Interview With an Author: Theodora Goss

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Theodora Gross picture and book cover for strange case of the alchemist's daughter

Theodora Goss is a World Fantasy Award–winning author of short stories, poetry and essays. She has been a finalist for the Nebula, Locus, Crawford, Seiun, and Mythopoeic Awards, as well as on the Tiptree Award Honor List, and her work has been translated into eleven languages. She teaches creative writing in the Stonecoast MFA Program in Creative Writing and the Boston University College of Arts and Sciences Writing Program. Her newest book, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, is now available from Saga Press and she recently agreed to be interviewed by Daryl Maxwell for the Los Angeles Public Library.

What was your inspiration for The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter?

I was reading a lot of Victorian gothic fiction for my doctoral dissertation, which was on late Victorian gothic and anthropology, and I noticed a theme that kept appearing: a mad scientist of some sort would create a dangerous woman, and she would have to be dispatched in some way. That's the basic plot of Arthur Machen's The Island of Dr. Moreau, in which Moreau creates a woman out of a puma and she kills him, but is herself killed in the process. In Dracula, Lucy turns vampiric and is staked, then decapitated, as are all the other female vampires. And then there's the pre-Victorian Frankenstein in which Victor promises to create a female monster, starts to assemble her but then thinks about what might happen if she mates with his male monster and takes her apart again. For me, this is an iconic scene: there he is, at night in the Orkneys, dumping her into the sea because he's afraid of what the local peasants might think if they find female body parts in his cottage.

I was fascinated by these figures. They're created, or not even created—and then they're destroyed. For the most part, they don't even get to speak. An exception is Beatrice in Nathaniel Hawthrone's "Rappaccini's Daughter," but she's still not the viewpoint character—that's Giovanni, and the story focuses on how he feels about this beautiful woman turned poisonous by her father. I wanted to let these monstrous women speak.

I understand that The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter had its genesis in a short story you wrote called The Mad Scientist’s Daughter (originally published online in Strange Horizons and in the anthology The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination). What inspired you to expand the story about these characters into a novel?

Once I'd written a story about how some of these monstrous women come together in late nineteenth-century London and form a club, I wanted to find out how that had happened. So I wanted to learn more about them, and also, I love the late nineteenth century. I'm fascinated by the fin-de-siècle, which was a strange transitional period, as intense in its disruptions as our own. We have the internet—the late Victorians had telegrams, Kodaks, photographs. It must have felt to them as though the world was changing very fast! Also, their ideas about the world around them were changing—Darwin's theories, as well as the new geology and archaeology, were upending what they had known about the world, destroying the old stability. What a wonderful, frightening time it must have been to be alive—just like ours! Finally, I'd read these stories so deeply—I'd taught them in classes. And I felt as though there was more to them. I wanted to bring that something more out. For example, in H.G. Wells's original manuscript for The Island of Dr. Moreau, the doctor actually has a wife on the island! She's a sort of counterpoint to the puma woman. She's not in my story, but that's the sort of thing I mean—once you start getting into these texts, they open up to reveal ever more levels. It's as though there's no end to them.

How did the story and/or characters evolve and change as you worked to expand the short story into a novel. Were there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it.

Yes, I took out one major character, Helen, from The Great God Pan, although (shhh, this is a sort of secret) she's actually in there—I've transformed her into a villainess. And I expanded a lot, from a standard short story (about 7000 words) to a novel (about 120,000 words). I added a plot—a murder mystery. And I brought in Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Teaching The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I had realized that Dr. Jekyll's house in London was close to Regent's Park, which means it was probably also close to Baker Street, on the other side of the park. In the 1880s, Jekyll would have lived near Holmes. After that, I had to put them together somehow...A novel is a very different kind of beast from a short story. I had to think about it in a different way—I'm pretty sure I have new novel pathways in my brain now! Unfortunately, they didn't help very much with the second novel, which was even more complicated.

Are Mary, Diana, Justine, Catherine, Beatrice, Mrs. Poole and/or Alice inspired by a specific individual (or group of people) beyond their literary progenitors?

Not really. I would say that when I have trouble writing about Mary and Diana, I think about Freud's concept of the superego and id. But in order to write about any of these characters, I had to draw their attributes out of myself. I had to pretend to be them. That's why you hear Catherine and Mary a lot—because I'm most like them. It's harder for me to be a Justine or Beatrice—particularly Beatrice, the beautiful and poisonous. Alice is my most timid self. And Mrs. Poole is really my teacher self, the one who says "Yes, you can take an extension" the way she might say "You may have a jam tart." I'm sure bits and pieces of people I've known or interactions I've had have ended up in them, but it's been so filtered by the time it becomes a character that it's hard for me to tell where anything comes from. Mary worrying about money, though? Totally me!

Can you talk a little about the roles of women in the original stories you are referencing and how that lead to writing these stories/characters (and possibly a bit about your doctoral dissertation)?

Justine is based on the monstrous woman Victor Frankenstein never created, plus his family's maid Justine Moritz, who is accused of murdering his youngest brother William, then convicted and hanged. I figured Victor would use her body. Also, I was really mad at him for not trying to save Justine. He knows his monster is the actual murderer, but does he tell anyone? Nope. Catherine is based on the puma woman that Dr. Moreau creates. She doesn't actually do anything in Wells's novel except escape and then kill Moreau, but she's a powerful image of his cruelty. Beatrice is based on the heroine of Hawthorne's short story. I tried to imagine what it would really have been like for her, growing up in her father's garden. Who would that have made her? Mary and Diana I made up—there are barely any female characters in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but interestingly enough they are always added to theatrical and film version. As a fiancée and a prostitute, of course! I thought it would be more interesting if Jekyll and Hyde had daughters.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

The Art of Grace: On Moving Well Through Life by Sarah L. Kaufman, A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup, and Little, Big by John Crowley (because I'm going to be on a panel discussing the book). I guess I like to be graceful and poison people? Or poison people gracefully? Also, I like fairies...

(In a subsequent message regarding the interview, Dr. Goss said, "And the books I listed as on my nightstand are really literally stacked on my nightstand! No metaphors here .")

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. I had a crush on Aslan, although I really wanted Jadis's castle. Second favorites were The Princess and the Goblin and At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald, which have amazing female characters in North Wind and Princess Irene's mysterious great-great-grandmother. Wait, I forgot Astrid Lindgren's The Brothers Lionheart! But I don't even talk about that one, because it's such a deeply sad and wonderful book. Few people I've met have even heard of it. It's magic. You asked for just one, but I could go on and on...

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

In no particular order: Isak Dinesen, Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, Virginia Woolf, and Ursula Le Guin.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

I don't quite fake reading it, but I have to smile and nod when people talk about Moby Dick. I've never made it to the end. I'm deeply ashamed of that, because I do love Herman Melville.

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

Sound the Deep Waters: Women's Romantic Poetry in the Victorian Age, edited by Pamela Norris. It's a beautiful little book, filled with pre-Raphaelite art and also wonderful poetry by women.

Is there a book that changed your life?

All of them! Not joking. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell changed my life, but so did The Pilates Body and Birds of Massachusetts. Every single book you pick up can change your life, if you let it.

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

Three books, actually: Isak Dinesen's Winter's Tales, Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes, and Hope Mirrlees' Lud-in-the-Mist. But I don't think everyone should read them. If you're the right reader for these books, you will love them and they will change you. If not, you'll think they're boring or irritating. So, did you ever want to be a sorceress with your own tower in the middle of a forest, maybe served by cats? Or a witch with a pack of truth-telling cards, living in a cottage on goose legs that could also fly,? If so, read these books...

Can you name a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

No, because the books I love are different every single time I reread them. I read Agatha Christie mysteries over and over! I mean, I know who committed the murder on the Orient Express. But I don't care—it's not about that for me. I value the slow uncovering of layers you get from rereading, so I would not want to give up any of the times, at different ages, that I've read The Wind in the Willows or Ozma of Oz or Jane Eyre.

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

At the moment, my idea of the perfect day is waking up in my castle in the middle of the forest, going out to see how the garden is doing (are the cherries and apricots ripe, the roses blooming?), then maybe looking into my magic mirror to see what's going on in the world. A walk with the talking cats, who are wise but cryptic? Some time reading in the library, which includes the complete works of Sappho? Checking in with my daughter, who is also training to be a sorceress. In the afternoon, a ride on the flying horse and maybe a swim in the pool by the waterfall, for both of us. There would be significant amounts of chocolate and ice cream involved, in all sorts of interesting flavors. I hope this wasn't supposed to be realistic.

You’ve mentioned on your blog that you are writing a sequel to The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter. Is there anything you can tell us about the new novel? Will this turn into a series beyond these two books?

There will definitely be a second book because it's already written and in the middle of being revised. The second book takes Mary, Diana, Beatrice, Catherine, and Justine to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where they must try to solve another mystery and confront the Société des Alchimistes. I did even more research for this one, going to Vienna and Budapest, which was a lot of fun. Also, I wore out a pair of shoes. There may be a third book, but that's partly up to my editor and partly up to the Athena Club, although they don't seem to be running out of adventures at the moment.

What are you working on now?

Right now I'm working on revisions for the second book. Once that's done, I hope to write some more short fiction and poetry, which I've been neglecting of late. I like to write a variety of things—it's hard for me to just work on a novel. But it's also fascinating to become so completely immersed in one world with a particular cast of characters. Hopefully, I can do all of those things, both in shorter and longer forms—they all give me such joy. It's just a matter of finding the time and somehow getting enough sleep!