24 August 2012

Mansfield with Monsters: An Interview With Matt And Debbie Cowens

Matt and Debbie Cowens are both high school teachers who live and work on the Kapiti Coast. They’ve each had a number of short stories published online and in anthologies. Mansfield with Monsters is their first collaborative collection of short stories – collaborating with each other and with New Zealand’s most iconic writer of short fiction, Katherine Mansfield.

Tim adds: Mansfield with Monsters is the second book published by Steam Press, a new New Zealand science fiction publisher which has made quite an impact since it was set up.

Why Mansfield, and why with monsters?

We’re both fans of the science fiction and horror genres, and we’re very familiar with Mansfield’s work as we’ve taught her stories in high school. The opportunity to build a bridge between the two was too tempting to pass up. It created a lot of pressure to do justice to both Mansfield, as New Zealand’s most iconic writer, and to the speculative genre we love, but it was enormously satisfying to weave the two together.

Did you look at other works in the mash-up genre, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, when planning Mansfield with Monsters?

Debbie had read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which blazed a trail in the concept of reworking classic fiction which is in the public domain, but we wanted to take Mansfield with Monsters in a slightly different direction. It was important to us to have the supernatural or otherworldly elements work with the source material on a thematic as well as a literal level. Of course we also had the luxury of working with multiple stories, exploring different kinds of creatures and mythologies, and how they could fit into the lives of Katherine Mansfield’s characters, which kept the project fresh and makes it a little different to other mashups.

Katherine Mansfield’s writing is not usually plot-heavy.  Did that cause a problem for you when you came to rework these stories, and if so, what strategies did you use to get around it?

Mansfield’s stories are quite varied, so we tackled each one a little differently. A story like The Doll’s House follows a clear sequence of events to reveal the injustice of prejudice and the class system. We took that concept and pushed it to a darker place, filling in little details along the way to twist the story into a tale of witchcraft, murder, possession and insanity – borne out of prejudice and the injustice of the class system. Other stories were more stream-of-consciousness and we had to be more bold in our reshaping. It was a delight to sit down with each story and deconstruct it, probe it for areas where the supernatural could worm its way in, or turn it upside down and give it a good shaking to see what the bones of the story were and whether we could arrange those bones into a different but coherent shape, like literary archaeologists building their own ‘Tyrannosaurus Mansfield’.

On the other hand, of course, there is a Gothic – and New Zealand Gothic – flavour to a number of Mansfield’s stories. You start the collection with your version of “The Woman at the Store” – was it that story’s pre-existing atmosphere of menace that made you decide to start the collection with it?

Our wonderful editor Stephen Minchin decided the final order of the stories. The Woman at the Store is a story which already bordered on horror, and cast New Zealand in an interesting Wild West, frontier light. Twisting it to include a Pet Cemetery vibe maintained the dark sense of menace of the previously published version whilst referencing a classic of modern horror. It signals to the reader that the collection is less tongue-in-cheek than something like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. We asked Stephen why it was first up in the anthology and his sagely answer was that the stories are chronological in terms of first publication.

It may seem odd to ask about a story you haven’t included, but when I opened the book I was looking forward to reading your version of “At the Bay” – yet I see that you haven’t included it. Did you know from an early stage what stories you would include, or did you experiment with more stories than made it to the published collection?

We read a wide range of Mansfield’s stories and explored the copyright laws of various countries. Mansfield’s death in 1923 placed her early works in the public domain in all the countries we wanted to reach, but some of her posthumously published stories are still owned by American publishers. We looked for stories which sparked our imaginations, stories which gave us opportunities to write a range of speculative adaptations. We were guided by intuition, by inspiration, and by legal constraints. At the Bay was tempting as we both love it, but it was structurally difficult and the idea of how to make to work without excising enormous tracts of text never quite clicked into place.

Has working with a number of her stories “from the inside” changed your opinion of Katherine Mansfield and her writing?

Mansfield’s place in New Zealand’s literary pantheon is well deserved – this process served to reinforce that view for us. Her writing is diverse and crafted and bleak and funny and relevant and historical – it’s incredibly powerful and moving. We each became more intimately acquainted with Mansfield’s stories and in working with her learned a great deal about the power of words, of inflection and suggestion. It was a delight and lead us to read Mansfield more widely – something we hope it will do for others too.

When I first heard of this project, I thought to myself that it would be very interesting to see how the literary community reacted to it: would there be guardians of the temple of New Zealand literature who would disapprove of the project? My impression is that reaction, overall has been very positive. Is that your experience too?

We’ve been very happy with the reception the novel has received so far. It was a risky proposition but people have been very open to the idea, from the Katherine Mansfield society to academics to devoted fans.  For younger readers Mansfield is definitely a historical figure, someone from a distant time whose life and work can have a degree of remoteness. It was part of our aim to reach out to a more modern audience with these stories. It’s a collection written out of love for Mansfield’s work and for the horror and science fiction elements we blended with them. It’s a tribute to a great writer, and so far it has been received as such.

You are both school teachers. Do you plan to, or could you see yourselves, using Mansfield with Monsters as a teaching tool?

Definitely. We know of a couple of schools where the stories have already been used and the feedback from students and teachers has been really positive. We’re working on some activities to help teachers use Mansfield with Monsters and other literary mash-up works as a point of comparison with their source material. 

If you don’t mind me asking, what other literary projects do you have on the go?

We’re both working on our own individual novels at present. Debbie is working on a young adult novel set in a Steampunk Victorian academy for aspiring villains, while Matt is reworking a manuscript dealing with ghosts, secret societies and arcane science in nineteenth century New Zealand. The collaborative process was wonderful and went very smoothly, so we may well return to a joint writing project in the future. For now we are savouring the success of Mansfield with Monsters.

How to buy Mansfield with Monsters

Mansfield with Monsters is currently available online at www.steampress.co.nz and www.amazon.com as well as in Unity Books and Arty Bee’s in Wellington, and Paper Plus, Whitcoulls and independent bookstores throughout New Zealand.


Kathleen Jones said...

Thanks for blogging this Tim - it's a really interesting project. I flinch a bit at manipulating these much loved masterpieces, but then have to say to myself, 'go on, have some fun'!

Tim Jones said...

Thanks for commenting, Kathleen. I wondered how you would feel about this project, so I'm especially pleased to hear from you!