Mary Shelley was a leading lady of horror before she ever penned Frankenstein. The daughter of a pioneer of feminist thought, Shelley was raised under the influence of both her father’s radical political ideas and her mother’s feminist thinking. When challenged by Lord Byron to write a “ghost story”—a task deemed inconceivable for women at the time—Shelley wrote Frankensteinand basically girl bossed the f*** out of the lot of them (though she would be forced to initially publish her work anonymously before paving the way for women in literature in the centuries to follow).
Last year marked the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Long considered a cornerstone in gothic literature and women’s horror fiction, Frankenstein is not only a personal favorite but also a potent feminist text—and one that pulls no punches as it explores the power relationship between men and women, both literally and figuratively. While on the surface a dark story of a mad scientist, Frankenstein is in fact a much deeper story, as through male narration Shelley depicts how her female characters—from Elizabeth, the soft-spoken love interest of Victor, to the strong-willed Safie, to the near creation of the Monster’s female companion—are thought of and treated by the male characters. While her feminism is plain to see (read), Shelley’s critique is not limited to the power relationship between men and women, but a larger allegory to the imbalance between the toxic masculinity of mankind and the feminine spirit of nature. Thus, the real story inside Frankenstein isn’t the dear doctor and his monster. Instead, another battle rages between the lines that was just as relevant two centuries ago as it is today—that between science and its relentless goal to subjugate nature.
The battle begins in the first paragraphs. After being rescued by the charitable hands of a northern-bound sea vessel, Victor Frankenstein, mad scientist, declares, “I pursued nature to her hiding places,” where he was richly (and rather vainly) rewarded “…from the midst of [this] darkness, a sudden light broke in upon me – a light so brilliant and wondrous, yet so simple, that while I became dizzy with the immensity of the prospect which it illustrated, I was surprised that among so many men of genius…that I alone should be reserved to discover so astonishing a secret.” It is clear that Victor, an ambitious and excelled student of science, considers himself to have been deserved of such an “awesome power.” Upon learning nature’s secret, Frankenstein toils endlessly to demonstrate his newfound power in spite of the natural progression of life and death, proclaiming, “my eyes were insensible to the charms of nature.”
In the creation scene of Frankenstein, the intricacies of the creature’s birth are carefully avoided, conceding only that Victor himself “infuse[d] a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at [my] feet.” His scientific tools collected, Victor wields the power known only to him through the study of science (and careful dominance of nature) and brings to life the being he had formed: a man in his own image. But, though he had carefully selected each portion of his creature’s form, Frankenstein is displeased, even repulsed, by his own work upon seeing it alive. “Now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart”, confesses Victor after the birth of his Monster, after which he rushes from his laboratory, leaving his creature to survive and fend for itself, not unlike a snake, who abandons its young to the unknowns of the wild. In his single act of betrayal, Victor humanizes the creature in a creation story as vapid and callous as that of Genesis itself.
In the film adaptations of Frankenstein, extensive creative liberties are taken to illustrate the scene of Victor Frankenstein’s triumphant childbirth. In the 1931 classic, on the stormy eve that is to be the birth night of the Monster, Victor—along with his incompetent and creepy assistant Fritz—usher visitors into the laboratory, which doubles as a very untraditional delivery room, to witness the birth of his creation. Lightning flashes as Victor (recast as Henry), his white lab coat billowing in the tumultuous wind, harnesses the power of the storm (an angry outburst of a vengeful nature) and funnels the power of raw electricity into the corpse of the creature, endowing it with life. The delivery room audience watches in unbridled horror and amazement as Victor shrieks to no one and everyone: “It’s alive! It’s alive!” Similarly, in Kenneth Branaugh’s 1994 adaptation, a sweaty and heavy-breathing Victor pants his way through the assemblage of the scientific devices hooked to the creature’s metal placenta and watches in an open-mouthed, eyes glazed over daze as electric eels swim through the creature’s tubes of umbilical cord. Then, tearing the newborn creature from his metal womb, Victor attempts to wrestle the giant babe to standing in a sloppy, wet, clicking slime grossly reminiscent of embryonic fluid. The monster a failure, Victor looks on helplessly as the culmination of all his efforts hangs dangling from chains above the dirtied delivery room floor in a morbid demonstration of failed childbirth. “What have I done”, Victor whines.
The argument presented as to Frankenstein’s battle of science versus nature (and masculinity versus femininity) is beautifully surmised in critiques such as Anne K. Mellor’s Possessing Nature: The Female in Frankenstein. “When Victor Frankenstein identifies nature as female,” Mellor writes, “he participates in a gendered construction of the universe whose ramifications are everywhere apparent in Frankenstein.” Mellor goes beyond the symbolism of the creation scene of the novel and discusses the various female characters in the book and their sexist functions: “Inside the home, women are either kept as a kind of pet, or they work as housewives, child care providers, or nurses, or servants.” In a thoughtful analogy, Mellor examines the consequences of the division from feminism and the role of women in science as depicted by Shelley, and correlates this emotional vacancy in Victor as the reason he is unable to love or care for his creation and is such an unfit ‘father.’ In her conclusion, Mellor surmises: “At every level, Victor Frankenstein is engaged upon a rape of nature, a violent penetration and usurpation of the female’s “hiding places”, of the womb.”
Another thought-provoking critique is Mary Poovey’s My Hideous Progeny: The Lady and the Monster: “The monster is the victim of both the symbolic and the literal. And, as such, it is doubly like a woman in patriarchal society – forced to be a symbol of (and vehicle for) someone else’s desire, yet exposed (and exiled) as the deadly essence of passion itself”, writes Poovey. Later, Poovey further concludes that upon discovering the truths of his origin, from that time on the “monster’s attempts to deny its nature are as futile as they are desperate.”
The ongoing battle of male versus female rages covertly within the lines of Shelley’s watchful prose. Victor’s intense abhorrence of his disastrous creation, and the creature’s bittersweet revenge against his own maker, acutely portray the consequences of usurping the circular progression of nature, serving as a timeless reminder of the careful balance of ethics and responsibility inherent in discovery. Perhaps most horrifying in Shelley’s classic isn’t the monster itself, but the horror and despair wrought by the hands of a naïve and careless “man of genius” which acts as a beacon to remind humanity of our place in the natural world. Through the sadness and misery gleaned from the book’s unfortunate characters we are reminded that a step forward is not always progress and that nature will always exact her revenge. It’s a great lesson, beget at a great price—and it’s one we should be thinking about in today’s contentious climate where we continue to use science and technology to force the beautiful, natural world and its beings—particularly women—into subservience.
Last November, I achieved one thing that all (or at least most) early-career and aspiring writers dream of: I signed with a literary agency. I was lucky enough to achieve something of a double whammy when I signed with Gandolfo Helin & Fountain Literary Agency, earning representation on the literary side with publishing industry veteran Renee Fountain, and on the film/entertainment side with the ever-impressive Italia Gandolfo.
Now, everyone's publishing path is a bit different, and everyone's journey takes its own unique (and often very winding) road. Mine was the same. I've been writing for as long as I can remember. I've self-published under pseudonyms and I've published non-fiction with major traditional houses, but all the while my ultimate dream has been to be a novelist, replete with representation and a publicist and, hopefully, an advance nice enough that it kind of makes up for the hundreds of hours I spend in front of my laptop.
When I wrote my first book, The Isle of Gold, I didn't go the traditional route. I was lucky enough to land a publishing offer with an up-and-coming small press. The book itself--still a baby as it just released last October--has done well, but more importantly, it earned some really wonderful reviews from very well-respected outlets. It also introduced me to my publicist, Sarah Miniaci at Smith Publicity, who has coaxed me gently (read: pulled me kicking and screaming) into the barest bit of limelight with things like media interviews and blog tours (the horror). These experiences allowed me to parlay my very meager publishing success and footprint into my query for my next book. (I'm such a strategist...not really.)
When I finished my next project, I queried a few agents I'd had my eyes on. The process was sort of similar to sending in college applications; the list was comprised of the usual suspects, some pretty solid leads, and, of course, the reaches. I received some nice no-thank-yous, some non-responses, and a handful of requests for partials and fulls. But, along my journey, I also started talking to friends and peers in the writing community, particularly those who had endured good-bad-ugly experiences with their agents (or former agents). I spoke with friends, who talked about their agent experiences, I got active in Twitter’s booming #writersxommunity, I started writing columns and networking in the Women’s Fiction Association. Now, I know some people say publishing is more about who you know that what you've written, and I'm sure this is true in some cases, but it truly wasn't in mine even though I got “to know people.” Online friends became life support, colleagues became mentors, and slowly but surely I found a home amongst the bookish.
I found the agent I wanted to work with in Italia, who started out as a woman I was terrified of (in a good way!), became an ally, and a mentor, I polished up my package and sent it over.
About a week later, after Renee had finished reading the manuscript, Italia and Company made the very courageous and somewhat questionable decision (I kid, I kid) to sign me. I received other interest from my query attempts, but signing with Gandolfo Helin & Fountain had already begun to feel like home and putting my name on her contract was a no-brainer. So far, my manuscript has been sent to some pretty impressive houses, and while we're still working the process, I can't speak highly enough of these women who have brought me into their tribe. They're phenomenal, exercising the sort of patience and encouragement that a young writer needs in their corner. Between the two of them, they've answered probably hundreds of questions, listened to great and not-so-great ideas on my next projects, and talked me off a ledge or two. Most of all, they've shown me in just two months how empowering and inspiring having people who believe in you and your work is, and they've encouraged me to work even harder going forward.
For what it's worth, my best advice to writers seeking an agent is this: find your home. Find an agent who not only knows the business but who champions your project, and you. Find an agent you can be friends with because you will laugh, cry, and vent together, and probably both get on each other's nerves a LOT. And I know this sounds very trite, particularly when you're just seeking an agent, but at the end of the day I believe firmly that it's not just about the house or the agency or the royalty paycheck, it's about the shared passion for books, and finding an agent as passionate as you.
One of my favorite annual goal-setting moments is what I call my "literary challenge," which encompasses my writing and reading goals for the next year.
Lots of folks have very ambitious reading goals every year--I've seen readers add hundreds of books to their TBR lists--and while I wish I could commit to such lofty numbers, I have to balance my reading for pleasure with reading for research and also writing, so I set my sights a wee bit lower.
In 2019, I'm committing to reading 24 books (two a month) and listening to 24 books (again, two a month). I'm also challenging myself to focus more on new books or upcoming 2019 releases, and try to avoid reading backlist titles. This is important for me as an author, so I can keep a pulse on the market. It also stops me from re-reading Frankenstein and every Wally Lamb book for the 500th time. That said, there's still a few amazing 2018 releases sitting on my bedside table, so they deserve some love, too. If you're looking for inspiration on what to add to your TBR list for 2019, here's a fun list on Goodreads to get you thinking, as well as this list of anticipated 2019 titles from Esquire.
What's on my list? Well, I'm still working on that, but I can tell you I will definitely be reading some of the up-comers from my friends over at Black Spot Books, including the next installation in Sam Hooker's Terribly Serious Darkness, Soul Remains, and the next Amanda Grey novel from Alcy Leyva, And Then There Were Dragons.
If you're looking for titles to add to your wish-list to keep you busy in 2019, there are lots of really fun reading challenges out there, with all kinds of quirky tactics to get you to read outside your comfort zone, like this one from PopSugar. Regardless, what's more important that bookish bingo is just making sure you're getting out there and reading! I hope you enjoy every book you read in 2019, whether it's old or new, and weather it's five books or five hundred.
I'd also love if you'd read along with me! By my "friend" on Goodreads here. Happy reading!