Kat Dunn chats perfecting the gothic vibes in Bitterthorn
Inspired by fairytales such as Beauty and the Beast, Bitterthorn follows a witch who comes to claim a companion once a generation
Last time Kat Dunn was here to chat about finishing a trilogy. This time, she is back to chat about a standalone novel — Bitterthorn. Inspired by fairytales such as Beauty and the Beast, Bitterthorn follows a witch who comes to claim a companion once a generation. And Mina, who is grieving and lonely, offers herself up this time…
Bitterthorn is a standalone while your previous work is a trilogy. Was it easier or more difficult to write Bitterthorn because it’s a standalone?
Bitterthorn was just a very different book to write in all ways. By the end of the trilogy I knew all the characters so well, it was easy to write from that perspective, but tying up so many plot lines and trying to give everyone a satisfying ending was a real challenge. In contrast, Bitterthorn is so tightly focused on just two characters, it was easier to give both the Witch and Mina room to breath as characters – but having to wrap everything up in one book was a new challenge. I don’t know how I’d have managed it if there had been any more moving parts!
Is there one single fairytale Bitterthorn was inspired by, or did you draw inspiration from multiple folklores?
I started out thinking of Bitterthorn as a Beauty and the Beast retelling. I was interested in the idea of a female ‘beast’, and things grew from there. I was conscious of involving elements of Bluebeard, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, but it’s been interesting to see the other fairy tales people have read into it. I never wanted to stay tied too closely to any one story, instead working with elements that are familiar to so many of us to make something new.
The gothic vibes are impeccable in Bitterthorn. Did you create any moodboard or playlist when you wrote Bitterthorn?
I definitely had an intense pinterest board! I focused specifically on visual media I loved that had a similar vibe to what I wanted – things like Crimson Peak and The Company of Wolves – and reread some gothic favourites. The playlist came later but I have to confess it’s mostly soppy love songs for Mina and the Witch. You can listen to it here.
The gothic setting is complimented so well by the poetic and lyrical writing. Can you share with us the key to creating such elegant descriptions?
Arg, if I knew I would shout it from the rooftops! It’s a book that went through a LOT of editing at the voice and tone level as I tried to find my feet after the trilogy. I don’t really try to set out to write poetically or lyrically, I feel quite aware of not being a poet and being nowhere near the league of brilliant literary fiction writers. I suppose I’m just enjoying myself at a sentence level? Following a phrase where it feels right, sometimes ending up with clunky attempts that don’t work. I do think reading reading reading is the big key, and reading far out of your comfort zone. I read a lot of nature writing while drafting Bitterthorn and I think that seeped in.
And who do you imagine could voice Mina or the Witch in an audiobook, or even a movie? Do you picture yourself narrating Mina’s perspective when you write the book?
I definitely felt like I was writing from inside Mina’s head – so it was an interesting challenge when choosing an audiobook narrator! I’m very lucky to have Katy Sobey, who did the audiobook for Uprooted (a big inspiration), and I think she captures both Mina and the whole feel of the book perfectly.
Mina has a hobby of collecting geological samples. Did you know much about it before writing Bitterthorn or did you have to research it for this book?
I knew absolutely nothing. I knew Mina had a really strong connection with the natural world, so I researched to try and flesh it out. I saw it as an extension of the nature writing reading I was doing, trying to bring the forest and mountains and plants around them to life.
And why did you decide that this past time would fit the theme of Bitterthorn the best?
It’s a bit nerdy, but I wanted to set it in 1871 because this is when modern Germany unified under Bismark. The patchwork of tiny duchies and principalities were scooped up with bigger territories like Bavaria and Prussia to become a modern nation state. That black forest area with tiny states is the place of fairytale in a lot of our imaginations, so I liked the idea of placing the story at this point that’s almost the ‘death’ of a fairytale world and the start of the modern.
The theme of loneliness and grief are very well explored in Bitterthorn. Did you set out to tell a message about loneliness and grief when you started planning Bitterthorn, or did you find yourself having a different understanding of these two concepts after writing the story?
Bitterthorn is a story born out of deep, unbearable, maddening loneliness. I started with Mina and the Witch’s love story as the kernel, many years ago, but as I sat down to write it I really understood that where they were both coming from was a place of huge pain and trauma. I experienced a lot of traumatic isolation as a child and teenager, and when lockdown put me back into that place I needed somewhere to put that pain. When I felt overwhelmed, totally lost with the pain and at a point where I couldn’t endure it any more, I thought well, okay, sit down and write. I’m not sure my understanding of the concepts changed through writing, but it was a balm to express those feelings, and wrote me through the worst days and into a lighter place.
And finally, last time you mentioned you would wear a “ridiculous dress and guillotine earrings” to celebrate your previous work. What can we expect you to wear to celebrate Bitterthorn?
Oh god, I’ve set myself a high standard to live up to. Honestly, it’ll be a bit more low key this time, just because I’m not rolling three launches into one. I’ll definitely crack out some extra earrings, and I love a flashy dress but maybe not quite the literal ballgown I went for last time…