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Kiersten White Talks with Roger


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Photo: Blue Lily Photo.

You might not remember Elizabeth Frankenstein — I didn’t — but she was the original bride of Frankenstein — Victor Frankenstein — and things didn’t go so well for her. In The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein, Kiersten White looks at Mary Shelley’s story through her eyes.

Roger Sutton: What is your history with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? When did you first read it?

KW: I read it for a class in high school or college and loved it. Some classics you don’t really connect with, but this struck a chord with me. I loved the story and the writing, and it lodged deep in my subconscious. I’ve always loved Frankenstein adaptations as well, movies and whatnot. I have Frankenstein picture books, three different editions of the novel, figurines. I kind of look like a rabid fangirl, which I suppose I am. And then a little over a year ago, my publisher at Delacorte, Beverly Horowitz, and my editor, Wendy Loggia, emailed me out of the blue and said, “Hey, next year’s the two hundredth anniversary of Frankenstein. Would you be interested in writing a retelling?”

RS: Yeah, we actually have Mary Shelley on the cover of the September/October Horn Book Magazine, because there are a bunch of new biographies.

KW: I’ve really been enjoying those. The picture-book biographies are fun, though they have to skim over quite a bit of her life. I knew I wanted to do a very faithful retelling of the novel rather than a reimagining or a modern update. There’s still so much weight and value in the story itself, and what it had to say during its time is applicable to our day. I already knew quite a bit about Mary Shelley, but I reinvested in studying her. Her life was so fascinating and tragic and dramatic that it informed the type of retelling that I wanted to do.

RS: Do you think that your knowledge of Shelley’s life affected how you wrote your version of Frankenstein?

KW: Oh, absolutely. The book was first published anonymously, and it wasn’t until years later that she attached her name to the story. She was so self-deprecating in her introduction to that edition, focusing more on her husband Percy Shelley — stuff like “Percy encouraged me to write, not because he thought I had any talent, but because he wanted to see if eventually I might have potential.”

RS: Ugh.

KW: It got under my skin. And in Percy’s own introduction, he says that if people knew who else was writing when this book was created, they’d be much more interested in that work. (Referencing Byron, or possibly himself, knowing Percy.) I went into my reread with the tone of those two introductions firmly in mind. That’s when I noticed how sidelined all of the women in the book are. They exist to serve the men’s purposes. They are what Victor needed them to be, and they exist to be victims to the pride and the hubris and the monstrosity of the men around them. No one protects them. They all end up dying as a result of Victor’s pride. Knowing what a dynamic and brilliant and fascinating person Mary was made me look at the character of Elizabeth and think, “Okay, what would she have had going on under the surface of her ‘this is what everybody needs me to be’ exterior?”

RS: I read Frankenstein, I think, in eighth grade, and read it like an eighth grader. There’s a mad scientist and there’s a monster. I didn’t even remember there is an Elizabeth until I read your book and did some research into it.

KW: She’s Victor’s bride. She gets smothered on their wedding night by the creature, which is so dramatic and tragic, but she’s such a side note in the novel. Victor never thinks about her except when it suits him. He leaves home for years at a time, and goes back and expects her to be waiting and exactly what he needs. I feel like that reflected Mary’s experience of life, being around these brilliant, volatile men like Percy.

RS: You could have just made her — in our twenty-first-century spirit — this feisty heroine who takes over the story, but she’s very complicated, your Elizabeth.

KW: I like thinking about power dynamics when it comes to women. How women attain power, how they keep power across the ages, because that shifts. The ways you can have security as a woman shift. So when I was writing Elizabeth I thought, “If she were just a feisty, plucky heroine, that would be very damaging to her life. That would risk her safety and her place in the world, because everything she has she owes to the men around her.”

I actually grew up in a community that has a culture of pretty strict gender roles. Not necessarily in my own family, but in the community at large. I learned very young what I needed to do and how I needed to present myself in order to get praise and love and to avoid any repercussions for “misbehavior.” It gave me perspective on what it’s like to present one version of yourself to the outside world in order to stay safe while having this very different internal landscape.

RS: You’ve written books before that have drawn on traditional tales, but here you have an actual authored source. How much can you play with the source material without feeling like you’re betraying Mary Shelley’s work?

KW: I felt like I had a lot of wiggle room because the original book is told by Victor, and he’s an unreliable narrator. He glosses over things and changes his story. He’s relating everything on behalf of everyone else. So it gave me room to play, because the book that we already have is Victor’s version of the story and I wanted to tell Elizabeth’s version. Retellings are a conversation with the original. While I love and respect Mary Shelley and think she’s brilliant, there’s definitely that flaw of the female characters being not fully realized. I told myself that I think she would appreciate it — but she probably wouldn’t appreciate how much I hate her husband!

RS: And it seems that your attitude toward your Victor is different from Shelley’s attitude toward her Victor.

KW: Yeah. People have this idea that he’s a tragic hero, and I don’t think he is. But even within the original text, Mary was very critical of him. With so much of what he does, she’s letting the reader see he’s not doing it for the right reasons, he shouldn’t have done it, he’s not taking responsibility for it. I feel like she has sympathy for him, but I don’t believe she ever wanted to portray him as a hero.

RS: What was it like to reread Frankenstein with your retelling in mind?

KW: It was interesting, because I definitely had a focus. It’s like when you’re in the editing stage of your manuscript. Every time you edit you’re looking for a different type of problem, so every time you read it’s a different book. You notice things differently. I read Victor differently than I had before, and obviously I paid very close attention to all of the women in the story. And you’re also making notes — this is the timeline, this is how this character is presented. You’re approaching it more like a research resource than a novel, while also wanting to pay attention to themes and tone. Basically it was taking reading for fun and making it a tremendous amount of work!

RS: You’re looking for gaps, to see where you can sneak in.

KW: Exactly. I was also reading it for those areas when things were happening with Victor and I could have Elizabeth actively doing things that wouldn’t conflict with the original book. Inevitably, there are some conflicts. I shortened Victor’s time at school because it’s a YA novel so I couldn’t have my main character be twenty-two. The ending sequence doesn’t line up exactly with the original’s, and so on.

RS: I don’t want to talk about your ending too much, because we don’t want to give it away, but we can’t avoid it completely. The ARC of your book is sitting here on my desk, and I’m looking at the title, and I’m, like, “Oh!” I didn’t get it until just now. It’s a really smart title.

KW: Thank you. “The dark descent” is from a line in Paradise Lost, which was one of Mary Shelley’s inspirations for Frankenstein. That was also something I studied as I was approaching the writing of this novel — the history of Paradise Lost. Each of the chapter titles in my book is a portion of a line from Paradise Lost.

RS: I didn’t know that. Here’s my dark confession: I’ve never read Paradise Lost.

KW: That’s okay. I didn’t read all of it like I was supposed to in college. I just faked it.

RS: Did you know how you were going to end the story?

KW: Yes. Generally, whenever I sit down to write a story I know the ending and I know the characters. I know where they’re aiming, and I find my way to the end. This story’s ending shifted a bit when I got there — I wanted the motivations to change just a little. But I always knew what the ending was going to be.

RS: I was quite impressed with the way you did that, because I thought I was done, and then there was this “Oh, by the way, there’s one more page here.”

KW: I heard from someone who didn’t finish turning the pages. She thought that was the ending, and then she picked it up to look at the acknowledgements, and she was like, “Oh my gosh, there was one more page!” Yeah, it’s an important page.

RS: Are you tempted to have a go with another classic?

KW: I would love to. I really enjoy retellings, because I enjoy the conversation with the original. I enjoy that creative process and the challenge of how to build a story that stands completely on its own merits but can also be read in tandem with another book. From a simply commercial point of view, there’s a lot of value in retellings because of the familiarity. I think that’s why we see so many reboots and sequels in Hollywood. “I know I like Frankenstein so I’ll pick this up. I know I like the Avengers — all forty thousand of them — so I will see this new movie.” There’s also a subversive value in retellings, because you can get people to pick something up that they normally might not.

RS: Does The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein feel as much your book as your other books or do you share the credit?

KW: I definitely share the credit. I’m so proud of this novel; I think it might be my best work. But I know that it only exists because of Mary Shelley’s brilliance. I spent a few months researching and plotting, and then I spent about a month trying to write it in epistolary form, in the same form as the original Frankenstein. But it wasn’t working, so I scrapped the twenty or thirty thousand words I had. Then because I’d already done the groundwork, I was able to write another draft in about six days.

RS: Gasp!

KW: Yeah. It was almost like I was Victor having one of those fevered fits, sinking so deeply into the story and chasing it from scene to scene, typing outside while my youngest child was riding his bike, staying up late into the night. I was just sort of consumed by it.

RS: There’s the Romantic ideal, isn’t it, though?

KW: Right? I feel like Mary would have been proud of that.

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Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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