Getting Real With Joanne Rendell
In her third book, Out of the Shadows, Joanne Rendell explores the life of Clara -- a modern professor living in New York -- and her connection to Frankenstein creator Mary Shelley. Here she answers our questions about her motivation, women's struggles and why she chose this controversial historical woman as the character's inspiration.
SheKnows was thrilled to spend time with women's fiction author Joanne Rendell and get the scoop on her fascination with Frankenstein creator Mary Shelley and her new book Out of the Shadows.
Getting Real with Rendell
SheKnows: What was your motivation behind writing Out of the Shadows?
Joanne Rendell: Mary Shelley motivated me to write Out of the Shadows. I've always loved her most famous novel Frankenstein. In this wonderful gothic story, Shelley dared to ask "what if?" She looked around at the emerging technologies of her time and she considered their darker sides and how they could turn monstrous (or even make monsters!). I still find it amazing that she wrote such a daring, thoughtful, and poignant novel when she was just nineteen. Not only that, she was living in early nineteenth century Europe when young women weren't supposed to think about monsters and science, let alone write about them! Anyway, I knew I wanted to write a book about her one day. However, I didn't want it to be solely a historical novel. Out of the Shadows explores the echoes and links between the past, our current moment, and our possible future. I wanted the book to be both about Mary Shelley, but also about how her amazing imagination and insights still resonate today. I wanted Shelley's story to sit side by side with the story of a modern woman who, although living in a very different world to Shelley, still faces some of the same challenges, fears, and possibilities.
SheKnows: Are you a fan of Mary Shelley? If so, how would you feel if you two were related?
Joanne Rendell: I'm a huge Shelley fan. As I said, I always loved Frankenstein and when I began researching her life and other works, I fell in love with Shelley more and more. She was so fiery and smart, outspoken and thoughtful, a non-conformist and a caring mother. She was the child of two radical and important writers, but she didn't live in their shadows. Nor did she live in the shadow of the great love of her life, Percy Shelley, the great romantic poet. Mary lost Percy when she was still in her early twenties but, even though she was devastated by his death, she went on to live a rich and fulfilled life as a widow. I would be honored and humbled to be related to such a woman!
SheKnows: One of the themes is women coming to terms with who they are. Do you think many women struggle with this?
Joanne Rendell: In Out of the Shadows, Mary Shelley is a young girl growing up in early nineteenth-century London, while Clara -- who thinks she's related to Shelley -- is a thirty-something professor who lives in modern day New York City. Their stories seem so different at first, but many similarities and echoes exist too. Mary and Clara are both on the cusp of finding themselves. They are searching for a way out of the shadows of those around them. For Mary, it is the shadow of her mother's death, her father's protection, and the life that doesn't yet fulfill her. For Clara, she must find a way to live for herself, to pursue her own dreams, and not just follow her fiance's career.
I think many women today still struggle, like Clara and Mary, to find their way out of the shadows of their husbands, their families, their responsibilities, and also the expectations put on them by culture and society. Feminism did a lot to help women. But the battle ain't over, in my opinion, not when popular culture and the mass media still (implicitly and explicitly) tell our daughters that skinny, beautiful, and overly sexual is what leads to popularity, success, and power. We may have more opportunities than our grandmothers, but there are still many sexist forces and negative images that keep women from reaching their full potential and realizing the beauty of who they really are.
SheKnows: What do you hope readers take away from this book?
Joanne Rendell: I hope they take away a love of Shelley, for one. But I also hope that readers might start asking the question that Mary Shelley asks in Frankenstein: "What if?" In Out of the Shadows, Clara's fiance is a successful geneticist. Professor Greene is developing a drug that might fight cancer. It also has the potential to reverse the effects of aging and extend life -- and thus make a lot of money. In the book I wanted to ask what the consequences might be when science is mixed with the desire for profit. I hope my book breeds a healthy skepticism about our imminent future where money is intertwined with scientific research.
SheKnows: Your books always include a literary theme. In The Professors' Wives' Club it was Edgar Allan Poe. In Crossing Washington Square it was Sylvia Plath, and of course in Out of the Shadows it's Mary Shelley. Why do you include these literary elements?
Joanne Rendell: I can't help it! Literature has always been my love, my inspiration, and my life. I have a PhD in literature and even when I moved from academia to fiction writing I never stopped reading, or reading about books. I've enjoyed including these literary themes in my novels, both as a way to pay homage to these writers but also as a way to keep their works alive, loved, and thought about.
Freelance journalist Selena Larson contributed to this story.