Laurie Sheck is a renowned poet and novelist. A Monster’s Notes, her first novel, intertwines the stories of Mary Shelley and her most famous creation, Frankenstein’s Monster, in a tale that parallels both. Sheck answered a few questions recently about the enduring allure of Frankenstein, sympathetic monsters and the legacy of Shelley and her mother.
Frankenstein has been the subject of numerous re-interpretations, both filmic and literary. What is it about this story that makes it such an enduring tale?
First of all, I think it endures because the central, burning image at its core feels amazingly, strikingly immediate and true: an ambitious scientist, out of a mixture of hubris and curiosity, creates a creature, a being, he can never understand. A creature he then recoils from and rejects, as if it is possible to avoid taking responsibility for what he has done. But such actions, of course, can never be taken back. As Shakespeare wrote in Macbeth “what’s done cannot be undone.” And that creature has profound feelings and needs; is capable of loneliness, compassion, curiosity, of wanting companionship, and yet he can find no other like himself, and no one who will willingly come near him. So there is an essential loneliness at the heart of the story as well. Overall, the scientist, through his interest in creation, experimentation and progress, has unleashed a whole series of complications and consequences, just as humans have throughout our existence on this planet—and as we undoubtedly will continue to do—which is one reason why the book will most likely always feel contemporary and urgent. It grapples with essential questions of creation and hubris, experimentation and danger, the desire to know and the unpredictable consequences that inevitably ensue, the edgy, seductive and often perilous movement into the unknown, the ungovernable adventure of the human desire to wonder and create. Desire and imagination are both exciting and frightening at once—any young child knows this. And that is often a good thing, but it has consequences. It is mixed. The story highlights the ways in which scientific experimentation is not separable from human feeling and emotional reverberations. So at its core there is a twist on the creation myth, but also the role of technology, and the moving plight of the outsider, the nameless, the misunderstood, the despised. The “Monster’s” monologue is one of the most moving and enduring comments on the plight of the outsider that I have ever read—and not irrelevant to our thinking about how, for instance, those labeled “terrorists” have been viewed since 9/11, and what forces might be at work on those so labeled. All this in a novel written in 1816, and by a girl of 19!
What is it about the Frankenstein story that attracted you specifically? What did you hope to bring to the story?
Oddly enough I came to it through a great deal of ignorance at first. I knew the film images of the monster and Dr . Frankenstein, but had never actually read the book. Then in the early 2000’s my husband began manifesting symptoms of a genetically-linked illness which impaired his physical movements. His increasingly awkward, stiff and labored gait somehow reminded me of Frankenstein’s monster (although in the actual book, as it turns out, the “monster” is extremely agile, even graceful). So I got the book and read it and was amazed. It was the “monster” that compelled me most. Even though in the story he eventually commits murder, I found him a deeply intelligent, deeply feeling, insightful and reflective being. I felt companioned by him –by that time my husband was severely ill—and often found myself talking in my head with this “monster” I had found in Shelley’s book. As I listened and thought, slowly the impulse for my own book took shape. The “monster” was a being I wanted to spend more time with. If I watched Blade Runner he watched it too; I noted his reactions. If I went to an art exhibit or read a book or the adds on the subway so did he. I ended up writing over 520 printed pages. If someone had told me beforehand that I ever would have done this I wouldn’t have believed them, but Mary Shelley and her monster lead me into all sorts of questions and investigations, and soon my “monster” –who in A Monster’s Notes is still alive in the 21st century and living in NYC— was taking notes on such issues as genetic privacy, robotics, etc. And what he could learn I could learn. Because it was of concern to him, I learned, for instance, that the Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT has a resident theologian whose project is partly to think about the moral responsibility of humans to robots, etc. All very fascinating! So Shelley’s book lead me directly into essential issues of my own era as well as into enduring questions regarding the nature of the outsider, loneliness, experimentation both literary and scientific, even the role of reading in the development of a mind, as Mary Shelley’s “monster” reads many books, including Paradise Lost and Volney’s The Ruins of Empire, in his effort to understand the human race that made and yet shuns and fears him. His namelessness also moved me—what would it feel like to live on this earth, to move through life, without a name? With no one having bothered or cared to name you? The contemporary French philosopher Alain Bodiou has written, “Today the great majority of people do not have a name; the only name available is ‘excluded,’ which is the name of those who do not have a name. Today the great majority of humanity counts for nothing…” So the “monster” too, despite all the ways in which he is feared by others, stands in for a kind of powerlessness that has long interested me. What happens to the powerless and despised of this earth? What is their plight? What is involved in the challenge to not turn away from that question?
You’re a well-known poet. How did that background influence your prose?
I am used to writing by the line, not the sentence, and attending to the sound and texture of each individual word and letter—how “k” is hard, abrupt, while “s” is sinuous, etc. I brought all of that with me into the prose writing while at the same time learning to extend my reach and to let the voices wander more, which I found incredibly exciting and liberating. I didn’t think in terms of writing poetry or prose, just that I was writing. I didn’t seek to write in any definable genre. We think of Gertrude Stein as a writer, not as a poet or fiction writer. That interests me—the willingness to let the hand and mind move without needing to label what is emerging on the page or screen, and which, in fact, is not a product, but an event, a kind of bristling nervous system composed of words.
The monster can’t help but to evoke my sympathy, and I can think of few horror characters for which I can say the same. What’s the secret to maintaining a reader’s connection to a horrific character?
Well, I think I touched on the issues involved in this in my previous answers, but the basic elements are, I think, empathy and complexity. The character needs to be complex and textured enough to compel. In Frankenstein the “monster” is deeply intelligent, even well-read. He poses essential questions, not in some cerebral way, but because he has been deeply wounded and perplexed. He is a searcher; he wants to understand. At one point he says, “My person was hideous and my stature gigantic. What did this mean?” And he asks, “Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come?” He is able to see himself through the eyes of others; he wants to understand what his supposed “hideousness” means, not just that it is. He has a desire to understand both himself and others, and the ensuing interactions. His loneliness and isolation are deeply poignant: “There was none to lament my annihilation,” he says. His complexity also extends to his conflicted feelings about causing harm to others: “I could have torn him limb from limb…but my heart sank within me as with bitter sickness and I refrained.” Throughout the book, complexity of his nature shines through, and I think this is what makes him so essential and unforgettable.
Mary Shelley was a very independent-minded woman for her time. As a modern woman and writer, do you see her as any kind of literary or political forebear?
While I was writing, and to this day, I very much appreciated spending time in the presence of Mary Shelley’s writings—her novels, stories, letters, diaries, essays—as well as with the writings of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, who actually appears as a character, along with Mary Shelley, in the last third of A Monster’s Notes. They were both bold, exciting thinkers. Wollstonecraft is widely credited with being ‘the first feminist.’ She died quite young—from complications of childbirth 11 days after Mary Shelley’s birth, so Mary never knew her. She ventured out on her own to witness and report on the French Revolution; quite remarkable. Mary Shelley’s life, in terms of outer events, was, after her early years with Percy Shelley, less audacious than her mother’s, but much of her thinking was brave, vibrant, and she was a great striver, which is very important to me. The whole Shelley circle taken together poses many exciting challenges and inspirations: Percy Shelley, for instance, was, like the “monster” in Mary’s book, a vegetarian, and would not use sugar in his tea as it was produced by slave labor.
What is your next project?
I am working on another hybrid work, The Secret Papers of Ambrose A., which is similar in format to A Monster’s Notes. It takes place partly in 16th century Venice during the plague years and partly in the present. The characters seem to manage various forms of time-travel, so eras and places blend together. The overall trajectory involves Ambrose being sent on a mysterious mission to Venice where he must seek out and find a lost notebook.