WK Banham chatted to Australian author Kate Forsyth about her wide array of published books, reading and fairy tales. Read the second part of her interview below. You can catch up on Part 1 here.
You’ve completed a doctorate in creative arts—why did you want to delve so deeply into fairy tales and retellings? What were the most significant things that you learned?
I have always been interested in doing my doctorate, since I really enjoy learning. I think that’s why I love writing historical fiction so much—often the research is like doing a mini-degree in the subject! I had also always been interested in fairy tales, and had studied them in my undergraduate degree and then independently ever since.
I felt—when I began work on Bitter Greens—that it was a perfect project in which to undertake a doctorate. Bitter Greens is a retelling of ‘Rapunzel’ interwoven with the true-life story of the woman who wrote the tale as it is best known, a French noblewoman named Charlotte-Rose de la Force. I was interested in how and why the story had changed over many thousands of years and hundreds of retellings, and I thought it would be fascinating to explore the topic more deeply. I was right! It was an incredibly intense but satisfying process, and I learnt so much about the human need for storytelling. During that period, I also became very interested in oral storytelling and eventually received my accreditation as a master oral storyteller from the Australian Guild of Storytellers.
At first glance, a fairy tale retelling could be a simple rewrite of a classic fairy story. What do you think is the scope that fairy tale retelling offers a storyteller or writer?
Some writers do simply retell a well-known classic fairy tale, adding dialogue and place names, but leaving the essential story unchanged. I have always loved such retellings, particularly when I was a child. However, that is not what I do in my own writing. I believe that the two most important ingredients in any story are suspense and surprise, and it is very difficult to create suspense or to startle the reader when they know the story so well. So I’m always looking at ways to turn the story inside out, to dig deeper and find older and wilder versions of the tale, to discover the secret meanings of its structures and symbols. I am also very interested in the tellers of the tales, the women whose stories live on but whose names are forgotten.
When I began researching Bitter Greens, Charlotte-Rose de la Force was known to only a few fairy tale scholars. Now her life story is known to hundreds of thousands of people who might otherwise never have heard of her. My novel The Wild Girl is about Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told Wilhelm Grimm some of the world’s most famous fairy tales. Everyone knows the names of the Grimm brothers, but her name was obscured in dust and cobwebs. The Beast’s Garden is different again. I have taken an old Grimm tale, ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’ (which is a unusual variant on ‘Beauty & the Beast’), and I have set it in a most unexpected place and time—Nazi Germany. Only the bare bones of the story remain – its motifs and metaphors, its underlying pattern of action, its symbolic meaning.
I think that one reason why fairy tales have endured for so long is because of their ability to change and transform, and yet still carry deep psychological meanings. Joseph Campbell wrote, ‘it is the one shapeshifting, yet marvellously constant tale that we find.’ I am interested in both the constant, enduring nature of fairy tales, and their ability to adapt and evolve in order to survive.
Your latest book, The Beast’s Garden (Random House, 2015), is about a German woman who joins the underground resistance in Germany during World War II. What was it about ‘Beauty and the Beast’ that made you want to retell this particular story? And, broadly speaking, how did you go about turning this fairy tale into an historical fiction novel set in Nazi Germany?
I have always loved the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ fairy tale, and was also interested in its ancestor, the Ancient Greek story of ‘Cupid and Psyche’, after reading an amazing retelling of that tale by C.S. Lewis called Till We Have Faces.
When I read ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, a tale told to Wilhelm Grimm by Dortchen Wild one snowy winter’s evening in 1813, I was transfixed. It was the most beautiful variant of the old French tale I had ever read. I thought that I would like to do something with it one day.
I was at that time writing The Wild Girl and working on my doctoral exegesis, so I was under a lot of pressure and not sleeping well (insomnia is both a writer’s gift and their curse). I was trying to find a way to weave Dortchen’s extraordinary stories into the novel, and was playing with the idea of interweaving a retelling of one of her tales into the text, as I had done with Bitter Greens. Unable to sleep one night, I read an old World War II thriller about the Danish Resistance. I had always loved books set during those terrible tumultuous years, particularly books about resistance. Somehow my subconscious mind put the two together, and I had a half-waking dream about a girl in a golden dress (like the one worn by the heroine of ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’) singing in a nightclub full of SS soldiers. I knew that she was some kind of spy, or resistance fighter, and that she was German. That was the beginning of The Beast’s Garden.
I had lots of false starts with the story. At first I imagined it as a narrative thread of The Wild Girl, but then realised it had to be a novel on its own. I wrote it in the form of diaries and letters, changed it to first person, and then to multiple third person.
Basically, what I did was take the basic pattern of action of the fairy tale, then see how I could translate that into a story set in Nazi Germany. I used the story’s motifs as symbolic counterpoints, trying always to step lightly. And I wove the story about the true lives of real people, just as I had done in Bitter Greens and The Wild Girl—though this time they were resistance fighters, not fairy tale tellers. It was an utterly fascinating process.
Which authors do you find most inspiring?
This is always a hard question for me to answer, because I read so widely and love so many authors. If I had to choose the authors who most shaped my imagination, it would need to be my childhood favourites, such as C.S. Lewis, Enid Blyton, Eleanor Farjeon, Nicholas Start Grey, Elizabeth Goudge, Geoffrey Trease, Ursula le Guin, Susan Cooper. If I was to name the authors who have most inspired me as an adult, it would include Tracy Chevalier, Joanne Harris, Isabel Allende, Alice Hoffman, Juliet Marillier, Kim Wilkins, Geraldine Brooks, Sarah Dunant, Sebastian Faulks, Marcus Zusak, Karen Maitland. So hard to only pick a few!
You already have such a wide-ranging body of work, what is now on the horizon?
I am now working on a reimagining of ‘Sleeping Beauty’, set amongst the passions and scandals and tragedies of the Pre-Raphaelite circle of artists and writers. In particular, I’m looking at the story behind the painting of Edward Burne-Jones’ famous sequence of paintings called ‘The Legend of Briar Rose’ which he painted obsessively over a twenty year period in late Victorian times.
WK Banham grew up in Canada and now lives in Canberra. She writes fiction, primarily short speculative fiction but is expanding her repertoire into literary fiction. She graduated with a Master of Creative Writing from the University of Canberra in 2014. As a young child she was enchanted by fairy tales and myth and later became fascinated with science fiction and fantasy. She has always loved words and the magic of alternate realities that they conjure in the mind.