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Creating a monster

Creating a monster

MONSTERS is the powerful new novel by SHARON DOGAR in which she explores the life of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley - who ran away from home aged just 16 to be with the person she loved, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

MONSTERS explores the events and relationships that led to the creation of Frankenstein and one of the most recognisable and enduring monsters in English literature.

We asked SHARON DOGAR to tell us more about MONSTERS:

Q: Monsters follows the life of Mary Shelley, the creator of Frankenstein. Whose idea was it to approach the story of Frankenstein through the life of the young woman who wrote it?

A: Andersen editor Charlie Sheppard commissioned the book, asking me to write about Mary Shelley's life. It was clear from the start that the creation of Frankenstein, and Mary's time in Geneva (where the book was conceived), would be a crucial part of the novel.

The idea of Mary's own life informing the creation of her monster evolved naturally out of the writing and editing process. For me, the moment when Victor Frankenstein flees from his monstrous creation mirrors the complex (and largely unconscious) feelings Mary had around the death of her own mother, a mere ten days after her birth. Did her mother die at the mere sight of her? Is Mary herself a monstrous, destructive child?

The prevalence of death in the early 18th century also affected Mary. It naturally led to a belief in God and an afterlife, and she believed that her mother was alive in this afterlife - somehow. And yet this assumption was being questioned, most fervently by the man Mary falls passionately in love with - Percy Bysshe Shelley. How does Mary make sense of this?

Mary's writing of Frankenstein addresses big questions; Can we defy God and create life, and if so, what would it mean for society as a whole? How and why does rejection, lack of love and social ostracism affect us? Monsters tries to explore how such questions arose within Mary, driving her inevitably towards creating one of the most enduring Monsters of all time.

Q: And why did you want to write this story?

A: I didn't want to write the story initially; mostly because I'd made a decision that I would no longer write for publication. Writing for publication means exposure, and that can affect how free you feel to write to go wherever your imagination might take you.

My last novel, Annexed, had a lot of attention, it was short-listed for the Costa, but at the same time caused a vicious debate (still current more widely) around whether writers have the right to imagine outside of their own cultural context. As a mixed-race muslim/anglo catholic, yet also protestant, woman, how did I have the right to imagine Auschwitz? Or to imagine a cultural Icon like Anne Frank as an exceptional young woman who had very ordinary thoughts about sex and love?

Every novel before Annexed was written with a sense of total imaginative freedom. After it was published I felt I had to make a choice: carry on writing for publication, but always feeling anxious about what I could and couldn't imagine, or stop publishing. I love writing far more than I love publishing so the decision was easy. I didn't offer any books for publication for six years. And then Charlie Sheppard asked me to write this book.

Being commissioned to write a novel helps take some of the pressure off, not least because I'm not responsible for the original idea. This book arose out of a collaboration with Charlie. It's the first of my books that has been subjected to a joint editing process from the first draft. It's chronological rather than a time-slip novel, and is written by an older, far more self-conscious, writer.

As to why write Monsters? Well, who wouldn't want to write about Mary Shelley. The story of her young life is a ready-made plot straight from heaven. How anyone managed to live through so much, so young, and rather than fall apart under the strain of the tragedies life threw at her, turn it all into an incredible novel? The only fear was that I might not do her justice.

Q: Why did you decide to write Monsters as a diary, and in the present tense? And how did you choose the title?

A: Some novels just present themselves a certain way. Diaries and letters are an effective way of giving the reader information and of describing the passing of time. They present the reader not only with what's happened but also provide a sense of the internal life of a character. The form of the novel was a practical decision, interspersing the odd letter with the story as it unfolds. It also mirrors the structure of Frankenstein.

Writing in the present tense is something I do naturally. I think it offers the reader a sense of immediacy, and a way of identifying completely with the character, whilst the fact that it is not an internal narrative, but written by a narrator, maintains that crucial sense of being told a story. We live our lives physically in the moment, whereas our minds move backwards and forwards across time, and I enjoy novels that mirror that process.

The title was a working title. I never really expected it to be the final title! It came about because as I was writing it occurred to me that every character in the novel is forced (usually by a clash between their ideals and reality) into doing monstrous things. When Mary's passionate belief in free love is challenged by the reality of actually having to share the man she loves with another woman, she behaves monstrously. Mary's father, who has brought Mary up to believe in the freedom of a woman to choose her partner, and remain unmarried, is appalled when Mary does exactly that - and behaves monstrously - rejecting his own daughter, and actively encouraging his friends to do the same, even when he knows she will be ostracized and alone whilst pregnant with her first child.

Q: How much did you know about Mary Shelley and her step-sister Jane before you started to write Monsters? Where did you go to research their lives?

A: I'd studied The Romantics. I knew some of Shelley's poetry and I'd read Frankenstein. I knew they were one of the first celebrity couples. I had no idea of how much they suffered, or of the price Mary paid for her determination to be a woman who not only believed in equality of both mind and body - but was prepared to act upon her beliefs. I had never heard of her step-sister Jane (who becomes Claire).

Claire was a revelation to me, and I fell utterly in love with her. She acts as a counter-weight in the novel - smiling at Shelley and Mary's high-faluting ideals, and wondering why people have to spend so much time dressing everything up in words when really they are just longing to kiss one another. It was Jane/Claire's journey, from an unsure child born in a prison, to a young woman who both ensnares and then defies the great (and not particularly pleasant) Lord Byron that originally entranced me. I felt I wanted to rescue her from obscurity, and a history that had decided that she was only ever a side-kick. The evidence suggested (at least to me) that she was far more than that. I am always smitten by history's observers; by the forgotten. It was Claire who got me into the story, and it was through her that I became equally obsessed with Mary and Shelley. She remains my favourite.

I wrote the story in cafes, in the Weston Library, Oxford (where the Mary Shelley archives are). And at the kitchen table.

Q: What for you stood out in their life stories?

A: It's hard to answer this one without giving too much away, so I'll answer generally. The level of abandonment in Mary's life stood out for me. She lost her mother at birth and was rejected by her father - leaving her effectively parentless at sixteen. In this context her desperate need to be loved makes perfect sense, and yet it stands in such stark contrast to her fierce intelligence and independence of thought.

Age also stands out for me. Both girls are 15 at the beginning of the story: teenagers, as was Bysshe when he wrote the first ever published article refuting the existence of God. They are each teenagers who do remarkable things. As young adult writers I sometimes fear we are in danger of infantilizing teens, of believing that they only want to read books that absolutely reflect their own lives. Yes, we all love reading ourselves, but teenagers are also perfectly capable of reading beyond themselves. Mary, Claire and Bysshe each demonstrate just how remarkable teenagers have always been. They are the social group most likely to challenge us and our unquestioned assumptions. When that youthful combination of passion, hormones and intelligence is set free (think the hippy movement,) then teenagers can, and often do, change our world. It bemuses me when people choose to insult young people, calling them snowflakes rather than focusing on the incredible challenges they make to our thinking. I learn so much from my children, how my binary thinking should be challenged, how our sexual identity has the freedom to be fluid. How important detailed language is to the freedom to be transgender. Mary and Shelley are far more naturally aligned with the young, and their discourse, than with my generation.

Q: How much room was there for you as a writer in building on their life stories, given the amount that is written about them?

A: Historical fiction relies first upon researching what did happen, and second on looking for the gaps between the facts. It's within the gaps that the writer's imagination is given free reign, taking what one knows and using it to surmise what might have been. An ability to completely ignore what anyone else thinks, at least during the time of writing, is essential. It's a balance between respect for the historians who have done all the hard graft of information gathering, and the letting go and allowing the imagination to do its work, accepting that you might get the odd thing wrong.

Q: How did you go about developing Mary and Jane's characters for Monsters? How important was reading their own writings in doing so?

A: Reading their own writing lay at the heart of developing their characters. Mary comes across in her diaries as very contained, as though painfully aware of herself as the daughter of two famous writers, and expecting to be judged alongside them. Claire is freer, and far less circumspect. It was a revelation to me that Mary, (not unlike Anne Frank) was probably already editing her own history long before she became famous. This need to control how she might appear in history informs one of the most dramatic and terrible moments in the novel.

Q: Did your training as a psychotherapist help you understanding the threads of Mary's life that lead to the creation of Frankenstein - and had you decided which threads to work with before you started writing the book?

A: The instinct of a therapist to listen and, at times, to come to see an underlying pattern that might be driving certain behaviours, definitely helps the writing. I think my training provided a framework for something I was already doing - enabling me to enact it professionally, and making more sense of the process of writing for me.

No, I never know what's coming when I write. I do all the research fully intending to make a plan, and then the writing starts. Before I know it I'm writing a scene that comes from the research - usually on the opposite page of some notes I've taken. Just a bit of writing, I always think. And then I can't stop, and the characters begin to live, and the background starts filling in, and if I'm lucky the story begins to take on a life of it's own, running ahead of the research.

The underlying theme of the story eventually emerges from the terrible mess of trying to edit what I've made. And that really is like the process of having therapy! Every single time I swear I'll do it differently, and plan, and every single time I get caught up, over-excited and begin to write without one. I think I've come to accept now, that that will never change.

Q: How difficult was it to develop Bysshe's character and what was most difficult for you as a modern woman in doing so?

A: Where do I start? In a scene that was cut the young Bysshe looks into a pond, staring at his own reflection. He has a moment where he separates from his reflection - and feels there is forever another, different Bysshe, waiting for him somewhere beneath the water. For me that scene, with its reflection of the story of Narcissus explains Bysshe. He was an only son, an incredible, sensitive and exceptionally imaginative child who was utterly adored. He ran riot round his home, setting the butler's trousers alight and subjecting his five sisters, who revered him, to his experiments and story-telling. His life was wonderful. And then he was sent to boarding school. Aged seven his life ruptured, and he never recovered. His intellect and feeling seem to have somehow separated, so that he could both feel intensely, and intuitively, and yet act (when in the grip of an idea) absolutely appallingly. He took Mary too literally at times, failing to understand how she truly felt about poly-amory, and yet he undoubtedly loved her, and his steadfast belief in her talent was instrumental to the creation of Frankenstein He is perhaps the most complex character within the novel. Byron is more of a proper baddy, but Bysshe confuses us. I wanted to engage with that, to portray it, and avoid making judgment one way or another.

It was hard, because some of what he does is so dreadful to our modern eyes - but that was also true of writing Godwin, Mary's father. In choosing Bysshe Mary repeats her relationship with her father. She chooses a man who loves and adores her, but who, at crucial moments in her life, fails her - just as her father has. I'm always more interested in developing the emotional realities and complexities of a character or situation than I am in vilifying - so in that sense it was enjoyable developing Bysshe's character. I like to offer the reader the right to decide in what ways they feel he should be held to account.

Q: If you could step back in time to any point in this story and spend time with the characters, where and when would you go?

A: Well that's really easy. Geneva: red wine, mountains, mayhem, and the chance to know what really happened. But then again, there's a scene that got cut from the book, where Mary is at her mother's grave with her father. I would love to be able to go back and take her little hand (as it traces the letters of her dead mothers name) and hold it. To let her know that she was loved.

Q: What would you like today's readers to take from Monsters? Do you hope that they will read Monsters before or after reading Frankenstein?

A: Writing the novel it struck me how relevant to the modern world so much of it remains. Mary and her mother fought against women being the property of men. The objectification of women continues today, powerful men like Weinstein believe they can treat women as objects who exist only to fulfill their desire. Women are blamed and shamed for feeling that they must comply with such behavior if they are to succeed. Social media has unfortunately provided a platform for the hatred that still exists towards confident, intellectual women such as Mary Beard. They hate her because she refuses to conform to their ideal of beauty; completely happy in her naked, make-up less face, she confronts them with no way of objectifying her. So they spit venom at her. Civilisation is not a thing that is achieved and then we stop, we have to keep ourselves continually upon our toes in the fight against the oppression and hatred of difference, as well the objectification of women.

Having said all that I don't have any desire for readers to take anything in particular from the book, I'm just grateful to them for reading it - especially if they are enjoying it enough to read to the end. For me it's a cracking love story, as well as a novel of ideas and readers can take whatever they want from it. Once they open the cover it's not mine anymore anyway, it's theirs.

I don't think it matters whether readers have read Frankenstein already or not - hopefully the story makes enough sense on its own

Q: What are you writing now?

A: About five different things. Can't settle. It's like having another baby, you have to forget how hard it was before you can totally commit again - or at least I do these days. When I was younger I just started the next thing straight away.

Q: What are your favourite escapes from writing?

A: Most of the time I don't really want to escape from the writing. But when I do - reading helps. And gardening. Of course I do have another job, as a therapist. When I'm stuck with a story that's a mess, cooking something complicated and new can help. It's like the alchemy of cooking reminds me that things put together in the right way can make something delicious. Holidays with my husband when a book's finished are wonderful. And any time I can get with my three grown-up children, and/ or their partners puts writing in the shade. Being with friends after a day's writing is lovely, remembering that the real world is still out there.
The usual things.

Thank you for asking me about Monsters.

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