Today is the publication day of Kate Forsyth and Lorena Carrington’s latest beautiful collection of fairy tales, Snow White, Rose Red and Other Tales of Kind Young Women, published by Serenity Press. It joins Kate and Lorena’s other fairy tale collections with Serenity Press, Vasilisa the Wise and Other Tales of Brave Young Women, and The Buried Moon and Other Tales of Bright Young Women. To celebrate, I’ve invited Kate and Lorena to write about their joint creation of the book. (There’s also an online launch of the book on Facebook today, see here for details).
Snow White, Rose Red & Other Tales of Kind Young Women’ is the latest artistic collaboration between me and the photographic artist Lorena Carrington. This is a project born out of our shared love of fairy tales, and our fascination with their history and meaning. It’s the third book in a series we are calling ‘Long Lost Fairy Tales’, because it is our intention to discover and bring back to life beautiful old stories that have been unjustly forgotten.
It’s our plan to produce a new book in the collection every year. To begin with, we choose a theme.
Book 1 was tales of brave young women, Book 2 was tales of bright young women, and we are currently working on Book 4 – the theme of which is tales of gentle young men.
Once we have our theme in place, Lorena and I start to fling ideas around. We read through our vast fairy tale collections looking for inspiration, and begin to play with possibilities. We send each other stories, and gradually compile a list of the ones we like. Each collection has seven tales in it, and we want them all to be different. Some will be light-hearted and humorous, others dark and terrifying. Some will have ancient oral roots, others are invented literary tales. Some will seem familiar, with echoes of other better known tales; others will be entirely fresh. We also want a good spread of geographical sources for the tales – ‘Snow White, Rose Red’ has a Grimm tale from Germany, an old Slovakian folktale, one from Bavaria, two from Scotland, an English literary tale written in Victorian times, and an old oral tale from Ireland. Often I will choose a tale because I know it will inspire Lorena to create a truly extraordinary piece of art to accompany it, and she will choose a tale because she knows it will sing to my heart.
Sometimes we agree on a tale, and but then I find I cannot retell it – the story doesn’t spark with me.
Illustration by Lorena Carrington
For example, we thought about working with Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Snow Queen’ – but when I began to work on it, I found the character of Gerda too passive. So I emailed Lorena, and we talked about it, and came up with other ideas, and ended up replacing that tale with another.
When I’m working with a fairy tale, I like to know where it came from, and who told it, and how it has changed over time. For many stories, there are dozens of variants, and I like to read them all. For example, ‘Strawberries in the Snow’ is one of my favourite stories in ‘Snow White, Rose Red’. It was inspired by a Slovenian fairy tale entitled ‘The Twelve Months’ but has many other variants – more than 1,000 of them!
I usually write the stories over the Christmas holidays, because all my children are home from school and university, and I have usually just delivered a novel, and want something different to write before I begin the next novel. Then I send the tales to Lorena, and she begins to think about creating her art – which are not simply illustrations of my stories, but her own expressive response to the inner meanings of the tales. We are always in constant communication, but we don’t criticise each other work much, or make suggestions, or ask for changes very often. We trust each other implicitly, and like to give each other complete creative freedom. This means it’s a free, joyous process in which we each inspire and respect each other. Together, our art creates something greater than it would be on its own. It’s a true collaboration.
I have just finished writing the tales for ‘The Gardener’s Son & the Golden Bird, & Other Tales of Gentle Young Men’ and cannot wait to see what glorious art Lorena creates for it!
My illustrations always start with what the landscape gives me. I head out with the camera, and often end up on my belly photographing the tiniest of landscapes: blades of grass against the sky, or fungus sprouting from the cracks of a rock. I also collect interesting things – sticks, leaves, tiny bones – and bring them home to photograph on a light box, which creates a sharp silhouette of each object. I montage these together in Photoshop to make the beasts and creatures that inhabit the tales. The illustrations are built up from many layers of photographs: backgrounds, human figures, creatures, looming silhouetted trees… sometimes more than a hundred separate photographs.
Of course the process begins long before this, in the choosing of stories, the to and fro about themes and ideas, in the delightful plotting and scheming that happens around the creation of a new book. As Kate has mentioned, we have a unique author/illustrator relationship, and for this I’m extraordinarily lucky and grateful. We weave our work together, sending stories and images back and forth throughout the process. It’s like a dance, and is a rare and beautiful way of working. Often the writer gives their work to the publisher, who passes it onto the illustrator and never the twain shall meet. One of the wonderful things about working with a small publisher like Serenity Press is the way we all work together to make the books that we do.
One of the most excited and inspirational parts of the process is when Kate sends me a new story. I make a cup of tea, build myself a nest on the couch, and immerse myself in her words. I try not to think too much about the illustrations on the first reading, though images do often spark in my brain. I try to get a feel of the shape and flow of the story, and a sense of the overall atmosphere. On second reading, I pull out my sketchbook to make notes and jot down any rough ideas. Sometime an illustration will flash fully formed into existence, and all I need to do is translate it from brain to screen. The Goblin, for example, just scrambled straight out of my head and plopped himself onto the riverbank.
One of the more interesting challenges was the illustration of the Glass Mountain (see picture below). At first I tried photographing glass (logically, you would think), but it was too transparent for a giant climbable mountain of glass. So I froze a block of ice to photograph the next day. It had the captured air bubbles that I wanted, but, as it was a 40 degree day, it kept melting before I could photograph any sharp edges! It was only that night, while serving jelly for dessert, that I noticed the way it sheared off into sharp edged pieces. I made up a batch of extra sturdy clear jelly, and let it set over night. Finally, after three days of experimentation, I had the perfect (if wobbly!) analogy for glass.
So, sometimes it’s easy and an illustration almost makes itself, and other times it’s like chipping a statue out of a cracked and temperamental block of marble. But never do I think I’d rather be doing anything else.
One of my very favourite things about illustrating is feeling something incredible grow out of our combined work. Kate has the most extraordinary gift in keeping the true essence of tales she retells, and also filling them with such new and shimmering delights. If I’m extraordinarily lucky, we be able to keep working together for many, many years to come.
Illustration by Lorena Carrington