The author of The Monster’s Wife tells us a bit about her unusual background and how she wrote her debut novel.
Q. Set the scene of The Monster’s Wife for us.
KH: The novel takes place in late 18th century Orkney, on the tiny island of Hoy, where the local people live off the land as their forebears have done for hundreds of years. The main character, Oona, is a sixteen-year-old girl who knows no other way of life. She feels increasingly distant from the other islanders, though, because of her heart defect, an illness which took her mother from her when she was still a small girl and which she knows will kill her sooner or later.
When a mysterious doctor arrives on the island, he makes a good subject for gossip, but his tenancy in the manor house along with some strange natural occurences are taken as ill omens.
May, Oona’s best friend, goes to work as a housemaid for the doctor in order to save money for her wedding. She makes Oona party to a dark secret involving her new employer and Oona finds herself working at the big house too, becoming the doctor’s confidante and aiding him in his experiments.
Tensions deepen between the doctor and the tight-knit religious community on Hoy, and not without reason: Doctor Frankenstein’s investigations into the line that divides life and death disturb Oona more the more she knows about them.
Then May disappears and Oona’s world changes forever.
Q. Are there any particular events that inspired you to write it?
KH: About three years ago, I went to see Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Frankenstein, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller alternating in the roles of doctor and creature. It was a mesmerizing production and the first time I’d seen the monster portrayed as vulnerable and damaged rather than ploddingly violent, as he is in some of the (albeit wonderful) early twentieth-century creature-feature interpretations.
There’s a part of the play where Victor Frankenstein (very much the antagonist in Boyle’s interpretation) stands in a dark room with a naked woman he has just created and is about to destroy. That particular scene haunted me: the idea of such an intense act of scientific creation so swiftly followed by brutal destruction was to me the most horrifying moment in the production. I thought about that woman’s brief life and wanted to know more about her.
Q. So your reaction to Frankenstein as a reader/viewer turned into a literary response to Shelley’s work?
KH: Yes, after seeing the play, I went back to the book and was reminded that the bride is created on one of the Orkney islands. In chapter 19, Victor chooses the most desolate place imaginable to create a second creature, a bride for the monster. “I traversed the northern Highlands,” he says, “and fixed on one of the remotest, the Orkneys, as the scene.” In this secluded location, he creates the ‘bride’ to satisfy the demands of the creature for a mate and to prevent his own family from being murdered. But, disgusted by what he’s attempted, he destroys her before she is fully alive.
I was as curious as I was horrified: Had the monster’s wife once been a girl living on a remote island, or more than one girl? Who was this bride? How did she die? What did she feel? I had an image of a young Orcadian girl living a quiet life, a naive girl whose world would change forever when the doctor’s boat landed with the creature on his heels.
Q. Did you spend time on the Orkney islands to gather in the detail for this book?
KH: I made an amazing trip to Orkney, not least because Highland Park is the finest single malt I’ve ever known. The Orkney islands are full of cairns and stone circles, sites of pagan worship thousands of years old. I saw fascinating places on the Mainland, like an 18th century farmhouse recreated exactly as it would have been, with a central hearth and spaces for chickens to perch in the rafters and straw for pigs to sleep on alongside their human owners. But I’d already settled on Hoy as the island Doctor Frankenstein lands on.
Hoy is a haunted place in its own right, a tiny island dominated by a dead volcano. To this day it has a very small population, barely more than the thirty I mention in the book. During World War II, it served as a naval base for the British and was home to 20,000 servicemen. When the war ended they abandoned the island, leaving bunkers and trucks, submarine parts and boats and fuelling stations to rust in the thick heather and ferns that cover the island.
I wrote most of the novel in a cottage let to us by devout Christians who had come to Hoy for spiritual reasons. As I walked through the volcanic valley and over the beaches with their red rock cliffs rising sheer and high, hearing loons calling from everywhere, the character of Oona became increasingly real for me. Not only the girl she is to begin with, who roams the island longing for adventure, but the tortured woman she eventually turns into.
Q. Frankenstein was written by a woman in a pre-feminist era. Your story is filtered through a maidservant. Do you see it as a feminist take on the earlier work?
KH: I think of Mary Shelley as an ardent proto-feminist. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and really launched the discussion that developed into modern feminism.
But for all that, Frankenstein is quite a masculine book. Women linger in the background. They are wives, servants, victims. I wanted to bring those female figures to the fore and let them drive the narrative. The working classes stay in the background of the novel too. So, retelling the story from the perspective of a female maid was a satisfying way of interacting with Shelley’s book, though I never set out to make an ideological statement. I’m a woman and a feminist, though, with generations of working class ancestors and it was probably inevitable that the book raises those sorts of questions.
When I wrote about Oona slaving away in the big house, I often had in mind my grandma Hilda who partly brought me up. She was adopted by childless parents who wanted a maid as much as a child and she was put to work as a barmaid aged fourteen. She worked behind a bar for the next sixty years and in my mind’s eye I often see her scrubbing the steps and polishing glasses when really she had the potential to do so much more. The character of Oona owes a large debt to my hard-working and endlessly friendly grandma.
Showing an early interest in natural philosophy.
Q. You’ve mentioned in your biography that you come from ‘a family of eccentrics’. Can you tell us a little more about your background?
KH: I grew up in an Edwardian house on the outskirts of London with my family and a shifting succession of unusual people, including my uncle Alan, who had been a Communist spy, an odd-job man known alternately as David and Penny depending on what he was wearing and Andrzej, my father’s PhD student. The house was haunted, so my grandmother said, by the ghost of the previous occupant, Mrs Vale. Her spectral piano playing could sometimes be heard under the right weather conditions, and she was known to appear on the stairs dressed all in black, with a bemused expression on her face.
My father was a mad scientist. When I was eight years old, he took my brothers and me out of school for ideological reasons, and we were educated at home. He taught us maths and science, and was given to staging experiments in a whimsical and dramatic fashion. When I learned to tell time, it was not from a watch but from first principles, and I remember vividly creating a candle clock of sorts and watching it burn down far into the night, in an attempt to deduce how time might have been told before clocks existed. To this day I don’t quite know how you would tell time from a watch.
We were all quite eccentric, I suppose, most of all my father. He called a psychic hotline before making any important financial decisions and spent much time communing with foxes and engaged in impassioned battles against encroaching magpies and the local council. Once, we returned from a trip to Cornwall to find that he’d buried all of our shoes in the garden. When I was eight years old, he was lecturing at the LSE and acquired a graduate student, Andrzej. Homesick and far from his native Poland, he was finding life in the student dormitory hard so my father invited him to stay for Christmas. None of us then knew that he would remain in our house for the next twenty-five years. Perhaps that last detail is the reason that mysterious guests are a bit of an obsession of mine, especially scientific ones like Victor Frankenstein. For the same reason, I would hesitate to ever invite anyone to stay for Christmas.
The products of an eccentric upbringing.
Q. Has this unconventional upbringing influenced your writing as a whole, or the writing of The Monster’s Wife in particular?
KH: Absolutely! My father’s experiments gave me a lifelong fascination with science – in books, in films, in real life – and with mad scientists. Hence my rewriting of Frankenstein. Meanwhile my mother, a crime fiction expert, taught us literature and history, and, best of all, how to tell stories. It’s my mother who passed on to me an obsession with the supernatural and all things mysterious. I think that is very much reflected in my current interests in horror films and crime fiction and in the dark undercurrents in my own writing.
And not only writing: everything around me always seems full of potential stories, tall tales and monsters. Growing up, I felt that our house had its own mythology. There was a shoe-eating beast living under the stairs, a Hopi Indian god that guarded the door of our bedroom, and a Norwegian imp match-holder on the kitchen wall that gave you the evil eye if you didn’t walk past quickly enough.
Although I don’t think I’m especially superstitious, I grew up with a vivid sense of invisible friends all around us, some from existing mythologies, some invented on the spur of the moment. It’s meant that I’ve always felt compelled to embroider reality to make it a little more entertaining. Although of course what I have just told you is all completely true.
Q. There seem to be quite a few rewritings of classics at the moment. Why do you think that is?
KH: I think we retell our favourite tales because we love them, and the characters from them become almost like real people to us, and we want to share them with our children or our students or anyone who will listen, perhaps making a change here and there to keep the story relevant for each generation. I never intended The Monster’s Wife to be part of a trend, but around the time that I finished the first draft of it I started to realise that there were quite a few literary rewritings being published, ranging from Megan Shepherd’s The Madman’s Daughter, which reworks The Island of Dr Moreau, to the ‘Jane Austen and zombies’ series. In the past I have read literary responses such as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly, and a couple of months ago I read Jo Baker’s wonderful Longbourn, which is Pride and Prejudice retold from the servants’ perspective.
It’s strange to find yourself part of the zeitgeist, particularly as I always feel myself to be a little out of touch with fashions of any kind, but I think this current vogue for rewriting the Victorians is really just a recent example of a general human tendency to re-imagine favourite stories. After all, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is itself is a retelling of a classical myth, and that fact is spelled out in the subtitle – the Modern Prometheus. Her rewriting reflects the issues of science, ethics and gender that obsessed her and were so of her time. In The Monster’s Wife, although I set the narrative in the late 18th century, a lot of the themes that emerge through it are very much of our time too – issues that are near to my heart: equality between the sexes; the double-edged sword of religion that both creates communities and divides them; the wonders and dangers of scientific experimentation, which always seems to me poised on an ethical knife-edge. I think Mary Shelley’s work still holds our fascination because everything she writes about from her time is even more central to ours.
Q. Frankenstein now has this as a sequel. Do you sense a sequel for The Monster’s Wife?
KH: I was sad to part from Oona. She had been my constant companion for the better part of two years and she felt like a friend to me. I was genuinely bereft when I finished the last draft and (as Martin will attest!) it was really hard to let the book go. But no, I never had a sequel in mind.
In fact, the novel I’m working on now actually couldn’t be more different, since it’s a psychological thriller set in the present day. Having said that, there are similarities. The narrator of The American Girl is sixteen, like Oona; and like Oona, she’s a lone figure thrust into conflict with a small community where she’s suspected of wrongdoing. On top of that, the novel is set on the coast and much of it takes place in sight of the sea. Perhaps my seafaring Norwegian origins have made me fear small communities and long for that kind of landscape. Or maybe I just need a holiday.
The Monster’s Wife is out now in paperback and ebook.