Theodora Goss Talks Bad Dads, Monstrous Women, and Wrestling with Novel Writing

Classic monsters of literature have never failed to fascinate, and their stories have been retold in various forms—and in various formats. Like the macabre arcana that animates them, books, movies, and TV shows have kept these classic monsters alive. It’s not often, however, that these tales are told by women, nor to the plots give them much attention. Theodora Goss finds those missing voices in her debut novel, The Strange Case of the Alechemist’s Daughter. We recently sat down with her to discuss these leading ladies, their relationships, and how reimagined their stories.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter shows a woman’s version of classics like The Island of Dr. Moreau, “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” Frankenstein, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. What prompted you to tell their stories? And why these monsters in particular?
It all started in graduate school. I was writing a doctoral dissertation on nineteenth-century gothic fiction, which is a more academic way of saying that I was writing about monsters. And I noticed that in most of the novels I was reading (basically the ones you mentioned, plus some others like Dracula), there was something going on with female monsters. For example, in Frankenstein, it’s important that Victor starts to create a female monster, but then disassembles her because she could mate with his male monster, and their offspring could outcompete human beings. In The Island of Dr. Moreau, for most of the novel, Moreau is trying to turn a puma into one of his Beast Folk. The Puma Woman he creates eventually kills him, but she is also killed in the process. She’s not mentioned very much in the novel—she’s both central and peripheral.

It seemed to me that in these novels, female monsters were particularly deadly, often deadlier than the male monsters. But we very rarely heard from them–the Puma Woman does not say anything. The narrative voice or perspective is almost always male. “Rappaccini’s Daughter” is an exception—we do hear from Beatrice. But the story still focuses primarily on her lover Giovanni, and of course she dies at the end. (Sorry for the spoilers! My novel doesn’t end that way . . .) As I was writing my dissertation, I started thinking about these female characters and their voices. I wanted to hear from them! And that’s really where the novel started. Why these particular monsters? Because the nineteenth century, especially at the fin-de-siècle, was a great era of monsters, and these were the important female monsters of the era. There are others I haven’t yet mentioned…but I don’t want to give anything away about the sequel!

June is the month where we celebrate fathers and fatherhood, but I highly doubt these ladies would be sending their dads Father’s Day cards. Why did you to portray all of these women as daughters as opposed to other kinds of female figures in these men’s lives? Without spoiling the book, can speak to the strained relationships they all have and how that might influence the kind of women they all ultimately become?
Yeah, I haven’t been very kind to fathers, have I? I should say that my own father is both a lovely person and a completely legitimate scientist (not mad at all)! I think it actually comes from the literature. Mad scientists tend to relate to their creations as children: Frankenstein talks about his creature as progeny, and of course Dr. Rappaccini’s daughter is his actual biological daughter. Dr. Moreau is a sort of abusive father figure to the Beast Folk. In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, it’s actually Hyde who is referred to as Jekyll’s son, so I imported something already in the original story. This becomes an issue because mad scientists are transgressing against the natural order, and one really important way to do that is by taking on the role of creator. They are breaking two important nineteenth-century boundaries: between God and man, and between man and woman. By creating a new creature, which is also a sort of giving birth, they become both Godlike and female. We’re a lot more comfortable now with that sort of boundary-breaking than audiences would have been in the nineteenth century. Frankenstein isn’t quite as scary for us.                         

My characters are deeply influenced by their relationships with their “fathers.” Catherine hates hers, Justine still loves hers, Mary doesn’t know what to think. They’ve all been through trauma in some way, and it’s affected them all differently.

How do you suppose each of these ladies would respond to the plight of women in today’s society?
Very differently, because they all have different personalities. Mary would appreciate the freedom women have now, but would probably still wear very proper skirt suits. She would help by getting involved with a more traditional organization like Emily’s List. Diana would be a riot grrrl. Justine would applaud the movement toward equality for men and women, but would stay out of politics unless she could actually help individual women in some way–by supporting refugees or victims of sexual assault, for example. Catherine would write scathing articles for Slate or The Guardian on topics like equal pay and reproductive rights. And Beatrice would be on the front lines at the March for Women. If any of the others forgot to vote, she would threaten to poison them.

You’ve published quite a few short-stories and novellas, but this is your first published novel. Can you tell us a little bit about how the writing processes were different for you between short and long fiction?
A novel takes soooo much longer! And you have so much invested in it. Writing this first novel was an intense experience because I was learning so much about constructing a novel along the way. It’s as though I had built one-room cabins before, and I knew how to make a perfectly good one-room cabin, but now I was supposed to build an actual house, with multiple floors and rooms. That’s not to knock one-room cabins: they’re perfect for writing in, or being Henry David Thoreau in. But a house serves a different purpose, and the principles of construction are related but different. For example, I was used to having a nice, clear arc, from the beginning of a short story to the end.

A friend of mine said, just think of writing a novel as writing fifteen to twenty short stories. But that advice actually led me astray for a while, because if you think of a novel chapter as a short story, you’ll end it in the wrong place. You’ll come down in a nice clean arc, and your reader will go, “Oh, that’s a good place to stop—I’ll go get myself a snack now.” And then maybe wander off to watch TV. No, you want your reader to go, “Just one more paragraph. I need to find out what happens next.” No TV breaks! Not that I want my readers to go hungry.

How does being a writing professor affect the way you approach your own writing?
Well, the practical effect is that I have a pretty intense teaching schedule, which means I need to fit in writing anywhere I can! No writer’s block . . . I just don’t have time for it. If you’re teaching full time (and I’m teaching full time plus), you need to be really dedicated to just getting things written and out there. I always feel as though I’m not writing enough. But of course you meant in terms of the writing itself, and I think teaching has made me more analytical about writing. When I read work by my creative writing graduate students, I often see things that work and things that don’t. I can take that awareness to my own writing–if something is wrong, if the scene is lying there on the page not doing anything, I can diagnose what’s wrong with it. So I would say it makes me a better editor. Still, I would be dead without my actual professional editor, who sees all the problems I can’t . . .

As a former teacher, I love to ask everyone for reading recommendations as if they were teaching a class on subjects of their books. This one should be easy for you since you’ve already taught it! What is your required reading (beyond the stories your book extrapolates on) for a course on monsters in fiction?
I just taught a class this spring called The Modern Monster! Start with Sigmund Freud’s “The Uncanny” and Stephen Asma’s On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears for some theoretical background. Then, in addition to the novels I directly reference in the first book, I would recommend Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan, Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story “Olalla” is also good, as are Rudyard Kipling’s “The Mark of the Beast” and Wilde’s “The Birthday of the Infanta.” But notice these are all male writers! I want to suggest some female writers who also deal with issues of madness and female monstrosity, although in very different ways: Vernon Lee’s “Dionea” and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” are terrific. These are all nineteenth- or early twentieth-century monsters. More contemporary monsters would be a whole other semester!

What’s next for you?
The sequel has been sent to my editor! It will be coming out next summer, so I have a lot of revising ahead of me. It takes Mary, Diana, Beatrice, Catherine, and Justine to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where they face more perils, monsters, and of course, problems with money. It was so much fun to write! Plus I had to go to Vienna and eat a lot of pastry. For research!

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is available now. Read our review.

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