It’s always wonderful when fellow creators working in other art forms are inspired by your work, so I was delighted when French Fairy Tales, my book with the wonderful illustrator Lorena Carrington (Serenity Press 2020), became the inspiration for talented musician and composer Reilly McCarron’s new album, Il était une fois (once upon a time in French). The album will be released in April by Serenity Press, and it features Reilly’s haunting compositions and soundscapes, brief readings in French translation by Cathy Abadie of snippets from my own retellings of the stories, and evocative singing by Cathy of the beautiful old song, A la claire fontaine. It’s amazing, actually, to hear Cathy’s translation of my retellings of the tales, because I created the English translations directly from the French originals, and now they’ve cycled back into French, but using my words!
You can read more about the album in this post by fellow fairy tale aficionado Louisa John-Krol, and watch a gorgeous trailer for the album below.
Absolutely delighted with the fantastic review by the wonderful writer Carmel Bird of French Fairy Tales, my book with Lorena Carrington. The review was published today in the Weekend Australian Review, and it’s the kind that every creator dreams of getting…really made my day!
I was thrilled when Sophie sent me the story The Magic Gifts, as it included the Herensuge, a mythical dragon from the Basque region. It often appears with seven heads (though not always), so I was somewhat relieved to see that Sophie had given hers just the one!
Dragons are so much fun to create, and I wanted our Herensuge to be huge and terrifying, but also ephemeral. Something as dangerous and smoke and fire, but like them, just as likely to dissipate into the air.
When thinking about this blog post, I decided it would be a good time to show you how I tweak photographs of ‘ordinary’ things into the magical forms I need. Happily I had already photographed the flames of a small bonfire we had in our back yard a few years ago. You can see below how I darkened the background to separate the flames. I do this mostly by exposure and shadow/highlight changes in Photoshop RAW, then by painting out any remaining stubborn areas of background. Here is the final plume of fire, and the original photo it came from:
Similarly, the ‘smoke’ is lifted out from its background. The difference being that the ‘smoke’ is actually steam. I find it easier to get interesting shapes in a studio setting, and less likely to set off the fire alarm! Below, you can see the plume of steam/smoke ready to use in an illustration, and next to it, the original photo. The saucepan of water is bubbling away on a portable cooktop, and it’s all lit from behind to make the steam glow.
I tend to edit the photos I need as I go, fixing and adding them to the illustration as I got. Here’s a brief snippet of the Herensuge coming together.
And here he is in all his glory!
Bonus behind-the-scenes detail: The green sheep-covered hill was actually photographed in Ireland, not France (shh!), so I toned down the lurid Irish green grass a little… Until Sophie told me that the Basque region in France is actually just as emerald green as Ireland. So I bumped up the vibrance again! (And removed the blue smit marks from all the sheep…)
French Fairy Tales was launched online yesterday evening–it was such a lovely launch, enjoyed it so much! Here below is a link to the launch video(the event was livestreamed). And now the book is well and truly out in the world! You can buy it as a print book here, or as a flipbook(like an ebook, only better!) here.
The wonderful Sue Lawson interviewed me for her fabulous Portable Magic video series recently, and though it’s not specifically about fairy tales, I thought readers might be interested to hear more about my background, writing process, etc. Here it is!
I’ve made a video presentation featuring slides and narration, to talk about the inspirations and sources behind my retellings in French Fairy Tales. These include personal and family connections, as well as information about the tales themselves. Hope you enjoy!
And by the way, on November 7, I’m running an online two-hour workshop on how to retell fairy tales, and how to use them in your fiction: you can check it out here.
I wrote, in my first post for this blog, a little about my stay in the town of Azay-le-Rideau to photograph the chateau there for French Fairy Tales. I shared a detail from an illustration for Beauty and the Beast, and described collecting leaves and bits of plants to create the Beast himself, so I thought today I’d show you a little more of the architecture of the illustration, and share it in full.
The main room in which it’s set, is actually an in-between space. Almost a horizontal hallway between rooms, with an arched window at either end.
The chandelier hangs in the dining hall off the kitchen, a rather grand fixture for a sparse looking room. One assumes it was once full of warmth and people, and a dog or two under a much larger table.
The painting on the left was important for me to include. It depicts a stag, its antlers mirrored with Beast’s, being brought down by hunters and their dogs, reflecting the vilification wrought upon the Beast. Or perhaps, while he may be a powerful creature, he can be brought down by love….
And any Disney fan will know why I had to include the clock and gold candlesticks on that mantelpiece! They actually sit in the formal dining room, opposite the painting of the stag.
I would have liked to have included an illustration of Beauty and the Beast feasting at the very dining table at Azay, but it felt too bright with that white cloth; the chairs too modern.
And if you look closely you’ll see these little beasts holding up the ceiling’s stone arches. One thing I loved about the Azay-le-Rideau, where Sophie set the tale, is that it’s absolutely riddled with beasts large and small: carved into stone, woven into tapestries, painted above fireplaces… It is truly a fairy tale castle populated with wild creatures.
So, by weaving together the images above, along with a few secret ingredients, I created the scene in which Beauty and Beast meet and come to a wary agreement:
(Quote text, from the story.)
…the Beast appeared, and she screamed. Just once, and just because his appearance was so sudden, and because all her father’s descriptions of the Beast had not quite prepared her for the living breathing reality who now stood beside her. But she soon recovered herself, and while her father scrambled to his feet, muttering frightened greetings, she walked to the Beast with a firm step, and keeping her eyes on his face, but not saying a word, she curtseyed gracefully.
The Beast seemed pleased by this gesture. ‘Good evening, Beauty,’ he said in his deep, harsh voice. Not expressing any surprise that he knew her name, Beauty replied, ‘Good evening Beast,’ not adding a ‘sir’ or ‘lord’ because her father had told her the Beast did not like titles.
‘Have you come here of your own free will and will you consent to stay?’ the Beast asked.
‘I have and I do,’ she answered.
He looked at her with his tiger’s eyes narrowed. ‘What will become of you, do you think?’
Today I’m going to talk a little about an illustration I did for Puss in Boots. While in France (exactly a year ago, as I write this) I spent much of my time in various Chateaus. The first I visited was Chateau d’Oiron. After staggering off the plane into Charles de Gaulle airport, I caught a train to Poitiers and fell into the care of our friends Jim and Yvonne. They bundled my hiking pack into their hire car, took me out for lunch and a fortifying glass of wine, then endeavoured to keep me awake for the rest of the day. It turns out the best cure for jet lag is grandeur. After 30 wakeful hours of travelling, I trailed around the rooms of Chateau d’Oiron, camera in hand, babbling deliriously, and in true Australian-in-Europe form, ‘It’s so old!’… ‘It’s so beautiful!’ Thankfully they brought me back the next day so I could photograph it properly.
Chateau d’Oiron was built in the 15th Century, and to my (at that point slightly feverish) delight, served as the inspiration for the castle in Charles Perrault’s version of Puss in Boots. Claude Gouffier, who was born and died at Chateau d’Oiron, served as the model for his “Marquis de Carabas”. It felt too good to be true. I photographed vaulted stone ceilings and gilded walls with both Sophie’s and Perrault’s versions in mind.
The final Chateau I visited in France was Chateau de Saché, now a museum dedicated to the writer Honoré de Balzac. Sophie’s version of Puss in Boots is set in a homely manor house in Perigold, similar in size and style to Saché, so it’s here that I found myself sitting on a wooden bench, eating a stolen apple, and thinking of her Marquis de Carabas.
At home, weeks later, I pulled together the stone arches from Chateau d’Oiron and the stairs from Chateau de Saché. The checkered floor came from Chateau Chenonceau, and the carved wooden chest from Chateau Azay-le-Rideau. The cat belongs to a friend, and the mouse is a stuffed shrew in disguise (shh) from Melbourne Museum. The boots and hat are my own. It really is an amalgam of places, like most of my illustrations, but it holds – I hope – the spirit of both Sophie’s and Perrault’s Puss in Boots.
In the next few posts about French Fairy Tales, I’ll be writing a bit about some of the classic French fairytale-tellers who either wrote down, in their own words, stories they collected from anonymous folk sources; or who created new literary fairy tales using some elements borrowed from older stories.
France has had a long history of the writing-down of fairy tales: from at least the late seventeenth century onwards, French writers have interested themselves in le conte de fées, taking it from its origins in folklore and anonymous storytellers, and transforming it in the process into a huge literary phenomenon. In later posts I will write about some of the individual original writers of the tales I’ve retold, but in this post I want to briefly introduce an extraordinary late eighteenth-century series of books which collected together hundreds of these literary fairy tales from the previous 100 years as well as providing potted biographies of all their writers (more than forty in all). I’m speaking here about Le Cabinet des fées, which was compiled in 41 volumes by writer and editor Charles-Joseph Mayer (1751-1825), and published between 1785 and 1789. It is a hugely important series as it not only helped to preserve many of the classic tales abut also spark continued interest in them not only in France but across the world, in the process inspiring many other collectors and writers of fairy tales well into the ninteenth century and beyond.
Entry on Charles Perrault
I am fortunate enough to own one of the volumes from Le cabinet–volume 37, which is the one contained the potted biographies of the writers. It’s in an edition from 1786 which is pretty battered but whose pages are still eminently readable. It was one of my sources for details about three writers: Charles Perrault, Madame Leprince de Beaumont and Madame de Villeneuve, who
Entry on Madame de Villeneuve
I will write about in a later post.
The style in these potted biographies is quite discursive and personal, and it’s fascinating to leaf through the book and read about all these many writers who formed part of such an important literary movement whose influence continues to this day. And one of the things that struck me as I did that was how many of those writers were women; this was a literary movement in which female writers could enjoy as much attention and inspire as many followers as male writers. And they could do so openly, under their own names, not under male pseudonyms.