Iowa City authors speak on historical fiction novel about Mary Shelley

Last night, authors Kathleen Williams Renk and Mary Helen Stefaniak discussed Renk’s historical fiction book during a virtual event through Prairie Lights.


David Harmantas

Prairie Lights bookstore on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017.

Megan Conroy, Arts Reporter

Friday night’s Prairie Lights reading engulfed attendees with exquisite details from University of Iowa alumna and local author Kathleen Williams Renk’s recently published book, Vindicated: A Novel of Mary Shelley, without having to embrace the bitter cold outside. 

With books and flags donning the backgrounds of the authors’ Zoom call, Renk and fellow local author Mary Helen Stefaniak discussed themes from Vindicated, Renk’s writing style, and her upcoming works.

Vindicated is a historical fiction novel that details the life of author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, beginning with the untimely death of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. 

Formerly an RN, Renk said she felt drawn to Mary Shelley’s story because of Shelley’s mother’s death post-childbirth. 

Along with the death of Shelley’s mother, Renk delved into the time in which Shelley lived, the 19th century, where women were treated as inferior to men. 

Renk and Stefaniak commented on Shelley — whose maiden name was Godwin — falling in love with her future husband, Percy Shelley. 

Renk read a particularly haunting scene in the book in which Shelley talks to her deceased mother’s ghost at her grave. Shelley’s mother encouraged her to tell Percy she loved him only if she knew “she loved him with her heart and her head,” which emanated from her mother’s notion that women must utilize their intelligence. 

“You have set so much evidence of their ability to do everything that Mary Wollstonecraft says, that they’re to use their reason, their education, and their insight, yet at the same time the book doesn’t shy away from the female body,” Stefaniak said. 

In a period where girls were married at 16 and living until about 50 years old — if they were lucky — Renk capitalized on the feminine power of Shelley’s act of writing Frankenstein.  

Related: Iowa City author’s novel to be adapted into film starring Amy Adams

During the scene of the ghostwriting contest, Renk used Lord Byron as a vessel to show that it was uncommon for women to write such grisly stories. Renk wrote that Bryon asked Shelley if her husband had actually written the story, alluding to the idea that some people believed that Shelley’s husband wrote Frankenstein. 

“We know that it was suspected that Shelley didn’t write Frankenstein, and I wanted to bring that to bear on the scene that Lord Byron wanted to dismiss her writing Frankenstein thinking that she’s just a kid, she wouldn’t possibly know enough, or have the ability to create something that would terrify anyone,” Renk said. 

Another topic of conversation between the two authors was that of historical fiction and the balancing act of writing fact and fiction.

“I think historical fiction writers have to keep playing with that; seeing what you can change, and what you have to stick to as total fact,” Renk said. 

Renk explained that she chose to leave out the gruesome, rumored idea that Shelley kept her husband’s heart in a box after he died. Instead, she wrote that a friend of Shelley’s offered the body part to her, which she declined. Renk said that she was too disgusted by the mere idea to include the detail in the novel. 

She made sure to add, however, that she sympathized with the monster from Frankenstein. Renk said she believes that perhaps he’s not a monster at all, but rather a compilation of details from Shelley’s own life. 

As the conversation drew to a close, the authors shifted the topic into Renk’s two upcoming works. Her third novel, titled In An Artist’s Studio, tells the story of the Victorian poets and artists Christina Rossetti and her sister-in-law Lizzie Siddal. Renk is also writing No Coward’s Soul Have I, which covers Irish heroine Anne Devlin and poet Percy Shelley. Renk’s early writing career paired with that of scholarly work, and while her recent works align with the historical fiction genre, she said she feels a personal connection to both. 

“What I like about historical fiction is that I can still research, and then I can create something else from it — fiction instead of an argument,” Renk said.