Interview With an Author: John Kessel

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
John Kessel and his book Pride and Prometheus

John Kessel holds a B.A. in Physics and English and a Ph.D. in American Literature. He helped found and served as the first director of the MFA program in creative writing at North Carolina State University, where he has taught since 1982. He is also an award-winning author. His 2009 short story Pride and Prometheus received both the Nebula Award and the Shirley Jackson Award and Kessel has expanded that story into his latest novel by the same name. Recently he agreed to be interviewed by Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was the inspiration for combining Pride and Prejudice and Frankenstein?

I got the idea for Pride and Prometheus while sitting at the critique table of the 2005 Sycamore Hill Writers' Conference, during my comments on Benjamin Rosenbaum's wonderfully surreal deconstruction of Jane Austen in his story Sense and Sensibility. It hit me that Pride and Prejudice and Frankenstein were published only a few years apart. Despite big differences in content and sensibility, the two books would have sat on the same bookshelves in 1818. Yet I had seldom heard them spoken of together.

This resulted in my bringing a story titled "Austenstein" (later Pride and Prometheus) to next summer's conference. After my critique, fellow workshopper Karen Joy Fowler suggested to me that it should be a novel. I resisted. I did not think I could find a novel's worth of story in Mary Bennet's brief encounter with Victor Frankenstein and his Creature.

But ten years later I returned to the idea, realizing that the novelette was only the middle of the story, and by starting earlier and carrying past the end, and adding the perspectives of Victor and his Creature, it would make a book.

I love Austen's novels but I would not have considered writing a novel based on Pride and Prejudice if I had not seen the opportunity to fuse Austen's characters with the characters and plot of Frankenstein. I became intrigued as much by the differences between Jane Austen's and Mary Shelley's writing as by the similarities, and in writing the book thought a lot about the differences between the novel of manners and the gothic, and the odd ways in which they might speak to one another. Also, it was fun, a kind of challenging puzzle, to make them come together in a satisfying way without disrespecting either writer or her work.

Were you ever concerned about re-interpreting the characters and events from two such well known and loved novels?

As I say, I did not want to disrespect the characters and stories of either Austen or Shelley. In both writing the original story and in the novel version, I really enjoyed fitting my story into the interstices of Shelley’s. I pored over the text of Frankenstein, especially that part of the story beginning when Victor leaves Geneva to travel to England and Scotland with the ultimate purpose of creating a bride for the monster, through his decision a year later in the Orkney Islands not to follow through with this plan, and the consequent murder of Henry Clerval by the Creature. My novel basically takes place during the first four chapters of volume III of the 1818 edition.

One thing that I felt I had to revise was to “correct” or rationalize some details of Shelley’s novel that don’t make sense. For a trivial example, on one page of the novel Victor says that he and Henry arrived in England at the end of December and a page later he says they arrived at the beginning of October. More significantly, after Victor refuses to complete the bride for the creature, he sails off in a skiff, gets caught in a storm, and in a single night gets blown from the Orkneys to Ireland—a distance of over five hundred miles—where, completely coincidentally, the Creature has arrived just ahead of him and strangled Henry, who equally coincidentally happened to be there on the beach when the Creature landed (when we last heard of Henry, he was touring Scotland). I had to alter this sequence of events to give it at least a veneer of plausibility.

Likewise, I got to explore certain practical issues that Shelley slides past. For instance, the Creature follows Victor from Switzerland all the way to England and up to the remote north of Scotland. I wondered how he managed to cross the ocean from Europe to England—he must have had to learn English. He had to find Victor and Henry and follow them without being seen. He undoubtedly had to spend some time in cities and towns. All these practical questions presented me with both problems and opportunities as I told my own story.

More seriously, I had to enter into the psychology of Victor, and the Creature, and of Mary Bennet. In Pride and Prejudice, Mary is a figure of fun, the butt of the joke. In her every appearance in the novel she is presented as a clueless, moralistic girl who has no understanding of how she is regarded by the others in her family and the world at large. She does not recognize that Mr. Collins is a pompous and self-involved hypocrite. She does not understand that, though she has studied hard and is technically skilled, her piano playing and singing are tedious and unwelcome. She serves up moral platitudes as wisdom and is out of step with others’ emotions.

I sought to give her an interior life and full humanity. In my story she is thirteen years older, and a little wiser, but she still is unable to see Victor clearly. She recognizes some things about him that others miss, but she misreads him badly in other ways.

Plus she is confronting a situation that no heroine in an Austen novel would encounter. Pride and Prometheus starts as an Austenish novel of manners and slides into a gothic. It was very interesting, and at times difficult, for me to merge the two forms, which do not naturally fit together. To say nothing of the prose styles. I think I can manage an idiom that resembles Shelley’s, but getting into the ring with Austen, whose wit and deft social implication are far beyond mine, was scary. In the end I did not try to reproduce either Austen’s or Shelley’s styles, but attempted to deploy a style that alludes to theirs while being fundamentally modern.

Did you know exactly how you wanted these stories to mesh together or, as you were writing, were you surprised by ways the story and/or characters evolved and changed as you worked? Was there anything that was lost in the writing process that you wish had made it to the final version?

Fusing the worlds of Austen and Shelley presented problems if I was not simply going to write some superficial parody. Pride and Prejudice and Frankenstein are antithetical books. Austen maintains a cool distance from her characters; she treats them with irony and leavens even the most extreme situations with wry humor. There's plenty of psychological distress, but for the most part the most violent thing that happens in an Austen novel is an overheard conversation or someone getting caught out in the rain.

Frankenstein is full of histrionic excess, chases, and murders: an artificial human is created from dead tissue, a child is strangled, a home is burned down in vengeance, a woman is hanged for a crime she did not commit, and a man chases a monster to the north pole. There are no jokes.

Frankenstein's monster does not belong in a Regency drawing room. Mary Bennet does not belong in a 19th century laboratory.

The very challenge of mating these disparate tales made it a fascinating project, and the more I got into Shelley's and Austen's characters the more interesting the project became. Making Mary Bennet the heroine meant I had to evolve her from the sententious, clueless girl she is in Pride and Prejudice, allowing time for her to mature, to gain a little self-knowledge and sympathy.

It pleased me to tell what's become of various characters from Austen in the decade after her novel ended. Of course writing sequels to Pride and Prejudice has become something of a cottage industry in recent years, but I hope I have provided as true a vision as they. So here are Kitty Bennet and Mr. Collins, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Darcy and Elizabeth, Uncle and Aunt Gardiner, and even a servant or two, a little older and perhaps even, in some cases, a little wiser. I discovered some things as I worked through it, such as why two so different characters as Mr. and Mrs. Bennet ended up married to one another.

Since my novel occurs during the course of Frankenstein rather than after it is finished, I had to work my story into the gaps in Shelley's. Pride and Prometheus grew into a secret history of Frankenstein, elaborating on events that occur in that book, adding new ones. This led me to situations where in essence I followed the characters through their reactions as much as made them do what I needed them to do. What would the Creature think upon observing a ball in London society? How might Frankenstein converse with the Bennets at Darcy's dinner table? My job with Victor and his Creature was to extend what we know of them from the novel, to go deeper into their characters, to explain some things that are left out, and imagine why and how they do the things they do. With Mary I had more freedom, and so I could allow her to change more as the story went on.

I can't recall having to ditch anything of any significance because it did not fit into the novel. Perhaps I might have liked to tell more about Darcy and Elizabeth's reactions to all these events, since they are the central characters of Pride and Prejudice, but I did not see a good way to focus on them without self-indulgently veering off into things irrelevant to my plot.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now. Ursula K. Le Guin's No Time to Spare. Zadie Smith's The Autograph Man. Lewis Shiner's Heroes and Villains.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

I loved Andre Norton's early YA novels. One book I remember reading many times was her The Stars Are Ours! I haunted the public libraries and exhausted the science fiction section. Other favorites were Robert Heinlein's Double Star and Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination, Isaac Asimov's The End of Eternity. I hunted down as much of H.G. Wells as I could, novels like the Time Machine and The War of The Worlds.

As much as the novels I was a huge fan of SF short stories. I read collections like Healey and McComas's Adventures in Time and Space and Anthony Boucher's two-volume Treasury of Great Science Fiction, and Groff Conklin's thick anthologies The Omnibus of Science Fiction, The Big Book of Science Fiction, and a dozen others.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

People today don't know how much science fiction was a minority taste back in the 1950s and 1960s. It was a sure sign of geekdom if you read this stuff, and I was a complete SF geek. Fortunately, my parents were completely open minded about such things and encouraged me to read whatever I wanted, but some teachers would criticize you if you read books with rocket ships on the covers. It was not considered serious. I remember being openly mocked in front of my classmates by a study hall teacher for reading some SF book when I should have been doing homework (which I had already completed). At school I would carry my science fiction magazines with the cover down so nobody could see them, as if they were pornography.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

It's hard to pick just five. I go through periods when I am affected by particular writers, and then don't read them for a while. Some constants in my mind are Herman Melville, Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, Gene Wolfe, Flannery O'Connor, Karen Joy Fowler.

What is a book you've faked reading?

I try to avoid that nowadays, but back in my grad school days I never got through George Eliot's Middlemarch, Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

Bored of the Rings.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Moby Dick. I still can't say how much I admire Melville's suicidal daring in writing this book in this way. It told me that I should be willing to take chances and put everything that I thought and felt into my writing.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

His Monkey Wife, by John Collier. Or War With the Newts, by Karel Čapek.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

The Confidence Man, by Herman Melville.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

A sunny day in Paris with my wife Therese Anne Fowler. Walking through Luxembourg Gardens, drinking wine, talking and reading at a streetside café, watching the people, sharing a fine meal in some little restaurant, strolling along the Seine in the warm evening.

What are you working on now?

I've been playing with a novella combining elements of H.G. Wells's novel First Men in the Moon with the assassination of President William McKinley at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo in 1901. I think it's about the similarities between today and the Gilded Age.

Book cover for Pride and Prometheus
Pride and Prometheus
Kessel, John,

This is exactly what it sounds like and is far better than it has any right to be! In Pride and Prometheus, award-winning author John Kessel takes two well-known and loved stories and blends them expertly. Readers of either or both of the original novels will find interesting twists and turns to familiar plots provided by Kessel’s crafty integration of the two stories. The result is incredibly entertaining, while also maintaining a thoughtful, introspective quality about the world and culture of 19th century Europe and the issues raised in Shelley’s groundbreaking work. Pride and Prometheus is contemplative, compelling and delightful, and it is a must read for fans of Austen and Shelley.