Please help me welcome historical fiction author Kathleen Williams Renk to the interview chair today! Let’s peek at her bio and then we’ll get right to the good part…
A retired professor who has published creative nonfiction, short stories, and scholarly books and articles, Kathleen Williams Renk taught British and Women’s literature for nearly three decades in the U.S. and abroad. While teaching at Northern Illinois University, Williams Renk spent three summers in Oxford, U.K. teaching in the NIU@ Oriel College, Oxford study abroad program and five summers teaching in Dublin at Trinity College through the NIU Media and Culture in Ireland study abroad program.
She’s long been fascinated by the origins of feminist philosophy and its connections to the Enlightenment and the Romantics. Vindicated is her first novel. She is currently writing a historical fiction novel entitled “In an Artist’s Studio” about the Victorian poet Christina Rossetti and her sister-in-law, the painter and poet Lizzie Siddal. Dr. Renk studied fiction writing at the University of Iowa with the Pulitzer-Prize winning author James Alan MacPherson. She’s published fiction in Literary Yard, CC & D Magazine, and nonfiction in Page and Spine, and Iowa City Magazine; she also self-published a memoir, Orphan Annie’s Sister, about her mother’s childhood in a Bohemian Orphanage in the 1930s.
Betty: When did you become a writer?
Kathleen: I’ve been a writer since I started graduate school in English at the University of Iowa in 1986. During most of my academic career, I published scholarly articles and books. I’ve only recently returned to writing fiction, which I did when I was in the Master’s program in English at Iowa. Once I started and completed the doctoral program, I no longer had time to write fiction.
Betty: How long did you work on your writing skills before you became published?
Kathleen: My first journal article appeared in 1994, so about eight years.
Betty: What authors or stories do you feel influenced your writing style?
Kathleen: I studied, wrote about, and taught British, Postcolonial, and Women’s literatures, so I’d say the most influential authors for me are A.S. Byatt, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Margaret Atwood, Jean Rhys, Pauline Melville, and Emma Donoghue.
Betty: What prompted you to start writing?
Kathleen: If you mean writing fiction, I decided to return to it once I was retired and no longer was required to write scholarly books and articles, although I am publishing a new scholarly book with Palgrave Macmillan in August 2020, entitled, Women Writing the Neo-Victorian Novel: Erotic “Victorians.”
Betty: What type of writing did you start with?
Kathleen: In terms of creative writing, I began with fiction, but also wrote creative non-fiction.
Betty: What do you most enjoy writing? Why?
Kathleen: I love writing historical fiction, because it allows me to still conduct research but then use the research to create a narrative and characters and to imagine “what if” stories.
Betty: How did you learn to write? A mentor, classes, conferences, craft books, or something else?
Kathleen: I studied fiction writing at the University of Iowa with James Alan McPherson. The most important writing activity though is to keep writing and reading. You hone the craft by continual revision and never giving up on trying to publish.
Betty: What do you wish you knew before you started writing/publishing?
Kathleen: I had no idea how much you discover in writing anything, whether it’s an argumentative essay or a piece of fiction. That was and still is a pleasant surprise.
Betty: What other authors inspired you (either directly or through their writing) to try your hand at writing? Most recently, I’ve been fascinated by Emma Donoghue’s work, especially her The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits, a collection of short stories based on real, sometimes historical women in Britain, Ireland, and Scotland from the Middle Ages until contemporary times. It’s akin to a history of women and the challenges that they faced and the obstacles they overcame. She says that the stories are based on “scraps of history” and I like that idea.
Donoghue’s work has prompted me to write novels about little known women who had an impact on the arts or history.
Betty: What inspired you to write the book you’re sharing with us today?
Kathleen: Ever since I read William Godwin’s memoir of his wife Mary Wollstonecraft, I’ve thought about the odd circumstances of her death in 1797 and how the physicians attempted to remove the retained placenta, which killed Wollstonecraft 11 days after she gave birth to Mary Shelley. Initially, I wrote about Mary Wollstonecraft’s final days in her voice and in her husband’s but then developed a complete novel about Mary Shelley and the ways in which her feminist mother influenced her.
Mary Godwin is a teenager with a formidable pedigree. Both of her parents are philosophers but it is Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother she never met, who haunts her waking and dreaming worlds. Reading about her mother’s life and death inspires Mary to keep a journal. Just as the tumult of her parents’ relationship comes alive in her imagination, she meets emerging poet Percy Shelley. Even though he is married and his wife is pregnant, Shelley threatens to kill himself if Mary will not elope with him. It’s possible that Shelley is mad, but their intellectual and creative affinities convince her that she is his Child of Light.
Passionate and intellectual, Mary struggles with the demands of her volatile husband and their circle of friends, including her stepsister Claire and George Gordon, Lord Byron. But as she writes Frankenstein, she also muses about her encounters with her creature and the philosophical questions of life, death, and the creation that undergird her novel. Justifying their unconventional life and enduring personal tragedies, Mary follows in her mother’s footsteps, as she contemplates a woman’s place in literature and the world.
31 August 1797
I hear them murmur, “Bring in the pups to suckle. Perhaps that will loosen the afterbirth.” I want to shout “No! Bring me my baby,” but my tongue is tied. I am hot and thirsty, but no one offers me water. “Please,” I beg them in my mind. And then nothing. I drift out of my body. I search for my daughter.
Even though we have prestigious surgeons in attendance, I begin to think that these surgeons are fools. One wears his powdered wig askew, looking like a pantaloon. I inquire what their objective is in healing my dear wife Mary, and all they say is that they need to remove the remainder of the afterbirth, which is stuck. They think that bringing pups to suck on my wife’s breasts may make her womb contract sufficiently to release the last bits of the placenta, and thus cure her of her fever and blood poisoning. I watch incredulously as they try to coax the pups to nurse on the human teat. If Mary were truly here in full force, if she were cognizant, she would be appalled and would be calling the surgeons out for their ludicrous plan. I feel such shock in seeing my brilliant wife so lethargic and ill that I suffer mental paralysis in regard to the correct course of action. I try to believe that the surgeons possess reason and logic and know precisely what they are doing. I must have faith in their abilities and knowledge. Surely they have seen other such cases and understand the remedy.
I’ve studied Mary Shelley and Frankenstein, so this one sounds very interesting to me. Thanks for sharing about your inspiration and your story, Kathleen.
Best-selling Author of Historical Fiction with Heart, and Haunting, Bewitching Love Stories
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