kathleen ann goonan


The following is an email interview with Kathleen Ann Goonan conducted between February 16-21 2004 by Kate Sisson. Ms. Goonan generously consented to its publication on the Frankenstein Project website. She will be the keynote speaker for the Project's opening night. Please see the events page for more information.

1. Where did your interest in SF start? How did you begin writing it? Is this connected to a similar interest in science?

Like most writers, I have been scribbling since I was in grade school. I wrote poetry in college, got a bit of notice for that, but did observe that poets make very little money. My degree is in English Literature and Philosophy. So after I graduated, I attended the Montessori Institute in Washington, D.C. and got my Association Montessori Internationale teaching certification. My grand plan was to work three hours a day nine months a year and write the rest of the time. What actually transpired was that I taught year round, all day. When I opened my own Montessori school in Knoxville, I was working about sixty hours a week and soon had a hundred students and many employees. I loved teaching, but writing was always in the back of my mind. When I turned 32, I suddenly began writing. The school was running smoothly and I had time. My plan was working. I wrote my trunk novel in a year. When my husband was offered a job in Hawaii, I decided to take the plunge, so to speak, and start writing full time--mainly on the strength of personal rejection letters I was getting from Gardner Dozois, editor of ASIMOV'S, and Ellen Datlow, fiction editor, at that time, of OMNI.

It was a foolish decision, but I suppose it has worked out in the long run.
I had no interest at all in science until I began teaching. I was utterly and completely involved in the world of literature, although I did read all of the big SF books of the early seventies, such as The Dispossessed, The Snow Queen, Stranger in a Strange Land, etc. Maria Montessori was a physician, and based her theories of child development on scientific observation. She was the first person, for instance, to posit that children go through what she called "sensitive periods" when it is easy for them to absorb various skills--motor, speech, mathematical, social, etc, at the appropriate developmental stage. This was shortly after the turn of the century, and I do not believe that her pioneering science in this field has been adequately recognized. I am also married to a scientist--a physician with a degree in chemistry.

When I began writing, I wrote strange hybrid fantasy-sf stories, and meta-literary stories in the vein of Italo Calvino. As far as I was concerned, science fiction was fantasy. It was not until I attended Clarion West, a writing workshop, in 1988, that I began to seriously read science, mainly because of the urging of Greg Bear. I subscribed to all of the science magazines that I possibly could; it was a crash course. I also discovered the rich trove of science literature written by scientists and scientist-philosophers (Freeman Dyson, etc.) for lay people.

2. Were you aware of the parallels between Queen City Jazz and Frankenstein when you were writing your novel? If so, were they on purpose?

Not really, except that Frankenstein has achieved mythic proportions since it was written, and informs a lot of science fiction as well as popular fear of scientific "meddling" with nature.

3. How did you research the novel? Did you already have an understanding of nano- and biotechnology?

The novel took shape during the time that I was reading Drexler's Engines of Creation. During a winter hike in the Smokies, my husband had talked a lot about the information carrying abilities of e-coli and how this was presently being exploited. I was doing a lot of zen meditation at the time, and I had a vision of a city topped with giant flowers, which, of course, suggested giant bees. This is the kind of image that one is supposed to ignore during meditation. Paying attention to it has probably set me back a few thousand incarnations. Just kidding; zen is not in that particular vein.

4. Why did you include so many instances of American art, drama, and music in the novel?

Because I love it. Jazz is the quintessential American art, as are comic strips.

5. Aside from the tradition of SF, why do you use cyborgs to address issues of humanity and naturalness?

Cyborgs are direct representations of one aspect or another of what we think we are. But because the systems which comprise us also have the capacity to surprise us, cyborgs have the inherent disposition to be unpredictable. I suppose it was rather like seeing how various genes might be expressed in the offspring of two purebred dogs, or in orchids. The results are often fascinating. Also, I believe that since we as humans are "natural," all of our inventions are natural as well.

6. What relationship do you see between technology and society?

The relationship often seems seamless and invisible to us. We take to the technological results of scientific observation with astonishing speed. Automobiles, airplanes, computers, medicines, telephones--all of these have changed and improved our lives immeasurably. The most interesting aspect of technology, at this point, is its miniaturization, as well as its fusion with biology. Our very selves, now crudely manipulated by antidepressants, etc., have the potential to be changed dramatically in the near future. This potential causes the tension between technology and society. There is a sense that very small changes may have very large, and possibly unpleasant, results. In the early sixties, the horror of possible nuclear destruction was glossed over by a public campaign to present atomic energy as something which would make everything easy. We would have atomic powered homes and atomic powered flying cars. Everything would be very cheap. This dream has turned poisonous, and I think that it has intensified suspicion of other types of scientific "meddling," such as the production of genetically modified foods.

7. Can you offer any final comments on Shelley's themes of ethics of creation, bodies and identity, and domesticity and motherhood?

Shelley's goal was to write a horrific gothic tale. She had an astonishing prescience in her choice of themes, but she considered herself to be as much the intellectual as biological child of two great thinkers, Mary Wollenstonecraft, who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women, and William Godwin, author of An Enquiry Concerning the Nature of Political Justice.

As such, she was quite aware of one of the great themes of the times. Rights had migrated from being imbued in rulers by God to being inherent equally in all humans, as articulated by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence (Aaron Burr, Jefferson's vice-president, was later a guest in Godwin's home when Mary was a child). These ideas were intimately connected to the intellectual stir caused by the observations of Darwin, which further displaced the idea of God, and opened up the concept that if God was not in control, perhaps ill-suited humans, short-sighted and unfitted for the responsibilities generated by scientific discovery, would take God's place . . . And make a mess of things.

Shelley was also keenly aware, being from a literary family, that novelists *must* make a mess of things, must take events to great extremes, and must be dramatic. She chose and developed her material well. The idea that humans--and, in particular, scientists--are short-sighted, bumbling idiots tampering with the natural order of things is obviously not new. It was part of Mary's zeitgeist. By daring to unlock the secrets of nature, we might unlock all that is unwholesome in ourselves.

Shelley's monster embodies all that is best and worst in humankind. He is thoughtful, and believes himself capable of love, but is also calculatedly murderous. He is the ultimate outsider. Frankenstein's refusal to allow the monster to reproduce and thereby unleash unpredictable offspring upon the world, though the price be the death of all the people he loves, is his moral, human triumph.

At the time she wrote Frankenstein, Mary Wollenstonecraft Shelley had spent her childhood being an outsider and, in her recent elopement with Shelley, placed herself firmly in that camp. Several years after the death of her mother in childbirth, her father remarried a woman with children of her own. Mary was eventually sent to boarding school, where she felt isolated and alone. She was then sent to Scotland, where she was embraced as a member of Baxter family, which gave her an opportunity to "look into" the heart of a functional family, much as the monster "observes" the family whom he so longs to be a part of. As a "child," during the time when he is learning about life, including language, the monster thinks loving thoughts and imagines how this family, his philosophical ideal, might become his own if they can only ignore his exterior, and love him for himself. Once rejected, he reacts with bitterness, and is still as impulsive as a child, despite his own best intentions. Like all subsequent cyborgs, he longs to be fully human. But when he realizes that is not possible--when he becomes conscious that he was callously created by an imperfect human--he takes the next step. Denied acceptance, he boldly proposes that a female like himself be created, and swears that ever after he will isolate himself from humanity. Mary had already had a taste of how her elopement with Shelley would hinder her acceptance by society, and perhaps the poignant portrayal of the monster's desire to be accepted on his merits were formed by her own sense of being a social outcast.

Frankenstein's description of his own childhood might serve as Shelley's own template for the role of ideal parents, which by the time she wrote this Shelley probably felt she had completely lacked: "I was . . . their child, the innocent and helpless creature bestowed on them by Heaven, whom to bring up to good, and whose future lot it was in their hands to direct to happiness or misery, according as they fulfilled their duties towards me. With this deep consciousness of what they owed towards the being to which they had given life, added to the active spirit of tenderness that animated both, it may be imagined that while during every hour of my infant life I received a lesson of patience, charity, and of self-control, I was so guided by a silken cord that all seemed but one train of enjoyment to me. For a long time I was their only care."

It must have been a terrible blow to Shelley when the circumstances of her own life, in which all but one of her children died young because of circumstances she later felt that she had created, did not allow her to bestow this rosy vision on her own children. She lived in a social milieu in which illegitimate children were frequently disguised as legitimate by legal machinations which we would find strange, for the sake of respectability as well as for inheritance rights. In addition, the vast amount of traveling which the Shelleys and Mary's half-sister Claire undertook, with children in tow, would daunt any parent and challenge any child's sense of continuity. Finally, the medical scourges of the time, such as typhus, took their toll.

  ethics of creation


bodies and identity


domesticity, morality,
and motherhood




  interview with
kathleen ann goonan