Kate Forsyth: Best-selling author and AWC presenter

image-kateforsyth200Kate Forsyth is the award-winning author of more than twenty books for both children and adults, which have been sold in more than ten countries round the world, including Russia, Germany, Italy, Spain and Japan.

Her first novel Dragonclaw was named one of the Best First Novels of 1998 by Locus Magazine, and was short-listed for the Aurealis Award for fantasy, as were most of the rest of the books in her best-selling ‘The Witches of Eileanan’ series.

Her latest book is The Gypsy Crown, an historical adventure story for 9-12 year olds, which follows the perilous adventures of two Romany children in the time of Oliver Cromwell. The Gypsy Crown was recently awarded the prestigious 2007 Aurealis Award for Children’s Fiction in Australia, where it is published as a six-book series, while Book 5: The Lightning Bolt was named a Notable Book for 2007 by the Children’s Book Council of Australia.

She has also published three books for younger readers, called Dragon Gold, Wishing For Trouble, and Sea-Magic; a picture book, I Am; a book of poetry, Radiance; and a novel for young adults called The Starthorn Tree which was also short-listed for numerous awards. She has a BA in Literature, majoring in Literature, from Macquarie University, and a MA in Writing from UWS.

Kate also teaches several courses here at the Australian Writers’ Centre.

Click play to listen. Running time: 31.33


 

Dragonclaw The Gypsy Crown The Lightning Bolt The Starthorn Tree Wishing For Trouble

Transcript

* Please note that these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie:
Kate thanks for joining us today.

Kate:
Awe that’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Valerie:
So tell us how did you get so interested in fantasy in the first place?

Kate:
Well, I was a big reader when I was a child and all the books that I most loved had mysteries and magic and adventure in them and I always wrote as a young child as well and strangely enough all the novels that I wrote were fantasies. So when I was writing as an adult I actually spent quite a few years writing a contemporary literary novel, which didn’t get published, which was constantly rejected. And, I was at University, was doing my Masters of Art in writing and we were asked to read a whole lot of literary gritty, type books, you know very dark, very miserable and as a reaction to that I started reading fantasy again.

I hadn’t actually read fantasy since I was a child and I just loved this and my husband said to me one night after I had been up to three o’clock in the morning reading this book because I couldn’t put it down. He said, “Well you’re enjoying it so much why don’t you write one,” and there was actually a light bulb went off and I went okay why don’t I and that was my first book Dragonclaw and in actual fact it was accepted straight away. It was sold all around the world and I was launched off onto a new career.

Valerie:
Right.

Kate:
Just because something my husband said.

Valerie:
And what ever happened to that first novel the one that you were working on and was constantly rejected?

Kate:
It was actually my eighth published novel.

Valerie:
Right.

Kate:
So after I finished the six books in The Witches of Eileanan series I got it out and I had a look at it again and I saw why it had been rejected. It had actual come close to publication a couple of times and then the editor left or the publishing house went broke. I’m actually glad of that because I had learnt so much in the process of writing the six books of The Witches of Eileanan that I could see what I had done wrong and now I was able to completely rewrite the book, restructure it. And then I sent it off actually to have – you know to my publisher who had published Dragonclaw and those other books and she loved it and that was how it came to be published. But it’s just ironic that I spent so much time in my 20s, I actually think I learnt the craft of writing by making all those mistakes.

Valerie:
Although you learnt the craft of writing was it difficult to keep the faith so to speak when you were getting rejected?

Kate:
Well, I very, very badly wanted to be a writer. It was all I ever wanted to be ever since I was very, very young and I felt I had a real vocation. It was more than just ambition. It was a real vocation. I knew that was what I was meant to be and so it was hard to keep the faith there’s no doubt about that. Any aspiring writer has to go through that process of trying and failing and learning from their failures and I believe that’s what I did. There were times when I would be very upset and I would be there wiping the tears of my face but then I thought well you know giving up was just not an option. I just had to keep on going.

Valerie:
So tell us about the charm bracelet which inspired you to write The Chain of Charms books.

Kate:
Well, I haven’t got time to tell you the whole beautiful story about it so I’ll give you the short version.

Valerie:
Sure.

Kate:
When I was a little girl my great aunt, my mother’s aunt owned this very beautiful, very old and very valuable charm bracelet. It’s a family heirloom, it’s been passed down through the family, mother to daughter or aunt to niece through six or seven generations of the family. And, I used to lean against her knee and she would tell me all the stories behind the charms which had been collected by many different women in my family going back to the early 19th century.

I loved the sense that each of these charms had a story and they connected me in some way with my own history and my family. So I always had this idea that perhaps I could write a story, I mean the idea the charm bracelet is of course an excellent organizing principle for a fantasy book if you’re going to go out on a quest for something and gradually find things that as they build together they gain meaning and gain in power and so I always had this idea that I could do something with it. When I decided I really wanted to write a series of books for both boys and girls that was filled with all the things that I most loved about books when I was their age. It just seemed like a good time to use that idea.

Valerie:
Beautiful idea.

Kate:
Yeah. It was a lot of fun to write that book and it gave me immense pleasure really, and it made me feel very connected to my past again.

Valerie:
You know you wrote an article about Enid Blyton and it sounds like she inspired you to be the writer that you’ve become in a sense. Is that true at all?

Kate:
It’s not quite true because I always wanted to be a writer. I loved Enid Blyton as a child but I loved other writer as well, many other writers. What was interesting about Enid Blyton for me is she was the first writer that I realised was a real person and that was because she wrote an autobiographical book called My Life which has pictures of her at her desk, and her working in the garden, and her with her children, and up until that point I hadn’t actually realised that real people wrote the books that I really loved.

Valerie:
Right.

Kate:
I just opened the book and plunged into it and loved the book but to read this, it was actually full of lies as we found out as adults. But, to read this book about this real writer, I just wanted her life.

Valerie:
I understand, yes.

Kate:
And so I still actually have that book it actually belonged to my mother when she was girl. It’s a very old book, My Life. And what I wanted to do with my books is to recreate that absolute sense of voluptuous abandonment into the story that I had as a child.

Valerie:
Did the romantic notion of being that writer turn into reality for you. Was it what you expected?

Kate:
Well, when I have sold as many books as Enid Blyton had sold, you know she is still the top selling author in the world. Then, I will be able to afford the grand house with the acres, and acres, and acres of garden beautifully manicured by a team of staff but I’m getting there. I’ve got a not so beautifully manicured garden. But, certainly Enid Blyton is one of the most popular writers ever to have existed and JK Rowling is coming close but Enid Blyton still out sold her.

Valerie:
You’ve mentioned that – I mean certain theme’s in their books of course that children want to read about magic and fantasy and secret caves and adventure and that sort of thing. Do you think these things encourage kids to read more?

Kate:
Well, absolutely. I mean all reading should be for pleasure. All reading should be something that you do with a sense of anticipation and excitement. To me, I very much want to write the sort of books that I loved when I was a child not just my children’s books but my adult books as well. I love to read, I read a great deal and the books that I love most to read as an adult are those ones which completely draw you in and you can’t stop reading it. You do actually sit up three in the morning because you’re desperate to find out what happens and then there’s a certain grief when you get to the end of the book and you almost can’t bear for it to be over. That’s the sort of book that I want to write.

Valerie:
Tell me about The Witches of Eileanan series. Where did you get that world from? Where was the inspiration from?

Kate:
It’s actually quite an interesting story. The initial idea for The Witches of Eileanan came from a dream that I had when I was 16 years old.

Valerie:
Really?

Kate:
Yes, it was a very, very vivid dream and I must admit that my dreams usually are. I have a very filmic imagination so I came to dream in a narrative form, in color, with Panavision, surround sound, the whole lot.

Valerie:
Wow!

Kate:
And I often wake up in the morning with a very strong vivid memory of my dream and quite a few of my ideas do come from my dreams. So I actually wrote this dream down in my diary at the time and then I ended up writing a short story or beginning to write a short story from the dream and I was 16. And I carried it around – I have an ideas folder with scraps of writing, it had been in my bottom drawer for an awfully long time so when my husband said to me, “Why don’t you write a fantasy book?” What I immediately thought – I mean it was at least 10 years after the dream and it had been such a vivid dream.

I had dreamt of a girl, a foundling child who was brought up in a forest by a wise old witch. I knew that they lived inside a tree because that way they would be safe because magic was outlawed, it was dangerous to have the sort of powers that they had. I knew that my heroine, my foundling child was able to speak to animals. I think there’s an enduring fantasy of my own and I must admit that animals feature very strongly in all of my books. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in a vet hospital. My father was a vet and we always had so many different types of pets you would not believe. There is not an animal that I haven’t had. I always wished that I could talk to them so that was where the idea came from and I began that book by describing my dream which was still very vivid in my memory even after 10 or 12 years.

Valerie:
Good. Books four and five in the series quite interesting, happen at exactly the same time but with separate characters and ones following what Finn is doing and the other follows Isabeau. Why did you decide to write these two books this way?

Kate:
Well, originally it was all one book and I – and what I came to do in my books is I had different characters who were having various adventures in different parts of my world and those adventures I connected to and affect what happens elsewhere in the world. It’s one of my key things to do to show that people are connected that we are not items that our actions actually have consequences far beyond what any of us can ever imagine because all human beings are connected in so many ways.

So, originally these two books was one book that unfortunately you just cannot publish a book that long. It just falls apart, it’s tremendously expensive to produce and it also can be not such a pleasure to read. Books that are too long are heavy to carry around, you can’t put it in your handbag and you can’t sit up in bed or in the bath and comfortably read the book. Now, because I like to read in bed, and I like to read in the bath, and I like to carry books around in my handbag I’m very aware of these problems. So fairly – about half way or three quarters of the way through the book I realised it was just going to be too long and I talked it over with my editor then and we actually decided to split it into two books.

So I just removed the subplot, every bit of the subplot which was Finn’s story and I set it aside and then I wrote – I finished the main part of the story which was obviously Isabeau and Iseult’s adventures and then I went back to all that I had so cleanly excised from the original manuscript and I turned it into a separate book.

Valerie:
Great.

Kate:
And I mean we talked about it at the publishers and my editor had actually read the earlier version of the manuscript and she thought it would be such a shame to lose that Finn story and so even though that book is really a side step from the main story we just thought the readers would like to know what Finn was to during those months.

Valerie:
It’s one of the painful things for writers isn’t it to have to discard stuff but you were obviously able to discard but resurrected it in a certain way.

Kate:
I never really throw anything out because I can often use it elsewhere. Ideas, scraps of ideas, sentences, I’m a big believer that if you can’t use it in one book you might be able to use it in another book or in another story. Yes, it’s part of the process of writing, the mistake that people make is that they think that what writers do is, we sit down with a blank page, we start writing and we keep on writing until you get to the end and we put a full stop and that is your completed novel.

Well, this is so absolutely untrue and if people understood this then they wouldn’t be so daunted by the idea of writing a novel. It’s a process. Quite often the chapter that you begin writing that you first write ends up half way through the book, sometimes you end up throwing it out all together because you do your worst writing when you first start a novel, sometimes it takes you a while to get into the swing of it. So I quite often completely abandon my first chapter, I might take little bits out of it and stick them in elsewhere. The cut and paste facility on computers has made writing much easier.

Valerie:
When you’re writing a novel now have you already got the next novel in your head or are you fully focused on the one that you’re working on?

Kate:
Well the answer is yes to both of those. I’m always fully focused on the book that I am writing now but, you must realise that I sell my books a couple years in advance then I’m actually writing them. Quite often it’s a two book deal or a three book deal or a four book deal that I sign. I usually – I always have an idea of what I’m going to write, I usually have a synopsis and a plan. It’s – whenever when I come to write – as soon as I finish one book I know exactly what book I’m going to be writing next and usually by the time I start writing it I’ve been thinking about it for a couple years and so I’ve actually quite a lot of notes and planning already done. Also books overlap because when I finish the first draft – it’s actually not the first draft it would usually be about my third to 10th draft but when I’ve got the manuscript as perfect as I can get it then I send it off to my publishers all around the world. Then I have to wait for them to come back to me with editorial guidance and that might take three months.

Now I’m really not happy unless I’m working so I normally start the next novel pretty much straight away. Sometimes I have a week off. I just had a month off because I had a – my kids on school holidays and I’ve had a lot of other things to do. I’ve still been working but not actually started a new novel yet.

Valerie:
Right.

Kate:
But if I just sat around and twiddled my thumbs while I waited for my editors to get back, well I’d just be wasting time and also I would get out of my routine and routine is terribly important to writers.

Valerie:
So tell us about your routine. When you are writing what’s your typical day look like?

Kate:
Well, I build my routine around my children so I write when they’re at school or at preschool. My youngest is four years old so she’s at preschool three days a week and then I work in days. Basically, I take the kids to school so I’m up, I do all the Mum stuff, making lunches, making sure that they’ve got their homework and their hats, come home make a cup of tea, turn my computer on and I’m into work straight away. I don’t have the – I can’t indulge myself because my writing time is so tight.

Usually I will look over what I wrote the day before. Usually I will already know exactly what I am going to write that day because I because I get up at six and take the dogs for a walk and I plan my writing day while I’m walking and so by the time I sit down I’m usually itching, I’m eager to get to it. I work pretty much steadily through – a couple a days a week I have a nanny that picks my children up and takes them to their various after school activities and those days I keep on working right through until 5:30 or 6:30. You know they’re my key work days.

Valerie:
It’s all about discipline. Isn’t it?

Kate:
It is all about discipline. Discipline is incredibly important and when I am teaching people how to write, I try and teach them the importance of having a routine. I don’t think it matters – I think you’re better off writing for two hours every single night when everybody else in the world is watching bad American TV, you turn on your computer and you write from 8:30 to 10:30 every single night. You are going to achieve a great deal more than every now and again turning on your computer and trying to remember what it is you were doing.

If you can just – even an hour if you can set your alarm for six and write for an hour before you have breakfast and get into the day you are going to stay connected to your work and you are going to be producing steadily which is a secret of being a professional writer is that you are a steady and efficient writer.

Valerie:
And you’re got – you have many books, more than 20 books and they’re for children and for adults. Is there one age group that you find it easier to write for or that you prefer to write for?

Kate:
I like to write for all age groups. My preferred age groups would be nine plus. So either The Gypsy Crown books of which they were published in a series of six here in Australia. They’re really nine to 12 year olds and The Starthorn Tree is probably 11 plus that’s – I would say that’s my favorite age group to write for. However, I also love writing for adults because you can do something a little bit darker, a little bit deeper, a little bit – you can make your surprises a little bit more shocking and you can write longer books and it is natural to me to write long books. I find the little books really quite difficult to write. I’m not a short story writer by any means. It’s not natural to me.

Valerie:
So you’re –

Kate:
I have an epic imagination.

Valerie:
In Panavision as well.

Your book Full Fathom Five is about 20 year old Sara who has not left her house for five years. How did this idea come about?

Kate:
Again, it’s very hard for a writer to describe where ideas come from. I normally start with an image or with a vision or dream and then I start wondering who is this person, what are they doing. So with Full Fathom Five it began with this idea of a grieving girl, a girl who was frozen by her grief that she found it hard to live and basically the story grew from there. It was – I mean it took me 20 years to write that book.

Valerie:
God.

Kate:
And there were many, many, many, many different versions. It went through a version of being a fantasy novel. I mean it’s quite magic, realist because it’s got ghosts and its got dreams and its got strange things happening in it but you know the character of Sara because she’s agoraphobic, she cannot actually go outside, she cannot leave her house. It made her very interesting, intense sort of character to write. In a way I can’t explain where the idea came from. It just grew. I got interested in her.

Valerie:
Fair enough. What type of research did you do for The Witches of Eileanan. There are elements of Wicca and folklore and Celtic things. Did you do a lot of research? In that.

Kate:
Well I always do a lot of research because research is basically reading and I love to read and I have a little bellbird brain which I love little odd bits of arcane facts, I have a very good memory so anything I read I remember. You could basically say that with The Witches of Eileanan I was trained all my life to write these books because my mother is an anthropologist and so she was always giving me things like Margaret Meade to read as a child you know Carl Yung. I did my degree, my first degree, I majored in literature but I basically did any subject that looked interesting to me.

So I did a lot anthropology, a lot of sociology, a lot of things like French culture and fairytales, children’s literature, American literature. Any subject which kind of appealed to me, I did and it was a perfect sort of degree for me because I knew I wanted to be a writer and I knew that being a good writer was all about reading, and learning, and listening and that’s what I did. Now, in the actual research for the book, quite often you are researching without realising it. So you’ll read a book for interest and you realise oh I can use that, other times you research specifically.

For example in the book of Finn’s adventure, where she actually goes up a big cliff to go and save a prophet, this is in Book Four, The Forbidden Land, I have her climbing up a cliff and climbing up a tower and I have a friend who ran into me and said, “Kate I had no idea you were into rock climbing. We should go rock climbing sometime.” And I was like, “I’ve never been rock climbing in my life.” But, if I was going to – it wasn’t sufficient to me to just write Finn climbed the cliff. I had to know how she was going to do it, I had to be able to make it vivid and real and to do that I had to research rock climbing. So that took me a week to write one scene.

Valerie:
Gosh.

Kate:
But another thing would only take me five minutes because I already knew everything I needed to know for that scene.

Valerie:
I’ve spoken to some fantasy writers who don’t want to be reading fantasy themselves while they’re writing. Is that the case with you? Do you read fantasy while you’re writing?

Kate:
I love fantasy. I read a lot of it. I – it’s not actually my favorite genre. I read an awful lot of different types of books. I love historical fiction, I love murder mysteries, I love non-fiction, I love literary fiction, I read a lot of children’s fiction particularly children’s fantasy. So I’m not one of these readers that only reads the one genre. I just basically read whatever I feel like reading and so regardless – I must admit when I’m writing I tend to only read things that are going to help me with my writing so that’s when I do a lot of research, a lot of non-fiction reading. In the past month since I’ve delivered my last novel, I’ve been reading purely for pleasure and I’ve been reading on average about a book a day.

Valerie:
Wow.

Kate:
Which I can’t obviously do when I’m writing at high intensity because I’m spending that time at my computer not reading books. When I start my next novel which I’ll probably do in the next couple of weeks then, I will go back to not reading nearly so much.

Valerie:
And for aspiring writers out there what advice would you give them to help make the writing process easier for them?

Kate:
Well, I think the first thing you need to have is patience because it takes an awfully long time to write a book and to make it the best book that you can write. Most people tend think that once they’ve actually finished the book that’s all they have to do but that’s only the first draft but the real work now starts. You need to rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite constantly and you need to be able to look at the structure of the book and if that is actually working. Where does the pace lag, where have you done things too quickly and you aren’t giving your reader a strong enough visual image of what’s going on. You need to be constantly looking at your language.

You’d be surprised, most people have a very shallow pool of vocabulary, of words they use constantly, all the time and it’s amazing, even me, who is so used to this, I would find it hard to use the same word three times in two pages. You need to go through your book and make sure that you aren’t using a very shallow language resource. You need to be searching for bigger, and better, and more beautiful ways of saying what you want to say and then I think you think you really need to be really persistent. A lot of people get bored and give it up, just when they’re getting to the point where the book is actually going to be – you might be able to do something with it. So patience and persistence I think are the secrets and this is true of the publication process as well. You’re trying to get published, it takes a very long time and then when you do get accepted by a publisher it takes them a year to get the book out which means it might actually take you five years to get a book from the first word to a printed copy. You’ve got to be patient.

Valerie:
Not for the faint hearted.

Kate:
No, that’s exactly right. Certainly you have to have a strong desire, a strong drive, you need to know this is what you really have to do because you’re going to have to make sacrifices. You’ll be sacrificing your time, you’ll be sacrificing your social life, you’ll be sacrificing money because while you are writing this novel, you will not be doing other things that could perhaps give you a bigger income and you don’t really know that it’s ever going to lead anywhere. So you have to have a certain amount of faith in yourself.

But you know to me the rewards are enormous. Obviously, once you are a bestselling author then you do get the financial rewards but you know why does anyone write, what feeds this desire to write? It’s all about communication, it’s all about connection, it’s all about reaching out across the abyss and connecting with other human beings that you might never meet and that’s what books do. And it gives me enormous pleasure to know that there are people all around the world reading my books in all different languages, who I’ve moved them to tears, I’ve moved them laughter, I’ve made them think, I’ve made them dream, I have for a short while, I’ve drawn them into the world of my imagination and I’ve trapped them there. That’s an amazing thing.

Valerie:
That’s great. Very inspirational and on that note thank you very much for your time today Kate.

Kate:
That is so much my pleasure. Thank you for having me.


Comments