The sweet smell of success: interview with multi-award winning novelist, Kate Forsyth
First published on my Lou Greene website January 2020
Do you ever lift a book to your nose and inhale deeply? No? Seriously? You are missing out! Take this novel on my desk for instance. Lean in closer. Can you smell the scent of something mysterious, a little bit magical? A dash of fairy tale and a waft of the historical? That, my friend, is because this is a novel written by one of Australia’s favourite authors: Kate Forsyth.
Kate is a multi-award winning novelist of both adult and children’s books. My personal favourites interweave the fantastical with the historical, such as The Wild Girl, The Beast’s Garden, and Beauty in Thorns.
I recall Kate being keynote speaker at a conference I attended a couple of years ago: she moved me to both laughter and tears (I like to think I’m hard-core, being ex-military, but evidently not). In my defence, did you know Kate not only has a BA in literature, an MA in Creative Writing, and a doctorate in Fairy Tale Studies, but is also an accredited master storyteller with the Australian Guild of Storytellers? She could have been plucked from a fairy tale herself, with her swathe of dark hair and mesmerising lyrical voice. Kate is also pretty much Australian literary royalty, being the descendent of Charlotte Waring Atkinson, author of Australia’s earliest recorded children’s novel.
I bet Charlotte didn’t sell over a million copies of her books though: Kate has.
On a quest to find out more about the secrets of her success on behalf of the Historical Novels Society of Australasia, I jumped at the opportunity to put some questions to Kate:
How are the challenges of writing for children different to writing for adults?
‘Books for children need to be very tight, very focused, and so there’s not as much time to develop character and setting as there is in adult books. Every word really does count. The upside is they are much shorter, and so quicker to write!’
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your latest novel?
‘I began working on The Blue Rosein late July 2017 and finished it almost exactly a year later. I’d done quite a lot of reading and researching before then, though.’
Could you tell us a little about your research process?
‘I try and do as much research as possible before I start writing, so I'm fully immersed in the time and place my story is set, and because my research usually helps give me my plot. However, the writing process always throws up new problems or shows me holes in my knowledge, so I’m constantly researching while I'm writing as well. I try and scribble down any new questions or problems in my notebook as I go, so I don't interrupt the writing flow, and then I go and find out the answers that night ... or order the books or research papers I need. I want to try and keep pushing my story along, making sure I'm not spending days disappearing down research rabbit holes (though, of course, there are times when this happens!).’
Please could you tell us what inspired your latest novel?
‘Moving between Imperial China and France during the ‘Terror’ of the French Revolution,The Blue Rosewas inspired by the true story of the quest for a blood-red rose.
I first got the idea in March 2015 when I read a memoir called Chasing the Roseby the Italian journalist Andrea di Robilant, about his search for a rare rose.
In one passage he wrote: ‘In 1792, Gilbert Slater, a nurseryman from Knotts Green, Leyton, introduced a dark, rich crimson rose known in China as Yue Yue Hong, or “Monthly Crimson”. Europeans had never seen a rose of that colour (called pigeon's blood). The cultivar, which became known as “Slater's Crimson China”, quickly spread to France ... It became the ancestor of many of the red roses we have today ...’
How interesting, I thought. Surely Europe had red roses before 1792?
And then, I thought ... 1792. That was right at the beginning of the French Revolution. That was when the Tuileries was stormed and Princesse de Lamballe’s head was paraded around on a pike.
I found the juxtaposition of those two events – the French Revolution and the discovery of a blood-red rose – to be utterly fascinating. I dug a little deeper, and the story began to grow in my imagination.’
Who from history do you most admire and why?
My heroines are the great women writers of the past. Writers like the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, Mary de Morgan and Mary Webb, who all struggled so hard to find their voice and live a self-determined life.
Do you think historical novelists have a duty to represent the past with complete historical accuracy?
‘There is no such thing, really. Even well-established historical facts like dates can sometimes be proven to be wrong. And so much of history is open to argument and interpretation. We might know a man killed another on such-and-such a date, with a certain type of weapon, but understanding why he was driven to murder is another thing altogether. Novelists are concerned with the inner lives of their characters, their fears and desires and drives, their complexities and contradictions. How I might depict a well-known historical figure like Mary, Queen of Scots, is bound to be very different to how another novelist would portray her, even if our source ‘facts’ were completely the same.
Take the speech of those who once lived, for example. If I was to write a story set in Tudor times, and tried to represent the language of the times with complete historical accuracy, it would be impossible to decipher by a modern reader. A novelist’s job is to bring history back to life, and make it coherent and plausible to the reader. This means ‘translating’ the voices of the past into language which is understandable and readable – accuracy is neither possible nor desirable.
Historical novelists are also drawn to untold stories, the gaps and elisions of history, and we can rely only on our own imaginations and deductions to fill the holes. And we are creative artists; we are allowed to play and explore and experiment and take risks.
That said, it is my own conscious creative choice to adhere to the known historical facts as closely as possible. I want my readers to trust me, and to learn something new when they read my books, and not to feel they have been misled or betrayed.’
So do you think humanity capable of learning from the past?
‘Yes, I do believe we are capable of learning from the past! That is one reason why historical fiction is so important.’
What mistakes have you made and learnt from that you could warn aspiring writers to avoid?
‘I have made every mistake it is possible to make, over and over and over again. That is how I learnt. But probably the most important lesson I can pass on is the need to keep your creative fires burning. Let your fire of your story die, and it is very difficult to rekindle it. While a little bit of fuel every day will keep it burning for years.’
Which HNSA Conference session are you most looking forward to?
‘I’m most excited about the panel I’m doing on love potions and witchcraft with Kim Wilkins and Elisabeth Storrs on Sunday afternoon. There’ll be so much to talk about! I’ve always been interested in the history of witchcraft, and have amassed an extensive library on the subject. I'm particularly interested in the tension between hedge witches - who were often ordinary men and women using herbs and flowers and stones and everyday objects to make spells for healing and good harvests and other ordinary wishes and desires - and the kings and priests who saw this as demonic and a threat to their power. I've explored this tension in quite a few of my books. In Bitter Greens, I drew on the real-life witchcraft trials of Renaissance Italy, for example. I love writing spells and charms and curses and prophecies! I have them in many of my books. I think it's the poet in me. Or the hedge-witch!’
I was intrigued to know, if you could invite any person of historical significance to a ‘Word of Mouth’ interview,who would it be? (Word of Mouth is an online televised show Kate does with her friend Sarah Mills, and in which they invite an author to dinner then dish up food and wine inspired by their own novel.)
‘I’d invite my favourite poet Emily Dickinson and make her a high tea using some of her own cake recipes (one of her poems was written on the back of a recipe for coconut cake!). She probably would not come, though, being of a reclusive nature.’
Well fortunately for us Kate Forsyth is not of a reclusive nature, and it will probably come as no surprise that I’ve already signed up for her Spice and Swashbuckle workshop at the forthcoming HNSA Conference.
Can you too smell the roasting aroma of another delicious writerly feast?
If you would like to know more about Kate and her wonderful novels I recommend checking out her website! https://kateforsyth.com.au