Out of the Shadows – Author Q & A

Why did you decide to write a book about Mary Shelley?

I’ve always loved Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It’s a wonderful gothic novel, but it’s very thoughtful, daring, and extremely prescient too – even now, two hundred years after it was written. Frankenstein has had a huge cultural impact. It has inspired numerous novels, countless movies, and the name Frankenstein is known throughout the popular imagination. Newspapers talk of “Frankenfoods,” kids dress up as green-skinned monsters with bolts in their neck on Halloween, and Broadway audiences line up to see Mel Brooks’ musical Young Frankenstein.

In spite of this, many people don’t know that a nineteen year old woman called Mary Shelley wrote the original book. Fewer people still know anything about this woman who led a rich yet tragic life, who married the daring romantic poet called Percy Shelley, and who was the child of two radical writers, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. In Out of the Shadows I wanted to bring Mary Shelley out of the shadows of the monster she created!

How did you research the book?

For details on Mary’s Shelley’s life and writing, I referred to a number of very comprehensive biographies and literary studies, including Emily Sunstein’s Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality, Miranda Seymour’s Mary Shelley, Anne Kostelanetz Mellor’s, Mary Shelley: Her life, Her fiction, Her monsters, and John Williams’ Mary Shelley: A Literary Life. I drew on a number of sources to understand the field of aging genetics. Lenny Guarante’s Ageless Quest: One Scientist’s Search for the Genes that Prolong Life was particularly useful. Carl Elliot’s New Yorker article “Guinea Pigging” (January 7, 2008), which offered an eye-opening exposé into the world of drug safety trials and the human “guinea pigs” who take part in them, was a big inspiration for Georgie’s story. The recent memoir Go Ask Your Father: One Man’s Obsession with Finding His Origins Through DNA Testing written by my friend Lennard Davis was invaluable too. Lenny’s book tells of his own journey to find out whether his father really was his biological father using DNA extracted from an envelope used long ago. Reading about the exciting yet terrifying moment when my friend opened the genetic test results both inspired and informed one of the key moments in Out of the Shadows.

How much did you fictionalize about Shelley’s story and how much is true?

Mary Shelley was in all of the places at the times I mention in the book and she was with the people I depict her with. The key elements to every Mary Shelley scene are true: as a child she heard all kinds of thinkers, poets, and scientists speak in her father’s parlor; she struggled to accept her stepmother; she was sent away to Scotland where she often wandered the barren moors alone; she first kissed Percy Shelley at her mother’s gravestone; and when she eloped to France her childhood journals and papers were indeed lost. What I did fictionalize was dialogue and I had to guess at Mary’s feelings. Also, as it says in the novel, it is still undecided when Mary Shelley saw Percy for the first time. My depiction of their first meeting came from my imagination – and what a fun scene it was to imagine!

In Out of the Shadows, you alternate between the Mary and Clara’s stories. Why did you decide to narrate the book like this?

In many ways, Clara and Mary’s stories are so different. Mary is a young girl growing up in early nineteenth-century London, while Clara is a thirty-something professor who lives in modern day New York City. But there are many similarities and echoes too. For one, Clara’s story resonates with Shelley’s most famous book. Clara’s fiancé is not unlike Victor Frankenstein, in his ambition, his desire to extend life, and his creation of something so dangerous that it eventually causes him great troubles.

I think the stories of the two women speak to each other on other levels too. Mary and Clara are both on the cusp of finding themselves. They are searching for a way out of the shadows of those around them. For Mary, it is the shadow of her mother’s death, her father’s protection, and the life that doesn’t yet fulfill her. For Clara, she must find a way to live for herself, to pursue her own dreams, and not just follow her fiancé’s career.

Do you see your novel as a warning about genetic science?

As a character in my novel says, Mary Shelley dared to ask “what if?” in Frankenstein. She looked around at the rapidly emerging technologies of her time and she considered their darker sides. She wondered what the price of “progress” might be (she lived during the industrial revolution, of course, when steam power, modern machinery and medicine were all taking off). She dared to imagine how technology and science might change us and lead us in potentially dangerous directions.

Technologies and science are still advancing rapidly today and in Out of the Shadows I wanted to carry on asking this important question: “what if?” Professor Greene is developing a drug that might fight cancer. It also has the potential to reverse the effects of aging and extend life – and thus make a lot of money. In the book I wanted to ask what the consequences might be when science is mixed with the desire for profit.

Your books always include a literary theme. In The Professors’ Wives’ Club it was Edgar Allen Poe. In Crossing Washington Square it was Sylvia Plath, and of course in Out of the Shadows it’s Mary Shelley. Why do you include these literary elements?

I can’t help it! Literature has always been my love, my inspiration, and my life. I have a PhD in literature and even when I moved from academia to fiction writing I never stopped reading, or reading about, books. I’ve enjoyed including these literary themes in my novels, both as a way to pay homage these writers but also as a way to keep their works alive, loved, and thought about.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

I have a six year old son who I’m homeschooling – although “homeschool” is somewhat a misnomer as we spend a relatively small amount of time schooling at “home.” We live in New York City so are lucky enough to have an amazing array of fun and educational places on our doorstep. Benny and I, together with his homeschooled friends, are always out on trips to the Metropolitan Museum, the Natural History Museum, aquariums, zoos, galleries, libraries, and parks. When we’re not out and about, Benny and I love to read – either together or separately. I’m so thankful he loves books as much as I do.