Theodora Goss’s story “Singing of Mount Abora” won the 2008 World Fantasy Award for short fiction, and her work has also been nominated for many other major awards, including the 2007 Nebula Award for “Pip and the Fairies.” She’s also the author of Octavia is Lost in the Hall of Masks, which won the 2004 Riesling Award for Best Long Poem, as well as the novel The Thorn and the Blossom, A Two-Sided Love Story, and the short story collection In the Forest of Forgetting. We’ll be speaking with her today about her new novel The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter.
This interview first appeared on July 2017 on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley and produced by John Joseph Adams. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the interview or other episodes.
Your new book is called The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, and it was inspired by some of the research that you did for your PhD. Tell us about that.
I was doing this PhD, which is a crazy thing to do anyway. It just about killed me. I wrote this four hundred-page doctoral dissertation, and it was on Victorian Gothic fiction and anthropology. But it was really about monsters. I was asking a central question: How come these really great monster texts, the ones that we love so much, like Dracula and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, all of these, how come they were written between 1870 to 1910? That’s the great age of the modern monster. I thought, Why is that—what was going on at that time? I gave this complicated scholarly answer that had to do with the rise of evolutionary thinking after Darwin, but specifically the rise of anthropology. Anyway, those were all scholarly steps. I wrote this dissertation on all of these monster stories.
But there was something I realized that didn’t really make it into the dissertation that fascinated me, which was that so many of these mad scientists—the mad scientist becomes a really important figure around this time because there are a lot of scientists around—somewhere along their trajectory create female monsters. Like in The Island of Dr. Moreau, Dr. Moreau creates a woman out of a puma. She never even says anything, but she’s actually really important to the action of the text because she kills Moreau. She is the one who drives the action of The Island of Dr. Moreau. She’s fascinating.
Then there were others in texts that people don’t really know about, or know very much about, like in a Victorian-era novella called The Great God Pan, there’s a Dr. Raymond who creates this woman named Helen. Helen has this power to communicate with the great god Pan, who is this power behind everything, and she can bring the classical world back into modernity. So she’s got these really weird powers that have to do with brain surgery—a surgery that he actually did on her mother. Classic mad scientist stuff: turning animals into human beings, or splitting people’s brains in two to give them extraordinary powers.
And then, of course, we have the classic story of Frankenstein. Frankenstein almost creates a female monster. He thinks a lot about it because the creature he has created is like, “Give me a bride. Nobody loves me. I need a girlfriend.”
Those are just a few. There are a bunch more. There are these really important, interesting female monster figures, and they die, or . . . actually, I think they all die. There’s one exception, which I can talk about, but other than that, they all die. And they usually don’t get to say a whole lot. Sometimes we get little bits and pieces of their stories, but we don’t get a whole lot. I thought, You know what? That’s fascinating. Why is that? There are some explanations that have to do specifically with the period, but what I really wanted to do was not write another academic paper, or write another doctoral dissertation, but I wanted to actually tell their stories. Instead of turning my doctoral dissertation into a book, I wrote a novel, which is another four hundred pages, which almost killed me to, but that’s okay. It was also so much fun. The novel is about five of these female figures, three of whom come from literature, and two of whom I created. It’s about them, their stories, and how they tell those stories. It’s giving voices to these female monsters that come from the literature that didn’t get to speak in the original texts. Do you want me to describe the book?
Actually, I wanted to ask you first about the short story, “The Mad Scientist’s Daughter,” and then we’ll move into the book. So that we can talk about how you first started putting this into prose form.
I think what happened was I was really bothered by this. Not bothered like, “I’m so bothered by this I have to do something,” but it was like when a mosquito bites you, and it’s irritating, and you just keep scratching at it even though you probably shouldn’t. This idea of female monsters who didn’t get to tell their stories bothered me, and the first one that really bothered me was the puma woman from The Island of Dr. Moreau. Even before I wrote “The Mad Scientist’s Daughter,” I wrote another short story called “The Puma.” That’s her story that I told in a slightly different way, my first stab at it.
But then I thought: What about the other female monsters? That’s when I wrote “The Mad Scientist’s Daughter,” which is a stronger story. As a writer, you kind of know that you’ve got some okay stories, and you’ve got some really good ones, and I think, hopefully, “The Mad Scientist’s Daughter” is one of the good ones. Also, this is when I was really starting to experiment with the ways of telling story. The format is experimental, and it’s the story of the five girls. We’ve got: Mary Jekyll, who is the daughter of Dr. Jekyll, the respectable scientist. Diana Hyde, who is the daughter of the notorious Mr. Hyde, murderer and laboratory assistant. Catherine Moreau, who is the puma woman created by Moreau on his terrible island of beast-men.
And then we’ve got Beatrice Rappaccini, who comes from one of my favorite short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It’s the story of a woman whose father, Dr. Rappaccini, a great botanist, makes her poisonous. He has a garden of poisonous plants from which he makes medicines, and he has raised Beatrice to take care of his plants, so she becomes imbued with all of these poisons. It’s told from the perspective of a young man named Giovani who sees this stunningly beautiful woman in the garden of the house next door. He falls desperately in love with her, and he goes and visits her. One day, he realizes not only that she’s poisonous, but that he’s starting to become poisonous. I recommend everyone read the story. I’m not going to go over the whole plot, but in the end, guess what, she dies. So, sorry, spoiler, but it was written in the 1830s. I don’t think I need to keep that secret.
That’s Beatrice Rappaccini. She’s poisonous.
And the last one is Justine Frankenstein, and Justine Frankenstein is the female monster that Frankenstein never creates in the actual story. In my version, what’s happened is that she was one of the family maids, whose name was Justine. She actually is in the original novel Frankenstein—Justine Moritz was a maid, and she was actually accused of murdering one of the Frankenstein children. (Again, not a spoiler because this was written a really long time ago!) Justine is accused of murdering little William, Frankenstein’s youngest brother, and actually it’s the monster who has murdered William. But Justine is hanged for that murder.
In my version, I didn’t want Justine to just die. Nothing was her fault. It was all Frankenstein’s fault, really. So, in my version, he takes her body, and he turns her into a mate for his monster, which doesn’t work out very well because she’s like, “I don’t actually want to do this. I’m not anybody’s mate.”
The short story was really all of them talking to each other, and in a short story you don’t really have a lot of space. So, it’s experimental. It’s their voices. It’s them saying things about their lives. It’s funny. But there’s no real plot. That’s where I started.
Did you mention Helen Raymond? Because she’s in the short story as well.
Someone asked me on Reddit recently, “What happened to Helen?” because she doesn’t appear in the novel. And I said, “Actually, she does. But it’s kind of a secret.” If you know the story, you can figure it out. Helen Raymond does appear, and she’s the one who is from The Great God Pan. She appears in the short story as one of the girls who have banded together to form a club in London. So all of these girl monsters have found each other, and they’ve formed a club, and they live together in London. That’s the premise of the short story.
Right, and you said that when it appeared on Strange Horizons that it got a really strong response from readers. Could you talk about that response?
I was so happy about that. I think it was actually voted the favorite story for the year, which was awesome. And, you know, it was a finalist for a Locus Award, but it didn’t win because there was some other guy . . . I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of a Neil Gaiman? He won, and I was second behind him, so I was like, “Yes, I’m second behind Neil Gaiman. This is awesome.”
That must have really encouraged you to go ahead with turning it into a novel.
It did. That encouraged me, and also, I felt like I hadn’t told the entire story. What I did in the story was say, Okay, all of these girls have found each other. They’re in London. They’re living together. But how do they get there? So the novel, in a way, is really the prequel to the short story.
You also include another well-known fictional character: Sherlock Holmes. At what stage did you decide to include him?
I think as soon as I realized that this was going to be a mystery, you’ve got to have Sherlock Holmes. Really, what I did with this novel is I put in all the stuff that I want in a novel. I want Sherlock Holmes, because I’ve been in love with Mr. Holmes since I was a teenager, because he’s awesome. As soon as I knew this was a mystery, I knew the first thing that was going to happen was that Mary was going to go visit Sherlock Holmes.
Actually, I just realized where that idea came from. It came from looking at a map. I’m a teacher at a university, and I teach a lot of these texts, and one of the things I always have students do is look at the map at the beginning of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I say, “Look, this is how realistic this novel is—you can actually map out where the characters are going.” What I realized was that the place where Jekyll lives, presumably, because we’re never given an address for him, is right near Regent’s Park, and Baker Street runs right down the other side of Regent’s Park. So I was like, Wait a minute, if Dr. Jekyll was around in the 1880s around the time that that novel was published, he would have run into Sherlock Holmes, because the Sherlock Holmes stories were being published right around the same time, and they actually live pretty close to each other.
Did you ever worry that putting Sherlock Holmes in the story would overshadow the female heroes?
I did. I just went for it. It wasn’t so much that he would overshadow them, because I knew that it was basically their story. I think what I was more worried about, or at least conscience of, is that a lot of people have written about Sherlock Holmes. This is not my new take on Sherlock Holmes. What I did when I created this Sherlock was I really didn’t create him. I went back, and I read the old Holmes stories, and I thought, Who do I think this guy is?
I really wanted to go back to the original, partly because I think a lot of people misinterpret Holmes. There’s this sense in which people say, “Oh, he’s kind of a sociopath. He doesn’t feel anything. He has no emotions. He doesn’t even pay attention to whether the Earth goes around the sun or the other way around.” I think some of this is just misunderstanding things Holmes says to Watson to tease him, because Holmes has a sense of humor. It’s this really dry, understated sense of humor, but if you’ve read all of the Holmes stories—and I’ve actually read all of the Holmes stories—you get a sense for the fact that he’s a really nice, decent guy. He’s got his quirks, and life is difficult for him in some ways. He doesn’t fit very well into society. Someone like Holmes really wouldn’t. But he is deeply humane. That Holmes was the Holmes that I took.
I thought, I’m not making this guy up, this is just the way I see Conan Doyle’s Holmes. I love Conan Doyle. I’ve read a lot of Conan Doyle, including his poetry. Nobody knows he wrote poetry, but he did.
I was a little worried about including Holmes, because he’s such a traditional figure. The thing I was even more worried about was getting details wrong. There are little details, like what kind of gun he uses, or the Baker Street Boys. Issues of timing. I had to create a timeline for this novel, and try to make sure that I was matching up different things correctly, so that was more of a worry, because there are so many people out there who love Sherlock Holmes, and they know all the details. They’ve read all of the stories, too, and if I get something wrong, they’re going to know. It’s inevitable that I’ve gotten something wrong, so to all the Holmes fans out there, the true fanatics, I have so much respect for you, and I apologize in advance.
You had to be sure that you got his toilet right, right?
Well, I sort of saw his toilet. I mentioned that somewhere, and I guess you read it. One of the things I did was a lot of research in London. I went to London twice over two summers, and I walked around a lot. I went to the Sherlock Holmes museum, which is not at 221B Baker Street, but it’s really useful because it gives you a sense of what the buildings looked like generally on Baker Street. They’re built in a very specific fashion that belongs to the time period. You can see how big the rooms were, like how many strides it would take to get across a room. You can imagine how full of stuff Holmes’ parlor would have been.
One funny thing I noticed was that the loo for the Brits was at the top of the house, which I suspect has to do with plumbing, and water pressure, and also smells. But I noticed that the toilet was a Victorian-era toilet, and it was beautiful. It had all of these designs on it in blue transferware. It was this really ornate, gorgeous toilet. I thought, you know what, in the Victorian era, when not a lot of people have indoor toilets, that they must have been, “We’ve got a toilet. This is a beautiful toilet. We’re going to make it look so great.”
Where else in London did you go for research?
I went to Whitechapel. A friend of mine who lives in London gave me a tour of Whitechapel, and it’s very modern now, obviously, but you could see some of the old twisty streets. He did give me a tour of where the Jack the Ripper murders happened, and my nineteenth-century London is not real nineteenth-century London. It’s imaginary nineteenth-century London. It comes straight out of the pages of Jekyll and Hyde, out of Sherlock Holmes, and actually there are things that those authors leave out. For example, someone asked me at one point, someone who was a scholar, “Do you have any idea why Holmes never rides the subway?” There was a subway around at that time. Part of the subway system had already been built. Holmes never even thinks about taking the subway. She said, “It may have something to do with the class system that Mr. Holmes would not take the subway. He’s always taking cabs.”
But there are things about real London that those books leave out. So in my London, there weren’t Jack the Ripper murders, instead there were these horrific Whitechapel murders. It’s kind of like alternate history, but it’s alternative literary history. I walked along the embankment of the Thames to get a sense of what it’s like close to the river. I went to the South Bank, where some things happened. I spent a lot of time walking around Hyde Park and Regent’s Park. Some of what I did was to actually time how long it takes to get between things. Central London is not as big as you would think. You can walk—it’s a long walk—but you can walk between the British Museum, for example, and where Mary’s house is located, which is 11 Park Terrace, (which doesn’t really exist, but it’s based on some houses close to Regent’s Park).
The place I went that was actually my favorite was Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Right next to Lincoln’s Inn Fields, there’s the Royal College of Surgeons, and that has the Hunterian Museum, which has anatomical specimens from the nineteenth century, which is fascinating and creepy. There were scenes that have to do with Beatrice that take place there, and I went and saw the layout of the building. I looked at some pictures of what it looked like in the nineteenth century, because the interior has all been changed.
Actually, one of my favorite parts of writing the novel happened when I walked around that neighborhood: There’s a row of houses across Lincoln’s Inn Field from the Royal College of Surgeons, and I went behind those houses because I wanted to see what the alleyway looked like. There’s a scene that takes place in that alleyway, and I was trying to figure out how in the world to write that scene. I saw a drainpipe, and I thought, Oh, right, exactly, external drainpipes. Because the houses were built one hundred years before, and so all of the plumbing actually ends up being external, or a lot of the plumbing. I thought, okay, that’s the drainpipe; that’s the way that this particular scene is going to happen. I was so excited.
Do they really have Charles Babbage’s brain in a jar?
Yeah. They do. And The Irish Giant. I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten his name, but this was someone who had a genetic condition that made him grow very tall. He was known as The Irish Giant, and they have his skeleton. All of the details like that, those are real. And street names. There are a couple I made up because I don’t want anyone actually going to Mary Jekyll’s address and bothering somebody there. I want that to be imaginary. There are real street names, but what I had to make sure of was that the street existed in the nineteenth century. One of the funny things about writing this book was that there were days where I would be crawling around the floor on maps, and I would have a map of modern London and a map of London at different times.
I have maps from different time periods. I have street names from different time periods. I have eighteenth-century London, nineteenth-century London, and then I was working off of a contemporary map, and seeing how things changed was really, really helpful.
I was wondering if this is historical. You talk about this high-class brothel where the women were instructed to read The Times and the Financial Times and things so that they would be more interesting to talk to.
Those specific details I made up, but there were different levels of brothels. Some of the information we have is from guidebooks, guides for gentlemen who were going to London for the weekend, and they would list brothels. They would list prostitutes who worked out of their own spaces or their own homes. They would give you details. It is one of those really weird glimpses into the past where you think, Gosh, the nineteenth century kind of sucked, because there was a huge problem with prostitution. There was a huge problem with venereal disease. I left that stuff in the corners of the novel because the Victorian era was gritty. I mean, our era is gritty, right? We have all sorts of social problems. Well, the Victorian era did, too. They had different kinds of social problems than we do. Some of our problems they didn’t have, but it was dirty, it was gritty, it was lively, it was interesting, it was diverse, and I wanted to make sure that all of that came in, and so you see it in these little glimpses.
This paragraph kind of jumped out at me, one of the characters says, “We let Beatrice decorate and try to talk us into supporting the labor movement, aestheticism, and rational dress. Mary retorted that we were conspicuous enough without dressing differently from everyone else, but she had bought a bicycle. Mrs. Poole was scandalized.” Could you just unpack some of that stuff? The bicycle and rational dress? What was it like at that time?
Okay, so the novel takes place in the imaginary 1890s, but the imaginary 1890s are based on the real 1890s, and there was a lot going on in the 1890s. We have this false idea of the Victorian era. That it was kind of static, and that people dressed in nice clothes, and they socialized and drank tea.
That’s not what it was like. The amount of change that happened between 1970 and 2000, that’s about the amount of change that was happening between 1870 and 1900. It was enormous. There were social movements, but there was a lot of labor unrest. There was a depression during that time. People were out of work. There was a lot of poverty. There were all sorts of problems with working in factories, but there was a labor movement trying to address those problems.
So, rational dress: There was a suffrage movement, which was a movement for votes for women. But there was also a more general movement for women’s rights, and there was something called a “new woman.” The new woman was actually a term that was used to mock these types of women. These were unnatural women who wanted such terrible things as the right to vote, and to go to college, and they wanted to be able to walk out without a chaperone.
All of this was pretty scandalous at the time. That women would want to do these things like become educated was seen as dangerous. It was seen as something that would threaten the social order.
Rational dress was a movement to first get rid of the corset, because the corset, which women had worn in one form or another for a very long time, basically most of the century, really did affect your ability to do a lot of things. I mean, a Victorian woman wearing a corset is very different from a modern woman wearing a corset, because a Victorian woman would have been wearing it from a very young age, so it would have been much more comfortable for her. The rationale for a corset at the time was not just a fashion rationale. It was thought that women’s bodies were weak, and they needed support. The corset would actually give you support. It would help you. Nowadays we get that support from, you know, having muscles. But, actually, if you’d worn a corset all of your life, you wouldn’t necessarily have developed some of those muscles, the abdominal muscles that we really focus on in our Pilates classes, for example.
The idea behind rational dress was partly that the emphasis, and also the pressure, would be taken off the waist, and the emphasis would be more on the shoulders. The dress would hang from the shoulders, and it was not tight on the waist, so the hang, the design of the dress, changed. This was widely mocked, by the way. The people who wore rational dress were, like, Pre-Raphaelites and people who hung out with Oscar Wilde. They were kind of the radical fringe. The funny thing is, if you look back at some of these dresses that women were wearing, some of them look a little silly because they’re based on medieval dresses. We wouldn’t wear them except to a costume party, but Victorian-era rational dress is actually what gives us the structure of modern clothes. So you look at, like, Coco Chanel, and you can see the line from rational dress to the innovations of Chanel much later. It was a real controversy at the time, and there were fairly conservative magazines like Punch that would really mock women wearing rational dress in cartoons. They were seen as ugly because they didn’t have that beautiful little waist.
Bicycles were kind of a controversy. Bicycles were amazing. First of all, if you’re an upper-middle-class young lady, you’re not supposed to be walking out by yourself at all. You’ve got to wait for someone to go with you. It’s going to be a maid, or if you don’t have a maid, it might be a female relative. It might be an older sister, it might be your mom, but you need to have a chaperone.
One of the problems is that London is an urban space. You could be accosted. There was this idea that it was dangerous. A bicycle changes that equation, because if you get on a bicycle, if someone bothers you, you can actually get away from them, plus you can move around quickly without having to get a carriage or pay for a cab. A proper young woman would not ride in a cab by herself, or get on an omnibus and just jostle with all the other people on an omnibus.
A bicycle gave you a lot of freedom. There was a bicycle craze at the time, but it was also seen as kind of controversial at the time. For one thing, you can’t ride a bicycle sidesaddle. You have to ride astride. And that was seen as a little masculine. Sometimes women wore split skirts, and that was close to trousers, and trousers were a big no-no for women because it took away your grace and femininity. Bicycles were controversial, so someone a little old-fashioned, like Mrs. Poole, would be a little concerned about a proper young lady like Mary Jekyll riding a bicycle. But she does it anyway.
Given all those social conventions, is it challenging at all, then, writing a mystery adventure story, given all those restrictions on what women are supposed to be doing?
There’s this scene in the book—this is spoiler-free, but I’ll tell you about the scene—what happens is that Mary wants to go solve something with Sherlock Holmes, and Mrs. Poole is like, “You’re not getting in a train alone with a man. I don’t think so. I’m coming with you.” Mary wants to go solve a mystery, but she’s got to bring her housekeeper along, right? And then, they go to this place in this small town, and he’s like, “I’m going to get information, so I’m going to go into the pub.” And Mrs. Poole is like, “You’re not going into the pub with Mary.” And Mary can’t go in. She has to wait outside for Sherlock Holmes to get information.
Part of the movement of the novel is Mrs. Poole changing a little bit, Mary changing a little bit, everybody sort of giving and taking, and all of the characters moving more toward modernity.
I have to say, these characters, they have different experiences, and they come from different eras, so Mary has been raised as an English lady. Catherine Moreau is a puma. She hasn’t been raised as an English lady, so her preconceptions are totally different. Beatrice has also been raised in a different way because she is from Italy. She knows many of these conventions. She has a slightly different attitude from them.
Then there’s Justine Frankenstein, and actually Justine is not modern. Justine was created a hundred years ago, and the conventions that she knows are from a different time period. Interestingly enough, I didn’t really discuss this in the novel, but a funny thing happened in the nineteenth century, which is that at the beginning of the century, the restrictions on women were lighter than they became later on. There’s a dip, right? It was a little bit easier for women at one point, and then it got a little harder and more restrictive, because around the middle of the century you get this idea of the separate spheres, and the idea that the women should really be in the home, and then it changes again, and toward the end of the century, women have a little bit more freedom.
It was interesting, I heard you say in an interview that there were no travel restrictions crossing borders in Europe for a time, and then the restrictions came in, and then with the EU, they went out again, and that it’s a sort of cycle.
Yes, that’s for the second book. For the second book, the research was even more difficult. There is a second book, so the first book everyone can go read now. The second one will be coming out next summer.
In the second book, these characters, these female monsters of mine, have to go solve a mystery in Europe, so they have to cross the British channel and venture into the Austro-Hungarian empire, which meant that I had to do a whole ’nother big lot of research, which had to do with the Austro-Hungarian empire at the end of the nineteenth century. Which was fun because I went to Vienna. I walked around Vienna. I did the exact same thing that I had done in London.
One of the things that I found was that I thought it would be difficult. I thought, Oh my gosh, they’re going to need passports. They’re going to need visas. Because I made assumptions about what the time period was like. They didn’t. There had been more passport restrictions earlier in the 1800s, and then they were actually taken away. It was really easy to travel around Europe right around the end of the 1800s. You didn’t necessarily need a passport. You didn’t need visas. Travel was really easy. And then you get World War I, and World War I is part of the reason that the borders start closing. It gets much, much harder to travel. Where we are now with the EU, that’s actually where we were a hundred years ago, which is ironic.
You actually grew up in Hungary, right? Was that motivating you at all to set the story there?
Yes. I grew up there a little bit. I lived in Hungary until I was five years old because my family is Hungarian. People sometimes ask me, because I’ve travelled a lot, and I’ve moved around a lot, “Oh, are you part of a military family?” Because I sound American, right? I say, “No, I’m actually Hungarian.”
I was born in Budapest. My mother left with me and my younger brother when I was five years old. We lived in Brussels for a little while, and then we came to the US when I was seven. So I’ve been speaking American English since I was seven. But I’ve been back to Hungary. I went back for the first time when I was a teenager when it was still communist, and also when there were still lots of border restrictions, at least behind the Iron Curtain. For a while, I was going back every couple of years. Now, I try to go back every year, because it’s my hometown.
Budapest is my hometown. It’s a city I know really well. My love for Budapest, which I think is the most wonderful, magical city in the world, was part of the reason that I set the story there. But also my characters are up against a secret society. (You see this in the first novel, and it’s in the blurb, so again, I’m not giving anything away.) But they’re up against a secret society of scientists who are practicing alchemy. I thought, Okay, where in Europe would their headquarters be?
It had to be Budapest, because even at the time, Budapest had a kind of mystique. It was a city that was associated with the exotic, with the strange. It was seen as kind of the edge of Europe. Also, if you read Dracula, which is one of the novels that I wrote about in my dissertation, there’s a certain attitude toward Hungary. Because, of course, Dracula is Hungarian. Actually, Dracula is Székely, which is a tribe that settled in a certain part of Transylvania. At least, this is what Bram Stoker tells us—I don’t think Vlad Dracula, the historical figure that he sort of based him on, I don’t think he was. My grandmother came from that particular tribe. My family actually comes, historically, from that part of Transylvania. The reference to Hungary is as this very exotic place and a place of monsters. That part of the world in general, Hungary, Transylvania, etc., that’s already in the literature. So, even though I personally love Budapest, it comes from the original books, that this was the exotic location where monsters ultimately come from.
Are there any additional literary sources that you’re drawing on in the second book that weren’t in the first one?
Is it a spoiler to talk about them?
Let me think. I don’t want to give too much away. I’ll give you the really obvious one because it’s set up in the first novel. I’m going to be drawing on Dracula. There are some others. I’m not going to tell you about those yet, though. But I will tell you that we are going into Dracula territory in the second novel, which makes sense, right? Because we’re going to Vienna, and we’re going to be going to Budapest.
I want to bring up, too, the format of the novel, because it’s written in this really interesting, unique style. Could you talk about how you came up with the form of the book?
I took a risk. The novel is about women’s voices, right? Women speaking. I wanted to have their voices in there, and in a way I wanted it to be a little bit of a cacophony. I didn’t want there to be this one controlling authorial voice, because that’s not what the novel is about. That’s one thing that went into the voice. I wanted to hear the characters’ voices. I wanted to hear them talking.
The other thing that went into it is that if you look at these monstrous texts from the Victorian era, the monstrosity isn’t just that there are monstrous characters, the texts themselves are monstrous. For example, Dracula is a Frankenstein’s monster of a text because it is stitched together out of diary entries, and recordings, and newspaper articles, so the form of the text itself is a monster.
When I say monster, there’s a technical definition of a monster that comes from a book called On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears, written by a wonderful scholar named Stephen Asma. He says that monsters are creatures that embody a kind of categorical mismatch—meaning that the different parts don’t fit together. We think something is monstrous when the parts don’t fit.
Different texts are monstrous in different ways. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is monstrous in that it’s a frame narrative, but the frame doesn’t end. There’s no closing frame. If you look at the forms of these original novels, they’re all playing with form. So I had to, too.
I wasn’t sure how to do it. I knew I wanted extra information in there, and one way of doing that happens in one of my favorite novels in the entire world, which is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and one thing Susanna Clarke does in that novel is to have footnotes. I love the footnotes. I don’t find things like that annoying, I guess because I’m a scholar, and I love reading footnotes. But she has different histories going on, and different stories going on in the footnotes.
I didn’t want footnotes. I wanted the voices of the girls speaking. That’s what I had done in the short story. When I first started writing this novel, I actually tried writing it as a traditional narrative, and it just laid there on the page. I thought, This isn’t coming alive for me. And if it’s not coming alive for me, then I don’t think it’s going to come alive for other people.
What happens is that the narrative itself is actually written by Catherine, who is a writer. She didn’t just write this book—she writes other books. She writes short stories. She tries to make money from her writing. She’s kind of a pulp fiction writer, so she’s writing this book to make money, but the other girls are in the room with her, or they come and go as she’s writing this book. They look over her shoulder, and they comment on it, so sometimes the narrative is interrupted by two of the characters having an argument in the middle of a scene. Then Catherine says, “Why are you interrupting my narrative?” It’s almost like a novel that’s interrupted by little bits of script.
I knew I was taking a chance, because I knew that some readers would go, “Wow, this is annoying. Someone keeps interrupting this dream of a story.” Because that’s what a story is. It’s like a dream that’s going on in your head, or a movie that’s playing where your head is the movie theater. I wanted to take that risk, because I thought it worked. I thought it fit. I knew some people would like it, and in the end, the kind of annoyance that you feel at being interrupted is also the annoyance that Catherine feels at being interrupted in the story that she’s writing.
There’s one other point I wanted to make about this. This is where my kind of professor hat, my literary critic hat, goes on. There’s a term that comes from a critic named Bakhtin, and he talks about the “carnivalesque.” A novel is carnivalesque when it allows multiple voices, and sometimes those voices are contradicting each other. The carnivalesque is not necessarily a new form, but I think of it as something that modern writers do a lot so that they don’t have that kind of controlling voice as much. That’s the Jane Austen voice. Jane Austen was the absolute mistress of this voice, which is the voice of the narrator that leads you through the story and makes the judgments for you. She does it very well. You don’t want to compete with Jane Austen. But what modern literature does is try to break up that omniscient voice. I was playing with form as much as I was playing with content.
It’s really interesting because there are parts where Catherine will say, “Well, I wasn’t here for this, so Diana will have to write this part, and then I’ll go back and kind of fix it up with my pretty writing and make it sound like the rest of the story.” And then people will say, “Oh, I like the writing style here.” Things like that. It’s really interesting.
There’s actually a part I wrote in the second book—again, no spoilers—where Mary is in a garden, and she mentions the flowers that are growing in that garden, and someone interrupts and says, “Mary doesn’t know the names of those flowers.” Mary says, “No, I don’t know the names of those flowers.” And Catherine says, “Yeah, but I’m in Mary’s point of view, so I can’t just jump to somebody else’s point of view to name the flowers.”
In a way, I was struggling to write a novel. Writing a novel is really hard. The struggles that I had writing a novel are the struggles that Catherine has. What I’ve done that’s different is that I haven’t written over those. I haven’t papered over them. I’m explicit, right? It is, in fact, hard when you want to describe something, but you’re in a certain character’s head, and that character wouldn’t notice that then. What do you do? Actually, you could pull a Tolkien. There’s a moment in, I think it’s the first Lord of the Rings book where he quickly jumps into the head of a fox, and then jumps out again, and you’re like, Wait, what? All of a sudden, we’re seeing the hobbits from the fox’s point of view, and then the fox goes off like he had nothing do with the narrative.
The characters are kind of genre-aware, too, because right at the beginning Catherine is looking in the mirror and thinking about how she looks like a monster, and then the characters say something like, “I don’t believe you really looked in the mirror and thought that.” And she’s like, “No, but in this kind of story, the monster always has to look in the mirror and remark on its monstrous appearance.”
Catherine is talking about how to write a book about monsters, right? There are some things in here that are kind of little jokes that nobody is going to get. I don’t even know why I do this, but I do. For example, that’s one. The name of the book, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, there are people who complain about so many books about so-and-so’s daughter, and I was like, yeah, but this is almost like a joke on that. In a way, it’s a book about being a daughter, and the daughter of a mad alchemist or scientist, but I wanted to play with the fact that that is a bit of a cliché.
Also, one of things that you’re told never, ever, ever to do as a writer is have a character describe themselves by looking in a mirror. I’m like, I’m going to start with that and get it out of the way. My character looks in the mirror, and she’s a monster, and then Catherine justifies it. The level this goes to, just so you know, nobody is going to care about this, but there’s a point at which Mrs. Poole complains about having to pay butcher’s bills. She talks about Mr. Biles the Butcher, and actually that comes from a letter written by Stevenson himself. He was talking about how he really needed to get more writing done because Biles the Butcher needs to be paid, and his bills are piling up. It was either Stevenson’s actual butcher, or he was making a joke, too, I don’t know.
What do you think about other books and shows and things that have dealt with these kind of Victorian monsters, like Penny Dreadful, or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, or the Roger Zelazny novel A Night in the Lonesome October? Do you have any thoughts about any of those?
I love The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I thought that was so much fun. I haven’t read all of them, but I love the way it was done. There weren’t enough women, which is one of the reasons I wrote my book.
For the most part, I really love them. There are some where I feel as though, naming no names, but there are some where I feel as though people aren’t really engaging with the original material, and if you love the original material, and you respect the original material, you kind of owe it to that material to really be in conversation with it. You don’t just want to take something. If you’ve got a friend, you don’t just want to take stuff from that friend. You want to say, “Hey, can I borrow this from you, and I’ll give you something back, too?”
It’s also true of fairy tales, which is another thing I really love. The modern retellings of fairy tales that are really good are the ones that are actually kind of in a conversation with The Brothers Grimm or in a conversation with Charles Perrault, and sort of talking to the originals. When books or shows don’t do that—I think it happens more with shows to be honest, and with big budget movies where the director decides Oh, I’m going to do this. Isn’t Frankenstein cool?, but then doesn’t really engage with what’s really going on in Frankenstein at a deeper level.
There’s an interesting line toward the end of the book where one of the characters is imagining what Mary Shelley might think if she were to read this book, your book, and she says, “I think she would have excused its defects and praised it as an accurate portrayal of a group of women trying to get along in the world as best they can.” I was wondering if you could talk about in what way you think that having a group of women, as opposed to a group of men, affects the way the story goes or the way it’s told.
My observation is that the characters seem to be a lot more supportive of each other than a group of men would be. I feel like a group of men would be giving each other crap all the time and mocking each other and constantly vying to see who’s top dog. There’s just a different dynamic with at least this group of women.
Most of the men that I can think of are loners. Especially mad scientist stories tend to be about men who are very much alone. Like, Dr. Jekyll is radically alone. He even rejects his friends. Frankenstein is very much alone. They’re stories about men keeping secrets and not being able to talk to anybody else, which seems to be actually a very masculine narrative. I don’t know if you, as a guy, feel this, but it seems to me that the way we’re socialized in Western society, a lot of guys don’t talk about things, so it makes sense that they’d be off by their lonesome. In Dracula, that’s different, because the men do band together. They don’t talk, though. That’s the thing. Jonathan Harker, and Holmwood, and Seward don’t sit around going, “Hey, did you see what Van Helsing was wearing the other day? Do you think that looks good on him? I don’t think that looks really good on him.” You’re right. You don’t find that kind of camaraderie. They also don’t really have money problems, because Holmwood is rich.
So these girls, first of all, they don’t have money. They need to make money, and they need to make money in a society where it’s difficult for women to work. They need to find a way to support themselves, and also, they chatter, and they gossip, and they get into fights. It’s like living with your four sisters. I didn’t grow up with my sister, but I know women’s relationships, especially with sisters, they can be pretty fraught.
Is that going to come up in book two? The more fraught aspects of female relationships?
Yes. They disagree about things, and sometimes they disagree about really important things. What I like about these characters is there’s a sense in which I wrote them, and there’s a sense in which they wrote and write themselves. They seem to really get along pretty well. Catherine is a bit of a lone puma, so she tends to go off by herself and make decisions and not necessarily listen to the others all the time. Diana is her own thing. She’s constantly getting into trouble. She’s constantly getting the others mad. A lot of the conflict has to do with Diana, and a lot of Mary’s conflict has to do with Diana because on the one hand she gets very fond of Diana, on the other hand, Diana is constantly annoying. It’s like a little brother or a little sister who is constantly . . . you’re supposed to watch your little sibling, and your little sibling is continually getting into really bad trouble: That’s the situation. For me, I don’t know if other people will read it this way, but for me, this is really a book about sisterhood.
One thing that came through very clearly is how much you like these characters. There is this amazing mystery-action plot in the book, but I feel like you would just be happy just hanging out with these characters, just sitting around, having them drink tea, and talk. That you have that sort of rapport with the characters.
I like them. They’re awesome. I’d love to go visit them and stay with Mary for a while at the Athena Club. The funny thing is that some comments that I’ve seen—I try not to pay too much attention to the things people say, but I have seen one comment that I’m not going to take to heart, and the comment is, “Oh well, after the action ends there is this period where the girls are sitting around and having tea.”
Again, not a spoiler, because they sit around and have tea. That’s the most important part. Yeah, you go on adventures, but then for me, the most important moments aren’t actually the moments where you’re having the big adventure scenes, it’s the moments when you have characters that are sitting around, and they’re talking, and they’re getting to know each other. In a way, what I did was use two different ways of writing and thinking about writing. One is this kind of pulp sensibility, which is like, yes, go off and have adventures, and defeat monsters, or be monsters. And then the other was a realistic novel about women living in the nineteenth century and getting along and trying to get along while they’re all working together getting to know each other and the tension. That could be a realistic book. It’s wedded to the pulp stuff. I hope I put them together reasonably well, but there’s going to be a tension there, and I’m sure some readers are going to feel it.
One thing I wanted to ask you is you mentioned that a lot of these classic monsters all sort of arose around the same couple of decades, but actually, Frankenstein and John Polidori’s The Vampyre, the first modern vampire, the first big one, was like literally at the same party. There was definitely something going on at this time.
Yes, which was much earlier, right? Frankenstein was published in 1818. I don’t remember the publication date of The Vampyre, but yeah, you had this party where Lord Byron was sitting around with Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, Claire Clairmont, John Polidori, and you have these two iconic texts, The Vampyre and Frankenstein, coming out of it. It partly, I think, has to do with the fact that beginnings and ends of centuries are these moments of transition, and so you have those two texts coming out of a transitional period at the end of one century and the beginning of the next. Then another hundred years passes, and you have these other iconic novels coming again in that liminal period. Technically, it’s called a fin de siècle, which is the end of the century. But it’s that transitional period, that liminal period, when it feels to us as though everything is changing.
And, notice, by the way, that we’re in a transitional and liminal period, and there are so many monster stories. We’re in another one of those periods where it feels appropriate to write monster stories.
I took a class in college on Frankenstein, and I would really encourage people to read the novel. It’s really, really good. One thing is that you should read, according to my professor, who was a Mary Shelley scholar, you should read the 1818 text, which is the one we read, because apparently then Percy Shelley rewrote it subsequently. This professor, at least, felt that he had kind of messed it up.
I actually disagree with that, but that’s okay. Not to disagree with your college professor, but one of the things I wanted to make sure and do in this novel is kind of make clear how much I owe to Mary Shelley. Because Mary Shelley is one of my idols, so it was sort of like, if Catherine bows down to Mary Shelley, it’s because I’m bowing down to Mary Shelley. Catherine is deeply influenced by Shelley because Shelley is one of our most important women writers. Especially for those of us who write fantasy and science fiction.
I wanted to make sure that we gave Mary Shelley her due. She’s deeply influential on Catherine herself, and I would say, yes, absolutely read Frankenstein. Frankenstein, the book, is so much more complicated than any movie adaptation could possibly be. It’s so smart. It’s so interesting. Frankenstein’s monster is such an interesting character. The edition issue: I would say there’s controversy over how much Percy had to do with the 1832 edition, so I don’t know how much he actually changed. I’ve seen people make the argument that actually it really was Mary Shelley’s creation. My take on it is I actually prefer the ’32 edition because it fleshes some things out a lot more. There are some things in there that we know Mary put in, and we know the reason she put them in. There are topical references to political things that happened at the time. At the same time, yeah, read the 1818 edition and see what she wrote. She was a teenager when she wrote this, and when I teach it, I tell my students, “This was a girl who was not much older than you are, and she wrote this absolutely brilliant novel.”
The way I remember it was that the 1818 version came out, and people had said that it was grotesque, and that it was not sufficiently pious and stuff like that, and it had been rewritten in some ways to emphasize that Dr. Frankenstein had transgressed against God, which was not really such a huge point of the original text.
There was a more religious message. The other thing is that technically the relationship between Frankenstein and Elizabeth, the woman he’s in love with, changed because they were—I’m doing this from memory, so I hope I’m not wrong about this—they were something like cousins in the 1818 edition, and kind of the perception of what was too close as a relative changed over time, and they were made kind of adoptive brother and sister, but not actually related in any way. I think I remember that that was the case. There were parts of it that were definitely responding to criticisms and things that were happening at the time. Read both. I’m sure everyone has their favorite version, and they’re both fascinating.
Do you have any other tips or things people should keep in mind if they go back and read Dracula or Jekyll and Hyde, or any of these kinds of books?
The main thing I would say is go back and read them, because you’re going to be surprised. We have a cultural construct of what these texts are about that doesn’t match what’s actually in the texts. I would say, if you can, read some books about them after you’ve read them, or maybe take a class on them, because there’s so much fascinating stuff there in terms of how they fit in with history and historical ideas. It really helps to understand Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde if you understand something about the controversy over Darwinian evolutionary theory, for example. My tip is to read them, and also to try and get a sense of their historical context.
When you talk about reading books about them, I read a book years ago called Bram Stoker and the Man Who was Dracula, and the premise of it was that Bram Stoker had based the character of Dracula on Henry Irving, I think was his name, who was the most famous actor of his day.
He was a good friend of Bram Stoker’s, but he was also Stoker’s boss. Stoker lived in London, and he was actually the manager of Henry Irving’s theater for many, many years. I totally buy that, and the reason I totally buy it is that one of the first things he did after the book was published was try to get Irving to do a play version, and he really wanted Irving to play Dracula.
It’s just so interesting for me, because I’ve said before that I think that you imagine Bram Stoker, the guy who wrote Dracula, I just imagine him as this sort of goth guy in a castle somewhere. It’s like, no, he was this redheaded Irish guy who ran a theater company, and they performed for the queen. It’s just not the stereotypical thing you picture.
No, he was really big and athletic, actually. The funny thing is some people think Bram Stoker only did Dracula. His other literature is extremely interesting. He wrote some very realistic novels, and then he wrote some gothic fiction because that was really popular at the time. There’s The Queen of Seven Stars, which actually is one of my favorites, about these archaeologists who find an Egyptian queen who’s been mummified called Queen Tera, and they’re like, “Oh, let’s revive Queen Tera,” so this is an early mummy story.
Then there’s The Lair of the White Worm, which is this crazy gothic novel that I think never even reached its finished form. I think he was writing it while he was already ill, and it never quite got finished. But that’s really strange.
And then he wrote some short stories. His short stories are really weird. I think they’re now published in a volume called Dracula’s Guest and Other Stories. What’s usually placed as the first story is “Dracula’s Guest,” and it’s a short story that was meant to be the first chapter of Dracula. It was actually taken out of the book because he felt like it didn’t fit.
That’s really interesting. You mentioned one piece of feedback that you got that you’re going to ignore, but have there been other pieces of feedback you’ve gotten on this book so far that have stood out for you?
It’s not so much feedback. It’s hearing the chatter, and what people are writing, and reviews. When you’re a writer, you can’t pay too much attention to reviews, because sometimes people hate the book, and then you’re like, Wow, I must suck. There are things where people have said, “Oh, this is about young women coming together and forming a found family.” I’ve been like, “Yes! You got it. Yeah, that’s it. Yay, I did it,” or, “You got it. And hopefully I put something in there that made you get that out of it.” That’s been really helpful. There are things like, “Oh, the girls talking during the writing of the novel is a little annoying.” Whereas, I’m like, “Yeah, I know. Catherine said so, too. I know it’s annoying. I’m sorry. But, they did it, so I don’t know what to do about that.” It’s like when you’re trying to tell a story and people are chiming in. That is annoying. I haven’t read anything yet that makes me go, “Oh, yeah, I need to do something differently.”
What I am getting that’s very helpful is I’m working on a revision of the second novel, and I got comments from my editor. My editor is brilliant, and so the things she’s said where I’ve gone, “Oh, yeah, you know, I don’t want to do the exact thing that you told me to do, but I understand why you told me to do it if it means that I get to keep this thing that I wanted to do well enough.” The things she’s said that made me go, “Oh, that’s how it goes. Okay, now I understand.” Because you get someone who is a really good editor, and they make you look at your work differently, and so when you think about how I wrote this novel, people think, Oh, the writer sits down and starts typing, and the novel comes out. It’s like, no, I’m in conversation with a drainpipe in London. I mean, that drainpipe gave me an idea. And I’m in conversation with my editor, and she gave me an idea.
And Navah Wolfe was the editor on the book?
Navah Wolfe, who is amazing, from Saga Press is the editor. And I’m so, so glad that she liked this book and was enthusiastic about it. The best thing about it was when she bought it, she didn’t say, “Oh, well, we think this is commercial and it will sell.” She said, “I get these women. I totally understand what they’re doing.” She called it, I’m trying to remember her words, she called it a “lady-bro novel.” She said, “I’ve been looking for a team of women like this. This is what I want to publish.” I was like, “Yes, not only do you like it, but you like it for the exact same reason that I wrote it, because I want to see a team of women be monsters, but also do things.”
Have you had any interest yet from film or TV people?
I will say that, yes, we’ve actually had interest, which has been wonderful. I would love it if this were made into something like a TV series. It’s not because I wrote it. It’s because if you think about what it would look like visually: It would be set in the late nineteenth century. You could do so much in terms of costumes and settings. It could be gorgeous. Even apart from the plotline.
The other thing is people talk about how there aren’t as many good roles for women as there should be. You know, there are a lot of female characters in this book. Seeing some really amazing actresses get to be a puma woman or a gentle, melancholy giantess, or the very proper Mrs. Poole: that would be amazing. I think they would be good acting roles for women, and that would be a lovely thing to see. To see more women on screen.
That would be great. I really hope that happens.
Oh, and none of them is the love interest of anybody else. Actually, in a way, if you think about it, the male characters in this novel are seen from a female gaze. I didn’t write it that way. I can’t help it. I have a female gaze. The Sherlock Holmes character here is the Sherlock Holmes I had a crush on. He’s definitely seen from a female perspective.
We’re pretty much out of time, so do you have any final thoughts you want to say, or any projects you want to mention, or anything like that?
The big project right now is writing the second book. I will say that hopefully people will buy the first book, and read it, and like it, or get it from the library. I am so one hundred percent behind libraries. Libraries saved me when I was a kid, and I know they do that for a lot of other people. Go to your library. Ask for a copy. Or go to your bookstore. They should have it, too. Then the second book will be the next big project. Those are the two things I’m really focused on right now.
Great. This book, once again, is called The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter. We’ve been talking to Theodora Goss, the author. Dora, thank you so much for joining us.
Thank you so much, David. This has been lovely.
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