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.

January Check-In #TBRYear10

Hello, TBR Pile Challengers! 

Yahoo! It’s time for our very first Challenge Check-in. As a reminder, the deadline to sign-up for this challenge is January 31st, 2023, so if you know of someone who would love to join and/or if you have been trying to make up your mind, here’s your chance. P.S. This also means currently registered participants should feel free to make a change, up to January 31st, provided the link leads to an updated list as of that date. 

Progress: 1 of 12 Completed

So far, I’ve read 1 of my 12 challenge books! This puts me at 100% on pace, except, of course, I still haven’t written the review for it, even though I tell myself every morning that “I’m going to write it today!” Oh well. After all, tomorrow is another day. Still, I’m glad to be on track. My plan is to read one TBR Challenge book and one Friends’ Recommendation book each month, with an extra in the summer months, and that will ensure that I read all 27 of my “challenge” books before the end of this year.

The next book scheduled from my challenge list is Pachinko by Min Jin Lee.

Books Read:

  • The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

How are you doing?

index

Below, you’re going to find the infamous Mr. Linky widget. If you read and review any challenge books this month, please link-up on the widget below. This Mr. Linky will be re-posted every month so that we can compile a large list of all that we’re reading and reviewing together this year. Each review that is linked-up on this widget throughout the year may also earn you entries into future related giveaways, so don’t forget to keep this updated!

2022 Challenge Winner

In 2022, there were a total of 226 entries at the end of the year. That’s amazing! It’s now time to announce the winner of the overall challenge. Congratulations to Fanda from Fanda’s Classic Lit! The randomly drawn entry from the final list was Fanda’s review of 84, Charing Cross Road. Fanda will win up to $50 in books, or a $50 gift card to a bookstore of choice.

Be sure to come back for February’s check-in for mini-challenge #1 and your chance to win a book of choice ($20USD or less) from The Book Depository! (All mini-challenge and annual challenge winners need to have registered for the challenge on/before January 31, 2023, and will need to have participated by commenting on challenge posts and/or linking up challenge list book reviews.)

Friends Recommending Reads

New Year, New Challenges.

I mean that in a good way, this time.

Actually, this year, I’m determined to only participate in one reading challenge, which is my tenth anniversary edition of the TBR Pile Challenge, hosted right here at the Roof Beam Reader blog! There’s still time to sign-up, by the way, but not much!

I did also jump on the “Recommend Me a Book” meme that was floating around social media. The gist is to ask friends/family to recommend you one book to read in 2023, to collect a total of twelve titles (ideally, one per month.) I made the request back on January 2nd and received a total of thirteen different suggestions.

I’m going to do my best to read all thirteen, but I’m listing them here as the core twelve (in keeping spirit with the original challenge) plus one alternate. Below, listed in no particular order, are the titles my friends and family recommended that I’ll be adding to my TBR for 2023. What do you think!?

  1. True Biz by Sara Novic (recommended by Sara S.)
  2. Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto (recommended by Andrew B.)
  3. Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse (recommended by Bev H.)
  4. Legends and Lattes by Travis Baldree (recommended by Allie D.)
  5. The Lure by Felice Picano (recommended by Ryan G.)
  6. The Year of the Horses by Courtney Maum (recommended by Lori W.)
  7. A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (recommended by Tracy S.)
  8. Dark Matter by Blake Crouch (Recommended by Darlene O.)
  9. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (Recommended by Laurie)
  10. The Sea of Fertility by Yukio Mishima (Recommended by Esther H.)
  11. Pied Piper by Nevil Shute (Recommended by Nany H.)
  12. The Winds of War by Herman Wouk (Recommended by Janet)

Alternate/Bonus: A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard (Recommended by Gretchen A.)

Thanks to my friends who sent in their suggestions! I have only read three of these authors so far (Picano, Wharton, and Mishima), but not the ones recommended, here. I’m looking forward to the whole list, to be honest, perhaps especially Dark Matter, which has been on my radar for a long time, and The Sea of Fertility, as I have a bunch of Mishima on my shelves, but somehow, I missed this particular tetralogy (and it sounds perfect for me!)

What are you reading this week?

See you on Jan. 15th for our first #TBRYear10 check-in!

2022 Monthly Retrospective

Happy New Year!

As I mentioned in my 2022 Year in Review, I’m back today to share my favorite reads of the last year. I decided to share one book from each month, so a total of twelve. This is, of course, a bit of an arbitrary way of doing it, and it will ultimately leave out some of my best/favorite reads of the year, but oh well, nothing is perfect!

Don’t forget, too, that the TBR Pile Challenge is back for the tenth year! (#TBRYear10) In celebration, the final end prize will be double the usual: a $100 gift card to a bookstore/website of choice! Now, on to my twelve favorites of 2022, one from each month.

January

February

March

April

May

June

July

August

September

October

November

December

So, there they are! My favorite read from each month in 2022 (sort of). Some of these were REALLY difficult choices, as there were certain months where I read a few 5-star books. The stress of picking just one! Ultimately, when it came down to making a choice, I tried to pick one that I didn’t highlight in my end of year survey.

Incidentally, I’ve started my first book of the new year, James Brandon’s The Edge of Being, which I’m really excited about because his first novel, Ziggy, Stardust and Me, is one of my absolute favorites.

I’d love to hear what your favorite reads of 2022 were! And what book are you reading to start 2023? Please share in the comments!

My Year in Review: 2022

Near the end of 2020, I told myself I would slow down my reading in 2021. That didn’t happen. So, at the end of 2021, I said I’d try again this year. Gues what? It didn’t happen. In recent days, I’ve found myself saying to myself, “You’re going to do it in 2023. You’re going to read just 20 or 30 books, deeply and slowly.” Anyone want to take bets? Ha!

Some good news in reading, though, is that I read 13 out of 12 books on my TBR Pile Challenge and I’m bringing that challenge back again for YEAR 10 in 2023. I also “beat” my Goodreads reading challenge multiple times, finally ending at two over my last adjusted challenge goal.

Here’s how things went:

  • Number Of Books Read: 104
  • Number of Re-Reads: 2
  • Genre Read Most: Poetry
  • Best Book You Read in 2022?
    • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Lit Fic)
    • Attack of the Black Rectangles by A.S. King (Kid’s Fic)
    • Time is a Mother by Ocean Vuong (Poetry)
    • Playing in the Dark by Toni Morrison (Non-Fiction)
  • A Book You Enjoyed from an Indie Press:
    • Vindicated: A Novel of Mary Shelley by Kathleen Williams Renk
  • Book You Were Excited About & Thought You Were Going to Love More?
    • The Philosopher’s Handbook by Stanley Rosen
  • Most surprising (in a good way or bad way) book you read?
    • The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage (didn’t expect it to be that good!)
  • Book You “Pushed” The Most People to Read (And They Did)?
    • Circe by Madeline Miller
  • Best series you started? Best Sequel of 2022? Best Series Ender of 2022?
    • New Series: Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao
    • Sequel: The Titan’s Bride, vol. 2 by ITKZ
    • Series Ender: N/A
  • Favorite new author you discovered?
    • Jesmyn Ward (Sing, Unburied, Sing is stunning!)
  • Best book from a genre you don’t typically read?
    • The Titan’s Bride (manga/erotica)
  • Most action-packed/thrilling/un-put-down-able book of the year?
    • The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
  • Book You Are Most Likely to Re-Read?
    • The Dhammapada
  • Favorite cover of a book you read in 2022?
  • Most memorable character of 2022?
    • Janet from O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker
  • Most beautifully written book read in 2022?
    • The Dove in the Belly by Jim Grimsley
  • Most Thought-Provoking/ Life-Changing Book of 2022?
    • How to Read Now by Elaine Castillo
  • Book you can’t believe you waited UNTIL 2022 to finally read?
    • Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
  • Favorite Passage/Quote from a Book You Read in 2022?
    • “The thought manifests as the word; / The word manifests as the deed; / The deed develops into habit; / And habit hardens into character. / So, watch the thought and its ways with care, / And let it spring from love / Born out of concern for all beings.” –The Buddha (Dhammapada)
  • Shortest & Longest Book You Read in 2022?
    • Shortest: Mirror Factory by Carolyn Oliver (27 pages)
    • Longest: The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon (830 pages)
  • Book that Shocked You the Most?
    • Inside the Storm I Want to Touch the Tremble by Carolyn Oliver (so good!)
  • Favorite Book You Read in 2022 from an Author You’ve Read Previously?
    • The Light We Carry by Michelle Obama
  • Best book you read in 2022 based solely on someone else’s recommendation?
    • The Darkness Outside Us by Eliot Schrefer (5 stars!!)  
  • Best 2022 debut you read?
    • Hell Followed With Us by Andrew Joseph White
  • Best World-building/Most Vivid Setting You Read This Year?
    • Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
  • Book that put a Smile on Your Face/Was the most FUN to Read?
    • And They Lived by Steven Salvatore
  • Book That Made You Cry or Nearly Cry in 2022?
    • The Dove in the Belly by Jim Grimsley
  • Hidden Gem of the Year?
    • Ready When You Are by Gary Lonesborough
  • Book That Crushed Your Soul?
    • Call Me By My True Names by Thich Nhat Hanh
  • Most Unique Book You Read in 2022?
    • Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco
  • Book That Made You the Maddest (doesn’t necessarily mean you didn’t like it)?
    • Reclaiming Two-Spirits by Gregory D. Smithers (read it!)
  • Favorite review that you wrote in 2022?
  • Best discussion/non-review post you had on your blog?
  • Most Popular Post This Year on Your Blog (whether it be by comments or views)?
  • Post You Wished Got a Little More Love?
  • Did you complete any reading challenges or goals set for yourself at the beginning of this year?
    • YES! I “won” my TBR Pile Challenge this year.
  • One book on your list in 2022 that you didn’t read but definitely will get to in 2023?
    • The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean
  • Book You Are Most Anticipating For 2023 (non-debut)?
    • Different for Boys by Patrick Ness
  • 2023 Debut You Are Most Anticipating?
  • Series Ending/A Sequel You Are Most Anticipating in 2023?
    • Percy Jackson and the Chalice of the Gods!!!! (by Rick Riordan)
  • Something you hope to accomplish in your reading/blogging life in 2023?
    • A more regular presence here at the blog seems like a good goal. I might have to slow down the reading part of things and spend more time writing. ßI wrote that last year. Let’s keep it and try again!

There it is, my year in reading and blogging! If you’re interested, come back on January 1 for my monthly retrospective. (I’ll be sharing my favorite book read in each month of the year during 2022).

How was your reading year? Please share your favorites in the comments or let me know if any books in my review have sparked your interest.

Happy New Year!