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Are folktales the remains of glamours (magick) and ghosts, or, are they nuggets of gritty realism worn smooth with the telling and passing on?

Kate Forsyth (Australia), Eowyn Ivey (Alaska) and Joanne Harris (UK) gathered at the recent Brisbane Writers Festival. Folktales have inspired each of the writers to explore the enchantments in “just being human”.

Kate’s newest book Bitter Greens interleaves the scandalous life of French author, Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, with her retelling of Giambattista Basile’s ‘Petrosinella’ (little Parsley), the first published Rapunzel tale.

Mademoiselle de la Force, a cousin of King Louis XIV, lived at Versailles until banished to a convent for her unconventional behaviour. Her popularity at the Court’s fairytale salons were the precursor for her book of fairytales. The mercy shown to the Prince (Persinette’s tears heal his wounded eyes) and the witch were her own plea to King Louis for mercy.

Kate says, “Books are the one true magic…and words are so powerful they can change the world.”

Joanne responds, “Magic is in change, in the power of the people to make change.” Our individual gifts of being human are the enchantment whether it is cooking (domestic change) or personal charm (glamour). “Broomsticks and spells can be quite dull,” she says.

She confessed that as a small child she dreamt her mother was taken by a witch and would return to see her one day a year – or they would never speak again. Thus, folk and fairy tales deal with life – prickly relationships, fear of abandonment, resistance against control – but the parents need to be removed (in the tale) in order for children to come into their own.

In Peaches for Monsieur le Cure Vianne returns to the town of Lansquenet, the setting of Chocolat, where she explores the tensions between the French-Catholic community and the newly arrived Moroccan Muslims. The book became contemporary as France debated the banning of the niqab (Islamic veil). How can we live in a multicultural world without understanding?

Joanne concludes, “Stories came from place (first), and people came from place. ‘Choosing’ a location is alien to me. Place is the spine of it – that’s its identity.”

First-time author Eowyn Ivey changed careers – from journalist to bookseller. One day, she was transfixed by a copy of Arthur Ransome’s The Snow Child, a Russian folktale. Acknowledging the ‘ethereal notion of fairytales’, she was keen to explore the grittiness of daily life and the self-sufficient lifestyles they often represent. Eowyn says it was a lot of fun to put in her passion for Alaska.

The Snow Child traverses the pathways of change: overcoming the loss of one child and gaining the trust of another; an evolving relationship with place and with each other as the couple forge their new life in Alaska’s 1920s wilderness; and the mystery of snowflakes – beautiful, individual, fleeting.

When asked for her thoughts on “magic realism”, Joanne returned, “What does that mean?” … Magic is real; the everyday is magic.

Story begets story. Pass it on with truth, honour, respect.

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