I know, I know, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover… but LOOK! It is gorgeous! 😍 Let me be shallow this time, alright?!

Ever since Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, I’ve loved reading stories about what happens after the supposed end or happily ever after. These fairytales we all know and love are really quite horrific, obviously leaving their protagonists with major scars, both mental and physical, especially when they suffered the trauma as children.

When After the Forest appeared in my letterbox I was very excited. I couldn’t wait to sit down with Kell Woods and ask her about her inspiration and the themes she explores in the novel. Read the full interview below.

After the Forest is out now.

What drew you to the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale?

I was interested in taking a well known fairy-tale and setting it in a real place and time, fleshing out the characters and examining what things would have been like for them if they were real people. There is so much about ‘Hansel and Gretel’ that is dark and disturbing. The children lose their mother, they’re abandoned by their father, they wander the forest lost and alone for three days and three nights. They’re kidnapped and imprisoned by a horrifying witch who plans to eat one of them (interestingly, the male child.) To save her brother and herself, Gretel pushes the witch into her own oven, burning her alive. There is so much brutality and darkness – and so many questions that arise.

What would life have been like for Hansel and Gretel after their escape? What would they be like as adults? Would it be possible for them to really live happily ever after? There was a lot to work with, a lot to explore, particularly when I started looking at the history and landscape of Germany. The seventeenth century, when the Thirty Years’ War and large-scale witch trials such as Bamberg and Würzburg took place, seemed like the perfect setting, as did the deep, old forests of the Schwarzwald. 

You have extrapolated the story to discuss what happens after the traumatic experience, after ‘happily ever after’. Why did you want to explore the repercussions of the well-known narrative rather than a straight retelling?

It was a practical choice. I felt that having child protagonists would have limited what I could write about. I wanted the freedom to make the book as dark and brutal as the original fairy tale. Also, I was just intrigued by the idea of re-imagining Hansel and Gretel as adults. It opened up so many story possibilities – lingering childhood trauma, loneliness and forgiveness, loss and struggle. It was so tempting.

The small cast of characters in ‘Hansel and Gretel’ felt limiting, too. You have the children, their father, their stepmother (or mother in some versions), and the witch. That’s it. By ageing the children, I could bring in new characters from similar fairy tales and thread them together. I love books with romantic sub-plots, so it meant that I could explore that side of things, too. Once I decided to make them adults I couldn’t think about writing it any other way.  

After the Forest by Kell Woods (book cover image)

The original story is rare in that the girl saves the boy. How did you incorporate this aspect of Gretel’s (or Greta, in your case) character in your novel? Was it part of why you chose to explore her character?

It’s so interesting, isn’t it? It was a huge part of why I chose ‘Hansel and Gretel’, and also why I chose Gretel (Greta) as the main character. I couldn’t get past the fact that it was the girl who saved both herself and her brother. I had so many questions.

Why did the witch lock Hansel up and keep Gretel free? Was it simply a question of her being female, and therefore (historically) expected to take on the brunt of the domestic labour in the witch’s household? Perhaps, but I felt that this choice by storytellers of the past had handed me a golden opportunity.

What was different about this child, and what would she have been like as a young woman? Also, and perhaps more importantly, how would the people around her – people living in a deeply religious, superstitious and patriarchal seventeenth century society, where some of the most infamous German witch-hunts were taking place – have perceived her? 

Other than Gretel, the women in the original fairytale are presented as evil figures – the cannibalistic witch and the stepmother (or mother, depending on the version) who abandons the children to the woods. With modern feminist sensibilities, why are such stories still so important to us?

To be honest, my feminist heart struggled with the witch and the stepmother characters. The idea of the bad mother and the evil crone living in the woods, away from society, are deeply tied to patriarchy and misogyny. They go against the ‘natural order’ of things, the traditional role of women within the patriarchy, which is to bear and nurture children.

But my interest was in taking the original story and fleshing it out, making it real, and so I chose to keep the cannibalistic witch and evil stepmother characters as they had been in the original tale. It was always going to be Greta’s story, and to change those character types too much would have deviated from the original tale.

At its heart After the Forest is about struggling with the past – nearly every character has some form of trauma after experiencing emotionally or physically harrowing events. The cannibalistic witch character does have her own traumatic backstory, which unfortunately I couldn’t get into the book without clumsily shoehorning it in. 

Why should we be reading After the Forest? Pitch the book to our readers! 

Have you ever read ‘Hansel and Gretel’ and wondered how the woodcutter could have brought himself to abandon his children in the woods? Or why the stepmother was so heartless? Or how Gretel felt after that infamous oven push? If you have, you might be interested in After the Forest.

A historical fantasy novel for adults set in the Black Forest in Germany in 1650, it takes up the story of Greta and her brother Hans fifteen years after their ordeal in the forest. However, times are still tough. The land is recovering in the aftermath of the brutal Thirty Years’ War, and the kind old Baron is unwell. Hans is selfish and reckless, gambling more than he earns, and Greta makes ends meet by baking deliciously addictive gingerbread with the help of the witch’s grimoire. With her red hair and strange past, she is viewed with mistrust and suspicion by the other villagers.

When dark magic and wild beasts return to the woods, things get even worse. Greta discovers that the past might not be as far behind her as she had thought- and that she might have to fight for her life all over again, this time with magic of her own. 

Kell Woods (author photo)

Kell Woods is an Australian historical fantasy author. She lives near the sea with her husband, two sons, and the most beautiful black cat in the realm. 

Kell studied English literature, creative writing and librarianship, so she could always be surrounded by stories. She has worked in libraries for the past twelve years, all the while writing about made-up (and not so made-up) places, people and things you might remember from the fairy tales you read as a child. 

Her debut novel AFTER THE FOREST was published in October 2023 by Tor Books (US) Titan Books (UK) and Harper Voyager (AU/NZ), with a second, untitled novel coming in late 2024.