2016 / Saturday

Kate Forsyth: a real-life fairy tale of blood, books and tears

Christina King

Kate Forsyth

Kate Forsyth

The hospital room is narrow and dark. A Disney poster of Mickey Mouse and his magic mop from Fantasia is stuck to the wall. Six little metal beds are in a row. In the furthest bed, the one beside the window, there is a little girl aged seven. She sits in a little circle of light from the reading lamp, hunched over the yellowed pages in her lap. She is motionless. A moment later she turns the page. The scrape of the paper against the blanket fills the room for a moment. The girl’s name is Kate.

In a faraway land, another little girl sits, also alone. Her sweet voice fills the small, bare room in the tower. She sings to pass the time and to shatter the solitude. Her long hair is wound around her head, kept at this length because the wicked enchantress insists.

This girl’s name is Rapunzel.

“Rapunzel is probably my own personal defining fairy tale,” Kate Forsyth says in a melodic voice. “I was a very sick little girl. I spent a lot of time in hospital because I was attacked by a dog when I was a baby. And my tear duct was destroyed.” She runs her finger along the left side of her nose and under her left eye. “So, between the age of two and the age of 11, I had what’s called chronic dacryocystitis, which is infection of the tear duct.

“Rapunzel is a story about a girl who is locked away from the world against her will. And I was a girl locked away from the world against my will. Rapunzel was a girl who faces loneliness and fear. They were the defining emotions of my childhood. I was unable to control my tears and they made me ill and blind. I can see now that Rapunzel gave me hope that I, too, could escape my tower and that I, too, could be healed.”

Perched on the edge of her chair, Kate Forsyth stirs milk into her English Breakfast tea.

“Hope is an incredibly important, powerful emotion; that’s what I think is the power of fairy tales. They hold out hope that we can change our world and change our circumstances.”

It is unsurprising then, that most of Kate’s recently published work is based on re-worked fairy tales. Her award-winning novel Bitter Greens is a retelling of Rapunzel.

“I can remember the day my mother gave me a little red leather-covered book of fairy tales,” she says. “I was seven. I’d been rushed to hospital in the middle of the night, everything was very dark, it was frightening. And my mum wasn’t allowed to stay with me and so she left me this book. I had a very high fever and I was in an other-worldly state as a result of the fever and I read this collection of stories. And all the stories in that book tend to be the ones that I have reworked.

“The thing that I love about fairy tales is that they are endlessly shape-shifting; you can do so much with them.”

Her smile makes her eyes crinkle at the sides as she recounts her lifelong love affair with books. Her hands flutter around as she speaks and the silver bangles on her wrist clink against each other.

“By the time I finished primary school, I’d read every single book in the local library and every single book in the school library,” she says. “I re-read and re-read and re-read because there simply weren’t enough books for me.”

The average person’s reading speed is about 250 words per minute. Kate reads 700 words per minute. This, along with a partially identic memory, makes researching her historical novels easier.

“It’s lined with books,” she says of her office. “It’s painted pale green which is a daydreaming colour, so that’s why I like it. I have a gargoyle, I’ve had him since I was about 19. I have a reading chair and a lamp.”

And she has a separate library, too. “The library is all completely sorted. It’s in genre, then in alphabetical order,” she says. “I mean, I’ve got 6000 books, so I need to keep them in order.”

Among her books is her first novel. Not the first one published, but the first she ever wrote. At the age of seven.

“It was a rip-off of The Secret Island by Enid Blyton,” Kate says. “I illustrated it and it had a title page and a publication page. I actually made up a name of the publishing house to pretend it had been published.

“I knew from the time that I could first hold a pencil that I wanted to be a writer. All my energies, all my dreams have been bent around tying to make that come true,” she says. Writing, it seems, is in her blood.

Her pixie-like face glows with excitement as she recounts the tale of her literary family. Her great-great-great-great grandmother was Charlotte Waring, whose collection of stories was the first children’s book to be published in Australia in 1841.

One of Charlotte’s daughters, Louisa Atkinson, became the first Australian-born female novelist. And Charlotte’s grandfather was a famous Victorian poet, Albert Waring. “He was well-known for being Charles Dickens’ favourite poet,” Kate says.

Kate’s sister and brother are both writers, too. “All three of us are multi-internationally published authors,” she says. “As far back as we’ve got of recorded history, there are poets, writers or journalists in my family. It’s very much in the blood.

“And I have two Scottish grandmothers,” she adds, “which should make me psychic, according to the old law.”

She grins.

“If only I was the seventh child of a seventh child, then I would be really, really magic-endowed.”

But, as it is, Kate Forsyth’s tale already seems pretty magic-endowed.