In Mary and the Birth of Frankenstein (HarperVia, Oct.) by Dutch novelist Anne Eekhout, the achingly young Mary Shelley is not only the author of the world’s first science fiction novel—she’s a bereaved teenage mother, a polyamorous trailblazer, and a student of Scottish mythology. Eekhout spoke with PW about the complicated background of a horror legend.

What did you find so compelling about Mary Shelley?

Shelley was only 18 when she started writing Frankenstein. It’s not just a horror story, or a science fiction story—it says a lot about the world that people lived in back then, about racism and class. It struck me as odd that such a young woman could write a story like that, and I wanted to explore how much of her background was a seed for the book. Her mother died shortly after giving birth to her, and she always felt guilty about that. She met Percy Shelley very young, at age 14 or 15. He was married to a woman named Harriet and had children with her, but he believed in free love. Mary got pregnant quickly and the child came too early, lived a few weeks, and then died. To have experienced all that by the time you’re 17!

Before she met Percy Shelley, she spent two summers in Dundee, Scotland, with the Baxter family, and she got very close with one daughter, Isabella. One biography says that it may have been a romantic love, and that became a major plot point in my book. Mary said that the time in Scotland was very important for awakening her imagination.

Who were the men with whom she and Percy Shelley spent the summer of 1816?

They stayed in Geneva with Lord Byron and John William Polidori. They really were bohemians: not one of them believed that love should be monogamous. They drank wine with laudanum [a form of opium] in it, which was supposed to help with the writing; they were stoned a lot of the time. Mary and Lord Byron stayed friends for as long as he lived, which wasn’t very long. He was willing to let her read his first drafts because he thought she had this special literary talent—even though she was a woman.

Does Mary Shelley get the recognition she deserves?

I think she should get a lot more credit than she gets nowadays. There’s a world to win in that respect. She really did write the first science fiction novel. Without knowing it, she invented a new genre.

What was it like to have your work translated from your native Dutch into English?

I have enormous respect for [translator] Laura Watkinson—she did an amazing job. The work of translators is so difficult and demanding; they have to bring forth the spirit of the novel they’re translating, and all the tiny things must be right. You want to do it well for the author, and also for the readers. It’s wonderful to see your own writing in a different language—one I can read, thank God. It puts an extra layer on top of your own story, like you’re reading it with a different set of eyes.

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