Staff Writer Allie Todd talked with John Kessel, author and professor at North Carolina State University, about his new book and long career as an author. Kessel will be at Flyleaf Books Wednesday at 7 p.m. to talk about “Pride and Prometheus,” his novel that combines "Pride and Prejudice" with "Frankenstein."
The Daily Tar Heel: How did you begin your career as an author?
John Kessel: It was a really long time ago. I was writing stories when I was a kid, even in middle school. I sent my first story to a magazine when I was in seventh grade — it didn’t get accepted. But I was still very encouraged by the idea that someone would read it. I was still writing as an undergraduate at the University of Rochester, a long time ago. I went to graduate school and studied English literature and American literature. I sold my first story when I was 27 years old. It was a result of writing many, many stories.
DTH: Tell me about "Pride and Prometheus."
JK: Well, the simple way to put it is a mash up of "Pride and Prejudice" and "Frankenstein." These are two books that I have taught and loved. There is a weird coincidence with these classics in which Victor Frankenstein could possibly have encountered the characters from "Pride and Prejudice," and that’s what made me start thinking about it. My elevator pitch for the book was that a character from Jane Austen falls into "Frankenstein." The difference in the books really appeals to me because the Jane Austen stories are romances and novels of manners and realistic, while "Frankenstein" is a gothic novel with monsters and murderers.
DTH: Did you know when you had this idea that it was going to be such a hit?
JK: There are some ideas that you get that are so natural you are instantly attracted to it. I didn’t know if this story would work out, but I was very drawn to it. I originally wrote it as a short story, that came out in 2008, and it was very well-received. I never thought about making a book out of it until years later, when I realized that the story I had written was really the middle of a much longer story.
DTH: What are some challenges in writing science fiction?
JK: One of the things that I am always concerned about is making it as plausible as possible. In a lot of science fiction stories, you have things happen that are very improbable. The job of the writer is to make it seem as plausible as possible by giving circumstantial detail and making it happen logically.
DTH: What drew you to writing science fiction and fantasy novels?
JK: I always loved science fiction since I was a kid. The stories that I always liked were fairy tales and stories of the fantastic. At the time, when I was a boy, the space program was just getting started and people were talking about going to the moon, so it was something that really intrigued me. I did not consciously decide to write science fiction — it was just something I had always liked so much that it was no question.
DTH: What's it like being a professor of creative writing and American literature at N.C. State, while also writing novels?
JK: Well, I have been there for a very long time. I started teaching at N.C. State in 1982. I was a young, brand-new professor when I started there, and now, I am an old, almost-retired professor. I feel, as a teacher of literature, my job is to help people understand why stories are interesting, fun and worth thinking about. My own enthusiasm is what I am trying to convey to the students of the lit classes. In the writing classes, I am trying to help the students write better.
DTH: Now a seasoned author, what advice would you give yourself if you could go back in time to when you were writing your first novel?
JK: Don’t be too down on yourself. Being a writer, you are often disappointed. It is hard to write things as well as you would like to, and they don’t always come out as you’d like. You will get discouraged and rejected, but you have to be persistent. Basically, don’t be too hard on yourself, and keep working on it. Read an awful lot, and read broadly.
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