Ep 204 Meet internationally best selling author Kate Forsyth.

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In Episode 204 of So you want to be a writer: You’ll meet internationally best selling author Kate Forsyth! Plus, we have a surprise guest copywriter who undertook a smart strategy 10 years ago that has kept him rolling in clients ever since.

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Show Notes

Writer in Residence

Kate Forsyth

Kate Forsyth wrote her first novel at the age of seven, and is now the internationally bestselling & award-winning author of over thirty books, ranging from picture books to poetry to novels for both adults and children. She was recently voted one of Australia’s Favourite 20 Novelists, and has been called ‘one of the finest writers of this generation’. She is also an accredited master storyteller with the Australian Guild of Storytellers, and has told stories to both children and adults all over the world.

Her most recent book for adults is Beauty in Thorns.

Kate’s official website
Kate on Twitter
Random House on Twitter

Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

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Interview Transcript 

Valerie

Thanks for joining us, Kate.

Kate

Thank you so much for having me, Valerie.

Valerie

Now, your latest book, which I’m seeing everywhere, it’s going off, is Beauty in Thorns. For people who have not yet grabbed themselves a copy, tell us what it’s about.

Kate

Beauty in Thorns is a historical novel for adults, which tells the fascinating true-life story behind the famous Pre-Raphaelite artist, Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones. And his obsession with the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. He painted it again and again and again, over the course of his entire life. And the story behind this obsession of Sleeping Beauty, is one about love and desire, and obsession and madness; all the great things of a dramatic story.

Valerie

How did you come to know about the obsession?

Kate

I’ve always been interested in the Pre-Raphaelites and their amazing art, ever since I was doing my first degree. I guess I would have been about 19 or 20. And over the years I had read a lot about them and bought quite a few books of their art. And I was really interested, in particular, in Dante Gabriel Rossetti and in William Morris, who is probably best known for his curtains and cushions, but was a poet and a designer and artist as well. And also of course in his best friend Edward Burne-Jones. But I never thought I would write about them.

Then when I was doing my doctorate in fairy tale studies, I wrote a chapter about William Morris, because he was actually the first person in the world to write a creative response to the Rapunzel fairy tale. So he wrote a poem called ‘Rapunzel’. And so I wrote a chapter about him in my exegesis. And that just got me interested in the Pre-Raphaelites again. I had to do quite a bit of reading about them to write my chapter.

And I just stumbled across this story of Edward Burne-Jones and this painting. His penultimate painting of Sleeping Beauty was the most famous painting of the Victorian era. It sold for more money than a British artist had ever been paid for. And it led to him being knighted, and so he become Sir Edward Burne-Jones. And it caused an absolute furore when it was first exhibited. They had to hire policemen to keep the crowds back. And I didn’t know this. And I just thought, this is amazing!

And so I began to read up about it, just out of my own interest, and pretty soon I knew I was going to turn it into a novel, because it was just the most amazing dramatic and heart rending story.

Valerie

So you knew, obviously something about that captured your imagination. But beyond that you need to build and decide which characters you’re going to include ultimately in the novel, and what they get up to and all that sort of thing. Were you clear on that at the start? Or did you just start with that premise, or that seed, and then eventually add them as they came along? How did it all work to hang it together?

Kate

Well, to begin with, I began to do all my reading and research about the Pre-Raphaelites again. In particular, I was interested in the stories of the women. As is often the case with true stories from history, the men have got all the attention and the women are only really ignored or only included as to how they reflect the glory of their men.

At first, I had this huge grand scheme, I wanted to tell everybody’s stories, because all of their stories were so fascinating. But it wasn’t long before I realised that if I did that I was going to have a novel about 500,000 words, and my publishers wouldn’t be happy.

And so I really, really had to pull back my original ideas. I had to discover and then focus upon my core story. And whenever I was tempted to bring in another character, or tell another fascinating life story or another woman of the time, I had to talk to myself very sternly and say no Kate! What is your core story? Focus on that. And it’s a good thing that I did, because the book is quite big enough. I didn’t need to have another 100,000 words.

Valerie

And so what were the parameters then? What was your deciding factor of who, ultimately, you felt you wanted to tell the stories about?

Kate

Well, my core story is about Edward Burne-Jones’ obsession with the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. Why it was so important to him, and then the women who actually were his models for the whole series of paintings.

So the very first time he drew it he was only in his early 20s, and he drew the young woman who would become his wife, who was called Georgie Macdonald. She was the daughter of a Methodist minister, she had had a very cramped and controlled life. And she married Edward Burne-Jones and became part of this very Bohemian and rackety group of artists. So I knew that Georgie Burne-Jones was one of my key charactrers, and was indeed my protagonist.

He also painted Lizzie Siddal, who was the mistress and then the wife of his mentor, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. And I’d always been fascinated by her story, and I knew that the world was fascinated by her story, and so I knew that she had to be one of my key women.

And then of course, Edward Burne-Jones’ best friend was William Morris. And William Morris plucked a girl out of the slums, he had her taught how to speak and act and walk and talk like a lady, and then he married her. But then she ended up having a very tumultuous affair with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was his great mentor. And her name was Janey Burden. So I knew that they were my three key figures. The three that I was going to write about.

And then Georgie Burne-Jones is like the queen in the Sleeping Beauty story. The fairy tale begins, once upon a time there was a queen who longed for a child. And so Georgie Burne-Jones was to act like my queen, and her daughter Margot was to be the sleeping princess. And she was actually the model for many, many of her father’s drawings and paintings and studies of Sleeping Beauty, and in particular that famous one that I’ve already told you about. The one that just caused such a craze at the end of the 19th century.

His daughter Margot was the beautiful innocent sleeping princess in that painting. And yet she felt trapped by her father’s obsessive regard for her. She did not want to be his muse. She wanted to live her own life. She wanted to escape, and fall in love, and marry. And that is what was her great quest, I suppose, was to find the strength to break free of her father’s obsessive interest in her.

Valerie

This started off when you started doing research into this space. And then your imagination is captured by this story, and you want to write about the women. But as you say, a lot of the stuff that’s around, particularly from that time, is about the men. There’s heaps of it; well, heaps more compared to what exists about the women. What did you have to do to find out more about the women? Because sometimes when you read about stuff in that era, the women aren’t even named. Clearly, you’ve got names here. But it’s very frustrating when you’re trying to find who really was the wife of so and so, and what did they do. What did you do?

Kate

You are absolutely right. I have to say, when I was writing The Wild Girl, which is the story of Dortchen Wild, who became William Grimm’s wife, there was absolutely nothing written about her. Absolutely nothing. Barely a word.

The Pre-Raphaelites were a little bit later. They were in the late 19th century. And the women involved wrote letters, diaries. Georgie Burne-Jones actually wrote a book. And so I had their own voices that I could listen to and try to understand what their personality was like. I could try and understand their inner life.

There’s also been a great deal of interest in and study into the lives of the Pre-Raphaelite sisterhood. There’s been a feminist reawakening of interest in these young women, because they all wanted to be writers and poets and painters and artists and designers in their own right, and they were very much corseted by the Victorian society in which they lived. And because of that conjunction of these really intelligent, brilliant and talented young women struggling to find their own voice, there have been a lot of essays and books written about them. And that did make my job much, much easier.

On top of that, there’s been a kind of renaissance of interest in Pre-Raphaelite art in the last five or six years, and so I was able to go and see their work in a lot of different art galleries around the world, and I was able to read a lot of those art galleries’ books they had produced about the work. And so I spent days poring over the art, reading their letters, and reading anything that they had written in their own hand, and reading what other people had written about their lives. And just slowly coming to a sense of who they were and how they might have thought and felt and spoken.

Valerie

So this research process, not just for this book, but also your other historical fiction – whether that’s The Beast’s Garden or any of the others – with your research process, do you apply any kind of structure to it? In the sense that, do you think, well, I’ll do the art then, I’ll do the encyclopedia then, I’ll do the letters then. Do you have some kind of approach – now that you’re several books into historical fiction – that you apply? So that you’re not just going down rabbit holes all over the place, kind of thing. It can be very overwhelming.

Kate

No, I’m pretty much going down rabbit holes all over the place.

Valerie

Really?

Kate

It’s a little bit like following a trail of crumbs into a dark forest, and then you follow that train of crumbs as far as it will lead you, and it will throw up all sorts of other new things that you need to know, or new ideas, new books. And then the trail peters out, and you have to retrace your steps and then set off in another direction.

The research is incredibly important to me. And it helps me find my story. I really need to do most of my research before I even write a single word, particularly when I’m writing about the lives of people who really once lived. Like, Lizzie Siddal and Georgie Macdonald, and Janey Burden. These women, I need the parameters of their life, when they were born, where they lived, how they were brought up, how they were educated, when they married, when they died. I need to know all those things before I can even think about planning or writing a novel.

But sometimes, finding out what I need is very, very difficult. And so I will just go as far as I can, and then I might need to stop and order some new books. And so while I’m waiting for those books to arrive, I follow another trail of crumbs. And focus on another character, or another section. Or do something else that I need to do. And so the research is really quite fluid and intuitive. Quite often, I don’t know what I need until I know I don’t have it. Does that make sense?

Valerie

Yes.

Kate

I am extremely meticulous in how I do my research, and all the records that I keep of my research, however. Because I need to be able to find it again.

Valerie

So speaking of those records, you go down your rabbit holes, you follow the bread crumbs, so there isn’t so much a structure with that. But do you have a structure then in the way that you keep you records, in the way you compile? What kind of structure do you apply?

Kate

With Beauty in Thorns, one of the very first things I did, is once I established my core story and my core characters, which were the four women that I’ve already spoken about, I assign different colours to them. So they had different colour highlighters and different colour sticky tags. And I like to buy all the books that I need, because I return to them again and again and again. So part of the early research for me is identifying which books I need.

I then have a notebook. So part of my research, I might spend two or three weeks on the life and work and language of Lizzie Siddal. So that part of the notebook I would mark – Lizzie’s colour was orange, because she has orange-coloured hair – and any of the books where I read anything about her, I would put in an orange sticky for her. And in my book, in my notebook, I always note the title, the author, the date of publication and the page numbers. And so I take notes as I’m reading, and I have a pretty precise notation of what page everything I read is on.

Valerie

Is this on your computer or in a notebook?

Kate

No, no. In my notebook. Because I do it all by hand. It’s much, much faster for me, and it means that I can read my research books in bed, or on the couch, or at the beach, or in the park. It means I’m not tied to my computer. The notebook tends to travel with me. Because I’m a mother with three children. I don’t always get to do everything at my computer.

Valerie

Sure.

Kate

And if I read something on a website, I make a notation of the website and its full address and the date. And a book might mention another book, that is of use to me. And so when I buy that book I date it, when I ordered it, and then date it when it arrives, so that I know that I’m not ordering more copies of a book than I need, which sometimes happens.

And I just keep really, really meticulous records. And it means that, because it’s all in my notebook… I do tend to type a lot of it up. So I tend to type up timelines, and synopsises, and character outlines. And as I add more to them, I tack them up and print them out, but I stick them back into my notebook. So that you can see the process, the creative processes, from the very earliest ideas, right through to the final edited manuscript. It’s a really interesting hand-written record of the creative process of writing a novel.

Valerie

Yeah, for sure. So you research very rigorously, obviously, before you even start writing, and that’s an important part of your process. Can you just give us roughly some timelines for the creation of the book? So this amount of time – in this book, I’m talking about Beauty in Thorns – I spent this amount of time approximately on research, then approximately this amount of time on whatever the next step was in your creative process, and so on. Can you just give us some timelines?

Kate

Sure. If you’ll give me one second, I’ll just grab my notebooks off my shelf and I can tell you exactly. So my very first idea for Beauty in Thorns, I wrote on the 11th of the 11th 2014. And I had actually written, so in my diary I had played around with the idea of doing something with the Pre-Raphaelites around the 1st of August 2014. And then I actually started to write the book and began to develop it in November 2014. So all of my early notes, my early research, is all in 2014.

By March 2015, I had written up a synopsis and an outline and I’d sent it to my publisher and sold the book. So by that time I’d been working for about four months, just on working out my basic core story and doing my earliest research. Once the book was sold, I then settled down to pretty intense work on it.

And so from May 2015 onwards, I’m pretty much doing all of my research. My notebook is pretty messy. I’m still not writing, but I’m still kind of planning. I’m just going to try and find, because I always have my first line written in my notebook as well. So by September 2015, which is six months after I began work on it, is when I began to write my first lines. And they were still pretty rough.

Then I’m keeping on working – and you can tell when I’m writing, because I begin to keep obsessive word counts in my notebooks. And so, and by that time my timelines are pretty developed. So by the time, let’s say, the end of 2015 I’m writing pretty steadily and getting quite a bit of work done. You can see all my word counts on each page. So for example, on the 25th of May, I’d written 97,513 words.

Valerie

May two thousand and…?

Kate

That would be probably 2016. And then I’m going to my third notebook now. By this time, the story is in pretty good shape. And I’m pushing on towards the end of the writing, and I’m cutting and rearranging and doing all that sort of thing. So I delivered it to my publisher in September 2016. And then after that we began the editorial process. So I get back my editorial report, we cut, we rewrite and everything else. And then it was pretty much ready to go.

I’m just looking at my very final notes in my notebook, where I have, what have I got? I’ve got editorial notes, I’ve got emails about what the sales team think. This is by March 2017. And on Saturday the 18th of March, we had the final queries from my editor and from my proof reader, and then it went off to be printed in the 27th of March 2017. There you go.

Valerie

Wow. That’s awesome. Now, once it’s goes off, it’s gone off to the printer now. Apart from a situation like this where I’m asking you this question about the timeline, do you refer back to the notebooks?

Kate

Constantly. So I refer back to the notebooks during the editing and proof reading process. Because my editor will query everything. So he will just want me to fact check everything, and if I have my research there at my fingertips, it’s really easy for me to do so. And so I can easily type up, yes, on page 16 of blah blah book, by blah blah whatever it might be.

I’m also constantly referring back to my notebooks when I’m doing the final read through of the book, to make sure I haven’t forgotten or missed anything. Sometimes you think you’ve written something and you haven’t, and sometimes you’ve written it and then you cut it out, and you forgot that you cut it out. These final stages, I just have to be quite meticulous in going through and making sure that everything is on the page that I want to be on the page, and not just in my head. And so my notebooks are very useful to me at that point as well. I make sure that any question has been answered, any problem has been solved.

Valerie

Have you ever lost a notebook?

 

Kate

I have never lost a notebook. I have lost a diary. Because I write in my diary every day, as well. And so when I was about 19, I lost my diary. I left it on a bus. But I’ve never lost anything since then, because I’m so paranoid about losing them. I often joke that when I’m travelling the world, they give you those tiny little safes in the hotel room. I always say, well, my computer’s fine. They can take my computer. I put my notebooks in the safe, because I can’t afford to lose the notebooks.

Valerie

No! I mean, what would happen if you did? While you were writing?

Kate

I would have to recreate them. I would find it very very hard. And my notebooks are very beautiful as well. I stick lots of pictures in them, and I draw maps in them, and they’re full of really interesting bibs and bobs that I think, one day, it could be quite an interesting study.

 

Valerie

You could publish those notebooks. I think so. So you talked about in those notebooks you are quite obsessive with your word counts. Are you actually aiming for certain word count targets? Or are you obsessive about them for some other reason?

Kate

Okay, so, there are four stages to every book. The first stage is what I call daydreaming the story to life, which is reading, researching, thinking, planning, drawing up a plot, imagining my characters. A lot of it goes on in my head and in my notebook, but I’m not actually writing at all.

Once I begin to write the book, I know when my book is due, I know how long it needs to be, and so I have a fairly strong schedule. And I usually try and aim for 5,000 words a week. Now, I can write 5,000 words in a day easily, when I’m in a state of flow. So this is not a difficult target for me. But it’s one I must make. If I write 10,000 words one week, I’m not allowed to have the next week off. I have to write my basic 5,000 words again.

Now, every now and again I will fail, because I need to stop and think some more and I realise I don’t have all the information I need, or the story is running off track a little bit, and I need to think about whether to listen to the story and go where it takes me, or whether I need to remember I need to focus on my core story. And so sometimes, my word count falls behind. But I have quite a lot of room in there, so that if I have problems I’m not going to be late with the novel.

So this period of time, I’m really steady, and this is when I’m counting my word count obsessively. It’s not just because I want to reach my weekly target, it’s also because I’m trying to make sure that all the key turning points in my plot are happening at the right place in the story. That I’m not allowing the book to run on too much, that I’m keeping it under control. And so because I have, because I plan quite carefully, it means that I have a strong sense of where my key turning points are. And so I stop myself if I have written two or three thousand words too much, I can stop and reassess. It stops me from writing 25,000 words that need to be cut out later. So that’s the real reason that I do it.

It’s also because it gives me a sense of accomplishment, which is psychologically very important when you’re in this part of the writing process. It’s a long slow arduous process, and you need to do anything you can to make you feel that you’re moving forward.

Valerie

Do you reward yourself with anything?

Kate

Yes.

Valerie

Like what?

Kate

I do. I am a big believer, whenever I teach writing, I say to people, reward yourself for writing, and punish yourself for not writing. And it’s just little things. But for example, if I sit down and write at night, I’m allowed to have a glass of wine. but if I’m sitting around helping my children with their homework, or watching TV or reading a book, I’m not allowed to have a glass of wine. So having a glass of wine is my reward for working in the evening.

When I have made certain achievements, I’m allowed to go and buy something that I want. It’s usually a dress for me. Sometimes it might be a handbag. And I’m only allowed to have a social life when I’m on track. So if I want to go out on the weekend and catch up with my friends and have a really nice night out or go out for dinner, I need to have made my weekly target by 5pm on Friday. And that means that I can have the weekend off. if I haven’t made my word count, it means I’ve got to work all weekend. Which makes everyone cross. And so, that’s my punishment, is I’m not allowed to have the weekend off. There you go.

Valerie

I love it. I think we went to the same school of rewards. It works for me just fine. Now you do teach creative writing at the Australian Writer’s Centre, and one of the courses you also teach is Plotting and Planning. Now you say you’re quite a meticulous planner. Do you plan it in that notebook?

Kate

Yes.

Valerie

Don’t you need more space? Because you’ve got lots of characters, you’ve got quite a lot of stuff that you want to include in the book, you’ve got so much research. How do you plan? Is it just in a linear fashion? is it a timeline? How does it work for you?

Kate

Yes. It’s kind of yes to all of those. So I’m a strong believer in keeping things simple. So things like characters and outlines and research and setting is all the things that are thrown up by my reading and by my research, and by the time that I’ve spent imagining and visualising, and thinking. And wondering about my characters and all that sort of thing.

A plot is simply to create and then to organise the series of events in your story. And so it’s really very simple. You simply work out what is going to happen in your story, and then you put it in the best possible order. Which is usually in a linear fashion, but not always.

And I identify, I know how long my book needs to be, I know how many chapters I need to write if I’m not going to write too much. So let’s say that I’m writing a 100,000 word manuscript, and each chapter is around let’s say 3,000 words, then I can work out exactly how many chapters I need. And so I simply plan, just with a single line, what’s going to happen in each chapter and where my key turning points are going to be. Whose point of view is going to be privileged over another point of view, where I’m going to break and where I’m going to move to other points of view, who’s going to carry the story. All of those sort of things. I do just a fairly rough and simple outline of that.

And then the plan can change as the story develops. Often you discover your story by writing it. And so I just simply adjust my plan as I go along. I might think what was going to be one scene turns into three scenes, which means that the book is getting too long, and so I need to cut back on other things. Or cut back on those scenes and make much piecier, which is what I usually do. I just keep this plan in my mind at all times. But I have it written out in my diary as well.

Valerie

Have you ever been a pantser?

Kate

I really dislike that term. I think it’s a really ugly and inelegant term. I prefer the term, an intuitive approach to writing. Or what I would call free associative writing. Free associative writing is when you just start writing and you just follow where the writing takes you. And it’s one of the most beautiful and powerful tools that we have as a writer. I use it all the time.

Valerie

But to write a novel?

Kate

Yes, to write a novel. If I’m writing a scene and the scene, you know, I normally try and think about the scene and plan it and visualise it before I see it. But then I put my fingertips to the keyboard and see where the story takes me. These are not binary oppositions. You are not either an anal planner or free spirited pantser. There’s a whole range of different tools and techniques and ways of working. And you move fluidly across them all. And you use whatever’s going to work. And so if something’s not working, you do the opposite.

So if I planned a scene quite carefully but I’m not managing to write it, I throw my plan out and try something else. It’s not a matter of only having one way to write a book. Every single book is a different challenge, a different experience, a different journey. And you use different tools and techniques in every single piece of work that you write.

Valerie

So if people come to your plotting and planning course, what will they learn?

Kate

What I say to them is that I will teach them all the best tools of planning, and all the best tools and techniques and games and tricks of what I call free associative writing, so that they have at their fingertips a whole range of different ways of thinking about planning and plotting a novel. And then they can use whatever tool works for them.

But the main reason why people are afraid of plotting is because no one has ever taught them how. They don’t know what to do. And they think, they have the misconception that it’s doing a scene by scene breakdown, as if you were writing a screenplay. Well, that’s not it at all. That’s not how you plan a novel. It’s a far more free and fluid and incredibly easy process.

And once people have learned these techniques, it just flings open the doors of their creativity and they find that they have all sorts of things to hand that they didn’t know that they could use before. And so it’s an incredibly freeing process. And each of us are individuals, and we all work in our own unique way. So what works for one person may not work for another. But if you don’t know the technique, how do you know, how can you try it and see if it works?

Valerie

Absolutely.

Kate

So that’s how I work. So the tools that I teach are everything from mind mapping, which is an incredibly useful brainstorming tool, all the way through to character outlines, linear narrative structures, crisis and resolution. We talk about the hero’s journey. Anything at all that can help them understand how story structure works, and what we’re trying to achieve in our writing.

Valerie

Now, you actually started off ages ago as a journalist, right?

Kate

Yes.

Valerie

And then after doing that for a while, and you wrote for The Financial Review and other places, you then turned your hand to fiction. Which is obviously very different, particularly very different to writing for The Financial Review. What do you say to those people who, I mean they love reading fiction, and they love the idea of writing fiction, but I guess because I have so many journalist friends, I come across so many people who are confident in writing non-fiction, but just feel that they don’t know where to start in fiction. What would you suggest to them?

Kate

Well, apart from doing a Creative Writing I course with you Valerie, my advice to them… I mean, having a journalistic background is actually of great use to a creative writer. Because as a journalist I was taught to write to a deadline, to write to a word count target, I knew how many words each article had to be. I was always writing for a market.

So as well as writing for The Financial Review, I also wrote for Vogue and Marie Claire and The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. And each of these types of publications has a very different market and a very different style, house style. And I was a freelancer for many years, so I had to understand how to write to a brief. And how to write to a deadline. These are incredibly useful tools for anyone who wants to be a creative writer.

The primary difference with writing fiction to non-fiction has got to do with structure. And it’s got to do with the fact that fiction is told through what I call the three narrative components: action, dialogue and description. And action, dialogue and description are like three threads that are woven together or plaited together on every single page. So in an article, you might include some dialogue, which would be a quote from the person you’ve just been interviewing. And you might include a little bit of description. You might describe where you are, or what they look like, what they’re wearing that day. But you don’t really have very much action. I.e. you don’t actually have people doing things. You don’t have a setting.

And so it’s simply a matter of understanding these narrative components and how they work together. And then learning how to use them. Action is what drives the plot of our story forward. Now one of the problems I do find is that a lot of people who come from a more academic or a more commercial writing background have a lot of scenes where nothing happens. And so probably learning to understand that your story has an engine, the story is like a machine, and it’s driving somewhere. Knowing that you need to create that engine, that something has to happen to move your plot forward on every single page of your story, if I could just teach that to everybody, we’d see a lot less bad writing.

Valerie

Fantastic. What are you working on next? Have you already started your next book?

Kate

I’m in stage one. So daydreaming the story to life. So I’m working on a new historical novel for adults. It’s called The Blue Rose, and it’s set during the French revolution and in Imperial China. So half of my story is set in France, and half in China at the time when China was very closed to the western world. And very few people had ever actually penetrated inside its society. So it’s an absolutely fascinating project but I’ve got so much to learn. I’m doing a lot of reading at the moment.

Valerie

Now, I have to ask this on behalf of, I know there are a lot of people who discovered you and fell in love with you when you were writing a lot more fantasy books. And they’re still loving you with the historical fiction. But I’ve had people say you have to ask Kate if she’s going to write pure fantasy again in the future?

Kate

I do still write fantasy. I have an extremely popular series of fantasy adventures for children, which I’ve actually just sold a film option for. And so that’s tremendously exciting for me, and that is pure fantasy. I have, quite often with my books, I do have a bit of a magical element through them. I’m not planning to write fantasy for adults just at the moment, but who’s to say what’s going to happen in the future? At the moment, I’m so busy and happy doing what I’m doing. But I have more ideas than I could ever write.

Valerie

Yes.

Kate

So maybe one day.

Valerie

And finally, what was the most enjoyable… Well, let’s start with the challenging one. What was the most challenging thing about writing Beauty in Thorns, and what was the most enjoyable thing?

Kate

Okay, so there are two answers to the most challenging thing. The first thing was identifying my core story and keeping myself disciplined enough to keep to it. I was like a little kitten chasing after all these pretty bright things, and always getting so fascinated in all these other stories and wishing I could write them as well. And then I had to cut them.

And when I teach writing I say to people all the time: know your core story so you don’t have to end up cutting out 100,000 words. Well, I speak from experience.

The second most challenging thing for me was writing the story of Lizzie Siddal. So Lizzie Siddal was a young woman who was the most famous face of the Pre- Raphaelites. She was their favourite model. And yet her life is really tragic. She became addicted to laudanum. She suffered from an eating disorder. And she ended up dying very tragically of a laudanum overdose after her daughter was stillborn. And it’s such a sad story. And having to live inside Lizzie’s skin for so many months, to imagine what it must be like, what she was thinking, what she was feeling, trying to decide whether she took the laudanum on purpose or whether it was an accident. All these things were quite challenging and difficult for me. And writing the scenes from her point of view, when she was actually in the throes of her eating disorder, that I think was some of the hardest writing I’ve ever done.

Valerie

So on a brighter note then, what was the most enjoyable thing about writing this book?

Kate

I got to spend all day every day looking at some of the most beautiful art ever created. And I got to spend an awful lot of time reading poetry by these beautiful romantic poets. I really, really enjoyed that.

And I think it’s the strange eerie serendipitous discoveries that you make along the way that just make it so fascinating for you. I’ll just give you one little small example. I said before that Georgie Burne-Jones was like the queen in The Sleeping Beauty, and Margot Burne-Jones, her daughter, was like the sleeping princess. Well, it was fairly easy for me to discover Georgie’s voice because she wrote hundreds and hundreds of letters, and she actually wrote a two-volume memoir of her husband and the Pre- Raphaelites. So she spoke in her voice all the time.

But Margot was very shy and very self-contained, and there’s very little left in her voice. And I couldn’t even find when her birthday was. Now the whole time I was writing Beauty in Thorns, I kept thinking what it would be like to fall sleep for 100 years, how much would the world have changed? Just think how much the world has changed from Victorian times to now. Women, I can write, I can work, I can own property, I can have a university education. The women of the Victorian era could not.

So I kept on searching, trying to find out when Margot Burne-Jones was born. And there were no records anyway, because they didn’t keep very good parish records for girls. Anyway, when I was in London last year, I managed to track down the parish records for her church. And I then discovered that Margot Burne-Jones was born on the 3rd of June 1866. And you see, I was born on the 3rd of June 1966. Exactly 100 years later. 100 exactly. Isn’t it freaky? It just gives me shivers.

Valerie

Tell me where you were at the time and what it felt like?

Kate

I was in Kensington. Which is where the Burne-Jones lived. I knew that Margot Burne-Jones had been christened in the church at Kensington. Its records weren’t online. So I had communicated with the parish cleric. And then I went to see him and he showed me. So I was in Kensington, in the church where she’d been christened, and he was able to show me her birthdate. And it just gave me chills all over my body. I could not believe it.

Valerie

Absolutely. That’s unreal. Well, thank you so much for chatting to us today, Kate.

Kate

Thank you.

Valerie

Beauty in Thorns. Everyone should go get it. And thank you so much for sharing your story with us.

Kate

My pleasure. Thank you.

 

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