Theodora Goss is perhaps best known for her award winning short fiction and poetry. She has a lovely social media presence, as well, where she posts pictures of her travels, flowers, and other things that I personally have found refreshing.
Theodora's series on "The Fairytale Heroine's Journey" is also quite popular. It started, I believe as a series of blog posts, became an article in Faerie Magazine, and she also wrote a more academic paper on it as well, exploring Campbell's mythological hero's journey in the context of female fairy tale characters, exploring ways their journeys might differ from Campbell's male counterparts.
I was very excited when I heard that Theodora had a full-length novel coming out. Having read some of her shorter work, I enjoyed her use of language and couldn't wait to see what she did in a longer form.
I was not disappointed.
The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter (Saga Press) is a fantastical mystery of mad science and secret societies. It takes the tale of Doctor Jeckyll and Mister Hyde and turns it on its head, delving deeper into the story and joining it with others. Some familiar faces in this book include Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, and names include Frankenstein, Moreau, and more.
Readers with a more literary bent will appreciate all of the author's nods to the classics, and her mastery of language and prose. Those readers who are in it for fun will enjoy a mysterious adventure that will remind them of everything they loved about Penny Dreadful or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Theodora Goss has accomplished no easy feat in creating a work that can be enjoyed by a wide range of readers, with a lyrical style that is at the same time unpretentious and a joy to read.
I recently had the opportunity to ask Theodora Goss some questions about this book and her other work. Please welcome Theodora to the Once and Future Podcast blog!
Melanie R. Meadors: Your book The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter came out on June 20th. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Theodora Goss: It's about Mary Jekyll, Diana Hyde, Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein, who find each other in late nineteenth-century London. It starts when Mary learns that her father's former assistant, the notorious Mr. Hyde, might still be alive. She wants to know if there's still a reward for information leading to his capture, so she visits Sherlock Holmes, who lives across Regents Park from the Jekyll residence. Holmes is trying to solve a series of gruesome murders that have recently taken place in Whitechapel. Mary becomes entangled in his investigation, while her own leads her to Diana (Hyde's daughter), Beatrice, Catherine, and Justine, all the results of shocking experiments by mad scientists. In the course of the book, these five very unusual young women learn about themselves and their origins, which have more to do with those murders than they imagine.
MRM: You draw from several tales in this book—Sherlock Holmes, Frankenstein, Doctor Jeckyll and Mister Hyde. Do you have a favorite story from the Victorian time period, or perhaps a favorite monster?
TG: I love all the monsters! I'm not sure I have a favorite, but I do really love Carmilla, Sheridan Le Fanu's female monster from the novella of the same name. She's a beautiful vampire who lives in Styria, and I love her because she's so complicated. She preys on young women, particularly one named Laura, and at one point she tells Laura that becoming a vampire is like becoming a butterfly. Girls are caterpillars, but some day, she implies, they too can become magnificent. I love the idea of the natural life cycle of a Victorian girl as including a vampire phase! Carmilla is one of my favorite stories, but I also love other fairly obscure ones like The Great God Pan and The Jewel of Seven Stars. I suspect they're mostly read by Victorianists, people who study the period professionally, nowadays.
MRM: What were some special challenges, if any, when you were writing this book?
TG: The biggest challenge was trying to get my characters to move through a late nineteenth-century world in an authentic way. Hopefully I succeeded! I had to think about how money was used, how people traveled around the city of London, where locations were relative to one another. What things might have smelled like . . . I also had to think about these things from the perspective of the characters. For example, we might have found late nineteenth-century London quite smelly, but people living at that time would have been used to it. Another challenge was trying to write from the perspectives of five different female characters. I wanted to make sure that Mary, Diana, Beatrice, Catherine, and Justine were each distinct.
MRM: Something I liked about The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is the feminine slant to stories I was familiar with. I love monster stories, but so few of the Victorian stories have women or girls in them. I think women have a special perspective in these types of stories, and I enjoyed the different perspective you gave. Could you talk a bit about why you chose to write about female characters in the context of older stories that had all male casts? Was there anything personal about the choice?
TG: Actually, three of my female monsters are from the original texts! Beatrice is the central character in "Rappaccini's Daughter," a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I just gave her more of a voice and a more detailed backstory. Catherine really does appear in The Island of Dr. Moreau, although not under that name: she's the anonymous puma woman created by Moreau who ends up killing him. And Justine is the bride Victor Frankenstein starts creating for his male monster. He never creates her--instead, he disassembles her and throws her body parts into the sea. That scene, more than any other perhaps, inspired me to write this book. I felt that his female monster ought to exist as well. In my version, she's made from the body of the maid Justine Moritz, who is hanged for the murder of Frankenstein's younger brother (a murder really committed by the male monster). Mary and Diana are the only ones I made up, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde does have a dearth of female characters--but strangely enough, Hyde himself is described several times in feminine terms. I chose to write about female monsters because they never get to say very much--they usually exist to be fought and destroyed. I thought they deserved their own stories.
MRM: You also write a lot of shorter fiction, much of which has appeared on tor.com. Do you have a preferred length in which to write? Do you find that you write different types of stories between your shorter and longer works?
TG: I really don't have a preferred length: I write everything from poetry to novels. But yes, I do write differently at different lengths. In shorter fiction, you can do things that are more experimental. You can be more allusive, more cryptic. You can write without a real plot. Of course you could do that in a novel as well, if you were prepared to have readers get mad at you! But readers (and perhaps editors) seem to tolerate more experimentation in shorter fiction. And poetry I write just because that's the way my mind works. It allows me to really focus on each line, the sound of each word--in a way I can't at novel length.
MRM: Something a lot of writers struggle with is voice. You have a very unique writing voice that reminds me of fairy tales and poetry. Do you find this comes naturally, or did you decide that you wanted to write stories like that, and therefore honed your voice in that way?
TG: Thank you! To be honest, I don't really know what my writing voice sounds like. I listened to myself on a podcast recently, to see if I was making sense, and realized that I actually talk the way I write in this book. So I think it may be just me? One thing that may affect my voice is that even though I've been speaking English since I was seven, it was my third language, after Hungarian and French. I learned a lot of English from reading it, and I read a lot of classic British children's books as well as a lot of fairy tales. So I'm sure their rhythms appear in my writing. Also, I wrote poetry long before I wrote prose, and I still approach projects with the assumption that every word matters--which can be a problem in a 120,000-word novel!
MRM: You’ve done a lot of work on your blog, and even had an article in Faerie Magazine, about what you call the Fairy Tale Heroine’s Journey. Could you tell us a bit about that? Could this be adapted to work for any type of story, in any genre?
TG: I also gave a paper on the idea at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts! The basic idea is that, among fairy tales that focus on a heroine, many share a specific structure. It includes steps such as the heroine receiving gifts (think of Sleeping Beauty and the fairies) and being lost in the dark woods (like Snow White after she is driven from the castle). Even though not all stories about fairy-tale heroines share this structure, the stories that have come down to us--the ones we still read and that are made into Disney movies--tend to. You can also see this pattern in Jane Eyre, since Charlotte Brontë incorporates a fairy tale substructure. It informs the way women think about their own lives--we often assume there's something wrong if our lives don't follow that pattern. It could be adapted to any kind of work, and writers can also write against it, against expectations. After all, not all fairy tales about heroines follow this pattern. There are other patterns out there.
MRM: You are an academic as well as a writer. Do you find that one career interferes with the other at times? Is it hard to shift gears from perhaps a more critical mindset to a more creative one?
TG: Yes, unfortunately! I don't find the two types of writing interfere with one another--I can move pretty easily between them. But teaching, which is my job, does interfere with writing. I love both, and I'm grateful that I get to teach writing--I can't think of a better job. But sometimes writing has to be put aside because I have lessons to plan or papers to grade. Many writers face the challenge of balancing the needs of the primary job with the desire to write. And the writers who write full time have the even harder job of making a career of it, of paying for rent and food and healthcare from their writing. Being a writer is and has always been a challenge. We are all in the long tradition of writers and artists who have struggled to produce, to live while producing, to stay sane and healthy through it all.
MRM: Have you read anything recently that you’d recommend to our readers?
TG: Actually, the two books I've read most recently are My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier and Little, Big by John Crowley. I tend to be a fairly eclectic reader: What I really look for is a kind of twistiness of plot or theme, united with a clarity and beauty of style. Both of those books have that. I would recommend both, as well as both writers, to anyone. I'll add just one more to make it a trio: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. When I'm not sure whether I'm allowed to write like that . . . meaning, to take certain risks in writing, I think about writers like Clarke and Crowley, who take a lot of risks. I want to be as brave as they are.
Thank you so much, Theodora Goss! And readers, go grab a copy of The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter! I'm betting you'll love it as much as I did!
ABOUT THEODORA GOSS:
Theodora Goss was born in Hungary and spent her childhood in various European countries before her family moved to the United States. Although she grew up on the classics of English literature, her writing has been influenced by an Eastern European literary tradition in which the boundaries between realism and the fantastic are often ambiguous. Her publications include the short story collection In the Forest of Forgetting (2006); Interfictions (2007), a short story anthology coedited with Delia Sherman; Voices from Fairyland (2008), a poetry anthology with critical essays and a selection of her own poems; The Thorn and the Blossom (2012), a novella in a two-sided accordion format; and the poetry collection Songs for Ophelia (2014). Her work has been translated into nine languages, including French, Japanese, and Turkish. She has been a finalist for the Nebula, Crawford, Locus, Seiun, and Mythopoeic Awards, and on the Tiptree Award Honor List. Her prose-poem "Octavia is Lost in the Hall of Masks" (2003) won the Rhysling Award and her short story "Singing of Mount Abora" (2007) won the World Fantasy Award.
Melanie R. Meadors is an author of fantasy where heroes don't always carry swords and knights in shining armor often lose to nerds who study their weaknesses. She has edited two upcoming genre anthologies, MECH: Age of Steel and HATH NO FURY, and is the science and pop culture blogger at The Once and Future Podcast. You can find her at her website, melaniermeadors.com, on Facebook, and Twitter, @melaniermeadors.