Monday, July 13, 2015

Virtual Book Tour: "The Wild Girl" + Exclusive Chat 'Behind the Pages' with author Kate Forsyth!

Boy do we have a treat for you today! 

The lovely award-winning, Australian author, Kate Forsyth not only agreed to stop by Once Upon A Blog during her US release virtual book tour but we're allowed to ask her some questions so our fairy tale folk here can get an in depth, 'Behind the Pages' peek at the story and what it took to write it.

In case you aren't yet familiar with the premise The Wild Girl, here's a brief description (alternate description from Goodreads included at end of post):

One of six sisters, Dortchen Wild lives in the small German kingdom of Hesse-Cassel in the early 19th century. She finds herself irresistibly drawn to the boy next door, the handsome but very poor fairy tale scholar Wilhelm Grimm. It is a time of tyranny and terror. Napoleon Bonaparte wants to conquer all of Europe, and Hesse-Cassel is one of the first kingdoms to fall. Forced to live under oppressive French rule, Wilhelm and his brothers quietly rebel by preserving old half-forgotten tales that had once been told by the firesides of houses grand and small over the land. 
As Dortchen tells Wilhelm some of the most powerful and compelling stories in what will one day become his and Jacob's famous fairy tale collection, their love blossoms. But Dortchen's father will not give his consent for them to marry and war, death, and poverty also conspire to keep the lovers apart. Yet Dortchen is determined to find a way. 
Evocative and richly-detailed, Kate Forsyth's The Wild Girl masterfully captures one young woman's enduring faith in love and the power of storytelling.
Now let's welcome Kate and get to the questions! (I have many!!)

Author Kate Forsyth
Fairy Tale News Hound (FTNH): G'day Kate! Welcome to Once Upon A Blog and thank you SO much for dropping by to answer some questions today. I love the story behind the stories, especially of the main story girl - the 'wild' girl, Dortchen - herself. 

When I tell other people about the book I feel I can’t quite communicate how important and significant I feel this book is. To me this is more than just a great story and a great read, though The Wild Girl is that too. It also feels like a strong step forward in understanding, not just in how we came to have the Grimm’s tales in the first place, but in understanding fairy tales and their importance altogether. While I had no problem envisioning the Grimm brothers as younger men, I never really thought about how their own loves and passions affected their tale collecting, writing and, as a result, their scholarship, let alone thought of the lives of the people telling the tales in the first place. After reading this, it makes me very glad the Grimms were so ‘human’ and full of emotions and passions, rather than my previous image of detached business men! Somehow, the tales seem even more important, with them being written down resulting from a combination of passionate scholarship and passionate living. Who could have imagined that the Grimm’s lived next door to the key to their success and Wilhelm’s own (eventual) happily ever after?! Thank you for taking the journey to write this book. There’s no way this story gave itself up easily - Dortchen’s own tale most certainly has "teeth, claws and a bloody lining"! - and yet it feels completely natural on every page.

You’ve blended fact so wonderfully with fiction I have to admit the line gets quite blurred while I’m reading, and I’m too busy reading to stop and go check on things I’m curious to know about! I gather, though, that’s very difficult to do with regard to the real life woman and how her stories were written down, particularly in such a tumultuous time in history.
Dortchen Wild telling Wilhelm Grimm fairy tales by Billerantik

FTNH: What aspects would you say are truly fictional, as opposed to having some clue in the various writings, letters and other documents you’ve unearthed, and what are the aspects you found factual basis to expand on that you felt were important to Dortchen’s story (and why)?

Page from the author notebook for The Wild Girl
photo courtesy of Kate Forsyth
Kate: THE WILD GIRL is, of course, a novel which means it is all fictional!

However, it was inspired by the true story of how the Grimm brothers came to collect their famous fairy tales and I did an enormous amount of research into the time and the place and the social milieu. The Grimm brothers wrote hundreds of letters, diaries, articles and books, and they have been so extensively studied that there is scarcely an event in their lives which has not been recorded. The lives of Dortchen Wild and her sisters, however, have left hardly any trace at all. Even Dortchen's birth date is a matter of conjecture and disagreement. All that is left in Dortchen's own voice are a few childhood letters and a very brief memoir she dictated to her daughter on her death-bed. 

So I began by establishing known facts - when the Grimm brothers first came to Kassel, when Napoleon's Grand Army invaded, when and how the brothers first began to collect old tales, and so on. I gradually built up an intricate timeline of events, including things like the comet of 1812 and the Year Without A Summer in 1816, when famine came to Europe after the fallout from a volcanic eruption in Java. Then I began to think and wonder and imagine what it must have been like to live during such cataclysmic events, and in particular, what it must have been like to have been a woman. 

Page from the author notebook for The Wild Girl
photo courtesy of Kate Forsyth
During this period, I was also establishing as many known facts as I could about the life of Dortchen and her family. I knew very little to begin with - when she had first met Wilhelm, when she began to tell her stories, when they were married, and when she died. I gradually was able to establish other dates, however, particularly in relation to the stories she told Wilhelm, for he kept a rough record of what stories were told when, and by whom. Slowly and with much difficulty, I was able to create a timeline of the tales themselves, finding out who told them and where and when. It had never really been done before. It was like making a quilt from a thousand tiny scraps, all of which came from different places. The work of fairy tale scholars such as Jack Zipes, Valerie Paradiz, Heinz Rolleke, D.L. Ashliman and Cay Dollerup was utterly invaluable to me, each giving me small parts of the jigsaw. I also read primary sources, such as Wilhelm Grimm's own diary, or letters from friends, to help me. 

Once I had a clear timeline of Dortchen's tales, and some idea of where she was when the tales were told (in her sister's summerhouse, for example, or in the family's garden plot on the edge of town), I looked to the tales she had told as a way of getting a glimpse into her inner life. 

Page from the author notebook for The Wild Girl
photo courtesy of Kate Forsyth
Some of Dortchen's tales were very dark - Fitcher's Bird for example, a Bluebeard variant in which the heroine saves herself and her sisters, and All-Kinds-of-Fur, a story of a king who wants to marry his own daughter. I wondered why a young woman, brought up in such a strict patriarchal society, would tell a young man such tales. I wondered when she and Wilhelm first fell in love, and what kept them apart from so long. I wondered why Wilhelm had originally published the stories as they had been told to him, then later changed them so they were not quite as horrifying. I wondered about all these things, and many more, and then did my best to weave a story out of all my wonderings.

Of course, many things which happen in my story are unlikely to be true. For example, it is known that only one soldier returned to Kassel after Napoleon's disastrous march on Moscow, from a conscripted army of 30,000. It is highly unlikely that the one returning soldier was Dortchen's brother ... but it made a much better story to have it be so. 

Another example is the truth of the breakdown of Ferdinand, one of the younger Grimm brothers. It is known there was some kind of emotional upheaval that upset his elder brothers greatly, and it is conjectured to have had something to do with Dortchen. Wilhelm and Jacob wrote very little about it, and so I had to find my own explanation for his wild mood swings, long periods of lassitude, and the way the two elder brothers tried to hush up the whole affair. His symptoms seemed very like drug addiction to me, and I knew that opium addiction was a great social problem of the time ... and that Dortchen's father was an apothecary who would have made laudanum as a matter of course ... and so I came up with my own solution to the mystery...
Display from Grimm Brothers Museum for the 200th Anniversary of the 1st edition of Household Tales

FTNH: Are there other clues and facts from your research you couldn’t find a way to include but wish you had?

Kate: No, not at all. I always knew I was telling Dortchen's story and that I had to concentrate on those facts which would help me do that.

FTNH: I read that when you were researching Bitter Greens you came across Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales by Valerie Paradiz, which inspired you to look deeper into Dortchen’s story. When you found out the author hadn’t kept her notes, how did you then go about your research, without being able to retrace her footsteps as planned? How did you find out more when you only had a letter and some footnotes (essentially) to go on?

Kate: Yes, I first read about Dortchen Wild in Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales. Dr. Paradiz had examined most of the female tellers of the Grimm brothers' famous tales - Dortchen Wild was only one of them and the fact that she ended up marrying Wilhelm was added almost as an afterthought in the final chapter. I was immediately electrified by her story, and knew I wanted to write a novel based on her life. I was then in the midst of writing another fairy-tale-inspired novel, BITTER GREENS, which was the major creative component of my doctorate. So it was a while before I could settle down to do my research for THE WILD GIRL. I wrote to Dr. Paradiz and  was very disappointed to learn that she had not kept any of her research after moving house (very understandable too! I have boxes and boxes and boxes of my research notes). Luckily I really love to research. I went about it slowly and doggedly, acquiring books and academic articles, reading everything I could lay my hands on (I even tried to teach myself German so I could read the original oral tales, which had not at that time been translated into English). Jack Zipes has recently brought out a wonderful edition of all the original stories and I can't help thinking how useful that would have been to me, if only he'd brought it out a little sooner!
It was not just the lives of the Grimm brothers I was researching, but also life during the Napoleonic wars and the everyday lives of women at that time. It was a big job! I was very lucky in that I had help. For example, I found a German researcher who was able to go and look at all the original parish records and work out for me the exact dates of the births, deaths and marriages of the Wild family for the first time. And I found a descendant of the Wild family who was able to give me some snippets of family lore, plus translated one of Wilhelm's diaries into English for me (also for the first time). Then many fairy tale scholars were interested in my project and helped me by sending me their research, or by patiently answering my questions.

FTNH: Were there any sorts of clues in the stories Dortchen told the Grimms to get you started or direct your digging?

Page from the author notebook for The Wild Girl
photo courtesy of Kate Forsyth
Kate: Absolutely! I used her stories as a sort of template to help me create a narrative structure. Dortchen told Wilhelm such well-known tales as Hansel & Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin, The Elves and the Shoemaker, Six Swans, The Frog King ... and lesser known tales such as Sweetheart Roland, The Singing, Springing Lark (a beautiful variant on the Beauty & the Beast tale with a much more interesting and active heroine), Fitcher's Bird, The Singing Bone, and All-Kinds-of-Fur. I chose seven of her tales as the framework for my novel, and I looked to the inner meaning and motifs of the tale to give me some kind of glimpse into her inner world. Probably the most devastating of these tales, in what it might imply for Dortchen's life, is that of All-Kinds-of-Fur. It was the last tale Dortchen told Wilhelm before the first collection of tales was sent to the printers (she told it on October 9th, 1812 and the book was released in December of the same year). He wrote it down and sent it in haste, and so it is very close to the oral version he heard from her. It’s a story of a girl whose father wants to marry her, and who will not be thwarted in his desire. She asks for all kinds of impossible tasks to be undertaken to try and delay him, including a coat made from the skin of every living creature in the kingdom. Her father does not hesitate to kill and flay all the creatures and presents the coat of all-kinds-of-fur to her. She uses it to disguise herself and escape, only to be caught by another king who abuses and mistreats her ... then marries her in the end. There's a lot of violence as well as implied incest in the original version of All-Kinds-of-Fur.  When Wilhelm was preparing for the second edition of the tales, he rewrote the story to make it quite clear that the king who marries her at the end of the story is not the king, her father - something which was not at all clear in the original oral story, which had a terrible breathlessness and intensity to it.
"The Brothers Grimm at the Fairy Tale Ladys" oil on Canvas, by Louis Katzenstein
[Dorothea Viehmann telling tales to the Grimm brothers, with her charges (possibly the Wild family) present]
FTNH: I have to admit I thought Bitter Greens was amazing (and congratulations on your ALA award!) but The Wild Girl is, hands down, my favorite book you’ve written to date - for so many reasons. My most urgent - and possibly most selfish - question is: is there any chance at all you’ll release an annotated version?  I feel like there are so many little pieces of information the story didn’t have the room to give us (because it was Dortchen’s personal story after all) and there are so many side-notes you make reference to in your author’s notes and interviews, that I’d love to be able to touch on those in context as I re-read, so… please? (With cornflowers on top?*)
*If you don't know what this is in reference to, you'll have to read the book and find out... ;)

Kate: What a lovely idea! I'd love to do it one day. I need someone to do their doctorate on it! Or for it to be such an astounding international bestseller that people are hungry to know more and demand someone published such a thing.  We could do it with all the beautiful Grimm illustrations ... and Dortchen's recipes (some of the meals in the book actually come from Dortchen's own recipe book, she was meant to be an amazing cook!) ... and with photographs** of my handwritten notebooks...

FTNH: I love the way the tales are constant touchstones throughout the book. There are quotes from tales in different sections, you allude to others in the titles of chapters, such as “Weaving Nettles”, “Girl in Ashes”, and “The Skin of Wild Beasts”. How and when in your writing process did you go about choosing which went where?

Page from the author notebook for The Wild Girl
photo courtesy of Kate Forsyth
Kate: It was an ongoing process! As I said earlier, one of the first things I did was work out (very slowly and with a great deal of difficulty) when Dortchen had told her tales and laid them out in chronological order. Then I compared that timeline to my greater historical timeline, and what I knew about the Grimm and Wild families. I examined each story for its motifs and meanings, and then thought about how I could use it within the novel. Hansel and Gretel, the tale of unloved and abandoned children ... Six Swans, a story about a girl who must remain mute ... Fitcher's Bird, about a girl who tries to save her sisters ... The Singing Bone, a story about rivalry between brothers .... Sweetheart Roland, a tale in which a man forgets his true love and almost marries another ... Once I began, it was surprisingly easy.

FTNH: You mention in your notes that there’s a veiled reference to Dortchen as a ‘wild deer’ in the final version of “All-Kinds-Of-Fur”. Could you explain how you discovered this and how Dortchen is this “wild” girl?

Lowenburg Castle (Lion's Castle), Kassel, Germany
Brothers Grimm statue, Kassel, Germany

Kate: Yes, that was a wonderful discovery. So romantic! It was not my discovery as such. One of my key texts was an essay on All-Kinds-of-Fur  by the Danish fairy tale scholar Cay Dollerup, in which he tells the anecdote of how Dortchen told Wilhelm the tale and he rushed it off to the printers so it could be included in the first collection. Dr. Dollerup then examines the editorial changes made by Wilhelm in the second edition, which tone down the violence a great deal and make clear the two kings are not the same man. He notes that - in the scene when the second king finds (and rescues) the poor hunted princess in her coat of all-kinds-of-fur - Wilhelm capitalised the W in the phrase “seht doch, was dort für ein Wild sich versteckt hat” which roughly translates to mean, 'what Wild creature is hiding here?' (Sometimes translated as Wild thing or Wild deer). By capitalising the W in wild, Wilhelm was, I believe, making a clear reference to the woman who would later become his wife. It also links Dortchen very strongly to the character of the hunted princess of the tale.  As a novelist, I am always interested in why things happen, why people do what they do. It's the psychological motivations of people that interest me. So, of course,  once I realised that Wilhelm had rewritten All-Kinds-of-Fur so extensively and with such clear intent to remove the ugly incestuous relationship in it - and that he had capitalised the W in the word wild - well, I wanted to know why.  I am very interested in the therapeutic use of fairy tales and this particular tale is often used to help victims of father-daughter incest. The idea is that the first oral tale is incest fulfilled, the second edited tale is incest averted. By making the changes that he did, Wilhelm changed the whole meaning of the tale. One of the redemptive powers of storytelling is the ability it gives us to control our destiny. We choose the tale that we tell about ourselves. By changing the story to that of a girl who escapes the shadow of her father and finds love elsewhere, Wilhelm was - I believe - giving Dortchen a kind of gift, a chance to rewrite her own story with a happy ending. That seemed unbelievably beautiful and powerful and romantic to me, and so it became a central part of the novel.
Page from the author notebook for The Wild Girl - photo courtesy of Kate Forsyth
FTNH: There are many references through The Wild Girl to the tales Sweetheart Roland and All-Kinds-Of-Fur, in particular. How did you decide these stories were so important to Dortchen’s personal story? 

Close-up of Dortchen Wild telling
Wilhelm Grimm fairy tales by Billerantik
Kate: While I was planning and researching THE WILD GIRL, I was very struck by the uncanny similarities between her life and that of the heroines of the stories she told. That is one reason why I chose to use her tales as intertexts. Sweetheart Roland, for example, is a story about a young woman who escapes a witch by turning her own magic against her, only to have her sweetheart forget her. The girl discovers her sweetheart is to marry another, and goes to the wedding where she sings so sweetly the unfaithful bridegroom remembers her and returns to her. This seemed to reflect what had happened in Dortchen and Wilhelm's relationship, in which he had for a period of time seemed likely to marry another.

FTNH: Of all the other tales that Dortchen told Wilhelm, which do you feel also had particular personal meaning to her?

Portrait of Wilhelm by brother & artist
Ludwig Emil Grimm
who illustrated an early version of
Household Tales (1819)
Kate: One of my all-time favourite fairy tales is Six Swans, and I was so pleased when I learned it had been one of Dortchen's tales. It is a story about a young woman who must be mute for six years, while she weaves shirts from nettles for her brothers, who have all been transformed into swans. The level of silent suffering of the heroine is extraordinary - it is a story of such sacrifice and redemption - and I felt it resonated strongly with Dortchen's story. She was forbidden to see the man she loved, she was expected to sacrifice herself to nurse her sick parents and then the children of her dead sister, she was silenced by the autocratic will of her father and indeed by the strict patriarchal society in which she lived, she had to labour in the garden and the house and the apothecary (slashing nettles, sewing clothes, mixing potions), she keeps mute about her own needs and desires to such an extent that she has been long forgotten...
FTNH: Finally - I have no doubt this book must have been personally difficult to write and experience on many levels, as well as to have a different perspective on tales, even those you already knew well. How has researching and writing this book changed your perspective on fairy tale storytelling, writing (down) and rewriting?

Graves of the Brothers Grimm
in the St Matthaus Kirchhof Cemetery
in Schöneberg, Berlin -photo by Thorleif Wiik
Kate: The Wild Girl was the most difficult book I have ever written, for a multitude of reasons. First, the research was so time-consuming and painstaking, and I had to be very patient and dogged in my approach which is not perhaps natural to me (I'm not known for my patience!). Secondly, I lived within Dortchen's skin for a very long time and so I suffered everything she suffered. As I began to discover things that seemed more and more likely to have happened to her, I felt a growing sense of dread. I wanted to try and save her, but then I had to be true to the story that was revealing itself to me. I had a crisis of faith. Did I have the right to imagine someone else's life? What if I was wrong? In the end, I had to choose - I had to tell the story that seemed true to me. But it was an agonising decision, because these were real people I was writing about and I did not know the real facts ... nobody did. I clung to Virginia Woolf's saying that fiction can be more true than fact, and just did the very best I could do, telling the emotional truth as I saw it. 

Kassel, Grimms statue in Winter
Many of the dreams I describe in the book are the nightmares I myself had to endure and so the book was a form of exorcism for me as well. 

And technically it was a difficult book to write. The action covers twenty years of one woman's life, and she was a simple apothecary's daughter, not very well-educated, that lived through a time of war and famine and crushing poverty. Her love affair is dragged out over more than a decade (a long time to sustain sexual tension!) and so I had to find other ways to create a book full of suspense. I felt it very important to be true to the known facts of her life, but, oh, how I wished she and Wilhelm had married ten years earlier! The book took me a lot longer to write than I had expected, and so I had my publishers waiting for it which added to my burden. 

Nonetheless, I loved it all. It was such an extraordinary journey of discovery for me, and I loved learning so much about more about the history and meaning of the fairy tales I had always loved. I'm very glad that so many people have come to love my Wild Girl as much as I do!
Page from the author notebook for The Wild Girl - photo courtesy of Kate Forsyth
Thank you again for this wonderful - and super in-depth! - interview today Kate! 

We know we used up our entire question quota and greatly appreciate you taking the time to talk to us and letting us peek behind the pages.

We wish you every success in making Dortchen a household name, and in having your own tales continue to become known “throughout many lands”.

And that concludes our very special interview for today.
(I have my fingers crossed for the annotated version so we can bring her back to talk even more...)
As a wonderful bonus, Kate has generously sent some photos from the pages of her notebooks for THE WILD GIRL that I have scattered throughout the interview text! (We are so lucky!) If you haven't already, click on them to see the pages full size and check out her research notes - seriously awesome stuff.

Extra awesome bonus:
TOMORROW, we are launching a GIVEAWAY for your very own copy of
(US only due to International shipping, very sorry non-US folks! We hope we have something to offer you soon.)
"Dortchen Wild fell in love with Wilhelm Grimm the first time she saw him.

Growing up in the small German kingdom of Hessen-Cassel in early Nineteenth century, Dortchen Wild is irresistibly drawn to the boy next door, the young and handsome fairy tale scholar Wilhelm Grimm. 

It is a time of War, tyranny and terror. Napoleon Bonaparte wants to conquer all of Europe, and Hessen-Cassel is one of the first kingdoms to fall. Forced to live under oppressive French rule, the Grimm brothers decide to save old tales that had once been told by the firesides of houses grand and small all over the land.

Dortchen knows many beautiful old stories, such as 'Hansel and Gretel', 'The Frog King' and 'Six Swans'. As she tells them to Wilhelm, their love blossoms. Yet the Grimm family is desperately poor, and Dortchen's father has other plans for his daughter. Marriage is an impossible dream.

Dortchen can only hope that happy endings are not just the stuff of fairy tales."
We'll also be posting our Once Upon A Blog official reviewer, Christie Pang's review of The Wild Girl so you can get a different perspective from my personal one on the book, along with all the details on how to enter our giveaway. 
Tune in tomorrow!


  1. I am SO excited for this book, and everything I read about it makes me more excited! I just love that Forsyth's topics are thoroughly researched. Thanks for this interview!

  2. Just beautiful! Can't wait to read it.

  3. Wow! I was excited to read this when I first heard about it, but this interview makes me even more so! In the mean time, I plan to look up this article about All-Kinds-of-Fur. The difference in the first edition text and subsequent versions has long obsessed me, so I want to find out more.

  4. Great interview! I read the Wild Girl when it first came out in Australia. This interview is fascinating and makes me appreciate the tale even more. I think I shall have to re read it!