Interview with Kell Woods (AFTER THE FOREST)
Kell Woods is an Australian historical fantasy author. She lives near the sea with her husband, two sons, and the most beautiful black cat in the realm.
Kell studied English literature, creative writing and librarianship, so she could always be surrounded by stories. She has worked in libraries and museums for the past thirteen years, all the while writing about made-up (and not so made-up) places, people and things you might remember from the fairy tales you read as a child.
Welcome to the Hive, Kell. Congratulations on your debut novel, After the Forest. Can you tell our readers all about it? What can they expect?
Thank you for having me! After the Forest is a historical fantasy for adults set in the seventeenth century Black Forest. It picks up the Hansel & Gretel fairy tale fifteen years after the story ended. Both Hans and Greta are struggling – the brutal Thirty Years’ War has just come to an end, and their childhood experience with the witch in the forest still haunts them. Hans is selfish and reckless, and Greta supports them both by selling her famous – and deliciously addictive – gingerbread, which she bakes with the help of the grimoire she took from the witch’s house years before. However, in a village full of superstition, Greta’s red hair and her intoxicating gingerbread are a source of suspicion and gossip. When dark magic and wild beasts return to the woods, things get even worse. Greta discovers that her own power – magic she is still trying to understand – may be the only thing that can save her.
If it doesn’t kill her first.
Readers can expect history, fairytales, magic and witchery, as well as a love story and a good dash of darkness.
Just for fun, can you pitch your book using Aussie slang?
So this red-headed sheila named Greta and her bludger brother Hans had a bloody terrible experience in the bush when they were ankle biters. Their old man took them out to woop woop and shot through, and some cranky old bag nicked off with them and threw them in the clink. No worries, though. Greta burned the old girl on her own barby and she and Hans bailed.
These days Greta makes rip snorting gingerbread with the old bag’s magic book but even so she’s still doing it tough. The galahs in her village won’t give her a fair go because she’s a ginger, and things are looking a bit iffy. Greta might have to put in some hard yakka to save herself – if she doesn’t end up cactus first.
What drew you to writing about Hansel and Gretel from this perspective?
I really love fairy tale retellings set in real places and times. Books like Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier and Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth. Both those authors took fairy tales and fleshed them out, made them whole, in a completely captivating way. I think they were so good because they moved the fairy tale from a land of vague fantasy (somewhere far far away) to one that is more familiar. So when I started thinking about that – about making the fairy tale real – I began to ask myself questions about Hansel and Gretel. What would they be like as adults? Would their childhood experiences have changed them?
Imagine two kids who have recently lost their mother. Then, they’re abandoned in the woods by their father. They roam the forest for three days before a terrifying witch abducts them, locking Hansel up and making it clear that she intends to eat him. To save her brother, Gretel pushes the witch into her own oven, killing her.
This is some seriously dark stuff. And the more I thought about it, the more I wondered how the woodcutter could bring himself to abandon his children. And why the witch chose Hansel, not Gretel, for dinner. And how Gretel would have felt after that push. And whether any of them would have really been capable of living happily ever after.
Can you give us further insight into their personalities? How are Hansel and Gretel portrayed?
So both siblings are in their twenties now, and both carry the scars of what they endured as children in very different ways. Hans is reckless and selfish. He drinks too much, he slacks off at work, he gambles himself into terrible debt.
Greta keeps to herself. She spends a lot of time in the woods, or baking her famously addictive gingerbread, which she sells to keep herself and Hans afloat. However, the villagers who adore her baking are also a superstitious lot, and Greta’s red hair, and her childhood encounter with the witch and her oven, are sources of ever-growing suspicion and gossip.
You’ve given Gretel magic powers?
Yes. I couldn’t get past the fact that the witch treated the children so differently – Hansel was meant for fattening and eating, and Gretel was allowed to move around the house and help with the chores. This could just be down to their genders, I admit – housekeeping was traditionally considered ‘women’s work’ – but it was also an opportunity to give Greta something more. Also, at this time in what is present-day Germany witch hunts were rife. Two of the biggest witch trials in German history, Bamburg and Würzburg, happened during the Thirty Years’ War. It made sense to add a little magic and witchery to the story.
Tell us a little something about your writing process – do you have a certain method? Do you find music helps? Give us a glimpse into your world!
Sure. I do a lot of thinking, planning, researching and scribbling in notebooks before I start writing. I have the entire book sketched out – I think of it as the book’s skeleton – before I sit down and start fleshing out the first draft. I know how the book ends, and what happens in the middle, but there is still a lot more thinking and scribbling to do as I move my characters from point to point. Research helps with that, too – some really weird stuff happened in the past, the kind of stuff you couldn’t make up. I set timers and use spreadsheets to keep myself accountable. And I always write to music, film scores mostly. I can’t think of a faster way to get back into the mood of an unfinished scene.
Speaking of worlds, what kind of world is your story set in? Is it cosy, dark or maybe a blend of both?
I think it’s a blend of both. Angela Slatter, one of my favourite writers, described After the Forest as being ‘as sweet as gingerbread and as dark as heart’s blood’. It has a certain domestic cosiness, but also some gory parts as well. Just like a fairy tale!
If you could be transported into any fairy tale, which would it be and why?
Hmmm, maybe ‘The Twelve Dancing Princesses’? There’s something appealing about sneaking out with your sisters at night and flitting through the forest until you come to an enchanted underground castle where you dance for so long you wear your shoes out. That sounds fun. (I imagine the enchanted castle would have some pretty enchanting canapés, too.)
We always appreciate a beautiful book cover! How involved in the process were you?
I loved this part of the process so much! Because After the Forest is publishing simultaneously with three different publishers (Tor in the US, Titan Books in the UK and Harper Voyager in Australia/New Zealand) and they all decided to have different covers, I got to go through it three times. I got more of a say than I expected, to be honest – I was under the impression that an author’s opinion wouldn’t matter but that wasn’t the case at all. I got to see the early roughs from designers and be part of the discussion. For example, Greta’s fox mask on the US cover was my idea. Both the US and Australian/New Zealand covers were designed by Andrew Davis, so it was also very special to get to see him work his magic not once, but twice.
Was there a particular aesthetic you hoped the artist would portray?
I hoped for forest elements, botanicals and some spectacular red hair, which I definitely got.
Do you have any other fairy tales you’re particularly fond of? Or that you’d write about?
I have a soft spot for Red Riding Hood. The older versions are so scary and dark. And I love The Six Swans. I could never write about that, though, as Juliet Marillier has already done it so perfectly in Daughter of the Forest.
Can you tell us anything about any upcoming projects? Or can you tell us a few teasers for your sequel?
I’m working on my second novel at the moment. If all goes to plan it should be publishing in late 2024. I can’t say too much about it, but I can tell you that it’s a standalone novel that’s based on another well-known fairytale that features a character who wishes she had legs instead of a shiny tail.
Finally, what is the one thing you hope readers take away from your writing?
I love reading books that I can sink completely into and escape in. So I hope readers feel as though they’ve fallen into a fairy tale.
Thank you so much for joining us!
Thank you so much for having me on the Fantasy Hive!
After the Forest is due for release in the UK on 3rd October. You can pre-order your copy on Bookshop.org