Matt and Debbie Cowens produced their book, Mansfield with Monsters, last year, and it took NZ by storm – and surprise. It has since been reviewed by Radio New Zealand, the NZ Hearld and listed as one of the top 100 books in 2012 by The Listener. So why did they decide to relook at the work of a literary classic?
How did you come up with the concept for Mansfield with monsters?
A few years ago we were experimenting with different writing styles and genres as a deliberate strategy to flex our literary muscles, get a bit more linguistically limber. As part of that we wrote a series of comedy sketches, one of which was about a film producer mangling and Hollywoodifying an adaptation of Mansfield’s Miss Brill. Time passed, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies came out and was hugely popular and we began to wonder if there was a nugget of wisdom in the tongue-in-cheek concept of adding aliens, explosions, motorbike chases and Cliff Curtis to Mansfield’s early stories.
We decided we wanted to rework her stories into good speculative fiction that had unsettling or creepy elements rather than a parody.
How was it working together on recreating literary classics with the “original” meanings?
We’ve both studied and taught Mansfield, and there’s already a lot of dark content in her stories, so it was great fun embellishing and adding to the existing material. We wanted the supernatural and science fiction elements to work in concert with Mansfield’s words and ideas, not against them. It was a sort of literary puzzle which was immensely satisfying. It’s probably fair to say that we became a little more bold in the changes and choices we made as the project progressed. Working to make the pieces of each story fit together was a brilliant challenge.
Did you ever expect it to be the success it has been?
We were definitely nervous about the reception the book might receive.
Katherine Mansfield is a revered writer with a monumental place in New Zealand’s literary history and we stuck vampires, werewolves and gigantic sea monsters into her stories. There was definitely a risk that we’d alienate critics, but we’ve been delighted by the response the book has received. Making it into the NZ Listener’s Top 100 books of 2012 was a fantastic way to end the year!
What process did you go through to recreate the Mansfield stories?
The first step was the selection process, reading and contemplating those stories which had passed into the public domain and looking for ways to tackle them. In some cases the idea for an adaptation came fairly fully formed, in other cases we discussed and dissected Mansfield’s stories to find a way into them. We also had an agenda to include as diverse a range of supernatural and science fiction elements as possible, from zombies to alien parasites to witchcraft and lizard people.
Would you collaborate on another book together? Do you have a project in mind?
It was an immensely rewarding and fun process and we’d love to do it again.
We are currently working on a steampunk young adult novel about a secret academy for evil geniuses, along with some individual short story projects.
What are some of the non-writing things you’ve enjoyed about the process of getting a book published?
Seeing the beautiful cover design for the first time was a real treat, as was making a 180cm tall poster of it to hang in Matt’s classroom at school.
We’ve made short films together in the past so we decided to make a video-interview about the book – using the ideas from the meta-fiction in the introduction. It’s up on youtube. It was a technical challenge as well as well as an opportunity to develop some of the ideas about the academic, Marcus Walker, and the origin of the lost manuscripts. The fact that several lost Katherine Mansfield manuscripts have actually come to light since the publication of our book has been a wonderful coincidence too. And meeting fans of the book, giving readings and being invited to take part in author events has been hugely rewarding. Writing has been a life-long dream for both of us and it’s been a privilege to get to share the success we’ve had together.
Of course we’re proud of all of them, but The Garden Party is a particular favourite. The blend of clockwork steampunk with giant bugs in an exploration of upper class guilt and confrontation of mortality is a heady mix but one which works as a cohesive whole. We’re also very fond of some of the other stories where the downtrodden woman is able, through a supernatural twist, to get some measure of revenge on an all-too-harsh world. Where a grieving cleaning woman can have Frankenstein monster strength or a vulnerable young girl turns out to be a vampire there’s a great opportunity to shed a little blood and tip the scales of a restrictive society a little more in the women’s favour. It’s not the case in every story, but it crops up several times in the collection.
What other writing successes have you had?
We’ve each had a number of short stories published online, in print anthologies and in magazines. It was great to see a story of Debbie’s in the School Journal, accompanied by some delightful illustrations, and a story of Matt’s was picked up by Nelson Education for a Canadian textbook. We’ve also placed or been short listed for awards such as the Wily Writers short story contest, the Tessa Duder award and the Muscular Distrophy NZ short story competition.