Requiem for the Author of Frankenstein
Although it's true I've written nonfiction, I'm a fiction writer at heart. It's always been my dream to write novels, so in that sense, it would not have occurred to me to write a nonfiction work on Mary Shelley. I was influenced early on by the Bronte's. As a teenager I remember thinking it would be amazing to write a book like Wuthering Heights because I'd get to live inside of it and interact with the characters. I remember being asked in a writing class what novel I wished I had written, and without hesitation, answering Wuthering Heights.
When I came across Mary Shelley's story, it resonated with those early desires. The stormy summer when Frankenstein was conceived, and the drama of Mary, Shelley and Byron have much in common with the gothic nature and passion of Wuthering Heights. So, although I didn't notice any of that as I undertook the project, in retrospect, I think I was drawn to it because of my very early love of the Brontes.
Beyond that, Mary Shelley's story lends itself to fiction, it's dramatic, tragic, passionate and mysterious; there are pages torn from her diary, questions that have never been completely answered. Much was done after her death to sanitize the legacy, especially of Percy Bysshe Shelley, and because the Victorian Era was more conservative and judgmental, it's easy to surmise that some of their story was hidden from the the public. Were I to have written a biography, I could not have speculated with the same freedom, for example, about the extent of Mary and Byron's tête-à-tête.
How long was this novel in the making?
A very long time. I began work on this in the early 1990s, completed a draft that got as far as an agent who read the whole and returned a thoughtful and thorough critique with the rejection. I put it away for what I thought would be a week, or month, or maybe a year. It was six years and a PhD later before I returned to it. The rewriting took about two years and then another year of editing changes and the struggle to find a publisher.
Mary Shelley's time is one not often written about in historical fiction. Did that present any problems?
Actually, Mary Shelley grew up in Regency England, in Jane Austen's time. Jane Austen died in 1817, the same year Frankenstein was published. So, there's a lot to work with right there. In fact, when I returned to work on my novel after setting it aside, I began by reading all six of Jane Austen's novels, when I finished Austen I moved on to other 19th century writers. Vanity Fair is the same time period. I devoured 19th century British Literature. Even Wuthering Heights reaches back into the same time period.
I traveled in England doing research, visiting all sorts of museums, everything from Charles Dickens' home (which is later) to the City of London's museum. Tracking the streets of London at the turn of the 19th century was the trickiest, it has changed significantly around Skinner Street where Mary lived as a child and where the opening scenes of the book are set. But London and England are alive with history. Everywhere I went, I found remnants of streets and structures that were also there in Mary's day.
Newstead Abbey, Byron's estate, is a museum dedicated to his legacy. That was a haven. Also there is much in the Lake District where Coleridge and Wordsworth spent time. In Italy too. The house where the Shelleys lived when Shelley drowned still stands. I found it a remarkable experience to lay my hands on artifacts of their day. I believe their story lingers in the psyche of the land and can be sensed, felt, dredged up from it.
I also spent a summer at Oxford University doing research. The bulk of the Shelley papers are in the Bodleian Library there, just walking the wooden staircase of the Bodleian gave life to the story. Handling old books, the original publications, all of that was remarkable. And as fate would have it, I found a sympathetic librarian who really did show me through one of Mary's original journals, a scene that found its way into the book. The research was a pleasure.
You have a strong background in feminist studies. Do you see Mary Shelley as a feminist in her own time and if so, how?
Yes, I do, although she herself, would be the first to say she did not follow in her mother's (Mary Wollstonecraft) footsteps. Mary Shelley was not an activist. She was a writer and a mother, but her values were the values of a feminist.
I have written about this in my novel. I believe that Frankenstein is political satire, and that one of its points of irony has to with the presentation of the feminine. Victor Frankenstein is a student in a university known to be on the cutting edge of science. He gets the idea that if he creates life, he will be doing humanity a service and so he ventures into creation without considering the necessity of the feminine. He concludes it's irrelevant to his project—although, really, he doesn't even notice the absence of the feminine. It's that unimportant to him. All the females in Frankenstein are caricatures of the "perfect" 19th century female: domestic, empty-headed, adoring, alarmingly passive.
This was what the culture asked of women in those days, and Mary Shelley's women die or are destroyed, one by one, whether they play by the rules or rebel. In the end, Victor Frankenstein has accomplished nothing; he has created a monster that's destroyed his life and everyone he loves. He has put everything and everyone at risk.
Shortly after Frankenstein, Mary Shelley wrote Valperga, another fascinating book about political dynamics. It's an historical novel set in 14th century Italy, about the Prince of Lucca, the same man Machiavelli addresses in his famous work, The Prince. Mary Shelley used the prince's ruthlessness to make a point. Sir Walter Scott was the big novelist of Mary Shelley's day. He consistently wrote about male heroes flanked by two females, a dark seductress and a virtuous, lady of light. Scott's heroes are always tempted, but eventually put the world in order and return to their virtuous one. Mary Shelley used the same formula, but she upended it. Her prince is no hero, he's a ruthless destroyer. He doesn't put the world in order, he fights for power and against democracy, destroying both of the women he claims to love.
In Valperga, Shelley's lady of light is out in the public square, fighting for democracy, something no descent British woman would have dreamed of doing. But if anyone came close to taking such a stand, it was Mary Wollstonecraft. I believe Valperga was conscious attempt on Mary's part to portray a woman who reminded her of her mother, a vindication, so to speak, or perhaps a requiem. She never knew her mother, but she admired her greatly.
Is there any author who influenced your work?
Lots. I already talked about Emily Bronte, and I'd have to add Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen and George Eliot as well. I've also been influenced by Henry James, Herman Hesse and DH Lawrence. Modern influences include John Fowles, , Yann Martel, Ian McEwen, Barbara Kingsolver, and Jane Smiley.
What genres do you personally enjoy reading?
I'm actually not much of a genre reader. I like literary fiction. Obviously, I like historical fiction and I do read quite a bit of it. Truth be told, I prefer 19th century literature to easy reads about the 19th century. Kind of ironic, I suppose, but when I write, I'm really working against the genre, trying to transcend it the way Doris Lessing did in Shikasta, for example, which went well beyond what we normally think of as science fiction. When I think of historical fiction I think of Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund or Morrison's Beloved. I do have to confess to being a Harry Potter fan, however.
What can we expect from the next book in your La Belle Quartet?
Ah, La Belle Quartet. Well, I'm about a hundred pages into book II, which is titled The Appassionata (named for Beethoven’s Sonata in F minor, op. 57). It's set in the 19th century of Paris and traces the lives of composer Louise Farrenc and her daughter, pianist Victorine Farrenc. Both were contemporaries of Chopin, Liszt and Berlioz, who figure largely in the story, as does the painter Delacroix. We also meet the legendary writers, George Sand and Victor Hugo, among others, and revisit the life of an older Mary Shelley who makes a cameo appearance, as she did in life, spending time in Paris where a theatrical version of Frankenstein was popular and the influence of the late Lord Byron, immense. The Appassionata is set entirely in Paris.
What I'm after is the point at which Romanticism became a "movement" with a name. I've discovered it's all wrapped up in Victor Hugo's influence. He wrote a play that seems like it was the Hair of his day, and people dressed like hippies to come see it. In fact, shortly after it, there was a festival in Montmartre that was sort of like Woodstock.
So I'm having a good time, chronicling the roots, the legacy from which the Sixties were born. La Belle Quartet traces the influence of Romanticism into the Sixties and modern times. Each book is totally independent, but incorporates themes and characters from the other books. All of them are secretly (or perhaps not so secretly) studies of the nature of consciousness, dreams and reality.
2008 “Indie” Book Award for Historical Fiction
Independent Book Publishing Professionals Group
2007 Fiction Award
San Francisco Writers Conference
2007 Chief Al Nedler Prize
Komenar Publishing, San Francisco
2004 Fiction Award
Mendocino Coast Writers Conference