Most of my writer friends are going to break up with me after they read this, and I’ll probably deserve it. Seriously, who gets to have dinner with not just one, but two, of their favourite authors, in England, on a golden autumn evening, in a seventeenth-century-bloody-manor house?
And I wasn’t alone, but even so, the shame of it still eats away at me every time I think of it. What did you do, I wonder, to deserve that? How the bloody hell did you end up there?
I suppose it could have something to do with Juliet’s Daughter of the Forest. I was 19, in my first or second year at uni studying creative writing and English lit. It wasn’t going that well. English Lit was, to be frank, boring me silly, and I was struggling to find my creative writing style: my tutors wanted me to write short stories, and I couldn’t (and still can’t) write one to save my life. I wanted to write novels, probably fantasy or historical ones, and the only person in the classroom who was excited about that was me. (Note: don’t feel too sorry for me. I would eventually have two wonderful tutors who loved my fantasy and historical fiction, and were more than happy to mark excerpts from longer pieces. Huzzah!)
But that came later. At this point, I was still feeling lost and uncertain about what I wanted to write. Then, one magical afternoon, I happened upon a copy of Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier. It was a new book, then, a first edition, and it looked like this:
Dark Ages Ireland, the blurb reported. Historical fantasy (there is such a thing?) A re-telling of an Irish fairy tale… (Good God, yes!) I snatched up a copy, managed to pay for it, and scurried home like Gollum with the Precious. And there, good people, I consumed that book. Breathed it like air, taking great, deep gulps, until my mind and my heart and my soul were soaring, and I was giddy with hope and possibility. This is the kind of story I want to write, my nineteen-year-old self proclaimed. This is it.
Fast forward a decade or so, and you’ll find me on the eve of my thirtieth birthday. Life had somehow got in the way of writing – I had gotten married, gone back to uni, had two children, and started working as a librarian. I was happy. I was busy. I was also wildly disconnected from my creative self. And as my thirtieth birthday neared, I began to ponder the meaning of my life. (I think a lot of us do). I began to think about the notebooks I’d stuffed into a drawer and forgotten, and the half-started writing projects sitting dejectedly on my hard drive, and the pages of poetry I used to scrawl. I’m going to write again, I decided. The only question was, what?
Cue Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth. As I mentioned I was a librarian by then, happily working away in a busy public library. Bitter Greens came into my life via a colleague: ‘I read this and thought of you. You might like it?’ She was right. I was instantly intrigued. For a start, it looked like this:
So pretty! But to be honest, it was not just the book’s good looks that appealed. Here was a novel that promised everything I looked for in a book: history, fantasy, fairy tales. A love story. A witch. Dark magic. Loss. Redemption. It was a big book, fat with promise. A book you could lose yourself in.
I promptly did, and discovered the second of the two books that would most shape me as both a reader, and a writer. This is the kind of story I want to write, my thirty-year-old-self proclaimed. This is it.
And so, with the addition of the focus and wisdom the years between 19 and 30 had gifted me, I set out to learn how. Turns out that was easier than I expected- after a quick Google I discovered that Kate Forsyth regularly taught writing courses in Sydney – still does, in fact- and I promptly booked myself in, feeling a bit like a stalker but eager to learn from her, nonetheless. Kate is a wonderful teacher and after that first class, I took another. Which eventually led to a writing retreat with her in England…
And dinner in Buckland Manor with both Kate and Juliet Marillier, who had come along as Kate’s ‘Mystery Guest’.
When you look at it like that, it’s not really that surprising that I ended up at a very old English dinner table with two of my favourite writers. You could even say the journey there began when I was nineteen, and I picked up Daughter of the Forest, the first fairy tale re-telling for adults I ever read. Even so, I still think about it and pinch myself.
You can pinch me too, if it makes you feel better.
By the way…are we still friends?