Thursday 25 February 2010

An Australian Perspective - Kate Forsyth talks about writing fantasy

You're an Australian writer, so why were you drawn to write a book set mainly in Scotland and referring to so much Scottish history and folklore?

Even though my family has lived in Australia for generations, it is the old stories of Scotland and the UK that I was brought up on. My great-great-grandmother was born in Scotland and emigrated to Australia as a young girl. She had not wanted to come, and that might explain why she looked backwards to her past so much. She was by all accounts a grand storyteller, and used to tell her children lots of stories about Scottish ghosts and fairies and giants, and all about Scottish history. Her children told her children, and they told me (the novel is dedicated to my grandmother and great-aunts, who were the ones who began my lifelong fascination with Scotland). I've always loved history and fairytale, and so I loved listening to their stories. And then they began to give me books and stories to read, about Mary, Queen of Scots or Bonnie Prince Charlie. I have a wonderful old book on my shelf called 'In Search of Scotland' that my great-aunt Clarice gave to me when I was about 11, filled with old black-and-white photos and old maps and bits of history and poems and fairytales. I loved it.

I can't imagine 'The Puzzle Ring' being set in any other country but Scotland. It seemed very right to me that I should use all the old tales my grandmother told me in this way. I have set one of my books in Australia,and in the same way I can't imagine it being set anywhere else. (That book is called 'Full Fathom Five' and can only be bought in Australia or from an Australian internet bookstore like ).

What, for you, is the attraction of writing fantasy?

There are a number of things that draw me to writing fantasy. Firstly, I love to read books that are filled with magic and adventure and mystery and suspense, and I naturally want to write what I love to read. Secondly,fantasy draws its inspiration from the deep well of history, mythology and fairytale, and they have always been my great passions, ever since I was a young child. My great-aunts had a wonderful set of old children's encyclopedias called 'The World of Wonder - 10,000 Things A Child Should Know.' I used to pore over them as a child, and my favourite chapters were always the ones entitled 'Romance of British History'.  I still have those old books - my Aunty Gwen gave them to me when I was about 12 since I loved them so much (you can probably tell from this that I spent a great deal of time at my great-aunts - that's because my mother worked and we were sent to stay there most school holidays).

And finally, I love writing fantasy because it is a literature of transcendence. Jane Yolen wrote: 'For adults, the world of fantasy books returns to us the great words of power that, in order to be tamed, have been excised from our adult vocabularies .. These words are: Good. Evil. Courage. Honour. Truth. Hate. Love. They are a litany, a charm so filled with power we hardly dare say them. Yet with these magical words, anything is possible: the transformation of human into beast, dead into living, night into day, year now into year then or year 3000. They are the stuff of which our visions are woven, the warp and weft of our crafted dreams.' I love this quotation because it expresses something I feel very deeply and passionately - the power of words and stories, and the importance of opening our minds and imagination up and outwards. To me fantasy fiction does this better than any other kind of art.

A number of American fantasy writers have taken faeries derived from European folklore and set up them up very successfully in New York or Chicago - the 'urban faeries'. Is there a comparable modern Australian fantasy genre?

Oh yes. Fantasy fiction in Australia is as diverse as anywhere else, though on a much smaller scale. It's not always European folklore, either. Kylie Chang, an Australian author, has done a brilliant series of urban fantasy novels based on the premise that the ancient Chinese gods are alive and living in the modern world. And Kim Wilkins, one of my all-time favourite writers, writes amazing books which parallel the stories of a contemporary heroine with a dark and suspenseful story set in the past. Not all of them are set in Australia - my favourite, 'Ruin of Angels' parallels the story of an Australian girl living in London with the story of one of Milton's daughters. Another, 'The Autumn Castle' draws upon German fairytales.

Who are your favourite Australian fantasy writers?

I just love Kim Wilkins, Juliet Marillier, Garth Nix, Lian Hearn, Pamela Freeman, Alison Croggon - they are writing world-class fantasy and forging a place for themselves on the international stage.

So which writers have been your inspiration?

I read so much and love the work of so many writers this is difficult for me to answer. I guess the writers I read when I was between 9 and 13 are the ones who influenced me the most. These would be Susan Cooper, Ursula le Guin and the Wizard of Earthsea, Elizabeth Goudge, Joan Aiken, Lucy Boston, Eleanor Farjeon, Enid Blyton, Nicholas Stuart Grey, Lloyd Alexander - so many wonderful writers. I have on my website a page dedicated to my favourite writers - there are more than a hundred there! Adult writers whose work I love include Tracey Chevalier, Joanne Harris, Geraldine Brooks, Isabel Allende and other writers of historical fiction, plus fantasy writers like Susanna Clarke, Sarah Zettel and Robin Hobb.

Patricia Wrightson wrote fantasies based on Native Australian legends, which I read and loved as a child, but I've heard that more recent Australian writers of European descent are wary of accusations of cultural appropriation. Would you ever consider writing a fantasy set in Australia, and if you did, would you include any Native Australian elements?

I love Patricia Wrightson! I have her autograph. When I was 11 I won a writing competition and the prize was to go the Children's Book Council of Austalia lunch to celebrate the 1978 Book of the Year Awards. I was privileged enough to sit next to Patricia Wrightson, which struck me dumb as she was one of my favourite authors. I remember being very disappointed when they brought out my lunch, giving me a very small serve of chicken nuggets and chips, when all the adults were eating steak and baked potato and salad which I would've much preferred. Patricia Wrightson must have seen my disappointed face because she told me they had given her far too much food, and would I mind helping her finish her meal as she didn't wish to be rude. She then heaped my plate with half of her serving, much to my delight. She chatted to me very kindly all through the meal, and then gave me her autograph which I still treasure.

Patricia Wrightson won the 1978 Book of the Year Award for 'The Ice Is Coming', the first in her Wirrun trilogy which tells the epic journey of an Aboriginal boy in search of an ancient earth-spirit who can help discover why the land is changing. Patricia Wrightson had also drawn upon Aboriginal myth and folklore for earlier books such as 'The Nargun and the Stars' and 'An Older Kind of Magic', but the Wirrun trilogy is the first time that her hero was Aboriginal himself, and it was far grander in scale and purpose.

In 1986 she became the only Australian to ever be awarded the Hans Christian Anderson Award for Writing, sometimes called 'the Little Nobel' because of its high international regard.

In 1989, she published 'Baylet', her last book to drawn upon what she called 'the folk-spirits of the Australian Dreamtime'. I was studying children's literature at Macquarie University at the time, and remember passionate and angry discussions about cultural appropriation and the problem of the ownership of stories. There was great controversy in academic circles about Patricia Wrightson's use of Aboriginal motifs, despite her careful research and what I think was great sensitivity. All of her books were dropped from school reading lists and university courses all over Australia. She went from being our most celebrated children's author to being shunned. She wrote very little else, And all of her books are now out-of-print (I collect them, so my children have a chance to read them!)

Since I was at university at the time, and a passionate advocate of her work, and desperately wanting to be a writer, the controversy had a deep impact on me. At the time I was writing the novel that was later published as 'Full Fathom Five'. It had an Aboriginal character in it and drew upon Aboriginal mythology. I was not able to get it published, even though it was longlisted for the Vogel Award twice (a prestigious prize for young unpublished authors in Australia). Some years later I re-wrote it completely, drawing upon Shakespeare and the 'Little Mermaid' fairytale instead, and it was accepted for publication. The only problem my editor had with the manuscript was I had retained some of the use of Aboriginal mythology. They were very concerned about that, and it was only when I wrote to the Aboriginal Centre in that area and was given permission to use the Dreamtime story in question that they allowed me to retain it.

So, yes, we are very aware in Australia of the dangers of cultural appropriation, and in being careful not to trespass lightly on a mythology that has deep significance to the culture of Australian Aborigines. That said, I have an idea for a story set in Sydney which would draw upon the local history and culture of the local Gayamaygal people. I'm sure I shall write it one day.

Fantasy is sometimes accused of being a form of escapism. How would you respond? 

Why is escapism a perjorative? I think all the best works of art are those that life you out of your own world for a while, and let you travel in other times, in other places, in other people's shoes. I think the most important reason to read at all is for pleasure. And of all forms of fiction, fantasy is the one most likely to engage with the deep ontological questions of humanity, such as the nature of good and evil, fate and self-will. But because these big subjects are dealt with through metaphor and symbol and archetype, because they are wrapped up in all the glamour of a magical adventure story, they work at a deeper, more subversive level. As Philip Pullman has said 'Thou shalt not' is soon forgotten, but 'Once upon a time' lasts forever.

Many of the Scottish landscapes and journeys in The Puzzle Ring are lovingly described. Did you visit Scotland to research your book? 

I did indeed. I have longed to go to Scotland all my life, and my husband says I wrote 'The Puzzle Ring' just to ahve an excuse to go there! It was just as wild and mysterious as I had ever imagined. We stayed in a real 14th century castle near Gatehouse of Fleet, a place where John Knox himself had once stayed. Then we had four nights in a cottage on the shores of Loch Lomond, in the grounds of Arden House which is a grand old Scottish baronial mansion that helped me visualise what Wintersloe Castle might have looked like... and the kids and I all wished we could live there!

We spent the days driving round Scotland going to all the places that appear in The Puzzle Ring - the fairy mountain Schiehallion; the whirlpool known as the Hag's Washtub; and the village of Fortingall where a five-thousand-year-old yew tree grows. We drove over the Rannoch Moor to Glencoe, a place that looks as if it has not changed in a thousand years, and along the sea road to the Isle of Skye, where we occasionally saw the most extraordinary mountain crags looming out of the mist and rain. We stayed in a fantastic old house with antlers and tiger heads on the floor, and an elephant's foot being used as an umbrella stand in the front hall. You can be sure that'll crop up in a story one day!

Three days staying in an old monastery on the shores of Loch Ness was definitely a highlight of the trip, particularly as the rain cleared and we had some beautiful warm, spring sunshine. We went monster-hunting, and ate some great Scottish cuisine in the local pubs, and then headed to Edinburghfor a few more days.

I loved Edinburgh! I think it's one of my favourite cities in the world. One of the highlights was the Beltane celebrations on Calton Hill. We listened to a wonderful Scottish storyteller who told us that Calton Hill was once believed to be a gateway to fairyland. This solved a massive problem I had with the plot of 'The Puzzle Ring' and so it turned into one of the best nights we had in Scotland (though we still cannot get over all the mad Celts with their bare arms and bare legs in the freezing cold of a Scottish evening).

Why do you write for children?

I write for all age groups. I have picture books, books for early readers and independent readers, books for young adults and adults. You can read me from birth to death. To me, each story has its own shape and structure, and its own audience. I knew before I wrote a single word of 'The Puzzle Ring' that I was writing for children aged 10, 11 and 12. It demanded to be a children's book. The story I am writing now could be nothing else but for teenagers aged 13 and above. I am planning to write a retelling of the Rapunzel story and I know, without a doubt, that it is a novel for adults. I don't know how I know this, I just do. I think what I'm doing is writing for all the different ages and stages of myself. When I was a child, I desperately wanted to write the sort of books I so loved to read, books written for children. And then I grew to be an adult, and I wanted to write for the person I was as a grown-up. I do have favourite audiences. I love writing for this 10+ age group the most, I think because they still have a sense of wonder but are old enough to have a more sophisticated story with more sophisticated language. I love writing for adults too, I love being able to go a little deeper and a little darker.

Kate's blog tour continues tomorrow at bookworminginthe21stcentury


  1. A fascinating interview and reminder of the vibrancy of modern Australian Fantasy fiction. The contibution of Australian and New Zealand writers to YA and Children's Fiction goes back a long way and it is heartening to see Patricia Wrightson mentioned. She seems to have slipped out of view in recent years, in favour of other, often lesser, writers.

  2. Wow, what an in depth interview. I'm with Kate: why is there a notion that escapism is a bad thing? I'm a dreamer loud and proud!

  3. Good to meet you, Kate! I agree certain books and stories demand to be written for different age groups. That's something publishers over here seem to struggle with. I just wish there was a shelf for the wonderful 10-13 age group, because my books often seem to fall into an invisible hole somewhere between the 9-11 shelf and the 12+/YA section...

    The unicorn hopes you enjoy the rest of your blog tour!

  4. I was very saddened to learn of Patricia Wrightson's descent into oblivion because of her use of Australian Aboriginal folk tales. While it is up to each author to do proper research and not misrepresent a culture to which one does not belong - and while such material should always be treated with respect, sensitivity, and a knowledge of history - I passionately believe that the world's stories belong to everyone and that sharing them can only enrich us and widen our understanding. My own response to reading Wrightson's books as a child was delight at this glimpse into a wonderful world of which otherwise I would have been ignorant.

  5. What a great interview! So much information to think about from start to finish. If I tried to respond in writing to everything that went through my head, my comment would be way too long.

    I put Kate Forsyth on my list from your post yesterday, Katherine, but now I've other authors to add.

  6. 'A literature of transcendence'. Exactly. Great post.

  7. Wow! So much good stuff here.

    And Kate, I'm SO with you on escapism and fiction. I mean, movies do the same thing, but no one criticizes movie goers. My favorite kinds of books are the ones where I have trouble transitioning back to the real world when I set it down because the world created in the book is so vivid that I got lost in it.

    And I totally agree about Scotland!! I visited Edinburgh before my kids were born, and *loved* it. :)

    Great interview!

  8. Lovely interview.

    I'm always amazed when (adult) co-workers politely sneer when I tell them of a fantasy book I'm reading,then they embark on a blow-by-blow of the latest television series about serial killers, polygamists, or naughty housewives.

    I prefer my escapism more magical, thank you.

  9. Another Aussie author you might want to look at is Gillian Polack, whose writing is in some ways reflective of the colonial and post-colonial experience of Australia itself. Gill's experiences as a Jew in Australia informs much of her writing (as does her training as a medievalist), and she creates worlds that reflect interesting underlying multiculturalisms

  10. Dear ADM (if I may so address you?) - thanks!
    I will certainly look her up.