John Kessel – “Pride and Prometheus”
What were some of the challenges in combining Jane Austen with Mary Shelley?
Yes. Though PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and FRANKENSTEIN were published within five years of one another, they are very different types of novels. Austen's book is a novel of manners, a social comedy with serious overtones written from the point of view of a witty omniscient narrator who slyly comments on the action and characters, very unobtrusively. Shelley's is a gothic romance, written by a series of unreliable first-person narrators, indulging all the excesses of emotion and description of romantic literature, but with a critical intelligence and social commentary behind the melodrama.
The two things are hard to fit together. For one thing, no one is wittier than Jane Austen, and though I could attempt her prose style, I am not in her league as a wit. I made some attempts. My story deliberately starts as close to Jane Austen as I could manage, and gradually slips into Mary Shelley style as it goes along and the sf/gothic element comes to center stage. I thought of it as FRANKENSTEIN over PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. But in the end I wanted to pull back from the gothic, too. The climax of the story comes, not with a mortal struggle on an ice floe at the north pole, but with Mary Bennet and the monster sitting at a table talking about marriage. I think of Austen and Shelley as the mothers of the modern novel of manners and of science fiction. As such, it was appropriate for a writer like me, who has been influenced by both, to try to merge them.
In your opinion, what are the strengths of the short story--or in this case, the novelette--especially in light of your writing goals for "Pride and Prometheus"?
I think this kind of pastiche can get out of hand at novel length. The game playing is not enough to sustain a novel. I wanted the story to be more than a joke, more than just a high concept; it had to be a story about real people with serious issues, as much as I could make it. The novelette form works well for me with these situations. I saw the opportunity to insert my story into the narrative of FRANKENSTEIN in the middle of chapter nineteen of that novel. By keeping it to story length, you could imagine all the events of "Pride and Prometheus" occurring between paragraphs of that chapter, after which FRANKENSTEIN moves on to the rest of its plot unaltered. That was one of my goals in writing it. To do as little violence as possible to either PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (my story takes place ten years after it ends, though I tried to make my characters recognizably the same people they were in that book) or to FRANKENSTEIN. This wasn't meant to be PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES.
As an author who's written a lot of material over the decades, does the writing experience become easier or is it more difficult as you become conscious of your own style or attempt something new?
Having written many stories, I guess I have learned a lot of craft that theoretically can help me in writing new ones. But every time I start something new I feel like I am reinventing the wheel. Often with a sense of panic. The one thing I can tell myself is, "you did this before, so the feelings of not knowing how this is going to come out ought to be familiar to you. Stop fretting."
I do try to do new things, so that helps keep me fresh. I don't want to write the same story over and over, though I think it is inevitable that a writer has certain obsessions that come out regardless of his intention. In putting together my recent collection THE BAUM PLAN FOR FINANCIAL INDEPENDENCE, I did notice certain repetitions, and I'm wary now of doing the same things again--time to strike out in a new direction.
But I don't think the writing, for me, has become easier. Or rather, some things have become easier, but different things are still hard.