Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Steven Guscott: 'In an ideal world it shouldn't matter, but we don't live in an ideal world'

Steven Guscott, author of The Diary of V. Frankenstein, draws from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to create an alternate history novel, with equality at its core.
Interview date: 26th May 2016, 11am.
Conducted by Daniel Southward via Skype.

It's a somewhat quiet day in Sheffield's Jessop West building as I sit down to interview Steven Guscott, author of The Diary of V Frankenstein. On screen, and over Skype, Steven appears, slightly pixelated at first, but still with a large smile and a cheery hello. As when I first met him, he is cheerful and eager to talk about his latest novel, a copy of which sits open on the desk next to me with a note from the author: 'Nature loves diversity- so should we. S'

Gender equality, as the note you've written on the inside cover alludes to, is a central issue within The Diary of V. Frankenstein, and one which serves as a major antagonistic force in the narrative. How do you feel you've addressed this and what made you decide to tackle this particular issue?
With story writing I tend to start with the theme. That's how most of my stories come about - via a concept or a theme and, with this one, it kind of evolved naturally. It was a case of having the basic concept first, that I wanted to do an alternate version of the Frankenstein story and deal with the offspring side of things. If the female creature was completed, and if she and the creature had children, what would be a possible reality of what could happen. To explore this in the best possible way, I originally decided that these offspring had to be female too, so that they could have children, and there's some disturbing issues related to that which are touched on in the story.

So, the next generation would be female, and I wanted to explore what would happen if they witnessed the treatment of women at that period in time- where you had significant gender inequality (I mean, there still is today, but during that time period it was more pronounced). How would an adult creation react to this and see this, see what was happening, and with their hyperbolised strength and potential to dominate, if they chose to, how they would react. That's how the equality theme evolved.

I found this came across particularly well with the continued generations of creatures in the text, an idea that Frankenstein himself actually cut shorts in the original text when he destroys the female companion to his creature, in a dramatic turn around.
Yes, Frankenstein does ask himself what would happen if another generation was created, whether they would become, as he fears, a plague on humanity- would they even destroy humanity? That is why he stopped, but what if the creature, at that point, had managed to convince him not to think this way, if the time lines were cut apart here. I always thought it would be fascinating to explore what if this had happened.

The Diary of V Frankenstein  launched at
Re-Imagining the Gothic 2016

You mentioned at your talk for Re-Imagining the Gothic 2016 that there is a gender swapped version of the this text, could you go into a bit of detail here about that? What prompted you to do this and what impact do you think that it has on the narrative?
I thought it would be a fun and interesting experience. Originally it hadn't occurred to me or my publisher to do this, until I got to the editing stage, where I found myself thinking - and here I put my hands up and admit it - that some of my female characters weren't as strong as they should have been. I was focusing on having Vincent go through his process of learning about equality and how inequality affects women, but I had, unintentionally, not put as much of the female perspective in. Which became obvious to me and lead me to have a long discussion with my editor and publisher, arguing that I wanted to focus on the female characters a bit more and bring the equality points from that point of view forward,

In this discussion, I half-jokingly proposed making two versions, with flipped genders and they agreed to it. The next two days were spent going through the whole document and it was fun to do! Because it does change things, even if it shouldn't; in an equal society we shouldn't read narratives differently just because of socio-cultural norms that are actually just wrong. And it was good to go through the story again and fall in love with it from a female perspective. It was good to see my own personal learning and growth, and one I hope that the readers experience too. Also, we are used to being presented with generic male characters as standard and, as a man, it's just what I'm used to. And, again, it was nice to subvert this, to have two parts to tick both boxes. Yes, in an ideal world, it shouldn't matter, but we don't live in an ideal world. So it's nice, to offer a choice of protagonist gender, and I feel it adds to the theme of the novel.

It actually makes it quite an interesting experience to read, with the knowledge of a gender swapped alternate text raising questions as it goes on. I read the Victor, rather than Victoria, text and there's an interesting sequence where the creature Matriarch discovers a new ability to re-animate corpses and it made me think about, in the other text, the implications of having a Patriarch creature raising up a meat-shield of female corpses. It's interesting how swapping the genders can create such a powerful, and thematically significant, image.
Yes, it wasn't without issues though. In the Victor version, with the mother-child relations I had to change a few things. With this becoming a father-child relationship, I did have to change the plot a little bit (to account for biology), but it's mostly inconsequential little things. These concepts that only women can be nurturers and only men can be providers are just ridiculous. A man can care for a child just as a well and, vice versa, a woman can provide.

Do you think that the narrative would change if some, or all, of the characters were gender-neutral?
I think it's another possible route for the text to take, one which I could have taken, though I feel that I've done what I wanted to with this text. But I'd be fascinated to see someone else do this.

It's interesting that Vincent sees Victor's mistakes as rectified, and actually allows several of the next generation of creatures to continue living. Yet, Victor himself was only going to be satisfied with the total destruction of the race, going so far as to shoot one of the fetuses in the womb, in an attempt to sabotage the future of the race. What made you want to create this very distinct generational gap?
I didn't consider this too much when writing, though I did want there to be a difference. Looking back, it reflects my own ideas of how previous generations have been discriminatory. And what I wanted to show was 'unity through diversity', with John, Mary and Anne all helping Vincent to learn. So, for me, there had to be this change. Victor was very singular, internal, very 'me, me, me' in his narrative, whereas if you share your emotions and pain with other humans, these beings that unite us -  if we have people around us, then we avoid the problems that loneliness and a lack of diversity in culture creates.

Vincent seems a fairly stable narrator throughout the story and I was wondering if at any point in the process you considered toying with unreliable narration, or pushing any potential bias to the fore?
One of the main problems of the diary is, obviously, how to account for bias; how much of the Victor entries are just the author trying to shape our reading? I never considered, say, having John later giving a 'real' version of events, I didn't want to pull away from the story I wanted to tell, so it was easier and better to keep Vincent honest, and almost a gentleman- but still naive and ignorant. To have him learning and growing with Mary's help.

Mary is named, I assume, as a homage to Shelley?
That's right, it's a homage to the original text, there's a lot of homages throughout.

How involved were you with the original text?
Very. I dipped in and out of the text a lot to try and establish a correct timeline- while it is an alternate reality, which gives you a lot of creative license, I wanted all the events before the split to be kept as close to the text as possible because I love Frankenstein's story. So I made sure I re-read the text many times, and I definitely had to have a copy of the text to hand to check things as I wrote. There are a few discrepancies placed in the text on purpose, where I made a conscious decision to alter things to fit this specific alternate timeline.

Are there any specific passages that you draw inspiration from?
Not really- just the whole book. Like I said, I love the Frankenstein story, Robert Walton's narrative at the start, all the messages and ambiguity there- because you are sometimes in favour of and sometimes against the creature. I drew more from the overall themes, I feel, than any specific section.

The Walton fanclub grows ever larger!
Come join, we're Waltonnes of fun!

Are there any other novels that you draw/drew inspiration from?
This is the question where anyone who knows me will be going 'Don't do it Steve, Don't do it!' Because I have an obsession with Frank Herbert's Dune. That is the one book that I will preach about for days, how awesome, how amazing that series is. There's just so much stuff in it - again, so many themes, so many concepts, so many great characters. There's love stories, there's complex ideas and it helps fill my head with these concepts which I can turn, when I write, into my own interpretations. Original work, yes, but which relates to common themes. Dune will always have an influence on what I write, whether I want it to or not. There are other great texts, like the Iliad, the Odyssey, really epic texts. I find I sometimes draw from Hamlet, too, again without necessarily realising.

Any book recommendations for us?
Dune! What I actually want to do here is speak about some other indie authors, being one myself. I know some fantastic independent authors who write really really good stories. In particular, I want to talk about In Search of Gods and Heroes, by Sammy H.K. Smith. It's a fantastic, paranormal fantasy story which very much deals with Greek-style gods, imperfect deities with their own agendas. There's an interesting war between the 'good' gods and 'bad' bods, with the main character and all of humanity caught in the middle and it's a fascinating story, one with multiple layers. I definitely recommend her writing which is, to me, on another level.

Thanks for that Steven, and thanks for joining us for this. Before we leave though, I just want to ask- Any chance of seeing Dracula pop up in the next novel?
I hadn't thought about that, but now that the question has been asked, it has to happen. It has to. There will eventually be a sequel to The Diary of V. Frankenstein, there's still things I want to explore, and so perhaps Dracula or other Gothic characters making a cameo might be a possibility for the future.

Again, our thanks go to Steven Guscott for both this interview and presenting at this year's Re-Imagining the Gothic conference. The Diary of V Frankenstein is available, along with Steven's previous book Prophecy, from amazon.


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