INTERVIEW: Theodora Goss, author of “The Mad Scientist’s Daughter”

Theodora Goss’s stories have appeared in magazines such as Realms of Fantasy, Strange HorizonsClarkesworldFantasy Magazine, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Apex Magazine. Anthologies featuring her work include Ghosts by Gaslight, Logorrhea, Other Earths, Polyphony, Year’s Best Fantasy, The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror, The Apocalypse Reader, and John Joseph Adams’s Under the Moons of Mars: New Adventures on Barsoom. Much of her short work has been collected in In the Forest of Forgetting. She is also the editor of Voices from Fairyland and Interfictions (with Delia Sherman). She is a winner of the World Fantasy Award and the Rhysling Award, and has been a finalist for the Nebula, Crawford, Mythopoeic, and Tiptree awards.


Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

It’s about the daughters of the mad scientists: Mary Jekyll, Diana Hyde, Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, Justine Frankenstein, and Helen Vaughan (who is the daughter of Dr. Raymond from Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan). It’s about their lives. How they were created, how they ended up finding each other, what they thing about their strange parentage.

What was the genesis of the story-what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

I wrote the story while I was finishing my doctoral dissertation, which was on late nineteenth-century gothic fiction: basically, the literature of monsters. And I stared wondering about the female figures in the mad scientist stories. Beatrice Rappaccini really does appear in “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Dr. Moreau does create a female monster out of a puma. Frankenstein refuses to create a female monster, but what if he had? And Helen is also a real character, as I mentioned. I invented Mary and Diana. I was fascinated by the fact that the women in these stories rarely get to speak. I wanted to hear their voices.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

No, I think it was pure fun. Sometimes you just let the characters inhabit you, and they write the story themselves. That’s what happened here. The hardest part was figuring out who was speaking. Sometimes I would say to myself, wait, Catherine didn’t say that. That’s Diana’s voice.

Most authors say all their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

Oh, of course! It’s about young women who don’t fit in, who wonder who they are, who think they are monsters. I don’t know if every teenage girl goes through a phase like that, but I most certainly did! (I still wonder who I am . . .) I would say the story is deeply personal. But then, I think most stories are.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

Luckily or unluckily, most of the research was also the research I was doing for my dissertation. (Luckily, I suppose, since I did in fact get the dissertation written.) I had read and taught all of these stories, but I had to go back and check details. And I had to get a better sense of late nineteenth-century London. I’m currently working on a novel based on this story, and that’s where the research really comes in. A novel is a very different proposition. I need to know what streets in London my characters are walking along, how long it takes them to get from one place to another. But it’s a lot of fun to travel back mentally to that era.

What is the appeal of mad scientist fiction? Why do so many writers-or you yourself-write it? Why do you think readers/viewers love it so much?

I think the mad scientist is a sort of modern archetype. He or she is our version of the wizard. But because the mad scientist deals with science rather than magic, he or she tests the boundaries of the real. What can science actually do? What can we actually accomplish in our physical universe? Can science indeed produce effects that seem magical? Can it overcome death? These are the sorts of questions that the archetype raises. And the mad scientist always seems to pose ethical dilemmas. He or she is always trying to overcome social or natural boundaries. No wonder the mad scientist creates monsters–and monsters have their own fascination, because they are both like and unlike us. They allow us to explore the boundaries of the human.

What are some of your favorite examples of mad scientists in fiction–or fact!–(in any media), and what makes them your favorites?

My girls’ fathers! Frankenstein, Moreau, Jekyll, Rappaccini, Raymond. They are the classic nineteenth century mad scientists. To be perfectly honest, I think Van Helsing, the vampire slayer from Dracula, is a mad scientist as well. These characters were written at a time when science itself was a little mad, when it wasn’t yet quite clear how the physical world worked. The tradition of careful empirical observation was being established, and in the middle of the century Lyell and Darwin started to show us the age of the earth and the workings of natural selection and evolution. Certain scientific theories, like those of Darwin, were enormously controversial. It’s a fascinating era, and I think our classic mad scientists come out of it precisely because of that instability. Although I have to say, I also have a sneaking fondness for the modern mad scientists who are really supervillains, or supervillain wannabes, like Dr. Horrible. That’s a modern development. The classic mad scientists never think of themselves as villains–they always have good motives for what they do, or so they tell us. They’re always trying to improve humanity, albeit with unfortunate results!