Interview: C. E. McGill, author of Our Hideous Progeny

 Interview with C. E. McGill, author of Our Hideous Progeny

C. E. McGill author photo

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Buy Our Hideous Progeny here – U.S. | U.K.

Read Fantasy Book Critic’s review of Our Hideous Progeny here


INTERVIEW

Thank you for taking the time to talk to us, and welcome to the Fantasy Book Critic! Could you tell us a little bit about yourself, and your newly launched debut book, OUR HIDEOUS PROGENY?
Thank you for having me! I’m Charlie, or C. E. McGill (they/them), and Our Hideous Progeny is a spin-off of Frankenstein that began as my final year project in university. It’s a story about Mary (née Frankenstein) Sutherland, a paleontologist struggling to make her name as a scientist in Victorian London, who re-discovers her great uncle Victor’s notes and decides to follow in his footsteps…
I’ve always loved sci-fi, so in university I ended up majoring in “Narratives of Science in Fiction and History,” an eclectic combination of creative writing, scientific history, and literary analysis of science fiction as a genre. Of course, as part of this degree, I ended up rereading Frankenstein, and appreciating it on a whole new level once I understood more of the social and scientific background behind it.
At the same time, I was also learning about Victorian paleoart in another class – works like the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, which were one of palaeontologists’ earliest attempts to “bring to life” these long dead creatures – and the two ideas came together in my head. What if, I wondered, some descendant of Frankenstein who’d ended up as a paleontologist decided to “bring to life” a prehistoric creature in a far more literal way?
What three adjectives would you choose to describe your book to the uninitiated?
Oh, that’s a hard question for someone as wordy as I am! I might steal my adjectives from some of the blurbs that the book has received: I like to think that Our Hideous Progeny is “atmospheric,” “gripping,” and “passionate.”
What drew my eye to Our Hideous Progeny was the blurb that promised a modern, feminist twist to the themes explored in Frankenstein. Your book packs them all in without them feeling forced into the story in any way, and also addresses many other advantages that can prevent entry into certain fields/professions. How did you approach this part of your writing for the book?
In many ways, it came very naturally. One of the reasons why I picked a female protagonist to begin with is that I wanted to explore anger and ambition – both of which are huge themes in Frankenstein – from a female character’s perspective. Many women, queer people, and minorities of all kinds find themselves being accused of being bitchy, aggressive, or irrational when expressing these feelings; for that reason, I feel that these groups can find much to relate to in the Monster’s rage and outsider status in Frankenstein, shunned by all the world solely on the basis of the body he was given when he was brought to life. While I do, of course, consider
myself a feminist, I didn’t explicitly set out to make a #Feminist novel, merely one which explored the themes of Frankenstein alongside a messy and complex female character. But by necessity, when you put such a character in an environment that hates messy and complex women, she’s going to encounter a lot of difficulties – and, in Mary’s case, she’s going to fight back.
As much as Our Hideous Progeny is a spin-off of Frankenstein, I see it more as the protagonist, Mary’s story. You employ the right balance between the past and present timelines to give readers a good glimpse into her upbringing, as well as how it affects many of the choices she made in the present timeline that heavily influenced the nature of her work with the invention. How did you work to find a balance here?

Oh, that part was incredibly difficult! When I come up with characters, they tend to arrive in my mind with a huge amount of backstory attached. In some ways, this is handy – a character’s past, of course, informs who they are “today” when the story starts – but in other ways it’s incredibly challenging, as I’m always wanting to pause the narrative for another flashback. There are many more scenes from Mary’s past I could have included, but ultimately they wouldn’t have provided much valuable detail. My cruel, cruel editor (I jest; she was entirely correct!) helped me especially in Part I to pare down the flashback chapters to purely what was necessary.
When I read the book, I knew that Mary was one of the characters that I’d hold in my memory forever. She makes mistakes, and regrets those decisions in hindsight. She grew up without a loving childhood, and yet finds it in her to excuse some of her husband’s unforgiving behaviour toward his sister as she learns more about his upbringing. She pities his situation in some ways, yet recognizes his male privilege. She understands and tries to subscribe to certain standards of propriety, yet is feisty and outspoken, and finds herself fighting for what she
wants. What led you to put this all together, and how did you go about it?

I’m so glad Mary struck a chord with you! Oftentimes when I create characters, I take a tiny grain of personality from myself or someone I know, stick it in a petridish, then wait to see what grows. This isn’t to say that all my characters are based on myself or people I know, any more than, say, a wolf is based on a fox – merely that we’re distant cousins, pushed by evolution in different directions. To Mary, I gave my curiosity, my anger, my younger self’s desperation to prove myself as a scientist, and dialled them all up to eleven. From that point on, writing her became very easy; I had her base parameters set, her main driving emotion, so all I had to do was wind her up and watch her go.
Mary constantly finds herself at odds with many things in her book. She has an infuriating husband, and somehow, is also stuck working with another more infuriating person (I didn’t think that was possible, but it was). What inspired you to write these relationships and male characters?

Ha! Well, one major inspiration was that I spent two and a half years studying engineering while looking very much Like a Girl. While it is (thankfully) far less common in this day and age for men to say outright that “girls can’t do math/physics/etc.,” there was still a kind of Misogynistic Miasma lingering about many of my interactions with my male peers; doubting every figure I came up with, insisting that they be the ones to handle the dangerous power drill, etc. (#NotAllMen, of course, but when 95% of your class is male in a heavily male-dominated field, it’s inevitable that alongside some great friends you’re also going to meet some real assholes.) That “infuriating character” you mention is the concentrated distillation of countless awful men from both my own life and the history books, the veritable poster boy for awful men. Henry, meanwhile, is more complicated; he can be spiteful and childish and cruel, but he can also charming and funny and appreciative of Mary’s scientific talents. In many ways, he’s one of the best possible husbands Mary could have found – and I wanted readers to understand that, to understand what was going through her head when she chose to marry him. Observant readers may notice, however, that not once throughout the book does Henry ever properly apologize for anything – which will spell eventual trouble for their relationship…
For those who haven’t read your book yet, could you explain the historical figures
who inspired the character of Mary? 
Mary is inspired by a few different historical Marys. The first of these is, of course, Mary Shelley; another is Mary Anning, the real-life nineteenth century fossil-finder and self-taught paleontologist who provided many “men of science” in the early decades of the 1800s with their fossil collections; and Mary Somerville, the eminent astronomer and mathematician. Somerville was the so-called “queen of science” of the nineteenth century, and it was actually in her that I found inspiration for my own Mary’s personality – though not in the way you might expect. While reading a contemporary biography of Mary Somerville, I couldn’t help but notice how many of her friends and peers described her as humble and generous and always kind, never letting her
scientific hobbies get in the way of being a wife and mother… It occurred to me that, in the eyes of the Victorians, Somerville had already fulfilled the prerequisites of being a woman – marriage and children – and so, as long as she was grateful and humble enough, might be safely allowed to participate in the world of science. That made me wonder, of course, how a female scientist would fare who didn’t meet these requirements, who wasn’t humble or “nice”; and so, Mary was born.
Your note stated that when you were young, you hated Frankenstein on the sole principle that it had no wizards or outer space. You have since then changed your opinion. What convinced you to pick the book up later? If you were to convince a reader who didn’t warm up to it much when forced to read it in English class, what would you tell them?

Yes, like a lot of people, the first time I read Frankenstein was for school, and I just couldn’t get into it – mostly because every minute spend reading it was a second I wasn’t reading Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series instead! I ended up revisiting the book in college because we were covering it in my Science Fiction class, and I found that understanding more of the historical and scientific context behind it made me enjoy the book so much more. I learned, for example, about the history of body-snatching that inspired anxieties about grave-robbing in the early nineteenth century, and the electrical experiments of Luigi Galvani that informed Mary Shelley’s idea for the book. (I also developed a new appreciation for the prose – some of the lines, especially the monster’s, are just superb!) I always find that context makes art more interesting, so to anyone who’s thinking of picking up Frankenstein again, I would recommend doing the same; Roseanne Montillo has a fascinating book called The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley's Masterpiece that many might enjoy!
In the same note, you mentioned one quality in Frankenstein’s Victor that you hated, and called him a ‘wimp’. Please elaborate on that, and tell us how it has been addressed in your book?
Ha! Yes, I was very harsh on Victor on my first reading. I do still find it silly that after months spent piecing together dead organs and limbs, it’s only as the creature comes to life that Victor realizes the horror of what he’s done, and runs away to mope; except, of course, as I realize now, that’s kind of the whole point – no creature deserves to be spurned by its creator, but sometimes it happens anyway, because we as humans are irrational and prone to reject others for things they cannot change. And, wimpy as he often is, I do have more sympathy for Victor now, after having spent many long nights in college fervently hashing out an essay, only to look upon it with horror in the morning and throw myself, weeping, to the ground. In Our Hideous Progeny, however, one thing that I decided from the outset was that Mary would do things differently from Victor – that she would be a sort of hybrid of Victor and the monster both, and would therefore be more inclined to relate to her creation rather than reject it.
Thank you for answering all these questions! If there is one thing you’d like our readers to take away from this interview, what would it be?
I think I’d like readers to take away that Our Hideous Progeny is not just a straight retelling of the story of Frankenstein, but that it builds off the original story as a spin-off. I’ve heard many people criticize retellings recently on the grounds that 
a) there are a lot of them out right now! And 
b) they’re just rehashing the same-old, same-old.
While the former is undeniably true, I don’t agree with the latter at all; I believe a good retelling/spin-off/sequel engages with the themes of the original while also adding something entirely new. In that way, I hope that both fans of Frankenstein and those who’ve never read the novel alike can find something to enjoy in Mary and Our Hideous Progeny!

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