So, you all might remember that The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is one of my favorite new releases. Well, today we have the honor of an interview with the author herself, Theodora Goss!
Based on some of literature’s horror and science fiction classics, this is the story of a remarkable group of women who come together to solve the mystery of a series of gruesome murders—and the bigger mystery of their own origins.
Mary Jekyll, alone and penniless following her parents’ death, is curious about the secrets of her father’s mysterious past. One clue in particular hints that Edward Hyde, her father’s former friend and a murderer, may be nearby, and there is a reward for information leading to his capture…a reward that would solve all of her immediate financial woes.
But her hunt leads her to Hyde’s daughter, Diana, a feral child left to be raised by nuns. With the assistance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Mary continues her search for the elusive Hyde, and soon befriends more women, all of whom have been created through terrifying experimentation: Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherin Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein.
When their investigations lead them to the discovery of a secret society of immoral and power-crazed scientists, the horrors of their past return. Now it is up to the monsters to finally triumph over the monstrous.
Was there a particular book/series/author that inspired you to start writing?
Oh, it’s so hard to say! I was one of those kids who always had my nose in a book, and I read everything: E. Nesbit and George Macdonald and J.R.R. Tolkien and Agatha Christie and Virginia Woolf and Willa Cather and Angela Carter . . . As a child, I read extensively and eclectically. Now I read less because I write and teach so much, but my reading list is still pretty eclectic. I can’t really say there’s one particular book or series or author, but the books that inspired me the most at the time I started writing were fantasy novels that came out when I was a teenager, by writers like Tanith Lee, Anne McCaffrey, and Ursula Le Guin. I still have poetry I wrote in high school inspired by Tanith Lee—it’s the poetry equivalent of fanfic. Those writers spoke to me as a teenage girl in ways more classic writers didn’t, and it felt as though they were leaving a space for me, as though I could work in worlds with wizards and dragons in it. I could not write about Virginia Woolf’s world, or Willa Cather’s, because those were not my worlds. But Pern or Middle Earth were worlds I could somehow inhabit imaginatively and move around in. They had spaces for creative, nerdy teenage girls in them!
Was there a specific moment that inspired The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter?
Yes! It was when I read a particular paragraph in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In it, Victor Frankenstein, who is in the process of creating a female monster, decides not to create her after all. He has already assembled her, so this involves actually taking her apart—disassembling her. Then he throws her body parts into the sea, because obviously he doesn’t want to be found with a bunch of female body parts. I don’t remember when I read that exactly—long ago, because I’ve read Frankenstein many times. But the more I taught the book to undergraduates, the more it struck me, and the more horrifying I thought it was. He’s destroying the female monster because she could reproduce with the male monster—that would be bad. But just as bad is the possibility that she might reject the male monster and be drawn instead to what he calls the superior beauty of human men. And do what? I’m not sure, but it’s clear that the female monster represents an even bigger threat than the male monster, so she must be destroyed. I think it was that specific paragraph that drew my attention to how often female monsters are created or almost created, and then destroyed. They all die. I wanted to create female monsters who didn’t die, who got their own stories.
Do you draw inspiration from pop culture (TV shows, Video Games, Movies, etc.), and if so, which ones?
Yes, but it’s hard to say which ones specifically, because pop culture is the air we breathe. One definite influence on my book was the television show Once Upon a Time, because it had an ensemble of female leads. I thought, hey, a television show about the relationships between women! In a way, it gave me permission to write a series of books focused on female monsters and their relationships. But I think writers are like blenders. You put a bunch of things in—bananas, strawberries, blueberries, maybe kale nowadays, and blend, and out comes something different, a purple smoothie. You can’t tell what the ingredients were anymore, but the smoothie would not be a purple smoothie without them.
If you could live anywhere (any time, era, and place), where would it be?’
Honestly? Probably now. I mean, if I could visit any time and place, I would visit lots and lots of times and places. Turn of the century Europe would be my first stop—I would go to London, Paris, Vienna, Budapest, all the places I wrote about, to see what they were really like, notice all the details. I would like to see all sorts of different historical periods. Were people different in them? Were they basically like us but without vaccines? How did ordinary people live? And what truly happened at important historical events? I would love to see it all. I have insatiable curiosity. But for living in, I would have to pick now because it’s the best time so far in all of human history to be a woman writer. I am immune to diseases that would have killed women in the past, I can have a job and financial freedom, I can wear comfortable clothing. I didn’t die in childbirth—that’s a big one. So for the sake of my work, I would pick this time, this place.
If you had 24 hours to do ANYTHING you wanted, what would you do?
Go back in time and tell all the writers I really love how much their work meant to me, and how grateful I am to them. Writers never really know if their work is going to survive. I’d like to tell them that their work survived, that it was loved. I think that would mean a lot.
You’re trapped on an island, but are allowed to bring one person, one food item, and one object. What are your choices?
Person: a good physician. Food: probably a really large bag of trail mix. Object: whatever communication device will allow us to call for help! Alternatively, a first-aid kit.
What was the most difficult part of writing about such well known characters?
Finding their voices. I think that’s usually true of novel writing—you have to find your characters’ voices, and it’s not a particularly easy process. In this case, I had to figure out who my Beatrice Rappaccini was, for example. She’s still Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Beatrice, but his is filtered through the perception of the character Giovanni—it’s the Beatrice that Giovanni is in love with. I wanted to create a Beatrice underneath that, a rounded woman rather than the flat idealization of one. Of course I did a lot of research, particularly for Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. But really it was great fun to create my versions of these characters.
Did you enjoy getting to give classic literature your own spin? If so, which story/character did you enjoy reinterpreting the most?
Yes, absolutely. I think the one that gave me the most pleasure to reinterpret was Victor Frankenstein’s female monster, because she’s where it all started, and I thought she got such a raw deal in the book. It was wonderful bringing her back to life as my Justine. But just in general I love these books and this era—I wrote an entire doctoral dissertation on them, and I teach a course on classic literary monsters. I also really enjoyed writing about so many different kinds of women—some heroines, some villains, some calm and wise, some wild and unpredictable, all of them strong but in different ways. We’re so used to having a team of superheroes with one token female member—we’re used to women appearing on screen only as love interests, or if they’re the lead, being the exceptional woman, the Wonder Woman who is different from all other women. I wanted to write about women who are monsters but also human beings—about how they felt and acted and interacted. That, more than anything else, was the true pleasure of writing these books.
Thank you so much, Theodora, for the interview! Make sure to check out her wonderful series, and check back for reviews of the rest of her books!