Monday, October 17, 2011

Arthur Slade Interviews Kenneth Oppel on This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein

Kenneth Oppel's first novel Colin's Fantastic Video Adventure was published when he was seventeen and he hasn't slowed down one iota since. He is the author of the Silverwing series (which has sold over a million copies), the Airborn series (winner of the Governor General's Award for Children's Literature and the Michael L. Printz Honor Book award), and the highly acclaimed Half Brother. He lives in Toronto, Canada.

AS: Congrats on the release of This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein

The idea of doing a prequel to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is very inspired and I'm certain there are many authors shouting, "why didn't I think of that?" Has anyone accused you of stealing their idea?

KO: Amazingly, no, especially since there have been plenty of other classics rebooted with young heroes lately.

You yourself may be familiar with the fabulous Hunchback series; there’s also young Sherlock Homes, young James Bond, among others. But Frankenstein was still unclaimed!

I was making a presentation to a group of booksellers in the U.S. a few months ago, and someone in the audience asked me if I was planning on ripping off any other literary classics. She didn’t actually say “ripping off,” but you get the idea. I said I didn’t have any immediate plans, but asked if she had any suggestions. “Moby Dick,” she said, “focusing on Captain Ahab.”

It’s not a bad idea. But I don’t think I’ll take the bait.

AS: Hmm. Steampunked Moby Dick! Just let me write that down...anyway, back to the interview. Can you pinpoint when you first had that aha moment?

KO: I love Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I’d just re-read it a couple of years ago, and the mentions of his childhood were brief but evocative. There were mentions of seeking out the Elixir of Life, raising ghosts and demons – you know, pretty typical teenage stuff, right up there with rep soccer and hot yoga. But I saw these things as the seeds of possible Gothic adventure stories.

I spent a lot of time wondering about what might happen on such adventures, and what would motivate them in a powerful way. I sat on the idea for quite a while, almost a full year, before I shared it with my agent and approached publishers, because I wanted to make sure the idea was well formed; I really didn’t want it to be seen as a gratuitous attempt to cash in on the Frankenstein myth.

AS: Did you channel Mary Shelley while you were writing? By that I mean did you want to imitate the style of the original book? Shelley's Frankenstein is a rather slow and dreamy novel at times. You manage to keep that dreaminess, but also the plot moves along at a good clip.

Photo of Kenneth by Peter Riddihough
KO: I’m a pretty good mimic, so yes, I did try to capture the linguistic flavour of the original, but without making it inaccessible to contemporary readers. I quite enjoy the richness of period fiction, so the language in Dark Endeavor might be a little more formal, but I made sure it’s effortless to read.

I read all my books aloud during the writing/editing process, and if the prose sounds too constipated, or unnatural, or the pace is slack, I know about it, and change it.

The book combines Gothic adventure and horror and romance, and I wanted it to belt along. I’m not sure I could write a book that didn’t have a fairly powerful plot as its internal combustion engine.

AS: How much leeway did you give yourself to play around with the backstory from the original novel?

KO: Well, once I invented a twin brother for Victor, I was making a pretty clean break from the world of the original. I like to think of it as an alternative backstory to the Frankenstein myth. A search for the elixir of life is a great idea for an adventure, but I thought it would be even more powerful, and personal, if Victor needed the elixir to heal someone he loved. It could’ve been any family member, but I decided a brother – a twin! – would have the richest emotional possibilities.

As for the cast of characters, I made the love interest, Elizabeth Lavenza, a distant relation (as opposed to first cousin). Their best friend Henry Clerval was transformed into a slightly comic Woody Allen-like character who’s riddled with phobias and fears, making him the least likely person to enjoy a Frankenstein-style banquet of horror.

Victor’s parents I actually based on Mary Shelley’s real parents, the radical writers William Godwin and Mary Wollestonecraft, so my Frankenstein household is very liberal for its time. Mrs. Frankenstein writes pamphlets on the rights and education of women; Mr. Frankenstein is a fair magistrate who insists on his own family making the servants their Sunday dinner as a gesture of egalitarianism (a concept that was sweeping through Europe in the late 1700’s). And my Victor himself certainly shares traits of both Percy Shelley and Lord Byron (as did Mary Shelley’s Victor). So I tried to work in lots of insider Frankenstein information.

AS: Giving Victor Frankenstein a twin certainly upped the "interest" factor of the novel. The fact is, I liked "steady" Konrad more than the "impetuous" Victor, the narrator of the story. And yet, I was somehow cheering for Victor, too. Was that your intention?

KO: Anti-heroes can be incredibly charismatic and exciting. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call Victor an anti-hero. He has some dislikeable traits, but he’s never truly wicked (not in this first book anyway). You cheer for Victor, I think, because he has so much life and drive and passion in him; and you never forget he loves his brother, even though he’s ragingly jealous of him, and wants to steal his girlfriend. So yes, I wanted Victor to be complicated – but that makes him a much more interesting character I think.

AS: It must have been rather exciting to have the book optioned before it was published. What was the process for that?

KO: It was very exciting. My literary agent Steven Malk thought the book had strong movie potential, and showed the manuscript to an amazing pair of agents in Hollywood, Nick Harris and Josie Freedman at ICM, who specialise in book-to-film rights. They really liked it, and sent it out to a dozen top producers and within a couple days we had three offers from major studios.

This doesn’t happen often. I know. I used to write screenplays, and I’ve had many books and scripts optioned over the years and usually you’re lucky if you get one offer amidst the tsunami of “passes”.

Our decision was pretty easy: we sold the rights to producer Karen Rosenfelt and Summit Entertainment, the producer and studio who made the "Twilight" movies.

AS: The book ties up the ending nicely, yet there is still room for a sequel. What's next for Victor?

K: At the end of Book One, Victor promises himself he’ll unlock every secret law of the earth to achieve his goals – let’s just say he honours his promise.

AS: You've gone from the rich "bat" fantasy world of the Silverwing series, to the post-Victorian atmosphere of the Airborn series, to the modern reality of Half Brother. And now Frankenstein. Where will you be taking us next?

KO: Straight to hell, in the second installment of the Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein. It’s called Such Wicked Intent, and should be published August 2012.

After that, who knows. I’ve got a couple of ideas I’m very excited about and now that I’ve just finished revisions on Such Wicked Intent, I have the wonderful luxury of daydreaming them into existence.

Arthur
Cynsational Notes

Arthur Slade was raised on a ranch in the Cypress Hills of southwest Saskatchewan and began writing when he was very, very young.

He went to university (English honours), later worked as a night auditor, and in radio advertising and now has been writing fiction full time for fifteen years.

 He is the author of seventeen bestselling books, including the Northern Frights series, Dust, and the multi-award winning The Hunchback Assignments.

He lives in Saskatoon, Canada with his wife and daughter and two fish.

See also Arthur Slade on How to Put the "Steam" in "Steampunk."

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