19 March 2013

Author interview with Kate Forsyth, author of The Wild Girl and Bitter Greens

It gives me great pleasure to introduce one of Australia's most successful and prolific authors, Kate Forsyth; author of Bitter Greens and her latest release The Wild Girl.

Kate, thanks for joining us on Carpe Librum.  Let me ask you, with over 25 published books to your name, what do you love most about being a writer?
Kate Forsyth
Everything! I love every stage of writing a new novel from buying myself a beautiful new notebook to building the story, step by slow step, to the actual rush of joy that comes when the writing is going well. I would never want to do anything else. 

Do you plan your novels in advance or does the story unfold as you go?
Both. I spend quite a long time doing my research, immersing myself in the period, daydreaming, pondering the story, scribbling down ideas, sticking photos and maps into my notebook, exploring possibilities, imagining my characters and the setting and so on. I write an outline, and then draw up a rough plan which normally takes up a page or two in my notebook. I play with ideas for the structure, and establish my keystones - the title, the opening and closing scenes, and a few vividly imagined scenes along the way. I cannot start writing until I have these things firmly in my head, as well as the first line. Once I start to write, the story will unfold in new and unexpected ways, and I really love that part of the process too. 

I've read that as part of your research for writing The Wild Girl, you read the personal diaries of Wilhelm Grimm, one of the Grimm brothers. What was that experience like and how does one even gain access to such historic papers?
It was quite amazing, I have to admit. I knew fairly early on that I needed someone in Germany to help with all the research and translations - so many books on the Grimms have never been translated into English. I knew that Dortchen had dictated a memoir to her daughter while on her deathbed, plus there were many other essays and books about the Grimms that I needed help with. I tried for months to find someone to help me but had no luck. One translator I hired was hit by a car, another simply vanished off the face of the earth (or perhaps he simply stopped responding to my emails). 

The Wild Girl
One day I was googling in German, looking for any information I could find on the Wild family, when I stumbled upon a blog written by a German artist and cartoonist called Irmgard Peters. She was recounting an old family story about a white cot that had been passed down through generations of her family. In that cot, she said, slept the Wild girls who told the Grimm brothers all their fairy tales. I wrote to her in my execrable German to see if it was at all possible that she meant the Wild girls as in Dortchen, Lisette and Gretchen Wild, and she wrote back (in perfect English) saying yes, she was the direct descendant of Rudolf Wild, their brother, and why did I want to know. When I told her about the novel I was writing, she was very pleased that Dortchen was at last been brought out of the shadows and asked what she could do to help me. 

She translated Dortchen's memoir (its only a few pages long), and sent me photos of family portraits, and then she corresponded with some of Germany's foremost Grimm scholars on my behalf. Wilhelm's diary had recently been unearthed and one of the scholars was planning to work on it with plans to publish. He told Irmgard and she asked if she might see it and translate it for me, and was given permission. It was so exciting! The diary is not very long and only covers a few years, and Irmgard only translated the pages in which Dortchen is mentioned, but it helped me enormously with the last section of the book. I was unbelievably lucky to have found it! 

How wonderful to have liaised so closely with a direct descendant of Dortchen's brother, Rudolf. It must have been such an unexpected joy!  That leads into the next question quite well.  I was going to ask if you knew if any descendants of Dortchen Wild have read The Wild Girl?
I have sent Irmgard a copy of The Wild Girl and am now very anxious in case she hates what I've done. I do hope she likes it!

I loved reading how Dortchen collected and harvested herbs and plants that she and her father used - in Germany in the early 1800s - to create herbal remedies for sale in the family shop.  How did you conduct the research for this aspect of the novel?
I have always been interested in herbs and natural healing have a large  library on the subject already. However, most of my books are about English herbs and remedies, and so I needed to find out about German beliefs and practices. A few things helped me. Firstly, I borrowed a book on German apothecaries from the university library and struggled my way through it - the book was incredibly arcane and difficult but taught me a lot about some of the stranger remedies like bezoar stones and the breathing in of mercury fumes to help asthma patients (no wonder Wilhelm was so ill!). It also gave me the recipe for laudanum which was fascinating - I had never realised that the apothecaries bought the opium in its raw state and made up the tincture themselves. 

Then, when I was in Germany, I visited an apothecary museum which was really illuminating too. Plus, of course, lots and lots of Google Book searches!

What was the hardest part of writing The Wild Girl?
The research was difficult and took me a long time. Discovering my story was also hard - so little was known about Dortchen's life and her inner world. I turned to her stories for inspiration and was troubled by the darkness and cruelty in many of the stories, particularly in 'All-Kinds-of-Fur' which is an incest tale. It seemed so strange for a young German woman of Dortchen's time to tell such a story to a young man - and it was so striking the way he later rewrote the story to transform it into a story of escape and healing, rather than imprisonment and pain. And then he called the girl in his version of the story a Wild creature ... like that, with a capital on the W. The more I read, and the more I thought, the clearer it seemed to me that there was darkness and cruelty in Dortchen's own life .... but then I really struggled with my right to imagine a tale like this based on a real woman's unknown life. I talked it over with a number of people I really trust, and decided that this is what we do as fiction writers - we spin stories out of fragments of other stories and other lives. 

Which part of the book did you write last?
The last scene. I always write in a linear fashion, from beginning to end, as much as I can.

One of Kate's fav books
The White Queen by
Philippa Gregory
I've heard that you love to read.  What are some of your favourite books/authors?
I do love to read! I have so many favourite authors its impossible to list them all, but I'll give it a go. I love: Georgette Heyer, Mary Stewart, Juliet Marillier, Robin McKinley, Philippa Gregory, Joanne Harris, Tracy Chevalier, Kim Wilkins, Kate Morton, Karen Maitland, C.J. Sansom, Geraldine Brooks, Christopher Gortner, Sarah Dunant, Ellis Peters ... check out my website for more.

Where does your love of history or historical fiction come from?
I think the books I loved to read as a child - Geoffrey Trease, Rosemary Sutcliff, Jean Plaidy plus many more.

Do you have any literary influences?
I think any book I have ever read which I have loved - and so we're talking thousands and thousands of books here! 

Do you have a favourite bookshop?
I love any bookshop! I especially love old bookshops with hidden treasures in dusty, cobwebby corners ... ooh, me too; love hidden treasures but hold the spiders!

What's next?  What are you researching or working on at the moment?
I'm working on a 5-book children's fantasy adventure, and then I'm planning another historical fairytale retelling - this one set in Nazi Germany.

What would you like to tell your readers?
I hope you love my books!

On that note, thanks so much for joining us today Kate!

Would you like to comment?

  1. Oh... fairtytale retelling set in Nazi Germany! Sounds amazing already!

    Thanks for the interview.

  2. It does sound amazing, doesn't it Marg? I'm looking forward to it already!

  3. Great interview Tracy!

    Shelleyrae @ Book'd Out

  4. I enjoyed this interview and thanks again for dropping into my blog!

  5. You're most welcome Maureen.


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