Congratulations to contest winners Heather, Lara, Christine, and Mark! We’ll be in touch with you about your books.
Pride & Prejudice. Gone with the Wind. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Gulliver’s Travels. Frankenstein.
We know these classic stories and their beats, and can’t imagine them any other way. But some authors who can are part of a trend focused on reimagined classics. You only have to look at the recent surge of rebooted TV series to imagine why readers love them: They build upon characters we already know, and because spending time with those characters in the past was a positive experience, we lead with our plates, hungry for more.
Frankenstein is arguably one of our most iconic stories, but this monster has been born, yet again, thanks to two new books.
The first is through John Kessel’s novel of speculative fiction, Pride and Prometheus, which marries characters from not only Frankenstein but Pride and Prejudice. About John:
John Kessel teaches American literature and fiction writing at North Carolina State University where he helped found the MFA program in creative writing and served twice as its director. His speculative fiction includes the novels Pride and Prometheus, The Moon and the Other, Good News from Outer Space, Corrupting Dr. Nice, and Freedom Beach (with James Patrick Kelly). His fiction has received the Nebula Award, the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, the Locus Award, the James Tiptree Jr. Award, and the Shirley Jackson Award.
The second is a 200th anniversary edition of Frankenstein itself, part of the Classics Reimagined series by Rockport Publishers. Acclaimed artist David Plunkert courts a 21st century audience with this classic work through fantastical new art, and with a fresh interpretation of Mary Shelley’s text. About David:
David Plunkert is a graphic designer, illustrator, and cartoonist, and co-founder of Spur Design in Baltimore, Maryland, with Joyce Hesselberth. His posters have been exhibited worldwide, and collected by the Library of Congress and the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum, among others. His illustrations have been internationally published, and his 8.28.17 cover for The New Yorker was named cover of the year by the Association of Magazine Editors. “Frankenstein: The 200th Anniversary Edition” is his 2nd illustrated hardcover for Rockport Publishers.
Below, we’ve woven together interviews with John and David, including their insights into reimagining classic works. We’ll also be giving away both books to commenters on today’s post, including 3 copies of Frankenstein, the 200th Anniversary Edition, and 1 copy of Pride and Prometheus. (Comments will close for the purposes of this contest on Tuesday, and winners will be announced shortly thereafter, following a random drawing.)
Q: John, what inspired you in the direction of Frankenstein, and made you feel there was story there yet to tell?
John Kessel: I’ve taught the book for many years and was very familiar with it. Despite the fact that it is such a well-known story, in fact almost every adaptation I have ever seen distorts it drastically. There are lots of things in there that will surprise people who are not familiar with the book. I am interested in the characters of Victor, Henry, and the Creature; I felt that there were things to think about in their personalities and motivations that have been unexplored.
The juxtaposition with Jane Austen also excited me. Even though the two novels were published only five years apart, I could hardly think of two books more different than Pride and Prejudice and Frankenstein: Austen is the grandmother of the realistic novel of manners, and Shelley is the grandmother of the science fiction novel. But the monster, like the Bennet sisters, is in search of an appropriate mate. What would happen if I crashed the two worlds together?
It was hard to find the right voice—the book alternates between the points of view of Mary Bennet, Victor, and his Creature. But that provided opportunities, too. In a way my novel is about a well-bred Austen heroine falling into the middle of Frankenstein, and how she reacts to the gothic melodrama around her that does not appear in Austen’s world.
Q: David, can you speak to the ability of art to freshen a story or even re-launch a story? We see this time and again when new covers are applied to books. What is the power of art? Do you think it’s under-utilized in the industry for novels?
David Plunkert: I don’t think it’s under-utilized generally on new fiction. Classic literature often gets shorted with the reuse of old paintings and the like for covers. New imagery allows the story to be better viewed with fresh eyes as opposed to just some old story. The cliche is true that you can’t judge a book by it’s cover but the cover is still an important spur to get folks to pick it up in the first place.
Q: John, how did you seek to stretch your protagonists beyond their known traits? Did you meet up with any resistance, and if so, how did you get beyond that?
John Kessel: The characters of Victor and the Creature are well established in Frankenstein; my job there was to get more deeply into them, to make the reader identify with each of them as they faced circumstances that they are not used to. Victor at a ball in polite British society. The Creature having to cross the Channel to England and figure out how to survive in London when his very appearance causes violence and panic.
My novel takes place thirteen years after the end of Pride and Prejudice, so I had freedom to look at how things might have evolved since then. I chose the two unmarried Bennet sisters, Kitty and Mary, as my focus—they are still single and approaching spinsterhood. Mary is my main character—it’s her book, really—so I had to think about how such a clueless sententious music geek might have grown and developed more sympathy since then, without violating her fundamental personality as established by Austen. In Pride and Prejudice, Mary is primarily a figure of fun, mostly mocked and ignored by the other characters. I had to figure out an interior life for her that would make her interesting.
Q: David, what were your considerations when approaching such a highly regarded classic? What were the publisher’s hopes for your design?
David Plunkert: The prompt of Frankenstein being reinterpreted visually comes from the publisher’s title of the series “Classics Reimagined.” The art is still faithful to and serves the story, but the visual stylistic take is contemporary as opposed to the traditional “grand illustration” that’s more readily used for classics. That’s not to say that it’s a better approach than the old masters of illustration like N.C Wyeth but it is more spontaneous and eclectic.
There are also multiple features included in the book that allow me to play with the story format like a gatefold that shows the monster being created and an inserted version of Dr. Frankenstein’s notebook.
Q: John, how might writers weigh whether the trip is worth taking with a previously explored character? What questions did you ask yourself before committing to write Pride and Prometheus?
John Kessel: I think the first thing to ask is whether you have something new to bring to the character. I don’t think it’s worth it to just tell the same story over again; Jane Austen and Mary Shelley already did that, probably better than any of us could. I think entering a classic author’s world requires you in some way to comment on that world from a new perspective, maybe even critique it. But you also owe it to that work to respect what the author has done and not simply write a mockery. That’s why I did not care for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies—it did not take Austen seriously. I wanted to write more than a joke.
Q: David, did the process of creating art for the story lend itself to discovery for you?
David Plunkert: The story did surprise me in how many twists and turns it takes in locale and focus… especially in volume 2 when the monster tells his story. It was important to not be influenced by versions of the story from other media and instead focus on Shelley’s words and themes. I followed Shelley’s description of the Creature with transparent yellow skin as opposed to the movie versions.
There is less story space given to the creation of the monster in the novel than there is in most film adaptations and a spot where Dr. Frankenstein has a vivid dream about his dead mother before the creature awakes. This is illustrated in the book but I think the movies tend to focus more on the Doctor’s obsessiveness with creating life as an end to itself than they do with his grief as a motivator.
Q: John, in general, how would you advise an author interested in stretching a known story or genre in fresh ways?
John Kessel: In addition to the things I mentioned above, I would recommend that you steep yourself in the original and make sure you understand why people liked it in the first place. It’s probably just a prejudice on my part, but I wanted to violate what we get from the foundation story as little as possible. But I also wanted to show you things you have not seen before. You need to shake things up in some preferably fundamental way.
I would be careful, if you are working with a classic from a long time ago, not to give the characters too modern a sensibility. If a character is born and raised in Regency England, then you probably ought not to have her think like a modern 20-year-old. As I said elsewhere recently, don’t turn Jay Gatsby into a costumed superhero.
Mostly, have a good reason to tell your story, and a good story to tell.
Thank you, David and John for your time today!
Have thoughts on reimagined fiction? Please share in comments — and don’t forget to leave a comment for a chance to win one of three books. Good luck!