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.