July 2016 | Nate Pedersen

Wandering Spirits: An Interview with Selena Chambers

Selena Chambers_authorpic.jpgSelena Chambers has just released an illustrated, limited edition chapbook about her travels in Europe in the wake of Mary Shelley. Entitled Wandering Spirits, the book is available in a small run of 200 copies from Tallhat press. Chambers, whose work has been nominated for Pushcart, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, recently answered our questions over email:

Please introduce us to the story behind Wandering Spirits:

Wandering Spirits is an account of my journey through the landscape of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The physical travel was conducted in 2010 during my honeymoon while en route from Nice, France to Ansbach, Germany, but the drive and impulse had been developing since I was 13-years old. I think it was through Poe that I became turned on to Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and through them, I found Mary. 

While I had your typical lit-crushes on the Romantic guys, with Mary, it was for real. At the time, the lady writers I'd encountered were Austen and Brontë, both brilliant but for various societal reasons, kept their bodies and body of work close to their homes in England. They wrote about marriage and relationships and what they knew within their limited realm, and while they added their particular brand of nineteenth century feminist empowerment into their novels, I craved something more weird and adventurous.

I finally found that with Mary. Not only was she close to my age during the Year Without Summer, but she ran away to foreign lands in the name of love, consequently suffered through ruin and the loss of her first child, and proved she could hang with the other rock stars of her time, all while quietly synthesizing her experiences into what would become one of the most influential novels ever written. For a young, budding lit-nerd like myself, her romance was intoxicating, and I contracted an acute wanderlust that would go unexpressed until I was twenty-eight and started retracing her footsteps throughout Europe.

The book is framed as a series of letters.  Could you tell us about this decision?

Wandering Spirits was pitched to WeirdFictionReview.com as a column, and I first started writing it as a standard non-fiction article. However, no matter how much I toyed with it, the essay format felt stale and too distant from the subject matter, the landscape, and the reader. When I am stuck on my writing, I turn to my betters, and so started reading Mary Wollstonecraft's Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark because it had been Mary Shelley's source text during her travels. Letters is very vulnerable, poignant, and what we'd now call Gonzo--a first-hand experience exploring the material as well as the abstract. I loved how she discussed ideas alongside descriptions of her surroundings and emotions, and how even though she wrote these letters in 1796, it felt like they had been recently composed and mailed first-class to me, the reader. This made me realize that the epistolary format is one of the most intimate but also enigmatic ways a writer can commune with the reader. I think Mary Shelley believed this too, and is why she cast Frankenstein in an epistolary frame narrative. In both cases, the effects were exactly what I wanted to render in Wandering Spirits.

Were you able to find lingering traces of Romanticism on your travels?

Oh, yes. The ghosts of Romanticism lingered everywhere I went, especially at Mont Blanc, which is and remains the temple of the Sublime. While Geneva and Ingolstadt bore the pockmarks of progress, Mont Blanc was practically untouched with one tiny exception of tourists. However, Mont Blanc has been a major tourist destination since the late eighteenth century, so while Mary and the gang never made mention of it, I imagine they encountered some similar interruptions of reverie. 

While I visited Mont Blanc and the Mer de Glace, I was constantly reminded of how trivial we all were in the face of nature--people were interacting with the landscape in all kind of ways:  sightseeing, mountain-climbing, and habitation, and from where I stood, everyone appeared minuscule and anonymous. This ultimate sublime feeling was further punctuated by seeing how much the Mer de Glace had moved through time.

Every few years, an entrance into the glacier is drilled to set up a mini-tourist playground inside. Outside, this drilling has presented a visual marker showing how much the ice has drifted. Without these markers, the glacier just looks like a static plane of ice and not a constant force of quiet and steady propulsion. Confronted with this sort of visual contradiction conjures up all sorts of ephemeral questions, to which, as Shelley wrote:  "None can reply--all seems eternal now."

WS Cover.jpegThe book has been published in an illustrated, limited edition.  Could you tell us more about the press and artist you worked with for Wandering Spirits?

It is published by Tallhat Press as a special limited-edition, illustrated chapbook of 200 copies for nine months. After that, it'll be taken off the market regardless of how many copies haven't sold by that time. Tallhat Press is a small press interested in publishing Genre-based non-fiction in attractive print editions. The mastermind behind the press is Yves Tourigny, who is a game designer and artist from Ottawa, Canada, and he did all of the layout and graphic design, as well as give the manuscript a thorough and much-needed editorial scrubbing. 

He does really neat, high-concept table top games, like Expedition Northwest Passage, and is a devout man of Weird letters, as seen in his other major project:  They Who Dwell in the Cracks. It is an online site dedicated to archiving, cataloguing, and examining the works of Laird Barron. So far, it features an extensive bibliography of Barron's work, as well as annotations, and it is not only a fitting tribute to the horror master's work, but a great reader's guide for fans who want to delve...well deeper into the cracks of Barron's world.

Working with Yves has been one of the best collaborating experiences of my career, and not only would I do it again in a second, I highly recommend anyone with interesting non-fiction projects to approach him. Below are some links of interest regarding his work:

Tallhat Press

Personal Website  

They Who Dwell in the Cracks  

Was the June 16 publication date purposeful?

Absolutely. While Frankenstein itself won't turn 200-years old until 2018, I knew that the Villa Diodati bicentennial on June 2016 would be equally, if not more mythically, significant. I wanted to help celebrate, and what better way than to release these letters into the world in a style evocative of the Romantic spirit. The thing I loved most about Yves' design is that he understood the aesthetic immediately, and really did help turn the words into an artifact. 

The time-limit of the chapbook's availability is significant, too. It will only be available for sale until February--a total of nine months. I chose to do this to represent how long it took Mary to actually compose Frankenstein.

Are you planning on a similar trip, in a similar vein?  Any other author trails you'd like to follow? 

The desire is there. As I say in my acknowledgments, the three sites in this travelogue is just the tip of the iceberg as far as landscape and geography go within Frankenstein. There are about 37 cities mentioned throughout, but not all of them have as much page-time as Geneva, Ingolstadt, or Chamonix--the novel's geographical lodestones. Even so, I'd like to engage in a few more Frankenstein stops, especially the tour from the Rhine up to through the North Sea undertaken by Victor and Henry Clerval, as well as stomping around the Black Forest some more as the Creature would have done. Outside of the novel, it would be cool to spend time along the Italian coast where Shelley spent his last days.

As to other author trails--yes! I am especially interested in literary travel pertaining to women writers--George Sands' Paris, Mina Loy's Florence, Sarah Helen Whitman's Providence--these are all things I'd like to work on in the future.

Where can our readers learn more about you and your work?

Despite how awful I am at the Internet, I do try to maintain a website and engage on social media: Twitter and Facebook

And if I may, I'd like to invite your readers to join me over at Pornokitsch for a Mary Shelley read-along, where we are reading everything else she's written besides the big F. This is my other way of helping celebrate her legacy--by showing there was much more to her than her Modern Prometheus. Readers interested in following can start here.