May 17, 2012

An Enchanted Conversation: Two Writers Discuss Fairy Tales

Editor's Note: Our second winning work for April will be published tomorrow, but today EC is featuring a conversation about fairy tales and writing between Australian writers Kate Forsyth and Sophie Masson. Kate's poem, In the Tower, was published in Enchanted Conversation yesterday. Kate's new Rapunzel-inspired novel, Bitter Greens, was recently published by Random House, Australia.

Kate Forsyth is an award-winning Australian novelist whose books have been published in 13 countries. Bitter Greens, her most recent novel, is a retelling of the "Rapunzel" fairy tale, interwoven with the dramatic life story of the woman who first told the tale, the 17th century French writer, Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force. She is halfway through studying a doctorate in fairytale retellings at the University of Technology, Sydney.


Sophie Masson is a bilingual French Australian writer who has had more than 50 novels published, mainly for children and young adults. Published internationally as well as in Australia, her works have also won awards, including a NSW Premier's Literary Award in 2011. With an abiding interest in fairy tale from many different cultures, Sophie has published many novels with fairy tale themes, including Snow, Fire, Sword; Carabas; Clementine; and The Firebird. Her forthcoming YA novel, Moonlight and Ashes, which comes out in July 2012 (Random House Australia), is the latest.

Although Kate and Sophie live six hours drive away from each other, they often meet at literary festivals and conferences, or, when their paths cross, for lunch or dinner. They share a love of fairy tales, gardens, cooking, reading, writing, and living the big life.

Today they get together to talk about their most recent projects.

Sophie: Kate, Bitter Greens is such a wonderful book, so rich and exciting and deep and sad. Now I want to ask you: what drew you to "Rapunzel" as an inspiration for the book?

Kate: The inspiration reaches far back into my own childhood, back to the time when I was first beginning to walk and talk. I was savagely attacked by a dog and spent weeks in hospital, suffering terrible wounds to my head and face. One of the dog’s fangs penetrated straight through my tear duct, located between the eye and the nose. I was lucky not to lose my eye!

As a result, I spent many years in and out of hospital with chronic eye infections. I’d be feverish, in pain, half-blind. My only consolation was stories – the ones I read and the ones I made up in my imagination. Anyone who came to visit me knew they had to bring me a pile of books. One day someone brought me a collection of fairy tales. One of the stories was "Rapunzel."

I felt a great affinity with that other young girl, locked away alone in a tower as I was confined alone in my hospital ward. I loved the fact that her tears had the power to heal the prince’s blindness and wished that my own tears, weeping constantly from the damaged tear duct, would heal mine.

I was as haunted by the story as the prince was by Rapunzel’s singing, but I was puzzled too. Why did the witch lock Rapunzel away? Why didn’t the prince fetch some rope? What happened to the witch? Did Rapunzel ever find her true parents?

Don’t you find that it is often these little niggling questions about something that is the grit in the oyster that causes a pearl to grow?

Sophie: Oh, absolutely! And I was so very touched by your recounting of that frightening and painful childhood experience—and how because of it the story of Rapunzel spoke so directly to you. I think that's so very much the power of fairy tales.

Kate: I’m so excited about your upcoming novel, Moonlight and Ashes. What first inspired you to write it?

Sophie: Moonlight and Ashes was inspired firstly by "Aschenputtel," the Grimm version of  "Cinderella." It always fascinated me that the Cinderella figure in that story was much more active than Cinderella normally is; and it also was striking how there was no fairy godmother either, but that it was her dead mother appearing to Aschenputtel in a dream and telling her to plant the hazel twig which meant the magic happen. At once, that not only makes Aschenputtel part of her own story, and not just a helpless girl to whom things happen--she actually wants to change things, she's not completely browbeaten. But it also reminds you of her loss--of her grief at losing her mother, and how that's transformed her life for the worse. And also that her mother can't rest in peace knowing what's happened to her daughter ... and that her father is a coward who shuts his eyes to his daughter's situation. And then, thinking about it further, I wondered about the mother and the hazel twig: surely she must herself have had some kind of magical background ... and then from thinking about these things, I had this growing picture of an angry, defiant but vulnerable young girl who is trapped in a terrible situation but who still has the spirit to want to change things. And who harbors a dark secret that she dare not reveal to a living soul: the secret of her mother's ancestry. That's how Selena, my heroine, was born.

There's another inspiration, and that's Prague. We visited it in 2010 and I loved it and was fascinated by its history. We also had the great privilege of being shown around Prague by another writer and good friend, the fantastic Isobelle Carmody, who lives there with her family. Ashberg in my book is very much an alternative-world version of Prague, while the Faustine Empire which controls it is based on the late 19th century Austro-Hungarian Empire, in fairy tale version, but still with trains and telegraphs and magazines and all!

Kate: Oh, I love the sound of this, Sophie! I’ve always wanted to go to Prague, and I love the sound of an Aschenputtel story told with trains and telegraphs and so on. I’ll be so looking forward to reading this one!

Kate: Do you have a favorite fairy tale? Which is it?

Sophie: My favorite fairy tale is probably "Beauty and the Beast"--it is so romantic and exciting but also it has such a spirited heroine! And I'm currently writing a novel, Scarlet in the Snow, based on that motif, but based around the Russian version of the story, "The Scarlet Flower." But I also love many others, including "The Firebird" (I wrote a book based on that one too), "The Wild Swans" (another top favorite), "The Goose Girl" (there are elements of  "The Goose Girl" in Moonlight and Ashes too), "Ashenputtel," " Sleeping Beauty" (on which I've based a novel), "Puss in Boots" (I also based a novel on that one) and many many others.  How about you?

Kate: I love "Beauty and the Beast" too! And "Sleeping Beauty," and, of course, "Rapunzel." But I think "Six Swans" has always been the one for me. There’s something about that mute girl, weaving nettles into shirts for her enchanted brothers, not permitted to speak or laugh for six long years ... it just gives me the shivers. Sophie, so many of your novels are inspired by fairy tales. What most fascinates you about these old tales?

Sophie: I think fairy tales are extraordinary because they are so simple, so clear, and yet so rich and complex. You can never get to the end of their meanings, and they are the most wonderful source of inspiration for writers that I know of. The enchanted world they portray is both utterly magical and yet utterly believable; they are so wise yet so funny; so brutal, yet so romantic. They are distillations of understanding and knowledge; they can be profoundly disturbing; and yet they are also enormous fun.

Sophie: Why do you think we can get so much from fairy tales, still?

Kate: I love the fact that fairy tales operate on two levels. On the surface, they are magical adventures filled with wonder, enchantment, beauty, romance, danger, and a satisfying happy ending. On a deeper level, they are serious dramas that reflect, symbolically and metaphorically, problems and pitfalls that are can be very real in people’s inner lives. They offer a stage where the reader (or listener) can act out universal fears and desires, and so resolve deep, subconscious tensions that the reader (or listener) perhaps is not even aware of. One more question in that vein: You've written a lot of novels inspired by fairy tales. Which is your personal favorite?

Sophie: Moonlight and Ashes, probably. I feel like I've said everything I wanted to say in it. It's very powerful and disturbing (and at heart, that story of the abused, neglected child is infinitely disturbing) but it's also gripping, exciting, romantic, magical and mysterious. I feel like everything came together perfectly in it, and that is very exciting. And I can't wait till it comes out so I can see if readers share my excitement!  But I do love my other fairy tale novels too, each in their own way.

Kate: Okay, let’s talk about craft. What’s your favorite part of writing a novel? And least favorite part?

Sophie: My favorite part of writing a novel is the beginning--so exciting, like being in love, an intense yet floaty feeling! Everything seems possible. And I love the end, when everything comes together in a kind of perfect symphony (hopefully!) I also love getting to know my characters, and also, in this kind of novel, creating magic.  My least favorite part is the middle--sometimes I have to push myself through it! But I cope with that pretty well, and it's amazing how even if you get stuck, one day it clicks again, and there, you're on your way again. What I also don't enjoy much is the waiting around for a book to come out--all the proofs are done, it's off to the printers and there are these months on which you have to wait ... Of course I'm already working on something else by then, but I still don't like the waiting!

What about you, Kate, what's your favorite and least favorite part?

Kate: I love everything about WRITING the novel, even the times in the middle when the way forward seems unclear and you’re afraid you’ve lost the way. The only part I’m not fond of is the proofreading at the end, when I’ve read every sentence so many times it loses its freshness. Also, I’m usually keen to start work on the next book by that point. However, I know it’s important, and it’s my last chance to make the book as good as I possibly can, and so I knuckle down and do the job. And it’s worth it when you finally get to hold the beautiful finished book in your hands ... now that’s a truly wonderful feeling!

Sophie: Isn’t it?

Kate: Do you think living in Australia makes it more challenging for us as writers?

Sophie: Well I think living in Australia can be challenging in terms of getting  international audiences but then there are also plenty of advantages--the fact we do have a lot of readers, that people do care about books, and that we have one of the highest readership rates in the world, is all great. We can build up a very good market here. Of course it's great for it to be extended internationally too and I'm very pleased mine has been but I don't worry too much about my distance from things. And because I'm bilingual and I  travel a lot, especially in Europe (where I have a lot of family), I don't really feel disadvantaged in terms of inspiration either. What do you feel about it, Kate?

Kate: I love living in Australia, I just wish it wasn’t so far away from everywhere! I’d love to pop over to Paris for a romantic weekend, or go to New York for an art exhibition, or to London to see a play and have dinner with my friends there. I want someone to invent a machine that makes it an hour’s trip and not 30!

Sophie: I agree. That sounds like a very cool machine!


Sophie's website is at www.sophiemasson.org

Kate's website is at www.kateforsyth.com.au

5 comments

  1. A lovely conversation! Thanks for sharing it with us. I enjoyed their appreciation of Beauty's spunk.

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  2. Fairy tales have indeed fascinated generations of people. As discussed in Clever Maids, most tales of this sort were told by women and girls; some were called the "back stairs stories." These amazing stories are remnants of the history of the Fair Folk of long ago Europe, where oral tradition was the process by which cultural records were kept. (See Once Upon a Time: world of symbols blog for more info)

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  3. Dear Sophie and Kate, I really enjoyed reading your conversation - felt like I was sitting by your elbows hanging on every word. :)
    I, too, grew up with the old fairy tales - we lived in far north Queensland with no TV or hands-on entertainment except that we made ourselves and my beloved, fairy tale books - The Goose Girl, The Seven Swans, The Frog Prince, Thumbelina and all the rest... what magical times I had in my head.

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  4. Fantastic interview! I've read Kate's 'Bitter Greens' and can confirm it's a wonderful book - and now I'm longing to read 'Moonlight and Ashes'!

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  5. What a great exchange of thoughts and comments between two very well written authors. I really enjoyed reading about why we are so interested in fairy tales. I agree with the authors that fairy tales are interesting, fun, curious, and captivating when they are looked at from one side. On the other side, I think readers relate to fairy tales. Like with Kate, she directly related to Rapunzel and her loneliness in the hospital when she was facing infections and treatment for her injury. Although I have always thought there was some piece of real world problems express through fairy tales, I never took the time to realize the many ways I can relate to fairy tales (until very recently in my coursework at my university). Adding on to this idea, fairy tales portray themselves as being simple but when really looked at, fairy tales are very complex. I have seen this mostly with Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs! I enjoy connecting with fairy tales and relating them to my personal life, much as Kate and Sophie do.

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