We’re celebrating the launch of our Gothics issue by finding out what it is about the Gothic that appeals to our authors, and what inspired their Issue 17 stories.
Lackington’s: “Letters Written to the Dearest Deceased Frances Blood” is (as your title suggests) told in a series of letters. Many Gothic novels feature letters as a storytelling device, and some are composed entirely of them. Did you have any examples of such epistolary works in mind as you were writing your story?
RMG: I have to say I don’t like the word “epistolary” and dislike the type of framing it describes, too. Though it promises to be an honest and realistic way of telling a story—possibly why it’s tempting to use it to describe the unbelievable—the self-conscious structure of it seems to keep you one step removed from the action and then proceeds to tell you a story rather than letting you experience it. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve recommended Frankenstein along with the phrase, “Stick with it.” I promised myself that on no account should the Gothic fiction I write for you be constructed as a series of letters.
But then I decided to channel Mary Wollstonecraft for the piece, and found she had her own ideas on the matter.
I was reading her Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, so when I started writing, that’s the voice that came out. Also, Wollstonecraft wrote letters all the time. It seemed as if she wrote them where others might keep a diary, almost therapeutically. The Scandinavian travel letters were written to Gilbert Imlay, for example. He’d recently dumped her, leaving her alone with their daughter Fanny. Even during the birth of her second daughter, Mary, she communicated with her husband William Godwin via notes, as they kept separate houses next door to each other.
So Wollstonecraft herself insisted that she would describe her experiences at Waterspike in letters, preferably to someone she loved and missed, whether I approved or not.
Lackington’s: Let’s talk about the great Mary Wollstonecraft, who figures in your story. You’ve said elsewhere that Wollstonecraft is your hero. What is it about her life and work that speaks to you, and what role do you think Wollstonecraft herself plays in the Gothic tradition (besides being wed to Gothic author William Godwin, and giving the world Mary Shelley)?
RMG: After Mary Wollstonecraft’s death, William Godwin taught their daughter—Frankenstein‘s future author—to write her name by tracing the letters on her mother’s grave in St Pancras Old Churchyard. I can’t think of anything more Gothic than that, and—if Gothic is where the romantic meets the monstrous—Mary Wollstonecraft’s life embodied it. She was an idealist in a grim world.
Her father was an abusive alcoholic who felt only his sons worth educating. She spent her growing years educating herself while raising her sisters and protecting her mother, then dedicated her adult years to the cause of educating women to equalise them in a male-dominated society. She’s often described as our first feminist, having written A Vindication of the Rights of Women, but to me she went beyond this: in likening men’s persecution of women to the aristocracy’s persecution of everyone—a situation that depended on subservience—she suggested all could be free if they struggled hard enough.
She seemed to carry a utopian ideal around with her, and wherever the real world didn’t meet her ideal, rather than be demoralised, she sought to challenge it in her own, unique way. She cared, and loved, almost to a fault. For example, she organised for her sister Eliza—who was suffering from post-partum depression—to put her own sanity first and leave her husband and child, even though Eliza would be ostracised for doing so. Wollstonecraft’s first child was with an American adventurer she met in Paris during the French Revolution and the baby was scandalously born out of wedlock. Her first novel concerned a genius woman’s romantic relationships with both men and women and, insistent on practicing what she preached, when Wollstonecraft became enamoured of the artist Henry Fuseli, she attempted to move in with him…and his appalled wife.
I believe Wollstonecraft tried to change the world by re-imagining it—and by daring to live it—radically, even if this brought disrepute. This is much more difficult than smashing the system. Hers was a creative kind of rebellion that, despite her experiences, didn’t seem born out of hatred for society, but out of hope for it. Who wouldn’t want a hero like that?
Lackington’s: The character of Pin is very memorable. What inspired her?
RMG: I wanted a character who was a Mozart in the medium used to oppress them. My involvement began and ended there.
They say a writer should get to know their characters, invite them in. A mute and meek little girl turned up at my door, ready to play her part as Wollstonecraft’s charge. But Pin sprang up behind this sap, shoved past, and slammed the door behind her. She refused to leave. In fact, the story’s done and she’s still here.
Pin is equal parts the child-vampire Claudia, Bertha Mason, Titus Groan, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, Victor Frankenstein and my daughter. Like her governess, Pin wrote herself. I was just in the way.
Lackington’s: Is there something about unconventional modes of storytelling that you find especially compelling? Why do we need to make space for stories that don’t read and work the way that readers have come to expect?
RMG: Defying expectation is everything, of course. It’s how things evolve. As a reader, I love unconventional modes of storytelling (epistolary aside!) because they slow me down. I read more carefully, and the stories become more vivid as a result. I loved Riddley Walker for that, and the Nadsat of A Clockwork Orange. I met the characters from those books in my dreams, alongside real people from my memories. As a writer, I’d love to have that effect on someone, someday. Also, it feels honest to distort language or structure to fit a character’s voice and story; the literary equivalent of form follows function. I am an architectural illustrator in the daytime, a profession where artistic transparency is important for photorealism. I’m always trying to put nothing distractingly “me” between the content and viewer. To erase myself. Likewise, at night, in stories. In an ideal world, I would plug the characters’ heads into the readers’ heads and then bugger off down the pub.
R.M. Graves is a fiction writer and illustrator. His work has appeared in Interzone, Flash Fiction Online, Escape Pod, Bourbon Penn, and Circa Journal of Historic Fiction, among other places. He lives with his wife and two children in Camden, London—two hundred and twenty-one years and a fifteen-minute walk from Ms Wollstonecraft.