We have a treat in store today! A rare interview with MARY SHELLEY author of Frankenstein the popular new novel just released.......
WHAT!?! Just kidding, sort of. But I do have a treat for you. I recently attended a living history portrayal of Mary Shelley by Ms. Susan Marie Frontczak. It was such a wonderful presentation I wanted to share the experience with IFW readers. I interviewed first Mary Shelley about her work and then Susan about hers. I think it turned out to be a splendid interview. Hope you agree. If you have any questions for Susan, please leave a comment!
(Note: In the 19th century, men were often referred to by their surnames, and women by their given names. Even in her diary Mary referred to her own husband as ‘Shelley.’ Mary Shelley speaks from the year 1844. She is living in England.)
"Your novel Frankenstein created quite a sensation when it was first published 25 years ago, in 1818. What was that like for you?"
By the time Frankenstein was being read and commented upon, in the summer of 1818, Shelley and I were living in Italy. However the publisher sent me several reviews. Some thought the book audacious and impious – to suggest that man could create a man. Others graciously credited the author with the imaginative nature of the book and its vivid descriptions. I say “credited the author” because of course my name was not on the book. A woman could not put her name on a book, let alone one that is as controversial as this one. The reviewers all assumed a man had written Frankenstein, and – because I had dedicated the book to my father, William Godwin – many supposed my husband the author, out of his respect for my father’s writings. I took pleasure in corresponding with one of the reviewers, Sir Walter Scott, to thank him for his kind notice in Blackwood’s magazine, praising Frankenstein, but to correct his misconception that Shelley could have written such a juvenile attempt as mine, and admit myself as the author.
By the time I returned to England in 1823, the first theatrical production was underway and lo & behold! I found myself famous! Frankenstein has had prodigious success as a drama. Of course I received no royalty from the dramatic programmes, but it was quite a thrill to see the various dramatic interpretations have a run.
Perhaps my most cherished review came from my father, who in his lifetime published over twenty books, both fiction and non-fiction. He wrote that Frankenstein was “the most wonderful work to have been written at twenty years of age that I have ever heard of.” Given our tumultuous past, the honey of his acceptance and encouragement tasted particularly sweet.
How did you come up with such a fascinating story?
The summer of 1816 Shelley and I visited Switzerland, and became the neighbors of the renowned poet, Lord Byron. Byron and Shelley planned to spend the summer on Lake Geneva. However, as the skies brought only incessant rain, and a volume of ghost stories fell into our hands – translated from the German into French - we amused each other by reading them aloud in front of the fire. At one point Byron suggested that we each take our hand at composing a story to excite the others.
For days I despaired of coming up with a tale. But then, stimulated by a discussion between the poets, Byron and my Shelley, in which they debated whether one might ever discover the cause of life, I found myself in the midst of a waking dream, in which a man driven by ambition brings to life a horrifying creature of his own assembly. Thus started my composition, although in its final form, my first-scribed words “It was on a dreary night in November” don’t appear until the opening of Chapter V.
What might surprise the reader is how much of this fantastic and impossible story comes from my own commonplace experience. I set the story in Geneva, describing the mountainous and glacial country that surrounded me. Both the wealthy Swiss burghers and the impoverished peasants who people the book emerged from observations taken during our nearby travels. Perhaps more pertinent, the Creature’s sense of being excluded from society, through no fault of his own, mirrors my own experience, time and again. While I have not suffered from hideous appearance, I have been judged and condemned by circumstance, and thereby shut out from connection with society. So the locale, the characters, and the sensations all derive from happenings in my own life, albeit they are combined with a large measure of imagination.
What was your journey to publication like?
A full year and a half passed to bring the three-volume novel to fruition. For about a year I found myself occupied almost daily with writing, and then editing. Though, to be fair, other obligations and necessities strove to occupy our time: We returned from Switzerland to England and needed to find a place to settle; my sister, Claire, bore a daughter Allegra, Byron’s child; Shelley found himself embroiled in a lawsuit to regain custody of the children from his first marriage; and I bore our second daughter, Clara. Nevertheless, the novel gradually took form. Then of course I needed to make a fair copy – that is, to write out the novel afresh from start to finish with quill and ink in a fair hand, that it might be read with ease by the publishers to whom I submitted it for consideration.
"Why do you think the book still has such a grip on our imaginations?
Perhaps Frankenstein continues to be referenced in discourse today because readers see multiple and various allegories in the story. Some look at the creature as representing lost and abandoned souls in our own society. Some focus on the act of creating a daemon and ask, as Shelley did, whether our ability to create machines is outstripping our moral development. Still others take up the cause of whether a crude visage and form truly reflects the inner workings of a man.
Perhaps interest in the story persists because I let judgment proceed in the mind of the reader. I would ask you, to what extent should the creature carry the guilt of the murders, and to what extent is his creator, Frankenstein, responsible? Do you think that Frankenstein should have created a companion for his creature or not? Why?
I am pleased that such lengthy discussion has ensued amongst so many who have found it worth their while to read Frankenstein. One reviewer condemned the book for having no “moral or philosophical conclusion.” That is as I would wish it. Unlike many social reformers, including my parents and my husband, I believe that people cannot be told how or what to think. But a novel gives an author a chance to invite the reader from the status quo to consider another point of view. The reader must come to his own moral conclusions.
Talk about your life as a writer. What are your days like? What does your family think about your writing?
These days I am often left to write in solitude, as Shelley is twenty-two years gone, and even my father eight years in his grave. My son, summoned by fellow youth, wishes to spend his hours among his companions. But O, my days with Shelley! How memory makes a paradise of those lost hours! For eight years I communicated with unlimited freedom with one whose genius, far transcending mine, awakened & guided my thoughts. We often read to one another, from the Greek or Italian masters. At times we shared what we wrote. O, to have such a confidant again!
At present I occupy my days editing letters and notations made during my recent travels to the continent, to be published under the name “Rambles in Germany and Italy.” I have found it a pleasant thing while travelling to have in the carriage the works of those who have passed through the same country. Sometimes they inform, sometimes they excite curiosity. If alone, they serve as society; if with others, they suggest matter for conversation. Thus do I offer my observations as a guide, a pioneer, or simply a fellow-traveller, for those who come after me.
What are three things Mary absolutely cannot do without?
I would beg four.
I cherish my son, Percy. While I also yearn for visits with friends, for social intercourse to refresh the mind and heart, to tell true, I have lived without for so long, and life persists regardless. My affections have been cruelly wounded – death, absence, or falsehood have struck at all, except the one dear Exception, Percy My son. Percy is all my stay and hope. I bless God that my Percy is well, dutiful, and thriving.
I could not live without my Imagination. Loneliness has been the curse of my life. What should I have done if my Imagination had not been my companion? I mourn those I have lost, uttering feeble laments which cannot turn aside the hand of fate. But my imagination finds other vents – that is my treasure – my Kubla Khan – my stately pleasure ground through which a mighty river runs down to a sunless sea. Little harm has my imagination done me and how much good! My poor heart pierced through & through has found balm from it – it has been the aegis to my sensibility. Sometimes there have been periods when misery has pushed my imagination aside, and those indeed were periods I shudder to remember. But the fairy only stepped aside, she watched her time, and at the first opportunity, her beaming face peeped in, and the weight of deadly woe was lightened.
In concert with imagination, how would I survive without quill and ink? How could I live without corresponding to Claire, to friends, to my journal? How could I breathe without giving life to my Imagination?
And if you will grant me a fourth source of sustenance, I will forever grant myself the touch and voice of Nature. Be it waves sparkling and dancing beneath the sun’s early rays or a soft evening breeze, with silver bow new bent in the western heaven; nature in her sweetest mood raises ones thoughts to God and imparts peace.
Is there anything you want to tell readers before you go?
I have no glass to peer into the future. But whatever transpires, one thought always calms me. There was a time in my life I believed myself to be dying. And my soul being alive though the bodily functions were faint and persisting, I had opportunity to look at death in the face and did not fear it. Far from it. My feeling was - I go to no new creation - I enter under no new laws. The God that made this beautiful world, made that into which I go - As there is beauty and love here - such is there - and I felt as if my spirit would when it left my frame be received & sustained by a beneficent and gentle power. I had no fear - rather though I had no active wish - I had a passive satisfaction in death - Whether the nature of my illness - debility from loss of blood without pain, caused this tranquility of soul I cannot tell - but so it was - and it had this blessed effect that I have never since anticipated death with terror. And even if a violent death (which is most repugnant to human nature) menaced me - I think I could, after the first shock - turn to the memory of that hour and renew its emotion of perfect resignation.
(Now questions for Susan Marie)
So glad you've joined us at Inspiration for Writers, Susan Marie. You offer an amazing portrayal of writer Mary Shelley in your living history presentation "Mary Shelley Speaks." How did you come up with the idea for this character?
Fortune smiles upon me, for Mary Shelley found me. Some librarians who had seen my Living History of Marie Curie (http://www.storysmith.org/manya) asked me to develop Mary Shelley (http://www.storysmith.org/mary_shelley) in connection with a traveling exhibit on Frankenstein created jointly by the American Library Association and the American Medial Association.
But the idea for how to present Mary’s story took more than an invitation. One must choose a premise for talking to the audience. With some living history characters this is obvious: Politicians such as Abraham Lincoln or entertainers such as Mark Twain spoke to countless audiences. With a character that was not a public figure, this takes a little more thought. Whom does Mary Shelley think she is talking to? Why is she telling them about her life? Since Mary thrived on human company, I chose the context of serving tea to visitors who did not yet know her life story.
In addition to reading Frankenstein, one of the first sources I read was Mary’s journals. My initial response was, “This is so depressing, I can’t possibly tell her story, or people will walk out after five minutes.” But then it occurred to me that I pour my most dreadful thoughts into my own diary: the stuff I don’t dare voice out loud. When I balance Mary’s diary against her novels, her letters, and the intriguing way others describe her, a more balanced picture emerges.
By any measure, Mary bore more than her share of sorrows: her mother died at her birth; she lost four of her five children; her husband drowned shortly before his 30th birthday; her half-sister committed suicide. Throw in money troubles – a father in debt, a husband threatened with debtor’s prison; rejection from her own family and exclusion from Shelley’s for associating with Shelley; and gossip undermining both her friendships and her reputation, and it adds up tough. And yet, time and again she comes home to the power and value of the imagination. She speaks of how her imagination rescues her from gloom. Her two other sources of recovery from depression were Nature and stimulating conversation.
With my Living History portrayal, I seek to reveal the human behind the author: What does it take to invent a story? Every author has the rest of their life going on while they create. How did Mary’s life and experience not merely contribute to the novel Frankenstein, but also provide essential elements without which the book could not have been written?
After the in-depth studying you've obviously put into your characterization of the life and writing of someone like Mary Shelley, do you ever catch yourself thinking and acting like her? Writing like her? Does the character ever seep into your real world?
I can’t say that Mary inhabits me when I am about other tasks. However I find myself quoting Mary, or paraphrasing ideas learned through her journey. I recognize her temper. I admire her fortitude and principles – acting according to what is right rather than according to how she has been treated – while cautioning myself against her obsession with being chained by fate.
Tell everyone about your life as a writer and a living history artist.
Seventeen years ago, with a decade of amateur storytelling and six years of professional storytelling part time under my belt, I took a year’s leave from engineering career (where I had worked for 14 years) to try out storytelling full time. I never went back to the corporate world – except as a visiting speaker and storyteller. I call myself Storysmith® because, like a blacksmith, I heat up, hammer, and craft a story with strong forces, before letting it cool into a tale worth sharing.
My motto is, "Give me a place to stand, and I will take you somewhere else." The kind of stories I tell - or teach you to tell (inspirational, educational, metaphoric, or reinforcing) - depends on where you want to go. I invite you to peruse the breadth of these travels at http://www.storysmith.org.
My first living history, Marie Curie, in 2000, let me join my love of theater with my enjoyment of math and science. What began as a minor project grew far beyond what I first imagined into a full length drama. Mary Shelley came next (as described above). Then, having in my repertoire a Polish woman who lived in France, and an Englishwoman, I found myself hankering after representing an American. I could think of no American woman I admired more than Eleanor Roosevelt. Again, I only found out how big the ocean of a life can be when I started to swim across it. Mrs. Roosevelt’s life turned out to be too big for one program, so now I have three, set respectively in the Great Depression, during World War II, and at the United Nations (http://www.storysmith.org/eleanor). Most recently dancer Irene Castle has joined my roster, fulfilling both my love of social dance and my concern for animal rights. My mate likes Mary Shelley the best, because he says she teaches people how to write, how one uses the imagination to create and personal experience to communicate. Roosevelt and Curie, being the most recognized names, get the most airtime. 2011 promises to be a big year for Curie, as it is the 100th anniversary of her second Nobel Prize, and has been designated the International Year of Chemistry. Performing and teaching living history now dominate my métier. Collectively, to date, my four ladies have taken me to 25 of the United States, Canada, and Europe.
Has an audience member ever been difficult at any of your presentations?
The Question and Answer period while I am still in character becomes my favorite part of the program, especially when the audience brings genuine curiosity to the interchange. Occasionally an audience member will bate me with a question that s/he knows (or thinks s/he knows) the answer to and wants to test if I know. But that is rare. And occasionally, rather than ask a question, an audience member wants to show me (and everyone else) something s/he knows. Once a gentleman shared a theory he had about how the concept of Frankenstein was conceived. Unfortunately it turned out his theory depended on a revision of the chronology of her life, but he presented it in good faith. Once someone claimed to be a descendant of Mary and P.B. Shelley. But her one surviving child, a son, had no children (although he adopted a daughter). I have no desire to embarrass someone so if there seems to be a discrepancy in our understanding, I generally suggest we talk more one-on-one after the program. Sometimes I learn something I didn’t know!
What are three things Susan Marie absolutely cannot do without?
Air is nice, for I do breathe on a regular basis. And I am quite fond of eating - a habit that would be hard to kick. In addition I’m rather partial to having a warm place to be on a cold winter’s day, including a comfy bed at night. But beyond that, truly my life is filled with so many luxuries, I could probably do without any number of them and still have so many things to be grateful for I would be hard pressed to name them all. In no particular order, here are a few: Hot homemade soup. Garden vegetables, from the miraculous springtime sprout of the seed, through growth, flowering, and harvest. A cat on my chest as I read, or another on my lap as I type. Hot showers. A good tune on the radio, that prompts Tripp to take my hand whatever I am doing and dance me to another world. Cuddling with him at night. Laughter. Being reminded not to take life too seriously. A story that makes me cry. Knowing people from all walks of life. Travel. Getting to know people like me and different from me. Being healthy enough to walk, and hike, and bicycle. At this instant I marvel at the red and gray house finches munching away at the bird feeder hanging outside my office window, and the smaller chickadees darting in and out, furtively nabbing a sunflower seed to hammer open on a nearby branch. As the snow falls I anticipate kayaking in Florida in January and skiing to a cabin in Colorado the following month. When my thoughts return to the tasks at hand I am reminded what a fun life I have stumbled into: a job that allows me to indulge in research, that marries the arts of writing and theater, and that generates regular applause. I must recognize the gift of having an audience. Performing in a closet wouldn’t have nearly the same reward. Truly nothing is permanent, and any of these things could and will eventually disappear. I love them all.
How can readers get in touch with you? Do you have a schedule of upcoming shows you can share?
You can reach me via my web site http://www.storysmith.org. Please do!
Upcoming programs are listed on my web calendar at http://www.storysmith.org/calendar.html . Full details are given on the website for programs officially open to the public. For other programs I can often invite a guest or two if someone is interested. The year 2011 has me scheduled as one or another of my ladies in Florida, Colorado, California, Ohio, Minnesota, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Puerto Rico – so far. Who knows where I will be invited next? I am open, and ready.
Programs open to the public are marked with an asterisk (*). For details, see website calendar or contact me.
Jan. 5 – Marie Curie - Louisville CO *
Jan. 7 – Irene Castle - Westminster CO
Jan. 9 – Irene Castle - Longmont CO *
Jan. 11 – Marie Curie - AAPT Conference, Jacksonville FL
Jan. 13 – Marie Curie - Spring Hill FL
Feb. 11 – Eleanor Roosevelt (“This Is My Story”) – Highlands Ranch CO *
Feb. 20 – Eleanor Roosevelt (“Hammering Out Human Rights”) – Tarpon Springs FL *
Feb. 21 – Eleanor Roosevelt (“World War II – What We are Fighting For”) – Spring Hill FL
Feb. 25 – Marie Curie – Saddleback College, Mission Viejo CA *
Feb. 26 – Marie Curie – ACS Meeting, San Diego CA
Mar. 17 – Eleanor Roosevelt (“This Is My Story”) – Glenwood Springs CO
Mar. 27 – Eleanor Roosevelt (“On Leadership”) – Lakeland Community College OH *
Apr. 1 – Marie Curie – University of St. Catherine, MN *
Apr. 3 – Eleanor Roosevelt (“In War and Peace”) – Lakewood, CO *
Apr. 14 – Marie Curie – ANS Conference, Atlanta GA
Apr. 23 – Marie Curie – NCAR, Boulder CO
Apr. 26 & 27 – Marie Curie – Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia PA *
Jun. 1 – Marie Curie – NIST, Boulder CO
Aug. 2 – Marie Curie – International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, Puerto Rico
Aug. 5 – Marie Curie – High Plains Chautauqua, Greeley CO *
Sep. 15 – Eleanor Roosevelt (“This Is My Story”) – Longmont CO *
Is there anything you want to tell everyone before you go?
Live! Create! Experiment! Explore! I never could have predicted that my pleasures in research, writing, and performance could meld into a career. If you had asked me during my early days as an engineer if I would ever consider being self-employed I would have laughed at the absurdity of stepping away from the care of a big company, of risking such independence. Thankfully, the urge to try my creative wings proved too strong to ignore. One aspect of Mary Shelley I resonate with is that she never regretted running away with P.B. Shelley a month before her 17th birthday. I was not so daring in my teens. But I identify with her choice to act. Their eight years together passed so quickly, I am glad they took what time was available to them. Perhaps that is a metaphor for our lives as well. In the time I am given, I hope to live with as much zest as they.
Thanks so much. Your conceptualization of writer Mary Shelley is truly thought provoking and inspiring on many levels.