 

Q: What is your writing process?

I spend a lot of time thinking about the book I am writing, playing with ideas, and doing my research before I start to write. I work in a notebook, and may spend months daydreaming and planning before I even think of starting to put words on paper. I like to know my characters and my plot as fully as possible before I begin. That means the writing process is swift and sure, and I don’t get stuck. Once I start writing, I like to be hyper-focused and have as few distractions as possible, so I normally try and keep my diary clear of appointments (my friends and family miss me during these periods!) My books for adults are big and intense, so it normally takes a year or more to write (and sometimes I will have taken a year or more to research and plan too). I usually work on the Long-Lost Fairy Tales after I finish one novel and begin the next. It can take months to choose the stories, but once I know what I’m retelling the process is usually swift and joyous. I like to read as many different versions of the story as I can find, and particularly love discovering a story’s history. 

Q: Why do you do what you do?

Because I love it. Because it makes me happy. Because I feel it is what I was born to do. 

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