Could you take us back to the genesis of this story? In addition to drawing from Lewis Carroll’s books, this story also incorporates the real history of his relationships with Alice Liddell and the MacDonald family. What kind of research did writing this story entail, and what was the process like, weaving together the historical elements and your fictional contributions?
The story started with a photograph. You probably know which one I’m referring to: It’s the one of Alice Liddell dressed as a beggar, which Lewis Carroll took one summer day at her parents’ house. She has bare feet, her hand is cupped to receive coins, and her dress is falling off her shoulders. At that point, Carroll was still intimate with the Liddells, visiting them often. Later there was some sort of quarrel and a falling out—no one really knows why. There’s some implication that he may have asked one of the Liddell girls to marry him—on the other hand, he may have had some sort of relationship with their governess. What’s intriguing is that we don’t really know, just as we don’t really know how to interpret the photographs Carroll took of young girls. We tend to interpret them through a modern lens, but that doesn’t tell us what they meant in the context of the Victorian era. That lacuna or gap was where the story started—we just don’t know.
I love the Alice books, as well as Carroll’s other work, but like a lot of readers and scholars, I’ve wondered about what actually happened between him and the Liddell family, particularly Alice—and I’ve wondered what it would have been like to be Alice, famous for being the heroine of Carroll’s book. She had a life, by the way—a very rich life apart from being a literary character. But to us, she will always be Alice in Wonderland. Wouldn’t that be a strange experience, for a young woman?
At the same time, I also love the work of George MacDonald, and when I read, somewhere or other, that the Lily referred to in Through the Looking-Glass was Lily MacDonald, with whom Carroll also had a close relationship, the story started coming together. There was a fair amount of historical research, but I should say that as far as I know, the real Alice Liddell and Lily MacDonald never met. I wondered what it would have been like if they had, so I had them meet—sort of, since Lily isn’t fully aware of the meeting or what it means.
In addition to the shifts and overlaps of reality between Lily on her sick bed and her journey through Looking-Glass Country, the identities of the characters are similarly fluid. For example, Lily is herself, Princess Snowdrop, and eventually the White Queen, while Alice is a real woman, Princess Rosebud, and, seemingly against her will, Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll himself is only named as such in the epigraph, while Alice refuses to use any designation other than “him” and Lily’s mother uses his given name “Mr. Dodgson” (he also, perhaps, appears in the guises of the White Knight and Jabberwock). What is it about this theme of multiple identities that interests you, both in general and particularly in the context of this story? Are there other works that influenced or inspired your exploration of this topic?
I guess I’ve always been interested in how we are multiple people, partly because we’re constructed by other people’s understanding of us. In the story, Lily is very sick and being treated the way Victorians were treated back then, when medical pain relief was still in its early, rather crude stages—she’s on laudanum, a powerful opiate. The real Lily MacDonald did actually die of tuberculosis. So in her perception, things slip and slide in and out of each other, combining and recombining. Her consciousness is unstable. The poems are recombinations of other poems—the sorts of poems an educated Victorian woman would be familiar with. I’ve incorporated the way something like a drug can alter our perceptions—that’s one issue, but there’s also how that altered perception exposes the underlying reality that we are multiple and constructed—including by the literature we read. We construct the world out of words, as Humpty Dumpty points out. The main work that influenced me in writing the story this way was Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, which probably seems very different—but Grace genuinely doesn’t know whether or not she murdered someone, and she has been constructed by multiple narratives to the point where she struggles to articulate herself. It’s a brilliant book.
One of the ideas that emerges here is how men take women’s stories away from them. There are small instances of this, such as how Mrs. MacDonald devalues her own fairy tales to praise her husband’s stories, and how her Princess Snowdrop becomes Carroll’s voiceless kitten, but of course Alice and Carroll’s relationship looms over everything. Alice’s story has been literally taken away from her, leaving a blank spot in her childhood where something “inexcusable” occurred that she cannot recall and others will not speak of, but Carroll’s book has also co-opted Alice’s identity in service of his fantasy, forever replacing the real Alice Liddell with “Alice in Wonderland.” Although Lily’s escape into fantasy seems like a small step towards reclaiming her story, it also sits within the context of this story itself as a real-world step in reclaiming these women’s stories for a wider audience and inspiring discussion. Is this kind of silencing an issue that you see in history and into the present day? What kind of correctives are possible, particularly through the lens of popular fiction, and where do you see work still to be done?
Yes, this sort of silencing is an issue. My first novel, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, was the story of various monstrous women killed off in nineteenth-century narratives, such as the puma woman in H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Beatrice Rappaccini, and the monster’s bride in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In my book they get to tell their own stories. I’ve been fascinated by women’s voices pretty much as long as I’ve been reading—Lucy’s and Susan’s voices in the Narnia books, for example, but also Jadis’s voice. What would the story sound like from her perspective? Reading Virginia Woolf’s “The Angel in the House” as a teenager made me consider this issue in a more conscious way. And yes, of course actual women were silenced historically—there is still so much art by women artists relegated to museum basements. What we need to do is reclaim the art and writing of the past, so it’s available to us—show it, publish it, pay attention to it. Then, support contemporary women making art. And finally, of course, it’s helpful to create female characters who are people—complex and interesting.
Building on that idea, one particularly striking passage is Humpty Dumpty’s insistence that all things are made of words, and that “[t]o make something so, you only have to say it’s so. That is the power of words!” Although Lily exercises this power by turning her toast into a butterfly, just a little bit later she questions the White Knight’s story that he knew that the “fairy’s child” loved him because he could read it in her countenance. Lily rightly insists that “[s]he was a girl, not a book”—hence she was not made of words, and his merely saying that they were in love does not make it so. Do you think that is tension between words and reality is particularly relevant in the current struggle between information and disinformation? How does this tension factor in your own approach to storytelling as an author?
I think there is always a tension between the reality we create through words and the reality that lies underneath it. I read quite a lot of postmodern critical theory in graduate school, for the simple reason that it was required, and I don’t buy the idea that reality exists only to the extent that we perceive it. But of course we can only perceive it through our senses and the sense we make of that information—so whatever exists outside ourselves, we are always constructing through narrative. It’s difficult to get beyond that, although various religious systems try to help us experience reality as directly as possible, without interpreting it. It’s difficult to get beyond assuming the interpretation is reality. That’s a basic tension of our existence as human beings.
Disinformation is something different: It’s the deliberate refusal to accept what we perceive through sensory impression. It’s telling us that what we experience, whether through personal experience or through gathering scientific data, isn’t so. For example, that climate change isn’t real although the scientific data support that particular interpretation. That’s more a tension between words that try to be real and true, and words that are deliberately unreal and untrue. I guess my approach to storytelling involves using words that are unreal and untrue, in the sense of being fictional, in the service of what I see as a deeper reality. But I think all storytellers do that. We’re not trying to deceive. We tell stories, but we also try to tell the truth. Or at least a truth.
The story makes no bones about the fact that Alice has a negative—or, at the very least, highly skeptical—view of Lewis Carroll. As a result, when Lily’s mother says that Alice should be honored that she’s been immortalized as Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it comes across to readers as blind and even tragic. The gap between these two views, then, raises the question of separating art from artist. Should that decision be left to the individual—here, Alice as influenced by personal experience vs. Mrs. MacDonald as the distant observer—or does part of reclaiming stories include broadcasting that personal context to the world in order to potentially shift the wider view? To what extent should the separation between art and artist be a personal choice versus a societal opinion?
I think it is actually de facto a personal choice? Even if society condemns an artist, a particular individual can decide to pay attention to that artist—as long as the art isn’t banned. Plenty of people dislike how Picasso treated the women in his life, but that does not stop us from looking at his artistic depictions of the women he was involved with. I do think the biography is important because it helps us understand aspects of the art—for example, knowing his relationship to Dora Maar, and knowing about her life and work, deepens my appreciation of his paintings of her. I remember in graduate school reading the letters James Joyce wrote to Nora Barnacle. We had a discussion as to whether they should have been published—they are very private, definitely “dirty,” even by modern standards. The people who banned his books would have felt doubly, maybe exponentially, justified if they had read them. But those letters do shed a particular light on his fiction—among other things, they show that critics aren’t just reading eroticism into them, that the erotic subtext was intended. I don’t really have an answer for you, because each artist is so different—can you make a rule that will apply to Picasso and Joyce and Woolf and Agatha Christie and A.A. Milne? And can society ever usefully dictate how the individual will look at a particular artist? I doubt it.
Finally, what’s coming up next for you? In addition to your concrete projects, are there any new and still nebulous ideas that you’re beginning to consider?
I’ve just finished the third book in my monster girls series, which has been coming out from Saga Press: The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, and the final book in the series, The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl. Now I need to finish revising the stories for a collection of fairy tale short stories and poems, to be called Snow White Learns Witchcraft, which will be coming out from Mythic Delirium Press. After that, I’ll working on a scholarly book on Ursula Le Guin for the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series from University of Illinois Press. And I’ll be working on a new standalone novel based on a short story called “Pip and the Fairies”. If that sounds like I’ve overcommitted myself, yeah, I tend to do that . . . But they’re all projects I’m really excited about!
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