'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Saturday 13 November 2010

Author Interview: Kate Forsyth

Fantasy author Kate Forsyth joins us on Kids Book Review today, telling us about her journey to becoming a writer. Read more about Kate on her website.

Tell us a little about you: what’s your background, your story? I was born in Sydney and have lived here ever since. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t dream of being a writer – I was writing stories and poems from the time I could hold a pencil and I wrote my first novel when I was not yet eight.

I used to wish on the first star, every night, ‘let me be a writer when I grow up!’ I don’t know why I had such a desperate longing - maybe it’s in the blood (I come from a long line of famous writers, with my great-great-great-great-grandmother writing the first children’s book published in Australia) – maybe it has to do with growing up in a family of storytellers, and in a house full of books – maybe it’s just because I have always loved reading so much.

What genre do you now write in?
Half of my books are for children and half are for adults, but all of my books are filled with adventure, suspense, romance and magic, and draw upon history, myth and fairy tales for their power. They range along the spectrum from classic high fantasy to magic realism to historical fiction with just a touch of the uncanny.

What other genres have you written in?
I have also written a couple of picture books and some small chapter books for younger readers, and have had a collection of poetry published, called Radiance.  
What do you love about writing for children? When I was a child books were my refuge and my joy, a source of solace and sunshine, as Susan Cooper wrote so beautifully. I love the idea that I may be passing that marvellous gift on to other children. My favourite age group to write for are really ten to fifteen year olds, because they still have that sense of wonder and amazement but are old enough to read books with sophisticated plots and language, books that are crammed with ideas as well as story.

The books I read at certain times of my life had such magic for me, and helped shape the person I am today ... I like to think of books as having the power to do good in the world, because they open up the world to the reader. While you are reading you are inside someone else’s head, you’re walking round in someone else’s shoes for a while and so it helps you learn empathy and compassion, it helps you think more and imagine more. I also love the fact that children will only ever read for pleasure, which means that you need to be able to enchant them and transport them and really grab their attention.

What was the inspiration behind your latest book, The Wildkin’s Curse?
Some books just come to you, like a dream or a vision, the whole narrative arc of the story laid out before your inner eye – The Wildkin’s Curse was a gift like that. I was writing its prequel, The Starthorn Tree, while pregnant with my second son and in the first few months of his life. My eldest boy, Ben, was only two and baby Tim was not a good sleeper, so I was exhausted, wrung-out and finding it very hard to find the time to write.

Many nights I’d go to sleep thinking about the book, dream about it, wake up and think about it while I fed my baby, scribbling in my notebook when I had my right hand free... my thoughts and my dreams seemed to merge in that strange way that happens when you are being constantly woken during the night. Often I would not go back to sleep after the 3am feed, and so I’d wrap myself in a blanket and write for a few hours, in the dark, quiet hours of the night.

One night, I was working on a scene towards the end of The Starthorn Tree and one of my characters suddenly began to ‘speak’ a prophecy – I wrote it down virtually word for word as it appears in the book. And that was then the idea for The Wildkin’s Curse came to me – it’s really a series of vivid images and ideas and connections, rather than a single idea, and it unrolls in my imagination like a swiftly moving film. It’s always tremendously exciting when a story leaps to life like that – I scribbled it all down, as best as I could, and so when it came time to write The Wildkin’s Curse I already had a very strong idea of the shape of the story and its key characters.

Tell us about your path to having your books published.
As a child, I always thought I would finish school, spent the summer writing a book, get it published and become an instant bestseller, able to spend the rest of my life doing nothing but writing books. It wasn’t quite that easy! I sent out my first manuscript when I was sixteen, to Angus and Robertson, and got a lovely letter back, saying ‘keep on writing!’

After a lot of family discussion (and a few arguments!), I agreed to go to university but I majored in Literature and Writing, and did just a few practical Mass Communication subjects to keep my worried mother happy. I then worked as a journalist for a few years, trying to get published and gaining quite a few more rejection letters (though I did begin to get a steady stream of poems and short stories published.)

When I was 25, I had a quarter-life crisis (‘I’ll never become a writer if I spend all my time working!') and so, with the support of the gorgeous man that in time became my husband, I quit full-time work and freelanced. I made an agreement with him – if I was not published by the time I was 30, I’d give up and get a real job again, and only write on the side. I also went back to university and did a MA in Writing.

One day, I began reading an epic fantasy series instead of studying for my end-of-year exams. I was utterly entranced. I had not read fantasy since I was a child. At that time Lit Grit and Dirty Realism was all the rage. I hated those dark, dank, dreary books. Where was the colour, the romance, the spine-tingling suspense that could keep you up reading late into the night? To me, reading a book should be like flinging open a gateway and stepping through to another world, a place more vivid and exciting and marvellous than our own world. That fantasy book gave me that gateway for the first time in a long while.

As soon as I finished one book, I’d have to jump in my car and drive to a bookshop to buy the next in the series, and quite often I’d read till 3am, unable to put the book down. Exasperated, my husband-to-be said, ‘you’re loving reading that book so much, why don’t you write one?’ So I did. I spent the two months of my university holidays writing the opening chapters, using a dream I had had when I was sixteen as the springboard for the plot.

In February, when I had to go back to university, I put everything I had written into an envelope and sent it to a literary agent. She came back to me the very next day and said, ‘I love it! I can definitely sell it. Can you send me the rest?’ I told her that I had sent all that I had written, and she said, ‘Well, how soon can you get a completed manuscript to me?’ I though, Mmm, I’m studying my Masters degree, I have a major thesis due at the end of the year, I’m working as the freelance editor of a beauty magazine and I’m getting married in October ... then I said, ‘April?’

For the next three months I did nothing but write the novel. I didn’t eat except at the computer, I slept only a few hours a night, I saw no-one and did nothing except write, write, write. By the end of April, I had a 100,000 word manuscript that my agent put up to auction. Three Australian publishing houses went to war over it, plus I had offers from major publishing houses in the US and Germany. On the 1st of June – two days before my 30th birthday – I signed a world-wide publishing deal, and I’ve been a full-time writer ever since.

What are the greatest blocks or obstacles you have experienced on your book-writing journey?
I think keeping the balance between my family life and my life as a writer. I’m married with three children yet I need to travel a lot, on book tour, or going to festivals and conferences all around the world. I try and have only two major trips a year.

What’s a typical writing day?
My elder son will bring me in a cup of tea before he leaves at 7am, and give me a kiss and a cuddle, then I’ll get up and have breakfast with my two younger children. We’ll pack the dishwasher together and I’ll help them get ready for school, ie make them lunch, pack their ballet bag, find their school shoes. I do as much housework as I can before I drop them at school at 9am, then I walk the dog by the harbour or along the beach front till 10am, thinking about what I plan to write that day.

A cup of tea and a banana, and then I’ll check my emails. Most get deleted straight away, or flagged to do later, and then I’ll turn my emails off so I’m not distracted while I’m writing. I read over what I wrote yesterday and edit and polish it, and then I began to draft the next scene. I’ll stop for lunch around 1pm, and read the book reviews in a newspaper or magazine while I eat. Most days I walk around my garden for 5 or 10 minutes, pulling a few weeds, or rubbing aphids off my roses, and then I go back into my study and work away steadily until the kids get home (anywhere between 3.30pm or 5.30pm, depending on the day).

Every day except Friday I’ll keep working till around 5.30 or 6pm, when I stop and cook dinner and catch up with the family. Fridays are our fun-days, so we go to the park or the beach or to a friend’s house. I help with the homework, clean up the kitchen, and read my daughter a story at bedtime, then most evenings I go back to the study and finish answering emails, or looking after the business side of the writing. Many nights I keep on writing, sometimes till 11pm, particularly when I’m towards the end of a book and totally obsessed by it.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Get into a regular writing routine. Set aside the same time every day or every week, and stick to it! You are better off doing an hour a day, than eight hours once a month, since it means you’ll stay connected to the story.

What books did you read as a child?
Far too many to list! I was a voracious reader (I still am), and sometimes read up to six books in a day. I have lists of my favourite writers, plus what I’m reading now, on my website.

What else do you like to do, other than write books?
Read. Cook. Work in my garden. Spend time with my family and friends. Travel the world.

What would be your perfect day?
Waking up in a chateau in France to tea and omelette, then setting out to explore the countryside with my family, having a delicious alfresco lunch overlooking the sparkling water, a swim in the warm waters of the ocean, then dinner somewhere magical, before curling up by an open fire with a glass of champagne and a really good book. Heaven!

What five words best sum you up?
Would three do? Joie de vive!

Do you remember the first story you ever wrote? I remember writing a story when I was about five, about a brother and sister who fell down a hole in the roots of a tree and found themselves in Fairyland. My mother still has it somewhere. My first novel, which I wrote when I was seven, was about a brother and sister who ran away from their cruel aunt and uncle and went in search of their kind auntie, having all sorts of adventures along the way. It has eight chapters, is 28 pages long, and on its title page says ‘London - New York - Sydney’ – I was ambitious even then! 

What’s next for Kate Forsyth? I’m writing a historical novel at the moment which is set in France and Italy. It interweaves the Rapunzel fairytale with the true life of one of its first tellers, Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, who was locked up in a convent by the Sun King, Louis XIV, after scandalizing the court with her love affairs and her risqué novels. It’s an utterly brilliant and fascinating story which I’m really loving writing!

Read our review of The Wildkin's Curse