Friday 15 January 2016

Interview with Mackenzi Lee, by Y S Lee

For those who haven’t yet had the joy of reading This Monstrous Thing, Mackenzi Lee's debut novel is a re-imagining of the Frankenstein story set around the 1818 publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus

Here's the back-cover bumpf:

In 1818 Geneva, men built with clockwork parts live hidden away from society, cared for only by illegal mechanics called Shadow Boys. Two years ago, Shadow Boy Alasdair Finch's life shattered to bits.

His brother, Oliver—dead.

His sweetheart, Mary—gone.

His chance to break free of Geneva—lost.

Heartbroken and desperate, Alasdair does the unthinkable: he brings Oliver back from the dead.

But putting back together a broken life is more difficult than mending bones and adding clockwork pieces. Oliver returns more monster than man, and Alasdair's horror further damages the already troubled relationship. Then comes the publication of Frankenstein, and the city intensifies its search for Shadow Boys, aiming to discover the real-life doctor and his monster. Alasdair finds refuge with his idol, the brilliant Dr. Geisler, who may offer him a way to escape the dangerous present and his guilt-ridden past, but at a horrible price only Oliver can pay. . . 
Inspired by Mary Shelley's classic novel, Mackenzi Lee's dark yet redemptive debut is part fantasy, part Gothic horror, and ultimately the story of two brothers who might just keep each other human.
Somehow, I don't think that description does the book justice. It ticks all the boxes but somehow doesn't quite convey the thoroughness of Lee's (no relation to me) re-imagining. Instead, allow me to say that This Monstrous Thing is one of the most exciting and enviable YA novels I read last year. I was delighted when Mackenzi agreed to talk to us about research, taking liberties with history, and the scandalous Shelleys and their circle.

Mackenzi Lee

YSL: I really love the novel’s premise: what if Victor Frankenstein was not driven by hubris and he didn’t abandon his hideous progeny? Instead, what if scientist and monster were brothers, bound together by love and guilt and grief (not to mention a string of lies and a thoroughly oppressive police state)? How did you arrive at this starting point?

ML: My novels never have a single inception point, so THIS MONSTROUS THING was borne from many different places. The first was my initial exposure coming to the novel through a stage production at the National Theater--I didn’t know anything about Frankenstein beyond what pop culture had taught me, and I was shocked by how different it was. I was especially struck by how much of a voice and personality and humanness the creature had--that seems to be the first thing modern culture has robbed him of. This initial exposure shaped my reading of Frankenstein when I finally picked up the novel, and definitely shaped how I approached my own story.

The second was hearing Frankenstein misidentified as the first steampunk novel, and thinking “Well that can’t be right...but that’s cool and someone should do it and maybe that person should be me.” The third is a lifetime of being the volatile older half of a pair of siblings.

My story evolved from there.

YSL: In THIS MONSTROUS THING, you give Percy Bysshe Shelley a cameo and make Mary Shelley a substantial secondary character. What kind of research did you do before you felt confident writing Mary Shelley as a fictional character?

ML: I did a lot of research--I felt a huge responsibility in portraying them, and was very nervous with how readers would respond to their characterization. The best research I did was reading Mary Shelley’s journals and letters from the time she was traveling the Continent and eventually ended up in Geneva, where she wrote Frankenstein. They gave me a sense of her as a person in her own words, and I related to her so deeply. Even though, when she was abroad with Percy, she was pregnant and he was married to someone else, she was only nineteen, just a few years younger than me at the time, and she struck me as a young person trying to find her footing in adulthood, in the shifting, larger world around her, and also find where she fit with the people around her. All things that, as a young twenty something myself, I felt very deeply. It reminded me of my favorite thing about history--that no matter how much society and technology and the world changes, people never really do. There are universalities that stretch across centuries.

YSL: When reading your portrait of Mary Shelley, I kept thinking of Joan Didion’s dictum: “writers are always selling somebody out.” How do you balance being fair to a historical figure and doing what is artistically necessary within the scope of your novel?
ML: My favorite books are historical novels that portray real people as characters, but I’m often frustrated with how those real people are portrayed as either all good or all bad. History has written a verdict on the legacy that person has left and whether that makes them a good guy or a bad guy, and so we often forget they were real, multifaceted individuals with a lot of complex parts, making choices in the moment with no idea what the consequences of those actions would be. In writing Mary Shelley as a character in the novel, I wanted to portray her as someone with both huge potential for good and bad, same as the other characters in the novel, struggling with which of those qualities is going to define her, and struggling to reconcile with regrets in her past.

I’m also fascinated with real-life Mary’s inspiration to write Frankenstein--she says it came to her in a dream, but that dream was a product of the world she was living in, with its advancing science and enlightenment sensibilities and the questions those raised about the relationship between man and the divine. Part of my reason for writing my novel was wanting to know what that dream and Frankenstein would have looked like in an alternate, hyper-industrialized, mechanized 1818. Mostly cause I like mechanical stuff.

YSL: In your Author’s Note you say, “there are facts that I ignored completely, because I am willing to play fast and loose with history in order to tell a better story”. But changing the closing date of the university at Ingolstadt is a very small thing, especially when you’ve invented an entire steampunk industrial revolution around it! Where do you draw the line when playing with historical fact?
ML: Historical fantasy is such a weird genre--like you said, I feel totally confident making up a steampunk society and revolution that happens within it, but I didn’t feel like I could use the word dyslexic to describe the main character because that isn’t a historical term. Why get obsessed with the fact that words like cheeky and posh weren’t used in the early 1800s and spend a long time trying to find a substitute, but that same novel has cyborgs in it?

For me, what can and can’t be played with is never arbitrary. The historical details need to be informed by the alternate historical world you’ve created. I always let the fantasy elements that form the premise inform what I can take liberties with--I stick to true historical details that would have been unaffected by the magical elements I’ve added. For example, a hyper-mechanized cyborg population probably wouldn’t have influenced research into dyslexia, or cause the word posh to be coined a century earlier than it actually was. The fantasy that shapes that initial premise always informs what I’m willing to adjust and what I feel needs to stay true to history--when you’re deep enough in your world, it becomes instinctual.

As for details like changing the date of a university opening--those are the sort that keep historical writers up at night. No one knows them but us, but we feel honor bound to fess up to our fudging.

YSL: On Twitter you mentioned having read YOUNG ROMANTICS, Daisy Hay’s group biography of Shelley’s generation, as part of your research. (I loved the details you harvested from it!) What were some of the biggest surprises you encountered in your research? Are there any delicious anecdotes that didn’t make it into the finished novel?

ML: I love that so much of the Shelleys’ lives have been intertwined with myth and rumor and the celebrity gossip of the day, but also that so much of their lives read like the plots of Gothic novels. My favorite story that didn’t make it into This Monstrous Thing is that Percy Shelley had a disease which caused his heart to calcify, which wasn’t known until he died in a sailing accident in his 30s. And then they only discovered it because, when they burned his body, his heart was basically a bone and DID NOT BURN. Is that not the spookiest thing you’ve ever heard?! Whether it’s true or not, it’s so fitting for these Gothic writers. And, as the story goes, Mary Shelley kept that calcified bone heart for the rest of her life, in a drawer wrapped in her husband’s poetry.

I also love the story that Mary learned to write and spell her name--which was the same as her mother’s--by tracing the letters on her mother’s gravestone. So freaking spooky.

YSL: Could you share with us a couple of quotations or moments from the book that really encapsulate its aims and its atmosphere?

ML: I’m so fond of the first line, and I think it’s a pretty good example of the tone for the rest of the book: “My brother’s heart was heavy in my hands.”

Agreed! Despite the guarded optimism of the ending, I couldn't help wondering what kind of future was possible for Oliver Finch. I imagine that his heart will always lie (a little) heavy in Alasdair's hands.

Thank you so much, Mackenzi, for speaking with me about This Monstrous Thing. I can't wait to learn more about what you're writing next.

Y S Lee is the author of the award-winning Agency mysteries, published by Walker Books (UK) and Candlewick Press (USA/Canada).


Sue Purkiss said...

The book sounds very intriguing - as does The Young Romantics. Such an interesting period - so much going on! Love the story about Shelley's 'bone heart'.

Y S Lee said...

Both books are entirely wonderful, Sue, in very different ways! I hope you'll chase them down at some point.