What was it that drew you to writing about Charlotte-Rose de la Force as your main protagonist for Bitter Greens??
I stumbled upon the life story of this extraordinary 17th century writer quite by chance. I had set out to rewrite the Rapunzel fairy tale but felt it utterly essential that I wrote the story as if it had truly happened, a story that resonated with historical veracity. In other words, I wanted to write it as a historical novel for adults rather than a fantasy for children. I wondered – who first wrote the tale? I set out on a quest to find out, and discovered the first version of the tale as we know it was written by a French noblewoman who had been banished to a convent for her wild and wicked ways. In my search to find out everything I could about her, I found myself deep in the opulent and corrupt court of the Sun King, Louis XIV, who was Charlotte-Rose’s second cousin, and realised with joy that her life story was full of drama, scandal, intrigue, romance and heartbreak. Once I had discovered Charlotte-Rose de la Force, I wanted desperately to bring her to life, and then she ran away with the story and I ran gladly with her. Her life was a wonderful gift for a novelist!
The action in Bitter Greens switches back and forth between different timelines and the stories of very different characters. How did you keep track of all the branches of the story and make sure they wove together so well?
I wrote Bitter Greens like three separate novels, and then I wove them together. The novel braids together three stories, three lives, like the plait that is the most memorable motif of the original fairy tale. I wrote Charlotte-Rose’s story first, from opening line to closing line, breaking at the key points where I knew the other stories would intersect. Then I wrote Margherita’s story, my maiden – from first line to last line – and then I interwove her narrative thread with Charlotte-Rose’s. I then wrote the story of the witch, who in my book is a Venetian courtesan who is the artist Titian’s mysterious red-haired muse. I found this section the most difficult to write, because it is the darkest, and then when I tried to interweave it with the other two strands, I found it weakened the power of her story to keep breaking it up. I changed my plan, and made the witch’s story the dark heart of the novel. Charlotte-Rose and Margherita’s story weave into it … and then out of it … and when we return to their entwined narratives, it is to find the story utterly changed. Or so I hope.
How long did it take you to do all the research on the real historical figures in the book, and do you enjoy that aspect of writing?
I love researching. It’s simply reading with a purpose. And I LOVE to read.
I must admit the research for Bitter Greens took me a long time. It was seven years between first setting to work on the novel and it finally being published. However, there were long gaps in this time when I was working on other novels or projects so it wasn’t all the hard slog of researching. I mainly research at night, and so I spent many long happy months reading everything I could find about Renaissance Venice, Paris and Versailles under the rule of the Sun King, and the psychological impact of solitary confinement in a small tower.
What was it about the story of Rapunzel that made you want to write about it? Are there any other fairy tales you find yourself drawn to and do you think you’ll write anything based on them at any point?
It’s hard for me to explain why Rapunzel so haunted me because I don’t fully understand it myself. I think it was because I first read Rapunzel as a little girl in hospital. I had been attacked by a dog as a toddler and, among many other injuries, had lost my tear duct which regulates the body’s ability to control tears. My left eye wept all the time, and nasty abscesses would form, making me very sick. Rapunzel is a story about a girl locked away from the world against her will, as I was incarcerated in that lonely hospital ward. And Rapunzel is a story about a young woman who heals the prince’s blindness with her tears, as I so desperately wished to be healed. I think this is why it resonated with me so powerfully.
In regards to other fairy tales, I love so many! Six Swans is a favourite, and Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty and so many more. At the moment, I’m particularly drawn to a very beautiful version of Beauty and the Beast which appears in the early editions of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. It’s called The Leaping, Lilting Lark and its one of the most romantic and heart-breaking tale I’ve ever read.
How did you first come across Dortchen Wild and what was it that drew you to writing about her in The Wild Girl?
When I was writing my novel BITTER GREENS (which retells Rapunzel), I began researching the sources of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales to find out who had first told that particular story. One of the books I read was ‘Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales’ which examined the forgotten female oral storytellers who told the brothers many of their tales. I was very intrigued to hear that one girl in particular – Dortchen Wild – had told so many of my favourite stories. Then, when I read that she and Wilhelm had fallen in love and eventually married – well! I knew I had to write about her. I was electrified by the story. It had everything I most love – romance, passion, heartbreak, drama, tragedy, triumph … and of course, the fairy tales! I’ve been mad about fairy tales since I was a child and here was a way for me to discover their sources and bring them to life in narrative. I could hardly sleep that night for excitement.
The covers of your books is gorgeous. How much say do you have in choosing the cover art, and what kind of input do you like to have?
I’m so glad you love the covers! I think they’re so beautiful and striking and unusual. I’d buy them in a heartbeat. I always have ideas and suggestions for the cover art, and I always share these with my publisher. However, I know it’s not my area of expertise and I always trust my publisher and the cover designer to know their market and to do something amazing. I’d never have come up with something so gorgeous on my own!
The Wild Girl is about the girl who was the muse for one of the best-known and best-loved storytellers of all time. Who or what is your muse and how have they inspired your writing?
Such an interesting question. I have to say I think the story itself is the muse, as I feel strongly – in a strange mystical way – that the story exists beyond me and that it is my responsibility to bring it to life in the best way I can. I know this sounds a little peculiar, but it’s like I discover the story, not create it … as if it already existed and was waiting to be told. When I am writing a novel I make the most extraordinary serendipitous discoveries and connections, and I have learnt to trust implicitly in this and wait for the story to reveal itself to me.
Do you have a favourite Grimm Tale? If so, what is it about that particular story that captured your imagination?
I have a number of favourites. Rapunzel, of course, which so troubled me from childhood I became obsessed with bringing it to life (which I eventually did in my novel BITTER GREENS). Beauty and the Beast. Six Swans. Sleeping Beauty. Cinderella. Snow White & Rose Red. I think what I love about all these books is the atmosphere of peril and danger and beauty and romance, all twisted together. And the happy ending, of course. I always want a happy ending.
Can you tell us a little about any other forthcoming novels on which you’re working?
At the moment, I’m writing a children’s fantasy series called ‘The Impossible Quest’ and researching another historical fairy tale retelling. I plan to retell one of Dortchens’ tales actually – ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’ which is a ‘Beauty & the Beast’ variant. I plan to set it in Nazi Germany – the idea is thrilling me to bits.
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