Theodora Goss is an author, poet, and fairytale professor. Cinders editor, Méabh McDonnell spoke to Theodora about heroines, fables and the adventures of her 19th century feminist series, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter.
1. Can you remember when you realised you wanted to be a writer’?
No! I must have been very young, though. Some writers always knew they wanted to be writers, and some come to it much later. I was one of the former–I always knew. I still have a folder full of poems I wrote in high school, and my very first publication was in the high school literary magazine. It was a poem on Icarus. I kept writing through college, but my family wanted me to have a practical profession, so I went to law school. After a few years of being a lawyer, I realized it would never give me enough time to write–so I went back to graduate school and got a PhD in English literature. Now I teach both creative writing and composition at the university level. It’s still a lot of work, but I have enough time to be a writer!
2. As a fairytale professor, can you give us any insight into why fairytales remain so popular and why they still are a natural part of our cultural language?
I think it’s partly because they’re about the most important things in our lives. Most fairy tales were originally told rather than written down–they were originally oral tales. Why do people tell tales? Because they are important not just to one person, but to entire communities of people. So fairy tales are about thing that are important to many of us: hunger, jealousy, revenge, justice, love. They are about the relationships within families, about marriage, about journeys into the dark forest.They are about very real, concrete things like bread, apples, shoes, as well as things that can be read metaphorically, like throwing frogs against walls. When you get into literary fairy tales, such as those of Hans Christian Andersen, they become more sophisticated–they can be about the soul, or the relationship between the artist and society. But the old oral tales collected by the Brothers Grimm and other folklorists were about our most basic needs and emotions.
3. Your blog series on the fairytale heroine’s journey struck a chord with a lot of people – what was it about the journey that inspired you?
I was surprised when I first noticed the pattern! I thought of stories like “Snow White,” “Cinderella,” and “Sleeping Beauty” as very different. And yet, when I started looking at them closely, I realized that they shared a series of common events. For example, in all of them, the heroines receive gifts, face trials, and undergo a real or metaphorical death. It was interesting to study and then try to describe an underlying pattern of twelve stages. What inspired me to explore and write about this journey was the way in which I could see these stages in my own life and the lives of my female friends. My hypothesis is that these fairy tales reflect real events in women’s lives at the time they were told and written down–they are symbolic representations of an underlying reality. And women’s lives often still follow the same pattern, although in more modern ways. But there are also fairy tales that provide alternate patterns–they’re just not as popular in modern culture. They haven’t been made into Disney films!
4. For readers who want to read about fairytale heroines they may not have heard of can you give us your best recommendations?
I’ll give you three of my favorites! The first one is Vasilisa, in the Russian fairy tale “Vasilisa the Fair.” She has to confront the fearsome Baba Yaga, who lives in a house on chicken legs. Luckily, she has the help of a magical doll left to her by her dead mother. The doll helps her in Baba Yaga’s hut, but in the end it’s Vasilisa’s ability to weave and sew the finest linen shirts that wins her the hand of the Tsar. The second is the heroine of a beautiful Norwegian tale called “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.” She marries a white bear who comes to her at night in the form of a man, but when she tries to see his face and accidentally wakes him up, he tells her that he was under a spell, and if she had just waited a little longer, she would have broken it. Now he must go marry a troll who lives east of the sun and west of the moon. He disappears, leaving her alone–but rather than falling into despair, she sets out to find her husband and goes on a long journey to win him back. The third might not be considered a heroine by most people, but I would argue that she is one–the cat princess in Madame d’Aulnoy’s “The White Cat.” She helps the king’s youngest son bring home the finest linen, then the smallest dog, and then the most beautiful bride (herself, in her human form), so she is a sort of magical helper–but if you read the fairy tale closely, you’ll notice that she has her own story, in which she was turned into a white cat. She gives the king’s son what he needs in part so he can disenchant her and she can resume her human form. Each of these heroines works for her happy ending. I suppose that’s why I admire them so much!
5. Your fantasy stories take place in beautiful worlds that are full of possibility and myth- do you use any aspects of the real world to create these?
Thank you! And yes, absolutely. In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien said that “Faërie,” which was his word for the world of fantasy and fairy tale, “contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.” I think all the fairy lands we can imagine rest on a solid foundation of the real. That gives them what Tolkien called “the inner consistency of reality.” In order to make you believe in an enchanted castle, I must show you the grayish stones of which it’s made, and the ivy growing up its walls to the arched windows. Fantasy is built out of reality, and in order to write it well, I have to experience reality in as much depth and detail as a writer of entirely realistic novels. But I will say that I see the possibility and myth in the real–I’m bringing it out, rather than spreading it on top, like butter. If you look at an average tree, for example, you will realize that it is an entirely magical creature, not average at all.
I started noticing that there were an awful lot of female monsters in nineteenth-century literature, and they all died! Well, I had to do something about that. So I wrote my own story.
6. The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is such an enjoyable- and unusual – story; can you remember the first idea you had that led to the novel?
It wasn’t an idea yet, but a particular passage–the one in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein where Victor Frankenstein, who has started to create a female monster, takes her apart again and throws her body parts into the sea. I thought, Hey, wait a minute! It was so unfair . . . He’s afraid that she and his male monster will mate, to produce offspring that may outcompete mankind. So he doesn’t even create her. And then I started noticing that there were an awful lot of female monsters in nineteenth-century literature, and they all died! Well, I had to do something about that. So I wrote my own story.
7. You took some very well known characters and re-cast them in your story, was it difficult to re-imagine them in your own way?
Not really! I think that was because they get so little say in their original narratives. Frankenstein’s female monster isn’t even created. Dr. Moreau’s Puma Woman does not say anything–she just kills him and is killed in turn. Beatrice Rappaccini does get some lines of her own, but her story is told entirely from the perspective of her lover, Giovanni. It’s not primarily her narrative. And I made up Mary Jekyll and Diana Hyde. I really just asked myself, knowing what we know from the original narratives, what would these characters be like? What would Catherine be like, as a Puma Woman created on Moreau’s island?
8. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the book is how realistically it portrays 19th century life – did you have a very rigorous research process?
Yes and no. It wasn’t rigorous in the sense that I knew exactly what I needed to research, and then I went out and researched exactly those things. But I did go to London several times, specifically to walk the streets where my characters walked so I could figure out where the action of the novel would take place, how long it would take to get from one place to another . . . I went to Regent’s Park, the Royal College of Surgeons, even the Sherlock Holmes Museum because I wanted to see how large the average parlor would have been in one of the houses on Baker Street. More than anything else, I wanted to get a sense of where my novel would take place. I have a PhD in nineteenth-century British literature, so there were a lot of things I knew about the nineteenth century, but that wasn’t enough to write a novel with. I needed to see things, hear things, smell things, so I could describe them for my reader. I looked at a lot of photographs from that time period, and while I was drafting, I read only late nineteenth-century prose. The research process continued throughout the time I was writing the book. Sometimes, to write a sentence, I had to crawl around on my office floor, comparing a contemporary map of London with one from the nineteenth century, to make sure I knew where my characters were going . . .
I wanted to write about the women, and not just the monstrous ones. I wanted to make sure that a housekeeper like Mrs. Poole also had a voice. Honestly, if it were not for Mrs. Poole, I have no idea how the Athena Club would sustain itself.
9. The five members of the Athena Club are a refreshingly feminist crime fighting team – was this a response to the lack of women in 19th century science fiction and horror literature?
Yes, absolutely! And when there are women, they tend to be killed off, as in Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla or Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan. The rare exception is Mina Murray in Dracula: she survives, but only because she does not become a vampire. Most of the nineteenth-century narratives I read for my dissertation were focused on the lives of male protagonists. I wanted to change that. I wanted to write about the women, and not just the monstrous ones. I wanted to make sure that a housekeeper like Mrs. Poole also had a voice. Honestly, if it were not for Mrs. Poole, I have no idea how the Athena Club would sustain itself. She is absolutely central.
10. Which of the girls would you say you are the most like?
Mary, I’m afraid. All of the girls have something of me in them, because when you write, you’re always drawing out of yourself. But I’m most like practical Mary, who can be annoying sometimes–she could use some of Catherine’s imagination, Beatrice’s artistic sense, Justine’s sense of justice, and even Diana’s impulsiveness. But of course, if any of them were perfect characters, they would not be interesting–they all have their flaws. Mary has many of mine.
11. Can you tell us anything about what adventures the Athena Club will get up to next?
In the second book, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, Mary, Diana, Beatrice, Catherine, and Justine must rescue Lucinda Van Helsing from the evil machinations of her father, Professor Van Helsing. Summoned by Mary’s former governess Mina Murray, they travel to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where they meet new friends, confront even more dangerous enemies, and eventually face the fearsome Alchemical Society! Also, Mary learns to like coffee and Diana eats a lot of cake . . .
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is available in bookshops near you!