Fairy tales, history and collaboration: an interview with Kate Forsyth

Today I am delighted to bring readers an interview with Kate Forsyth, centred on two great new books which are wonderfully rich collaborations between herself and other creators: Vasilisa the Wise and other Tales of Brave Young Women, illustrated by Lorena Carrington(Serenity Press) and The Silver Well, a collection of interlinked short stories written by Kate and her friend and fellow author Kim Wilkins, illustrated by Kathleen Jennings(Ticonderoga Publications). Both are truly special books, beautiful in concept, words, pictures and production values, and after enjoying them both very much, I wanted to know more about how the books came about.

Kate, you’ve always been a lover of fairy-tales and used them a lot in your work–and of course now you also have a doctorate in them! How did you and Lorena come to work together on Vasilisa the Wise & Other Tales of Brave Young Women? How did you choose what stories to retell?

I’ve loved fairy-tales and fairy-tale retellings since I was a child, and first studied them in my undergraduate degree. Eventually I undertook a Doctorate of Creative Arts, focusing on the history and meaning of ‘Rapunzel’ for my theoretical work and writing a retelling of the tale as my creative component (my novel Bitter Greens).

When I had finished my doctorate, I wanted to buy myself a piece of fairy-tale inspired art as a present to myself. So I began to look around but most of the art I saw was quite childish. Then a writer friend of mine, Allison Tait, asked me on twitter if I’d seen Lorena’s work (Allison did not know I was actively looking for fairy-tale inspired artwork, she just thought I’d be interested.)

I went and looked at Lorena’s website and just fell in love with her dark, eerie & sophisticated creations. I bought one of her pieces and we began to email each other, talking about our shared interest in fairy-tales and gardens and books and art. We essentially became pen-pals.

Lorena told me that she was working on a series of artworks inspired by little-known stories which featured brave clever heroines. How wonderful, I said. I’ve always wanted to write a collection of tales like that. So we came up with the crazy idea of working together. We had no idea if anyone would be interested in publishing it, we just did it for the pleasure of making something beautiful with a kindred spirit.

Lorena had already created images for three tales – ‘Vasilisa the Wise’, ‘A Bride For Me Before A Bride for You’ and ‘The Stolen Child’ (I had bought one of the images from the latter as my present to myself). We decided we would work on seven tales, as it is such a fairy-tale number, and then I made a few suggestions for tales that I thought would work well. ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’ is one of my favourite stories to perform as an oral storyteller and so that was my first choice. ‘Katie Crackernuts’ was a tale I had already retold for the online story platform The Pigeonhole and so we decided to include that one too. I also suggested ‘The Toy Princess’, a literary tale written by the Pre-Raphaelite writer Mary de Morgan. The last tale took us a little longer to find. We both suggested a few different possibilities, but they were too similar in theme, motif or plot to stories we already had. In the end, we settled on ‘The Rainbow Prince, a story I had loved as a child.

At the end of each story, there are notes by Lorena and yourself, giving an insight into the background of the story but also why it speaks to you. Why did you choose to include this background information?

 I wanted readers to know where the tales came from, and who first told or recorded them. I find the history and meaning of fairy-tales so fascinating. And both Lorena and I felt giving a little insight into our creative purposes and processes would enrich the reading experience too.

What was it like working so closely with each other on this project?

 It was just wonderful. We never had a disagreement or problem. I love Lorena’s art and she loves my writing, and so we worked with a great deal of trust in each other’s ability to create something beautiful.

Would you think of doing another collection like this?
Oh yes, we are working on another collection right now. It will be called Molly Whuppie & Other Tales of Clever Young Women, and will be published in 2019.

Turning now to The Silver Well, can you tell us a bit about how it came about?

Kim Wilkins is one of my oldest and dearest friends. We first met 20 years ago when both of our first novels were shortlisted for the Aurealis Award (Kim won!) We then read each other’s books and just loved them. We live in different cities but always catch-up when in each other’s towns, or when we are overseas at the same time.

A year or so ago we did a ‘In Conversation’ event together at the Brisbane Writers Festival. As we walked towards the auditorium, our student minder asked us how we knew each other. We told her about having our first books published at the same time, and then I said, ‘next year is actually our 20th anniversary.  Twenty years since we were first published! And I’ll have had 39 books published. Such a shame I can’t write one extra to make it 40 books in 20 years.’

Kim Wilkins

Then Kim said, ‘How funny. I’ll have had 29 books published in the same time period. If I wrote an extra one, it’d be 30 books in 20 years.’

‘We should write a book together,’ I said.

‘Great idea!’ she said.

And that’s how it all came about.

It’s a great concept–a series of stories about the same place throughout history, where the silver well is a recurring motif. I really like the ways in which you and Kim have linked the stories without it at all feeling obtrusive–the links are subtle and satisfying. Did you and Kim sit down and sketch out the general shape first? How did you choose which periods in history to set stories in?

After our session at the Brisbane Writers Festival, we went back to my hotel room and had dinner and drank a bottle of Veuve champagne (our favourite), and began to throw ideas around. The concept of seven stories set in the same place at different times was our very first idea.

Within seconds we decided to set it in Cerne Abbas, because Kim and I had spent the loveliest week there the previous year (along with our friend Lisa Hartnett). Because we are both so interested in history and folklore, we had actually bought a few books about the village from one of the local stores and so already knew quite a bit about its past.

We decided to write three stories each, plus a frame story set in contemporary times. Then we simply had to decide which historical periods each story should be set in. Again, we decided straightaway. Kim said, ‘Bags early medieval time,’ and I said, ‘Bags the Second World War’, because these were both periods we loved and knew a lot about. We both love the Victorian era, but Kim bagged it first and so I chose to set a story during the English Civil War, which I had studied intensively for my series of historical children’s novels which begins with The Gypsy Crown. I also wanted to set one of the stories around the dissolution of the abbey in Tudor times, another favourite period of mine. Then we thought we should have a story set during the period when the abbey was absolutely pivotal to the village’s life. So Kim took that era.

By the time we had finished our bottle of champagne, we had the whole book plotted out.

Though it’s the work of two writers, the book feels like an organic whole, stories seamlessly flowing into each other. How did you and Kim pull it off so well? Tell us about the actual process. How did you organise your writing–did you write at the same time or in sequence? Did you decide on characters together, or individually? 

We each worked on our own stories independently, and only showed it to the other when we had a polished first draft. The idea of having connected characters grew organically, and needed just a slight tweak here and there to make it work. I wrote the frame story, set in contemporary times, and Kim wove in some extra details. Otherwise, we did not touch each other’s stories.

What were the challenges?

For both of us, the difficulty was making time in our hectic schedules to write the stories. We both had punishing deadlines for novels, plus the usual teaching and touring commitments. We made a promise to each other that we would drop the project if either of us found it too hard, or if our friendship came under strain, but somehow we managed to find enough time in the cracks of our days to get the work done.

Kathleen Jennings’ lovely line drawings are also very much part of the appeal of this lovely book. When did she become involved in the process?

On the day that Kim and I first decided we were going to write a book together! We sat in my hotel room scribbling down ideas, and thought how lovely it would be to produce a book with exquisite line drawings in it. We both thought of Kathleen at once, and we texted her and asked her if she’d be willing. She said yes at once. We also texted Russell Farr at Ticonderoga Publications to see if he’d be interested in publishing it (Russ has known us both for 20 years too) and he also said yes without hesitation. So that very first evening was very productive indeed!

What have you learned from the process of collaboration? 

The most important thing is, I think, trusting your partner, and allowing them complete creative freedom. We might not have worked so easily and joyously together if we had been constantly criticising each other’s work. Both Kim and I love each other’s writing style and so we just focused on making our own stories the best they could be, and then read each other’s stories with a great deal of anticipation and pleasure.

 Both The Silver Well and Vasilisa the Wise were published by small presses–in The Silver Well‘s case, Ticonderoga Publications, in Vasilisa’s, Serenity Press. And your earlier non-fiction work, The Rebirth of Rapunzel, was also published by a small press, Fablecroft Publishing. All of course are gorgeous books, flawlessly and elegantly produced, and showcasing just what wonderful work small press publishers do in this country. For you, as an author, what are the pleasures–and challenges!–of working with small press?

It was utter joy to work with all three of these small press publishers! They were all so passionate about the projects, and so willing to work with us to get exactly the look we wanted. I didn’t have any problems or challenges, really. We are all professionals, and we understand how the market works. And the books are finding readers, despite the smaller publicity and marketing budgets. The first print run of Vasilisa the Wise sold out in pre-orders!

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Interview with Jana Hunter, author of Sleepy Meadows

 Today, I’m very pleased to bring you an interview with new author Jana Hunter, whose first novel, Sleepy Meadows, has just been released as a Kindle ebook. Sleepy Meadows is an unusual fantasy/mystery novel, centred on young necromancer Kylie McGovern, who is working in her late father’s funeral home, Sleepy Meadows, in an Australian country town. As the blurb describes, her life is simple and quiet which is just how she likes it, but all that changes when her boss, the seemingly respectable Uncle Bob, goes missing and a murder victim is found in the crematorium. Drawn into a web of inter-generational revenge and family secrets, Kylie’s own life begins to unravel as she works desperately to find out where Uncle Bob is and clear her own name. Though she has been raised to believe her power is an evil to be suppressed, as the bodies begin to mount up, it seems that only her skill as a necromancer will save Kylie from taking the fall….
First of all, Jana, congratulations on the release of Sleepy Meadows! Exciting times for you! Tell us about how the idea came to you.  
Thank you so much, I’m very proud of the way it turned out. I’ve always loved reading Urban Fantasy, it’s such an underrated genre, but most of what I read was set in the US or Britain, so I thought there was room for an Australian take on it. Also, I think country towns are rich with the potential for uncanny happenings; there are so many odd stories that you hear and it just seems to have more magical potential. In fact, the idea for Sleepy Meadows came to me while I was staying with my grandma on her farm. There was a catalogue on her table for a local funeral parlour featuring two creepy looking middle-aged men smiling woodenly in black suits, and it got me wondering about that profession, and why there seem to be so few young, female undertakers. And it made total sense to me that a funeral home would be the perfect place for a closet Necromancer to work.
Sleepy Meadows has a most unusual setting, in a funeral home( though it’s an inspired choice for a necromancer like your main character Kylie McGovern!) Was it based on a real place and did you have to research much?
Sleepy Meadows is not based on any particular funeral home, that is pure fantasy, but I did do a fair bit of research into rural funeral homes and the embalming process etc. That said, I have to admit that I took poetic licence in a few spots.
How did you go about creating Kylie and the other characters in your book? Which were your favourites, and which most challenging, in terms of creative process?
The characters evolved organically, which is something I love about writing – they surprise you, they take on a life of their own. Funnily enough, the murderer was not who I originally planned, and I had some trouble abandoning my intended villain for someone who was supposed to just be a sideline character, but I’m glad it worked out the way it did. I also had some feedback from early readers that my protagonist Kylie was too morally-grey and she needed to be sweetened-up a bit. But I’m glad I left her as she is: “Creepy and quiet, and a little morally-challenged”.
What’s been the reaction from readers so far?
So far the response has been really positive, which is a relief.
What’s next? Are you planning any more books featuring Kylie? Or will you be writing something completely different next time? 
Sleepy Meadows is the first in a series, so I am working on the sequel now, as well as a different, more traditional portal-fantasy novel.
What are your top tips for new and aspiring writers?
My top tips for any aspiring writer is to read widely and to be consistent with your writing practice. Little by little becomes a lot.
Jana Hunter lives in Armidale NSW, where she can usually be found in a coffee shop, writing. You can find her on instagram at: https://www.instagram.com/janahunterauthor/
You can buy the book here.

Fiction, prediction and diversity: an interview with Hazel Edwards

Today I’m very pleased to interview popular author Hazel Edwards about her new book for adult readers, Celebrant Sleuth, set in a country town and centred around the character of Quinn, an unusual woman who lives in a romantic but non-sexual relationship with her partner Art, and who as well as being a celebrant in great demand at weddings, funerals and other life rituals, also has a knack for solving mysteries of all sorts.

Hazel, how did the idea for ‘Celebrant Sleuth’ first come about? 

I’d observed celebrants in action at Australian weddings, name-days and funerals. Most are very personable.

They are problem-solvers. They have to handle dramatic situations with difficult people and heightened tension. Apt words in emotive ceremonies are their business.

The role seemed versatile enough for a sleuth character who needed to move into different settings and cultures to solve mysteries. For diverse age groups too.

Like many others, our family is spread across generations and cultures and friends are re-committing, divorcing or blending.

So I’d been to a few celebrations, commitments and an increasing number of funerals.

That seemed like a good starting point to research the role of celebrant. As a believer in participant-observation, I considered qualifying as a celebrant by doing the course, but then decided it was more effective to interview the experts.

In early 2016, well before the Same Sex Marriage law debates, I moved into serious interviewing.  More than twenty-five celebrants on phone or Skype or in person. But it wasn’t all serious, most celebrants had a sense of humour, which was vital because I was collecting anecdotes for my mystery plots.  I needed the absurd inbetween the tragic and the romantic.

Most fictional detectives have a ‘backstory’ but Quinn, the celebrant/detective in Celebrant Sleuth, has a most unusual one. Can you tell us how you came to create her, including any research you had to do? 

 Usually I create a detailed dossier for each of my characters. Quinn required a bit more research because I needed to get the gender vocabulary right as well as find out about the job of celebrant.

Earlier, I’d been invited to various literary festivals in connection with our co-written trans YA novel ‘f2m;the boy within’ (2010).

On a panel, I met an extremely articulate and thoughtful asexual in her early thirties, who challenged me to write about her gender circumstances. She was NOT a celebrant.  She was a park ranger. But the idea of juxtaposing a romantic personality in a longterm relationship within the character of a celebrant who had a job involving romance interested me.  ‘I prefer icecream to sex’ was one of her very quotable comments to me, as she explained the differences between being asexual  (feeling no sexual attraction to any gender) and being a ‘romantic’ desiring and giving affection which is different from being aromantic.

She became one of my ‘expert’ readers.  Along with the celebrants, actors, caterers, lawyers, mothers-in-law, actors and photographers I interviewed. And the multiple florists in fabulously perfumed shops.  The only problem was fictional time. Everything needed to happen in under an hour, just like in a wedding or funeral.

But it’s taken about 2 years to write in ‘real time’, between 6 am and 8 am daily. My brain was clear then and could cope with plotting clues. The mysteries are episodic, with celebrant Quinn solving problems in settings including the football hall of fame, retirement village chapel and a few inter-relationships of florist, caterer and media in the country township during an economic downturn. Millionaire retirement village owner, eighty-something Flora is feisty and falls for a younger man. I had to create a whole ‘fictitious’ township of intersecting roles. And get the street geography right.

There are several stories in Celebrant Sleuth: cases ranging from murder to theft to missing wills. Did you write them in sequence or not?

 No. I didn’t write in sequence.

The tight opening, Introducing Quinn, was written last as the viewpoint was always a challenge.  Initially I imagined a kind of voice- over which could adapt for television, but also the issue of asexual gender had to be explained indirectly for a mainstream audience but was not the central theme of the book. First person enabled less use of pronouns

I wrote each chapter as a separate ceremony with a problem or crime solved by Quinn the sleuth. But I didn’t want a murder per chapter. That seemed Agatha-Christie-ish, depopulating one small country town. The settings were a challenge because I needed to create a country town, small enough for the characters to bump into each other via their other roles like caterer or florist.

I tried to vary the mood and pace of the chapters and the type of ceremony, not all were weddings. And I had to check the facts about types of death… and set up the circumstances and motives. After trialling them with my test readers.

‘Celebrant’ is an Australian term and often confused with ‘celibate’ or ‘psyche’ or ‘Celebrity’ so I had qualms using it for the title.

Amused that my publisher BookPOD has used the meta tag Clean crime to describe ‘Celebrant Sleuth’.

‘I do…or die’…was the last minute subtitle to include all circumstances.

What has been the reaction of readers?

Really positive.  Celebrants are thrilled with their job being featured.  Diverse gender groups are delighted to have an asexual hero. Others like the small town mystery.

My expert test readers picked me up on a few technicalities. ACE as the name of Quinn’s partner was inappropriate as it is a term used by asexual groups. Pure coincidence I used that name as I was trying to give alphabetical and simple names to characters.  Ace became Art. Coronial and forensic pathology procedures.  Legal stuff.  Uniformity of retirement village streetfronts and use of ramps.  Youngest legal age of bride.

But the greatest legal challenge has been the Same Sex Marriage laws changing the terminology in my commitment chapter. Last minute updates.  So far I haven’t been accused of being politically opportunistic in using such a topical gender situation. The reality is I started writing two years ago. It was serendipitous topicality which had the law being changed on the day I was checking the galleys and had to change clues since wedding services differ from commitment in the legal wording and papers, but there will still be people who choose to commit rather than marry.

The cover has ambiguous and symbolic silhouettes and that was deliberate. Designer Lee Burgemeestre is multi talented and is also a celebrant so she brought an experienced eye.

My favourite anecdote relates to lost rings and metal detectors on the beach. Closely followed by dogs as Best Man.  And the professional afternoon- tea eaters who turn up as rent-a-crowd for the scones, raspberry jam and clotted cream provided by one funeral parlour, even if they didn’t know the deceased.

Some readers are intrigued by the blurb.

‘I buried my father, married my sister and sorted the missing will.’

Quinn, a celebrant with style and a few obsessions but a good heart, solves quirky problems, mysteries and the occasional murder at weddings, funerals and naming ceremonies in her country town.

Ex-actor with a great voice who writes eulogies to die for! Not forgetting a few quotable ‘Quinn’s Laws of Relativity’. A romantic, but asexual, Quinn lives with her long term partner Art who runs community Channel Zero.

The workstyle of a celebrant is never routine. Fake I.D. Fraud. Fights, even to the death, over wills and inheritance … Mislaid rings. Lost bride. Food poisoning.   Clients of varied ages and cultures are well looked after. Even vintage millionairess Flora with the much younger lover who might be a con-artist.

Quinn solves most problems but not always in the expected way

Why have you included Quinn’s Theories of Relativity at the end?

To characterize Quinn as many celebrants do write their original material.

Most people only know Albert Einstein from t-shirt quotes, but …

I admit I occasionally adapt his ‘Theory of….’quotes for funerals or weddings. Not really plagiarism because I always mention Einstein, just an updated tribute to the most significant science philosopher (in my opinion). One of my heroes and gives a bit of gravitas to a service.

Quinn’s Theory of Relativity

The likelihood of the relationship ending in divorce is directly related to the number of arguments during rehearsals, obsessive preparation and the bride’s budget on self.

My favourite is: Quinn’s Theory of Funeral Secrets

‘At a funeral, we acknowledge the life of the person and maybe the many identities, actions and secret lives of which the family and friends were unaware. For some a shock, for others a relief.’

 Are you planning any more ‘Celebrant Sleuth’ stories?

Yes.  But only if optioned for television. I’m realistic about the number of options which are never made.

Currently there is a great demand for celebrants to perform weddings for same-sex couples who previously had commitment services or who had married under the laws of elsewhere.  But the demand for commitments, re-commitments, funerals and naming ceremonies will continue.

 

Celebrant Sleuth by Hazel Edwards is published by Bookpod and is available through all good bookstores. Formats: paperback and ebook.

 

2017 Book Discovery 8: Elisabeth Storrs’ pick

In the latest of the book discovery posts, Elisabeth Storrs writes about her pick.

The Summons, by David Whish-Wilson, is far from light summer reading but my 2017 discovery of this dark and compelling tale provided me with a potent insight into the Nazis’ obsession into the occult. Set in 1934 Berlin, the story traces the impact on WW1 veteran, Dr Paul Mobius, when he is summoned by the SS to join Himmler’s Special Witch Work Unit. At the same time he becomes embroiled in another Nazi scheme which threatens the safety of his charge, the young simple-minded Carl.

Mobius is a fragile character, tormented by the horrors of the Great War, who nevertheless shows nerve enough to defy ‘the summons’ and escape with Carl to the country. Here, with his newly found love, Monika, the historian finds the promise of happiness. However, the tentacles of Nazi eugenic philosophy have already infiltrated the psyche of the rural community. Mobius must stay true to his own beliefs, and muster both physical and moral courage, as he is inexorably drawn to Wewelsburg Castle, the headquarters of bizarre and brutal SS experiments.

Whish-Wilson’s writing is superb, relaying both gentle humour, deep pathos and increasing menace. Ordinary Germans are depicted in the early stages of the sinister spread of Nazi doctrine and yet their lives are also portrayed as mundane and relatable.

I was drawn to the novel because I am researching the distortion of history by another of Himmler’s think-tanks to justify Lebensraum. The plight of a museum curator faced with making a Faustian Bargain is central to my own WIP set in WW2 Berlin and Russia. Whish-Wilson’s book sets a high bar. It is simultaneously touching and disturbing; an exploration of a troubled soul, growing doom, and an unexpected love for an unconventional woman and a threatened child-like youth. Pitched to prescient readers, the power of the novel is in us knowing the fate awaiting each.

 

Elisabeth Storrs has long had a passion for the history, myths and legends of the ancient world. She graduated from University of Sydney in Arts Law, having studied Classics. Her curiosity piqued by an Etruscan sarcophagus depicting a couple embracing for eternity, she discovered the little known story of the struggle between Etruscan Veii and Republican Rome and the inspiration to write the Tales of Ancient Rome Saga. She is also the co-founder of the Historical Novel Society Australasia. She is now hurtling centuries forward to write Treasured, a novel which tells the story of stolen loot, crazy Nazi archaeology, and the lost Trojan gold.