Interview With an Author: C.E. McGill

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
C. E. McGill and their novel Our Hideous Progeny
C. E. McGill and their debut novel Our Hideous Progeny

C. E. McGill is 23 years old and was born in Scotland and raised in North Carolina. Their short fiction has appeared in Fantasy Magazine and Strange Constellations, and they are a two-time finalist for the Dell Award for Undergraduate Excellence in SF/F Writing. They now live in Scotland with their family, two cats, and a growing number of fake succulents (the real ones keep dying). Our Hideous Progeny is their first novel and they recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for Our Hideous Progeny?

Our Hideous Progeny actually started as my final-year project at university; my degree was a pretty eclectic one called "Interdisciplinary Studies: Self-Design: Narratives of Science in Fiction and History" that was a mix of creative writing, scientific history, and literary analysis looking at how science fiction is inspired by real history and vice versa. During my final year, just as I was getting desperate trying to think of a topic for my capstone project, two things nicely converged: in one class, I was re-reading Frankenstein, and in another, I was learning about nineteenth-century paleoart—i.e., humanity's earliest attempts at imagining based on scientific evidence what the ancient world might look like. I was so intrigued by these strange (and often melodramatic!) pieces of art, especially the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, meant to essentially "resurrect" these long-dead creatures in the public eye… And that, of course, got me thinking about what would happen if some descendant of Victor Frankenstein attempted to "bring to life" a prehistoric creature in a far more literal way!

Are Mary, Maisie, Henry, Clarke, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

Personality-wise, I wouldn't say that any of them are based on any one specific person—rather, my process of character creation generally involves taking tiny grains of personality from myself, people I know, characters I've enjoyed, then mixing them all together in a Petri dish to see what grows. I find this especially helpful for writing realistic character flaws; for example, Henry has all my stubbornness and unwillingness to admit that I'm wrong, only dialed up to eleven and minus years of therapy and self-reflection!

As far as historical influences go, there are actually a number of real historical figures in OHP, including Henry's arch-rival Professor Owen and nearly everyone that he and Mary mention or meet in their scientific circles. Mary's mentor Jehangir Jamsetjee is loosely based, backstory-wise, on the famous Parsi naval engineer Ardaseer Cursetjee Wadia, though his personality is entirely invented. One particular inspiration for Mary's personality was actually Mary Somerville, the hugely talented nineteenth-century mathematician and astronomer, though in a rather round-about way; when I was researching for OHP, I read a contemporary biography of Somerville and was struck by how often her family and peers described her as kind and humble, the perfect wife and mother. I couldn't help but be reminded of the modern pressure on women and minorities in the workplace to smile, to be non-threatening, to grin, and bear every hardship put upon them. I wanted to create a protagonist who could not and would not, for better or for worse, hold her tongue, and see what the Victorian scientific world would make of her.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

There were a few individual paragraphs or lines that I nearly shed a tear while cutting, ha! Rarely whole scenes, though, and the vast majority of cuts that I made or that my editors asked me to make were ultimately just set dressing. Our Hideous Progeny ended up as quite a long draft, so my editors and I both were eager to make sure that it didn't drag on for readers by trimming down extraneous flashbacks and descriptions.

How familiar were you with mid-19th century Europe prior to writing your novel? Did you have to do a bit of research (especially about the rapidly developing field of science)? If so, how long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write Our Hideous Progeny?

Not very familiar at all! I'd read plenty of historical fiction set in the Victorian period and knew a smattering of fun facts about the science of the era thanks to my teenage obsession with Nikola Tesla, but I'd never officially studied it in detail until the class in which I came up with the idea for Our Hideous Progeny, "Darwinism in Science and Society." Fortunately, the professor teaching said class was also my degree advisor and a hugely knowledgeable historian of the period; he gave me a list of dozens of books to read. I'd only ever meant for OHP to be a short story, but it rapidly turned into a novella, and by the time I graduated in May 2019, I knew the story wanted to be book-sized. It took nearly another year of researching and writing to turn it into the first full novel draft, but I kept on researching throughout every edit since. With historical fiction, it often seems as though there's always another question to answer; I was still looking up Victorian train timetables and inheritance laws right up until the final copyedits!

What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?

I found it fascinating to learn about the diversity of religious beliefs that existed in the world of Victorian science. As an areligious person myself, I grew up with the idea that religion (Christianity in particular) was fundamentally opposed to science, so I was surprised to learn that many early geologists were actually members of the clergy who believed that studying the world was precisely what God had always intended humanity to do. Far from the singular Creationist view currently presented by modern evangelists, there have existed over the centuries dozens of subtly different models (including that the seven "days" of creation may have actually been a metaphor for seven geological ages) that attempted to reconcile the Biblical narrative with scientific evidence. At the same time, there also existed plenty of Deists, atheists, and agnostics, though most kept their beliefs or doubts to themselves for fear of the social consequences. Mary and Henry's philosophy in the novel is partially inspired by Charles Darwin, who privately expressed agnostic and atheistic tendencies throughout his life, and became particularly disillusioned with God after the death of his young daughter.

Do you have a favorite Frankenstein pastiche, television or motion picture adaptation/interpretation? A least favorite? I realize that you may not want to address this one and if that is the case, please don't. But I also realize it might be so bad that it could be fun to answer?

I'm a bit conflicted on this one because I'm always a bit annoyed that nearly every pop-culture depiction of Frankenstein portrays the monster as some kind of shambling green creature with bolts in his neck, rather than the creepily beautiful and well-spoken man of the book—but at the same time, my favorite adaptation is probably James Whale's 1931 Frankenstein, which is the very same film that founded that interpretation of the character! Despite that, and the fact that the plot really doesn't bear any resemblance to the original book, I just really love Boris Karloff's performance and that overall vintage horror vibe.

Do you have an idea or theory regarding why/how Frankenstein continues to fascinate readers, and inspire writers and artists, over 200 years after its initial publication?

I think that it taps into some really chewy and eternally-relevant themes. Anyone who's ever lost someone has wished they could get that person back from the dead; Frankenstein asks, what if that were possible, but at a terrible price? What if we were never meant to have such power? And that's just from Victor's point of view; the monster's storyline asks equally compelling questions like, what if you were born wrong? What if the person who brought you into this world hated you? What if you were once innocent, but then the world taught you that you were terrible and ugly? I think that these are hugely compelling questions, and will probably (unfortunately!) continue to be relatable to countless people for another few hundred years at least.

Our Hideous Progeny would make a marvelous film or series. If you were able to cast the production of Our Hideous Progeny, who would your dream cast be?

Oh, what a dream!! That's a tough one, as I'm terrible with both faces and actors' names. For Maisie, though, I've always thought of Sophie Rundle—I think she has a great historical face, and I loved her in Gentleman Jack. For Mary, my heart says Keira Knightley, though that's only because I'm desperately in love with her and want to see her in everything. In reality, probably someone more solid and ordinary, but still with that spark of intensity. For Mr. Jamsetjee, I've always pictured someone with a wonderfully warm smile, much like Saeed Jaffrey (who's sadly passed away now). Henry and Clarke would be played by… men with mustaches. I'm sorry, I'm genuinely a hair shy of being medically diagnosable as face-blind and white-men-with-a-bit-of-facial-hair are my greatest weakness. In the LOTR movies, I thought that Aragorn and Boromir were the same person until one of them died…

What's currently on your nightstand?

That's a bit of a trick question for me—I have a loft bed, so technically nothing! But I always keep within easy reach my battered old reusable water bottle, a book (currently The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudesley, by Sean Lusk), my Burts Bees lip-balm, and at least three tiny bottles of hand lotion looted from various hotels.

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

Erin Morgenstern, for one (her books always make me feel like I'm savouring a rich chocolate ganache); Carmen Maria Machado (her prose is so good it makes me want to scream); Ocean Vuong (same as Carmen Maria Machado, only this time I'm screaming and crying); Madeline Miller (I've read The Song of Achilles upwards of ten times); and Tamsyn Muir (it is my wildest dream that one day I will write something as good as Gideon the Ninth).

As a debut author, what have you learned during the process of getting your novel published that you would like to share with other writers about this experience?

I think one of the toughest things for me, an impatient control freak, has been making peace with the fact that publishing happens slowly, and most of it is almost entirely out of your control. (That's one of the reasons that many people opt for the self-publishing route instead, after all!) I think that for anyone considering going the trad-pub route or currently sticking it out in the agent-querying trenches, the most important thing to do is to focus on the things you can control; to send out your book into the world (or into agents' inboxes) like a parent tearfully waving their child off to college, and then get back to work on writing the next one.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

Oh, I had about a million different favorites, but if I had to pick, it would be The Edge Chronicles by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell! The world-building was phenomenal, and the maps (plural!) at the beginning were the best I've ever seen in any fantasy series before or since.

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

Not especially; I was extremely lucky in that my parents were very supportive of my reading, and let me pick up pretty much anything I liked. (In fact, my mother was so eager to have a fellow fan of Anne Rice's The Vampire Chronicles in the house that she gave them to me to read when I was thirteen. Some might consider this too young, but I think that being exposed to such blood, drama, and homoeroticism in my formative years made me precisely the queer Goth weirdo I am today.)

Is there a book you've faked reading?

Never outright—lying makes me unbearably anxious—but I've definitely made some vague, potentially misleading "mhmm"s while other people are talking about Important Books I've never read. (Listen, I’ll read Virginia Woolf eventually…)

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

Dozens! I am, at heart, a magpie. Most recently, probably Beneath the Night by Stuart Clark, a history of humankind's cultural fascination with and love of the stars. (I've only read the first chapter so far, but am very much enjoying it.)

Is there a book that changed your life?

I think that honor has to go to Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle. Midway through my engineering degree, I took a summer off to tend to my ongoing burnout-induced existential crisis. I hadn't read for fun in years at that point, and the moment I started the first book in the series, it felt like I'd taken a hit of some kind of drug. I went on an absolute book bender, and by the time I was finished, I was forced to admit that while I might be good at math and science, absolutely nothing in the world made me happier than a well-told story. I realized that there were stories in me, too, that were itching to come out, and that was that: I flung aside my promising future in engineering to be a layabout artist instead.

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

Once again, dozens—I'm always aggressively pushing books on my friends. My go-to for a long time has been This is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, though now that Bigolas Dickolas Wolfwood [can I say that…? Is this a PG-13 blog] has made sure that one has all the attention and acclaim it deserves, I'll yell about Dead Collections by Isaac Fellman instead. It's a wonderful little book about a trans vampire archivist that has fascinating things to say about love, gender, vampirism-as-a-chronic-illness, archivism-as-exorcism, and being a queer teen projecting your identity onto lame sci-fi shows. 

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

Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire! It's a beautiful, twisty, confusing, and wonderful book that I vividly remember devouring over three sweltering summer evenings back in 2019, and I've often wished I could rewind and read it all again. It's a hard one to describe without giving spoilers, but if you like weird alchemical magic systems and siblings who'd die for each other, then this one's for you.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

The recent TV adaptation of The Last of Us made me cry so hard I had to deliberately rehydrate after each episode. To anyone else who went through the five stages of grief with me over this show, I highly recommend the companion podcast, which gives a fascinating insight into the writing and characterization of the show. As a writer, I found it an especially great master class in "how to tear your audience's still-beating hearts from their chests and have them thank you for it."

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

Is it lame to say my perfect day would probably just be several uninterrupted hours of reading in nice cafés? Well, interrupted only to eat Thai food for lunch. And Thai food again for dinner, accompanied by all my old college friends from America who are now scattered to the winds!

What is the question that you're always hoping you'll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

(Mild spoilers ahead!) There was an interesting question which *I* was never explicitly asked, but which I saw asked in a read-along group hosted by my publisher, which was: "Mary and Henry call their creation "The Creature" even now; do they still have a right to call it that or claim ownership of it still?" This really surprised me, because I had never intended the name "The Creature" to carry any kind of connotations of negativity or ownership. As a nonbinary person, I'm hugely fond of dramatic "The [Noun]" names, as well as creatures, cryptids, and monsters in general. (My ideal gender presentation is essentially "glowing red eyes spotted in the woods.") In that way, I couldn't think of any other better name for the Creature than "the Creature"; anything else seemed like it would just be limiting. I feel the same about the "it" pronouns I use throughout for the Creature, too—"it" is used for objects, sure, but it's also used for mountains and planets and galaxies, hopes and fears, and dreams. I think there's a huge amount of power in being an unnamable thing!

What are you working on now?

I'm working on a funky dual-timeline novel set in 1780s and 1980s Paris, weaving together queer history with the French Revolution and the Paris catacombs (which I have visited twice, and think is absolutely the coolest and Gothest place on Earth). It's very research-heavy, so will probably be a while coming, but I'm having lots of fun with it in the meantime!

Book cover of Our Hideous Progeny
Our Hideous Progeny
Mcgill, C. E.

In Our Hideous Progeny, debut author C.E. McGill follows Henry & Mary Sutherland, two burgeoning paleontologists in the Victorian era, as they attempt to recreate one of the most famous literary science experiments gone wrong with fascinating and horrifying results. Our Hideous Progeny is both a Gothic fever dream and an articulate indictment of how science has been, and in many ways continues to be, a club catering to the privileged, white male.

McGill has populated their novel with a marvelous cast of characters. This is especially true of Mary. Intelligent, focused, compassionate, and occasionally brilliant, Mary is as driven and capable as any of her male counterparts. While she constantly chafes at the restrictions Victorian culture places upon her, she never gives up or gives in to play the part others would have her play. In addition, she never loses sight of the question that has been the foundation of countless science fiction stories: just because we can do something, should we?

Our Hideous Progeny is a marvelously Gothic, moody exploration of what science can, and should do. And it has dinosaurs! It is also my favorite book of 2023 and I can’t wait to see where C.E. McGill takes us next!