The Secret to Being Precocious: Mary Shelly & “Frankenstein”

For two centuries now, Frankenstein has been an easy book to hate, and Mary Shelley has been an easy target for envy.

When Frankenstein was published anonymously in January 1818, readers were scandalized by Victor ransacking graves and daring to play God. Even after Mary Shelley was revealed as the author, some reviewers still maintained that only her mad husband Percy could have written it. For all that, it has never been out of print and has spawned hundreds of stage and screen adaptations.

With its overwrought and silly dialogue, absurd plot devices, and mixture of mayhem and moralizing, how did it become an enduring cultural force? How could a teenaged girl have created what she herself called this “hideous progeny?” Before queasy readers or jealous writers grab pitchforks and torches, let’s give Mary Shelley her due.

True, she had the good fortune to be the child of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, two of the brightest intellectuals of the age, growing up in a home visited by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (who recited “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” for her), Charles and Mary Lamb, John Keats, scientists such as Humphry Davy, and—among many other notables—even Aaron Burr (for whom she and her sisters danced). Her intimate circle consisted of Percy Shelley, Byron, and Dr. John Polidori. It was Byron who prompted the group to hold the most famous ghost story contest in history at the villa Diodati outside Geneva. Since that contest sparked both Frankenstein and Polidori’s novel The Vampyre, it engendered two of our most enduring horror movie icons.

Yet Mary deserves sympathy almost as much as her abandoned creature does. When she began the novel, she had lost her famous mother at birth, been disowned by her father for running off with Percy Shelley, and lost her own newborn daughter. She ran away from a wicked stepmother and a household of five children born from two different fathers and four different mothers. Though much more suffering would plague her life, here was certainly more than enough pain to foster artistic expression.

Still, Mary Shelley was driven by a fierce intellectual curiosity and a relentless ambition to live up to the example of her parents, particularly her mother. As a teenager, she was reading widely and deeply: Milton, Shakespeare, Gibbon, Burke, Goethe, Voltaire, de Staël, French and Italian drama, Ovid, Virgil. Much like the creature in her novel, who soaks up Paradise Lost and speaks like Milton’s characters, she absorbed the skills of her craft, not just reading, but translating and studying and journaling diligently. She served her apprenticeship, but she broke new ground as well. She took advice from her famous companions, but she did not let them squelch her unique voice.

She produced an intricately structured novel, with multiple narrative voices and stories within stories. Though its dialogue may sound stilted to our modern ears, the voices are passionate and compelling. With the audacity of youth, Mary Shelley challenges the old Miltonic world-view, advocates for social justice, and issues a clear warning about the dangers of unfettered human curiosity.

If you want to be precocious—at any age—read widely and deeply, engage with people and ideas, channel your ambition into work, imitate and rebel in equal measure, be both diligent and daring.

Kathryn Schwille on Kevin McIlvoy’s novel “At the Gate of All Wonder”

Samantha Peabody is a bioacoustician, an oddball recluse living in the Pisgah National Forest who runs a year-long “Sonic Adventure Program,” taking children into the woods for one week a month to teach them to hear what others ignore. She’s at the center of Kevin McIlvoy’s original new novel, At the Gate of All Wonder (Tupelo Press), a journal-like recollection of her year with a pair of particularly sturdy, intuitive children.

A trip into the forest with Samantha Peabody is no ordinary adventure. This one is a bread-crumb trail to the heart’s strange workings, cast against Pisgah’s sounds and the limits of ear and soul.

“In the thickets near us, finches split and spat and spewed cedar berries…we began to hear the in-whispering of tree boluses, the inverted echoing cups of stones having the smallest hiding spaces beneath them, the resonant silences in empty bird and wasps nests. After hearing the rhythm of the earth’s soft-palate sounds, we could hear the timbre of its hard-palate sounds: the empty shells and keels and the tight-fisted fleshless ribs of dead creatures no bigger than seeds and pods.”

The forest hums with music, evoked by McIlvoy’s lyrical word play and sentences that swell and bump against each other with energy and surprise. Beneath the soundscape, revenge, estrangement, betrayal and devotion crawl through the novel in a tip-of-the-iceberg treatment that yields a disturbing story. The children’s mother is the divorce lawyer Peabody hired after her husband’s affair: “Carla murdered his spirit exactly as I had asked.” When they divorced, Peabody kept his precious books, “a punch to the Adam’s apple.” Husband Robert did not stand a chance.

As a teacher, Peabody is lovable but cranky, with high expectations for the children, aged six and eight. “If one of you can tell me what the buzzing noise is I will not eat your portions of our crackers later today.” Nothing is easy. The children camp in the cold, they must not read. The Sonic Adventure includes an excursion through February fog to The Place of Nothing There.

Evoking myth, ghosts and the enchanted woods of fairy tales, At the Gate of All Wonder is, like all of McIlvoy’s work, a marvel of language. “The spring foliage around and above our campsite muted certain distant sounds and encapsulated us as if we were silky chestnuts. The senses fuse when one is held in the rose-velvet lining that is contained in the prickly bur of a very cold March. The sound and soundlessness inside our tent was isolating, it was pungent, tightening our scalps, reissuing cidery and sour tastes in our mouths.”

At the Gate of All Wonder is a layered tale that bears examination, and reward is in the re-reading. What a sharp-eyed reader finds in this book today may not be what she finds tomorrow. There is inspiration in these pages. A reader might want to keep it by her side and see what shows up.

Join us at Charlotte Lit on Wednesday, November 7 from 7 to 8:30 pm for “I Went Out to the Hazel Wood”— A Reading & Conversation about Place, with Kevin McIlvoy and Kathryn Schwille. This free event features two writers whose recent books are set in forests. They come together to talk about place as a generative force for storytellers. The Pisgah National Forest became the engine for McIlvoy’s remarkable At the Gate of Wonder. Much of Schwille’s evocative What Luck, This Life is set in the East Texas woods. Join them for a discussion of how location can become what Eudora Welty called the “ground conductor” of emotion, belief and a story’s charge. Free, but space is limited, so please register here so we can save you a place.

Learn, Connect, Enjoy: Making the Most of the NCWN Fall Conference

The fall conference of the North Carolina Writers’ Network returns to Charlotte this year—November 2-4 at Hilton Charlotte University—so we have tips for those who are attending (or still thinking about it). There are deadlines in here, so read on down.


Select Workshops in Advance. One sure way to know if you’ll receive a good value for your money and time is to review all five workshop time slots (three on Saturday and two on Sunday) and make your selections in advance.

Bonus tip: choose a backup workshop for each time slot, too. Sometimes you realize once a session is underway that it’s not for you. It’s OK to slip out and try another one.

Carefully Consider the Extras. This conference has extra options that might fit you. Manuscript Mart and Critique Service are 30-minute feedback sessions on 20 pages of your manuscript—the former with a literary agent or publisher, the latter with an accomplished writer. Master Classes are all day on Saturday, taking the place of the three workshop slots. The cost is just $30 extra—although it’s a small gamble, because that’s the reading fee, non-refundable if you’re not placed in one.

Bonus tip: Deadlines for all these are this Friday, October 19.

Save Money. The conference is a great bargain if you register by October 26 (you’ll save almost $200). If you’re not a NCWN member, join! Membership plus the member rate for the conference is less than the nonmember rate.

Bonus tip: If you don’t need a hotel room, you save even more. NCWN’s fall conference rotates here only every four or five years, so this is your best chance for awhile.


Meet New People. The classes are generally excellent, yet meeting writers from across the Carolinas might be the best part. Try sitting with new people at meals, and saying hello to people at break times. Here’s a sure-fire way to break the ice, even if you’re an introvert: ask “where do you live?” and “what kind of writing do you do?”

Bonus tip: Take names. If you meet someone you’d like to be in touch with again, jot down their name and something about them. If you carry a business (or writer) card, offer to exchange cards.

Stretch Yourself. When selecting workshops, consider taking some that are out of your normal wheelhouse. If you’re a fiction writer, consider a session in poetry, for example.

Bonus tip: This is especially easy to do when the time slot doesn’t have something in your genre or form that really excites you.

Thank the Presenters. After a session, or when you see them later at the conference, say a few words to the presenters. Most work very hard getting ready, and it’s nice to feel appreciated, and you might make a lasting connection—most of the presenters are local (and most also teach at Charlotte Lit). Not sure what to say? Try one piece of specific praise (“I found the part about x especially valuable”).

Bonus tip: Most presenters will have books for sale at the conference bookstore, and they’d be happy to sign for you.


Follow Up with People. Did you collect names and email addresses? Reach out and say hello. Did you meet an agent or editor who expressed interest in your work? Send what you said you’d send.

Bonus tip: No email address? Send a connection request through Facebook or LinkedIn.

Review Your Notes. Most conference materials never again see the light of day, which is a shame: there’s likely a lot of great stuff in there. Did you come up with a story idea, or write a great piece of dialogue, or jot down a book you want to read? Now’s the best time to review and act.

Bonus tip: Do this within the first week, while your memory is fresh and motivation high.

Keep the Motivation Going. You’ll likely leave the conference fired up. While it’s hard to sustain that level of enthusiasm all year, use it as a springboard for your current or next project.

Bonus tip: Decide on your next conference or class and sign up right away. Might we suggest

That’s it! We hope to see you there. And please stop by the Charlotte Lit table and say hello.

Learn more and register for the NC Writers’ Network Fall Conference. Hurry! Early bird rates are open until October 26.

Paul Reali is a co-founder of Charlotte Lit, and the author of Creativity Rising and other books on creative problem solving. He will present “Technology Toolkit: Software and Tech Stuff for Writers” at the NC Writers’ Network Conference. 

How to be a Well-Versed Citizen (Poetry World Edition)

Charlotte writers have an extraordinary opportunity for engagement at the North Carolina Writers Network Fall Conference on November 2-4. Classes are offered in a variety of genres, including Lisa Zerkle’s class, “How to be a Well-Versed Citizen of the Poetry World.” Registration is open now.

There’s someone new in town, just arrived with the poems she wrote in a state of thrilled, urgent uncertainty. She knows she doesn’t know enough about writing but still wants more of that electric, creative state. Also new around these parts is that older guy who’s been writing on the side for years, dashing off a poem here and there and saving them for later. It’s later now, he has some time, time he wants to invest in this writing thing he’s thought so long about.

Look around. You’ll see these people, so many of them, newly arrived on the shores of poetry. They’ve thrown open the metal hatches of the getaway pods they used to escape the non-writing world they’ve left behind. They’re clambering out, duct-taped valises full of rough drafts in hand, taking their first steps into this new place. I’m here! they say. What’s next?

I’ve been thinking lately about what it means to be an engaged citizen of the literary world. If this land has served us as a respite—a place with welcoming plazas and warm hearths, challenging teachers and encouraging colleagues—if we want this land to continue to thrive both for us and for the next wave of new arrivals, what’s required?

The archetype of the solitary writer, toiling alone in a garret ensconced in a haze of cigarette smoke and angst, has never been wholly accurate. Of course as writers we know the joy and sorrow of approaching the page. Stacking up lines, tearing them down, rearranging their constituent parts. What we do before and after that, however, is equally essential, I argue, and necessary to keep our literary world thriving.

Toni Morrison’s well-known encouragement reminds us that, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” By extension, if we want a vibrant, expansive literary world, we must build it. First—of course—we write, we revise. But not just that. Our writing should include book reviews, author appreciations, essays on craft which constitute another necessary facet of our writing. If we’re to articulate these reflections in a cogent way, we’re also reading broadly. Bill Griffin, a fine poet and an excellent literary citizen, recently took two notably different books along on a trip. The first, a short story collection by an author who is, he says, “bizarre, eclectic, impossible to categorize.” The second, by a poet who is “grounded and true; when I read his poems I am always amazed that something that seems so simple can be so deep.” This diversity of reading material results in “conflicting bits, the novel and the orderly, the stable and the radioactive, bouncing around in my head. What’s going to happen? Poems grow out of that stuff,” he says.

So, writing, reading, and then? I know Bill from my time serving on the board of the North Carolina Poetry Society. After I became serious about poetry, NCPS named one of the poems I’d really toiled over as a finalist for an award. I hadn’t won, but even that minor recognition validated my efforts. When, a few years later, I was asked to help out on the board, I agreed as a way of paying it forward. When I needed advice on literary citizenship, friends from my writing tribe—like Bill—came through.

Our lives are busy and not everyone can make time for a board position. But all writers can do something, say, attend a reading or an open mic, sign up for a workshop, get the word out about an upcoming book release or lit event. Someday, when your own book is fresh from the press, you’ll want a strong community there to write rave reviews, invite you to readings, send you notes of appreciation for your writing.

Don’t you want that? Introverts, this also means you. Get out there and engage with your people. Now’s the time to build that community, just as when you took your first steps into the writing world, someone was there to welcome you. Someone who offered to read one the poems sliding out from that duct-taped valise, someone who said, “This way. We’re all here together.”

Lisa Zerkle is the Curator of Charlotte Lit’s 4X4CLT Poetry and Art poster series.

Living at the Borders of Boldness: Making Time to Reconnect with Our Creative Selves

Join us for Charlotte Lit’s first multi-day retreat

Do you ever feel that you’re living close to the borders of madness, that state of being in which each day is progressively more packed with meetings, phone calls, and errands? Have you begun to open your in-box each morning with a sense of fear and trepidation? Have you caught yourself saying aloud to some inner artist, “Hang on just one more day. We need to get through this project, then, I promise we’ll get to the good stuff; we’ll start making art again.”

In a world that values productivity and outer connection over rest and contemplation, it’s all too easy to set our creative selves on a shelf, to forget the art of reconnecting to those invisible forces that enrich and fill our lives with meaning. Creativity doesn’t just happen, however. While there’s some truth in creativity experts’ exhortations to “just put your butt in the chair,” sometimes the muse needs to be more gently coaxed.

If you’re like me, you may not remember when you last tried that gentle route––took time away from ordinary life to reflect, rest inside the natural world, and restore your body. I’m not talking about spending an evening with Netflix and a bottle of white wine. That kind of rest has its virtue, but it won’t do the trick when your muse is sending up flares and demanding a search and rescue mission.

Fortunately, Charlotte Lit has something to try instead: join us for a mini creativity retreat.

You won’t have to go far, pack a suitcase, or spend any time making plans. Charlotte Lit has taken care of all the details. By popular demand, Pacifica Graduate Institute’s Dr. Dennis Slattery returns to Charlotte to lead us on our creative quests to the “borders of boldness.” We’ll spend an evening and a full day together at a beautiful, peaceful retreat site in south Charlotte. Meals and most supplies provided. All you have to do is show up with an intention to unwind, reconnect to the source of inspiration inside you, and re-create your creative self.

Here’s what to expect:

Friday, October 19, 6–9 pm: We’ll begin our day and a half retreat at Soul’s Home Studio (aka Kathie’s place) with a light supper and introduction to the weekend, including a short film, talk, and discussion. (Light supper included)

Saturday, October 20, 10 am–5 pm: We’ll return to the studio for a day of creative introspection in which activity and rest, community time and solitude are woven into a peaceful, restorative pattern. Dennis will give talks based on his research and writing on creativity and facilitate follow-up discussions. We’ll enjoy journaling and visual art exercises that help us explore our unique creative processes; return to our bodies through labyrinth walks and gentle yoga practice; engage our Selves and one another through the body of a poem; and end our time with a closing ritual designed to lead us back into the world with renewed creative energy. (Lunch and snacks included)

If you have questions, email or call me: or 704-458-3293. I’m really hoping you’ll join Dennis and me for this one-of-a-kind retreat!

Dennis Patrick Slattery, Ph.D., is Emeritus Faculty at Pacifica Graduate Institute. He is the author, co-author, editor or co-editor of 26 books, and the author of more than 200 articles on literature, psychology, culture and myth. He will publish three new works in 2019: Deep Creativity: Seven Ways to Spark Your Creative Spirit (Shambhala Press); a co-edited volume of the letters of Joseph Campbell; and a volume on Homer’s Odyssey. He continues to teach as Emeritus faculty and to offer “Riting Retreats” on exploring one’s personal myth. Dennis continues to take classes and paint in both acrylic and watercolor as well as ride his Harley-Davidson motorcycle through the Hill Country of Texas.

Kathie Collins, Ph.D., co-founder of Charlotte Center for Literary Arts, earned her graduate degree in Mythological Studies with an emphasis in Depth Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute, where she is currently an adjunct professor. A poet and lifelong student of Jungian psychology, Kathie thrives in the in-between space from which dreams and creativity emerge. She’s happiest when she can share that space with others and one of her great passions is bringing words and people together for transformative conversations. Kathie’s poetry has appeared in Immanence, Kakalak, Bible Workbench, and Between. Her chapbook Jubilee was published by Main Street Rag in 2011.