There’s something exciting about finding writers who live in your local area, especially if they write one of your favorite fiction genres. That happened earlier this year when I heard about Mackenzi Lee and her debut YA novel This Monstrous Thing. We both live in the Boston area, and her story melds historical fiction with steampunk – with the added bonus of Frankenstein. I wouldn’t say I’m not a fan of Frankenstein, but it’s also not something I’ve read much about. That said, when I read the blurb for This Monstrous Thing, the first three words that entered my mind were, “MUST READ THIS!”
This Monstrous Thing officially comes into the world next Tuesday, September 22nd. Which means it’s the perfect time to invite Mackenzi for an author interview! Today you’ll learn more about her novel and her path to becoming published, as well as her writing influences and her thoughts on the importance of sibling relationships. There might also be some bits about Mary Shelley, Tulipomania, and Jonah Hill gifs. Enjoy!
Q&A with Mackenzi Lee
Congratulations on the upcoming release of This Monstrous Thing! How excited are you that this book will be out in the world soon?
Mackenzi: SO EXCITED! Like, that gif of Jonah Hill screaming excited. The debut process has been a rollercoaster of excitement and anxiety and despair and panic and more anxiety, but now I’ve hit a strange patch of zen. I’m in the sweet spot of being nothing but excited to see my book out in the wild!
[Editor’s Note: You mean this gif, Mackenzi? *hee hee*]
For those who may not have heard about This Monstrous Thing yet, could you tell us a little bit about it? Without being too spoiler-ish, of course. 😉
Mackenzi: Of course! This Monstrous Thing is a steampunk Frankenstein reimagining set in a hyper-industrialized Geneva, Switzerland in 1818, about a boy who uses clockwork to bring his brother back from the dead. There are cyborgs, Christmas markets, awkward kissing, and tortured, swooning Romantic heroes.
The first thing that jumped out at me about This Monstrous Thing was Frankenstein. I haven’t heard of many novels that use Mary Shelley’s story as inspiration. What drove you toward this idea? Also, your Twitter profile says to ask you about Mary Shelley, so tell us what you love about her work.
Mackenzi: I hope Frankenstein is the first thing that jumps out at people! I first learned about Mary Shelley about the same time I first read Frankenstein, about 3 years ago. The thing that immediately gripped me was that she wrote Frankenstein when she was only 19—which was pretty close to the age I was when I first read it—and not only is it still read 200 years later, but it’s now credited as one of the first works of modern science fiction. Though Frankenstein itself is still studied, Mary Shelley has been sort of forgotten by both literary and feminist scholars, but that seems to have begun to change in the last few years. I hope we continue to give her more of the credit she’s due for her awesome work!
I’d love to know a little bit about your protagonist Alasdair. What do you admire most about him?
Mackenzi: Alasdair isn’t a quitter. He’s a person with a lot of natural talent, but he’s fine-tuned it and built upon it by working hard. I’m notorious for not sticking with hobbies, no matter how much they interest me, and I wish I was as good as he is at that. He’s also got a strong streak of loyalty to the people he loves, which I think is something he and I have in common. He’s the kind of guy who you could text in the middle of the night to come pick you up on the other side of the city and he’d drop everything and run every red light to get there.
Based on the blurb for This Monstrous Thing, it sounds like the central relationship is one between brothers. How important do you think it is to share stories that remind us of the bonds between siblings?
Mackenzi: You are indeed correct. I’ve got a younger sister, and she and I have the same age gap between us as the brothers in the book. And while she and I aren’t the two main characters, we’re tight enough that sibling stories have always resonated the strongest with me. I’ll never not tear up in “Firefly” when Simon Tam, realizing his sister is about to be burned alive for being a witch, climbs onto the pyre with her and says, “Light it.” The thing that makes sibling stories so powerful to me is the incredible potential between siblings to hurt each other so deeply, but to also be great support systems. The boys in This Monstrous Thing are certainly like that—because of how important they are to each other, they’re both capable of doing tremendous damage to the other. I think all sibling relationships are made up of a little of both.
You primarily write historical fiction, which is my second favorite genre after fantasy. What do you love about historical fiction that drove you to write it? What places and/or time periods fascinate you most?
Mackenzi: I love historical fiction because it makes history feel accessible and alive, and focuses on the past as an individual lived experience rather than a generalization. My latest historical period obsession is Holland during the Golden Age, in the 1600s. Especially the Tulipomania in the 1630s. It is bananas! In the best way!
Let’s talk about your writer’s journey now. When did you realize how serious you were about writing and getting your work published?
Mackenzi: I started writing seriously during my senior year of college, and began an MFA program right after I graduated. The MFA was such a wonderful gift because it gave me two years to unapologetically take myself and the craft of writing seriously. If I hadn’t done that, I might have wandered forever through casual drafting without ever thinking of myself as a writer.
How about your first conversation with your agent, Rebecca Podos? What gave you the impression that she was the right person for your work?
Mackenzi: Becca and my first conversation (which was not about This Monstrous Thing, but rather a different novel that never sold) began with her listing off all the things she loved about my book—which not only was a nice ego boost, but they also happened to be my favorite things about the book (even down to a very-specific piece of cravat-related humor). In just that initial call, she presented me with a graduate school-level analysis of my book, its themes, characters, and world. It was so apparent that she got what I was doing, and had a sincere desire to help me do it better. Every project we’ve worked on together since then has been like that. (She also wrote what remains my favorite thing anyone has written about This Monstrous Thing—she called it the story of “two brothers trying to keep each other human.” Perfection.)
Which authors would you say have had the greatest influence on your writing?
Mackenzi: Shout out to my girl Mary Shelley, obviously. Shannon Hale and Avi were my favorite writers when I was a child. Avi especially got me into historical fiction with books like The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. These days, I love YA writers like Laini Taylor, Maggie Steifvater, Martha Brockenbrough, Elizabeth Wein, Scott Westerfeld, and Anna-Marie McLemore for their gorgeous prose and astoundingly magical and detailed worlds. Reading their books make me want to be a better writer.
What’s next after This Monstrous Thing? What other writing projects do you have in the works?
Mackenzi: I have a second book coming out with Katherine Tegen Books, probably in 2017, though things are still pretty up in the air. It’s unrelated to This Monstrous Thing, but it’s another historical fantasy set in the Enlightenment, about Europe and travel and boys who make terrible decisions.
What one piece of advice do you have for writers who are working on their first drafts?
Mackenzi: FINISH THOSE DRAFTS! It is so easy to succumb to the siren song of self-doubt, or the equally compelling call of other projects. But I’m a big believer in a habit of completion—the thing that keeps most people from getting published is that they never finish the book.
Thanks so much for stopping by, Mackenzi! Best of luck with This Monstrous Thing and many more novels to come. 🙂
Mackenzi: Huzzah! Thanks for having me!
Mackenzi Lee’s Final Fast Five
- Last Book She Read: Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Allison Bechdel
- Literary Character She Would Love to Dine With (And What They Would Eat): Jacky Faber, from L.A. Meyer’s Bloody Jack: Being An Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary “Jacky” Faber, Ship’s Boy. We would have a pirate feast, except no hardtack.
- Most Awesome Part About Being a Bookseller: Matching teenage readers up with their ideal YA book.
- Random Objects We’d Find at Her Writing Desk / Space: Empty Diet Coke cans (including one I filled with bullet holes from a 1890s Winchester rifle), a stack of copies of Frankenstein from around the world, and a watercolor of Imperator Furiosa done by my sister.
- Three Things She Can’t Live Without: In the true spirit of “First thing this brought to mind,” I immediately thought of the Wuthering Heights quote, “I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!” when I read this question. 🙂 But really: 1. Google Maps. 2. Diet Coke. 3. Sweaters.
About Mackenzi Lee
Mackenzi Lee is a reader, writer, bookseller, unapologetic fangirl, and fast talker. She holds an MFA from Simmons College in writing for children and young adults, and her short fiction for children and teens has appeared in Inaccurate Realities, The Friend, and The Newport Review. Her young adult historical fantasy novel, This Monstrous Thing, which won the PEN-New England Susan P. Bloom Children’s Book Discovery Award, as well as an Emerging Artist Grant from the St. Botolph Club Foundation, will be published September 22, 2015 by Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.
She loves Diet Coke, sweater weather, and Star Wars. On a perfect day, she can be found enjoying all three. She currently calls Boston home.
Find Mackenzi Lee:
THIS MONSTROUS THING
In 1818 Geneva, men built with clockwork parts live hidden away from society, cared for only by illegal mechanics called Shadow Boys. Two years ago, Shadow Boy Alasdair Finch’s life shattered to bits.
His brother, Oliver—dead.
His sweetheart, Mary—gone.
His chance to break free of Geneva—lost.
Heart-broken and desperate, Alasdair does the unthinkable: He brings Oliver back from the dead.
But putting back together a broken life is more difficult than mending bones and adding clockwork pieces. Oliver returns more monster than man, and Alasdair’s horror further damages the already troubled relationship.
Then comes the publication of Frankenstein and the city intensifies its search for Shadow Boys, aiming to discover the real life doctor and his monster. Alasdair finds refuge with his idol, the brilliant Dr. Geisler, who may offer him a way to escape the dangerous present and his guilt-ridden past, but at a horrible price only Oliver can pay…