Kell Woods is the debut author of After the Forest, a dark fantasy inspired by the tales of the Brothers Grimm. Her novel starts after the happy end of the story as we know it, and hones in on the trauma that would arise from it. We loved After the Forest – see our review here – and are very excited that we got to speak to Kell to celebrate the release.
[KW] I was interested in delving into a fairy tale and turning it inside out – exposing the red lining, you could say. The tale of Hansel and Gretel is a familiar one for most of us, but I wanted to explore what things might have been like if Hansel and Gretel were real people, in a real place and time. What kind of adults would they be? What would their lives be like?
Picture two children who have recently lost their mother. Shortly after, their father remarries and then, under pressure from his new wife, abandons them in the woods. They’re alone and lost in the forest for three days before they’re abducted by a cannibalistic witch. To save her brother’s life and her own, Gretel pushes the witch into her own oven, killing her.
This is some seriously grim stuff. And the more I thought about it, the more I wondered how the woodcutter could have brought 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.
[GdM] I found that After the Forest doesn’t only reference fairy tales, but is truly in conversation with them, having similar narrative structures. What do you think makes these stories so distinctive and enthralling to readers?
[KW] Fairy tales are so old and have been told by so many different people over the centuries that they seem almost timeless. ‘Once upon a time.’ There’s something about those four familiar little words that instantly transports us out of the real world and into another. It is the world of our childhoods, where anything is possible – magic and fantastical creatures and danger. These stories are very dark and often strange and brutal, especially the older versions. But they are filled with beauty, too. I think it’s this combination of beauty, brutality and agelessness that calls us back to them again and again.
[GdM] If you had to pick, what story from the Brothers Grimm’s collection is your favourite and why?
[KW] I have to say Snow White. That iconic poisoned apple gets me every time. It’s so creepy and so dark.
[GdM] What do you think makes a great retelling?
[KW] I think a good re-telling is one that stays true to the original – hits all the familiar beats we know, love and expect – but adds a new depth. Two of my favourites are Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth and Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier. Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan builds a new story around selkie lore – it’s wonderful, too.
[GdM] You are being published by three different publishers in three territories. What has that experience been like, and what are some of the differences you’ve experienced?
[KW] It’s been incredibly exciting, and at the same time intensely scary. I have three wonderful teams looking after the book and me, which is great. The timezone differences can be challenging, but other than that things have gone smoothly. The most obvious difference was the book’s covers. Each territory wanted something different and it was wonderful to see three different versions of the cover come to life. Funnily enough Andrew Davis, a UK designer, designed both the US and the AU/NZ covers.
[Editor’s note: see the three very different covers side-by-side]
[GdM] After the Forest is a fantasy novel set in a real-world historical setting. What sort of research did you do, and what has maybe surprised you within that?
[KW] I did a lot of research on life in Early Modern Germany. Clothing, food, daily life, things like that. I tried to make the setting as accurate and detailed as possible. I went to the Black Forest too, which was amazing. Gorgeous little villages with half-timbered houses set in valleys with rivers running through them, surrounded by steep, forested mountains. I went to a bear and wolf sanctuary, and out into the woods with a forest guide. I travelled alone with a backpack and a truly appalling grasp on the German language – got lost, missed buses, all the usual stumblings – but I picked up so many details I couldn’t have gotten from books and the internet alone.
[GdM] Let’s talk villains. You’ve got a great villainess in After the Forest. Without going into spoilers, what makes a great villain for you?
[KW] In one word? Depth. I love villains that have good reasons for doing what they’re doing. Or who are simply likeable, you know? Humour goes a long way. It all comes down to choices, I think. Humans make good choices and bad choices all the time – they’re rarely truly good or truly evil.
[GdM] One of the core themes I kept coming across in After the Forest was powerlessness in its many forms – from Hans’ gambling problem, to Greta’s social role, to many, many others. Was this threaded through the story intentionally?
[KW] I don’t think so. I feel like maybe the strictures of the time might have helped shape it that way. Almost every character in the book is living with some kind of trauma – I was intentional about that, so perhaps there is a connection there.
[GdM] What books or other media have been filling your creative well recently?
[KW] Lots of different things. I’m re-reading The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly so I can read his new one, The Land of Lost Things. I love it! Empire of the Vampire by Jay Kristoff knocked my socks off, it was so good and so consuming. I couldn’t put it down. I listen to a lot of music, film scores mostly, so I always have something beautiful playing. I loved Frances O’Connor’s movie Emily, too. So wild and beautiful. You gotta keep filling that well!
[GdM] Can you tell us anything about what you’re working on next?
[KW] After the Forest is the first of a two-book deal so I’m about to get into editing the second book. It’s early days so I can’t say much, but I can say that it’s a standalone novel that re-tells another well-known fairy tale – one that’s set under the sea.