Interview with Sarton Award-Winning Author, Kathleen Renk

Today, I’m thrilled to welcome author Kathleen Williams Renk to the blog, to discuss her most recent novel of historical fiction, Vindicated: A Novel of Mary Shelley, as well as her previous works and upcoming projects. Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll consider getting yourself a copy of Vindicated, which was one of my favorite reads of 2022!

Author image: Kathleen Williams Renk

I think that we must tell sad stories, even if they make us uneasy, for often in reading about tragedies, we also discover great courage exercised by those who experienced loss.

Kathleen Williams Renk

AB: Having had the pleasure of reading your first novel, Vindicated, I agree with Amy Newman, who said the book is “an engrossing narrative studded with historic detail and the passionate experiences of a woman’s extraordinary life.” I’m wondering, what was the research process like, and how did you choose which elements from Shelley’s life and experience to highlight?

KWR: First, I’d like to thank you, Adam, for reading and enjoying my debut historical fiction novel and for your interest in my project.

In order to write Vindicated, I conducted extensive research. I began with reading Muriel Sparks’ biography of Mary Shelley, entitled Child of Light, which I’d owned for many years but never had time to read for pleasure because of my teaching and research responsibilities. Then, I reread Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s other novels, much of Percy’s poetry, William Godwin’s Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft’s fiction, and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, as well as her Thoughts on the Education of Daughters. I also read Mary and Percy’s joint journal that they wrote when they ran away to the Continent (while Percy was still married to his first wife Harriet, who was pregnant with their second child at the time). 

In addition, I drew on my travel experiences to write about locations where Vindicated is set. London, of course, but I also visited Rome where some of the novel is set as well as Tuscany and Pompeii. While in Rome, I visited the Keats–Shelley Museum, next to the Spanish Steps, where they display Shelley’s jawbone as well as some of his hair, both of which were retrieved by his friend Trelawny (along with Shelley’s heart) before Shelley was burned on the beach where his body washed ashore after his deadly sailing accident.

I wanted to obtain the fullest picture I could of Mary’s life and works so that I could accurately portray her and try to capture her voice. I pretty much stuck to the major events and then tried to fill in the gaps to create scenes that highlighted these events. Most importantly, I knew that she longed for the mother that she never met so I developed key scenes in which her dead mother met with her. The reader can interpret these “haunting” scenes however they wish, as reality, dreams, or hallucinations.

AB: Lucy Pick says this book “immerses [the reader] deep in the world of Mary Shelley” and Mary Martin Devlin adds that “the remarkably sustained voice captures Mary Shelley” and is “a book lover’s delight.” I think I’d describe this novel as a kind of love-letter to Mary Shelley, to women, and to readers and writers alike. But how and why did you decide on Mary Shelley as your subject? Why do you think she remains relevant to readers and writers today?

KWR: I love reading and writing about women’s lives and I thought that Mary Shelley’s story had not been told in its entirety.

Awhile back I was communicating with another writer who had written about Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. An agent told her that the story was too sad to publish. I think that we must tell sad stories, even if they make us uneasy, for often in reading about tragedies, we also discover great courage exercised by those who experienced loss.

I chose Mary Shelley because she was so much more than the author of Frankenstein. She wrote eight novels and was the editor of her husband’s poetry. She was also a translator. In addition, she was a mother who lost four of her five children, a daughter of a mother who died 11 days after Mary was born, a rebel who ran away with a married man, a daughter whose father rejected her after she ran away with Percy, a sister to Fanny who committed suicide, and a widow after Percy died at the age of 29 in a sailing accident.

I find her life story quite compelling, and I think she serves as a role model for all women who long to realize their full human potential as artists. 

AB: Coincidentally, one of the forms I most love to introduce my students to, and explore with them, is the epistolary. Can you talk a little bit about why you chose Shelley’s journal as the vehicle for this story?

KWR: The epistolary form seemed absolutely natural since journal keeping and letter writing fit the early nineteenth-century mode of self-reflection and communication. I wanted to explore the emotive side of Mary though as well as her intellectual interests and I was dissatisfied with her joint journal with Shelley. Their joint journal basically lists the books they read and the places to which they traveled. It contains little emotion in relation to the many tragedies and challenges that befell them.

I often thought of how Mary must have mourned the mother she never met and how her situation resembled Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s fictional Aurora Leigh who stared at her dead mother’s portrait. I knew that Mary studied her mother’s portrait and read her mother’s works at her mother’s grave so that led me to the haunting aspect of the novel, which would have been something that Mary would only reveal in a personal journal.

AB: The legends surrounding Mary Shelley and the creation of Frankenstein are wide and varied. In recent years, I’ve seen them pop-up on television shows, like Drunk History, and educational web series, like Crash Course Literature. How did you deal with issues of rumor, legend, and fact as you attempted to craft an authentically voiced narrative?

Cover image for Vindicated: A Novel of Mary Shelley.

KWR: To be honest, I really dislike film depictions of Frankenstein, which are so antithetical to the philosophical novel. But, even in Mary’s time, playwrights were writing dramas based on the novel that were rather far-fetched and Mary realized that the novel would have a life of its own. I surmise that it’s the forbidden knowledge emphasized in the novel that’s the impetus for much of the various renditions and iterations over the two hundred years since the publication of the novel.

Instead of attending to adaptations of the novel, I stuck with my close contextual reading of the novel. My reading and interpretation of the novel rests on the Creature’s longing for his creator who abandoned him, and I’ve always seen this as our human plight. We have no idea whether we have a “creator” or why we’re here on this planet. We are similar to the abandoned creature who must teach himself everything. At the same time, we are all Victor Frankenstein whenever we obsess or reach beyond our human limitations. We wish to be “god-like,” as we create our fallible, imperfect “creatures,” whether they are artistic, literary, or scientific creations.

Beyond that, the Creature is also quite similar to Mary herself who felt abandoned by her father after she eloped with his disciple. And, naturally, Victor’s dabbling in esoteric “dark” arts and nascent natural philosophy, the emerging science, resembled Percy’s own interests and activities. Percy was also a member of the Resurrectionists, a group that robbed graves for physicians so they could learn anatomy, so in many ways, he served as a model for Victor Frankenstein.

AB: As your biography attests, and as I can speak to as one of your former students, you’re a brilliant and experienced academic. Can you speak a little bit about process? What was it like turning your attention to fiction? How did the approach and experience compare to writing scholarly nonfiction?

KWR: Of course, I relished writing my scholarly books and articles, which were a pleasure to research and write, but it was also exciting to return to writing fiction, which I had done when I was a doctoral student at the University of Iowa, the home of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

I’d have to say that both types of writing are gratifying, the former being more intellectual, and the latter a little more intuitive. I enjoy imagining the fictional characters and sometimes allow them to take over. For example, there’s a moment when Mary’s Creature asks her to give him dreams and she tells him that she can’t. Of course, he is vastly disappointed, and she has great sympathy for him.

AB: What else would you like to share with readers?

I might add that Vindicated won the 2021 Story Circle Network’s Sarton Award in Historical Fiction and it was shortlisted for CIBA’s Goethe Award in Historical Fiction. I feel quite honored to have had my novel recognized in these ways.

I’d also like to tell you about my current work. I recently signed a contract to publish a novel with an independent press in California, Bedazzled Ink Press, about the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, which focuses on the lives of the poet-artist-model Elizabeth Siddal and her sister-in-law, the Victorian poet Christina Rossetti. It’s forthcoming in November 2023 and its title is: In an Artist’s Studio. I’m thrilled that my readers will learn about these Lizzie’s and Christina’s struggles to be taken seriously as artists. I’m also happy to be able to share the alternative history that I’ve written for them.

I’m also revising a novel called No Coward’s Soul Have I, which centers on an imagined meeting in 1812 between the idealistic and revolutionary Percy Shelley and the Irish heroine Anne Devlin, who was confined in Dublin’s notorious Kilmainham Jail for three years. Editors have offered encouragement and I’m still looking for the best press or agent for this novel project.

In addition, I’d like to tell you about other aspects of my life. I’ve recently returned to singing, which was my first love, and I try to play the violin and guitar. And now that I’ve moved to CO, I’ve become a hiker and have met fabulous new friends in Boulder County, where people try and seem to succeed at being super-agers.

My thanks to Professor Williams Renk for stopping by to talk about her compelling work and what’s coming up soon! It was such a pleasure to read Vindicated last month, so to have this opportunity to talk more about it was a real treat.

More About the Author

Kathleen Williams Renk taught British, Irish, Postcolonial, and Women’s literature for nearly three decades in the U.S. and abroad (in Oxford and Dublin). Her scholarly books include Caribbean Shadows and Victorian Ghosts: Women’s Writing and Decolonization (Univ. Press of Virginia, 1999), Magic, Science, and Empire in Postcolonial Literature: The Alchemical Literary Imagination (Routledge, 2012), and Women Writing the Neo-Victorian Novel: Erotic “Victorians” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020). Williams Renk studied fiction writing at the University of Iowa with the Pulitzer-Prize winning author James Alan MacPherson. Her short fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in Iowa City Magazine, Literary Yard, Page and Spine, and CC & D Magazine. Vindicated is her first historical fiction novel. ​

If you would like to connect with the author you can find do so via Facebook and Twitter, and her website.

Click here to order your copy of Vindicated: A Novel of Mary Shelley.

2 Comments on “Interview with Sarton Award-Winning Author, Kathleen Renk

  1. Thank you for sharing this wonderful interview! I loved hearing about Professor Williams Renk’s process researching her novel about Mary Shelley. I’ll definitely read it. I’m also excited about the upcoming novels she mentioned. In particular, In an Artist’s Studio, because I am a big fan of Christina Rossetti’s poetry. They both sound fascinating. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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