The beauty and horror of fairy tales

10 August 2020

Don’t stray too far in the woods…

Horrific elements are of central significance in many of the world's original fairy tales. Heroines have bloody feet and torn off limbs, cruel enchantments lead to madness and sly villains plot murder from the shadows.

Yet, despite these horrors, there is also an inherent beauty to be found – gothic castles in deep forests, sunlight spun into cloth and secret gardens filled with magic. Beautiful and terrible all at once - it is little wonder that fairy tales have delighted writers for centuries.

Yet, what of Australian fairy tales? 

Illustration by Kathleen Jennings

Introducing PhD student Kathleen Jennings 

Kathleen Jennings is a former lawyer, turned UQ PhD student and tutor in the School of Communication and Arts. Her love of fairy tales, gothic literature and art have led her on a fascinating research and creative journey. Her debut short novel, Flyaway was released at the end of July 2020 and interweaves Australian landscapes with classical elements from gothic European fairy tales.

Darkly enchanting and exquisitely rendered, Kathleen's work will capture you with its riddles and monsters, haunting prose and Australian gothic delights. Her accompanying illustrations breathe life into her wild imagination, throwing you headfirst into a world of both horror and beauty.

“Flyaway is magnificently written and feels like a folktale both old and new. Jennings’ use of language is as uncanny as it is gorgeous. It’s the kind of story where you can smell the macadam baking in the sun and hear the crackle of dry grass.” Alex Brown. 

Raised on a remote cattle station in Western Queensland, Kathleen was inspired by the natural world around her – trees hollowed deep, enchanting bush land and wild, unexplored places. Her childhood love of fairy tales soon turned into a passion for writing and illustrating her own stories.

When asked about what led her to fairy tales she said, "I've always loved the logic and patterns of fairy tales. It's an aesthetic I can always get a hold of."

Illustrations by Kathleen Jennings

Little Red Riding Hood and its many variations — and lesser known fairy tales such as The Seven Ravens – all act as inspiration for Kathleen’s own work. 

Beginning her practice-led MPhil at UQ researching “The Visual Evocation of the Beautiful Sublime in Australian Gothic Literature,” she finally found a way to bring her art and prose together.

In particular, she looked at the visual techniques used by Joan Lindsay in Picnic at Hanging Rock, Rosalie Ham in The Dressmaker, and Shaun Tan in Tales of Outer Suburbia (all in distinct contrast to Elizabeth Jolley's The Well) to create a sense of the beautiful sublime (terrifying, perhaps, but undeniable) in Australian Gothic stories — surfaces and light, textures and reinforcement, visual vocabularies and structural analogies. 

Kathleen's advisors were Associate Professor Kim Wilkins and Associate Professor Lisa O'Connell from the School. 

The creative component of this research project became her debut short novel –  Flyaway. This work has already been reviewed by The New York Times and is available in Australia through Picador.

Flyaway

Flyaway is set in a small Western Queensland town, where a reserved young woman named Bettina Scott receives a note from one of her vanished brothers. Her search for the truth throws her into tales of eerie dogs, vanished schools, cursed monsters, and enchanted bottles.

A mix of Australian gothic and terrifying fairy tale, Flyaway has been described as Picnic at Hanging Rock meets gothic Alice in Wonderland.

When asked about her inspiration, Kathleen said, "In Australian Gothic literature, not uniquely, beauty (if it exists at all) is very untrustworthy. It is a literature of doubling and mirrors and rotten facades. But Picnic at Hanging RockThe Dressmaker, and Tales from Outer Suburbia all contain intense (and unwavering) beauty, for all their terrors".

The Cecilie Anne Sloane Postgraduate English Creative Writing Research Scholarship allowed Kathleen to travel back to the region that inspired the story. The audio notes Kathleen took on the trip were filled with word-sketches, colour, texture and light, that kept getting into the sentences instead of the drawings.

"There is also an awful lot of the region I grew up in. Some buildings — the sawmill, a missing step, a particular ceiling, specific doors — are very definitely lifted from places I knew, and there are hints and allusions to local events and legends, not least (of course) the eternal glimpses of giant black cats in the Australian bush."

Releasing a book in the midst of a global pandemic, whilst challenging, allowed Kathleen to be involved in online events, where she could speak to people from all over the world.

"But seriously, while it was worrying and disappointing to begin with, there are so many writers in the same position that it’s impossible to take it personally, and suddenly I’m able to have events online and talk to people from all over, and that’s been really lovely."

Flyaway's Australian launch event is happening through Avid Reader on 18 August 2020. You can find out more here. 

Illustration by Kathleen Jennings

Illustrating a story 

As an illustrator, she has been shortlisted for one Hugo and four World Fantasy Awards, and has won several Ditmars.

She has illustrated for clients such as Tor.com, Small Beer Press, Subterranean Press, Tartarus Press, Ticonderoga Publications, Simon & Schuster, FableCroft Press, Odyssey Press, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild, Little, Brown and Company as well as private commissions. Her portfolio is at: kathleenjennings.com

Kathleen’s illustrations have traditionally been more European inspired and for purely fairy-tale-inflected stories – such as the enchanting maps of ‘Elfhame’ she used to help build the world of the New York Times best-selling series – The Folk of the Air by Holly Black.

Incorporating Australian imagery into this style of art was a fresh take on these classical renderings. 

Sketches by Kathleen Jennings helped to bring the world of Flyaway to life. 

For Flyaway, Kathleen wanted to merge her skill with a sketch pad to her written prose. To do this she first had to sound out what Australian settings would do to her illustrating style.

Illustration by Kathleen Jennings 

When speaking about what writers can learn from illustrators, Kathleen said, "I also think writers can learn many aspects of narrative craft from illustrators. Taking the time to sit with an illustration and look for all the storytelling techniques in it can be illumination."  

Sketches by Kathleen Jennings used to plan out her story. 

Advice for writing students

Kathleen encourages her students to become involved in what they want to do and to follow the people who do it well. In terms of taking the first steps on a writing or illustrating journey, Kathleen’s advice is, “Read everything outside your genre. Read beyond what you write. Ensure you put something out in the world constantly. It doesn’t have to be perfect, every Friday I would put an illustration up online and people could see me developing.”

What's next

Kathleen is still pursuing her craft and has a few manuscripts and pitches on people’s desks. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing through the School of Communication and Arts (working on a mythic fantasy project) and has a few more short stories coming out later this year. In terms of illustrating she will be working with some of her favourite writers, including Angela Slatter's Collection The Tallow-Wife and other Tales and Juliet Marillier's collection Mother Thorn, both of which should be coming out towards the end of 2020. 

“While I will still be writing my own stories and drawing for others, I plan to continue to play with the ways in which my writing and illustration can work together.” 

You can stay up to date with Kathleen's body of work through her blog. Kathleen is also on Twitter at twitter.com/tanaudel, and post snippets of sketches on Instagram at instagram.com/tanaudel.

The School looks forward to seeing which tales Kathleen will bring to life next!

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