Amy Ross talks Jek/Hyde

Amy Danziger Ross is the author of Jek/Hyde, Harlequin Teen, which is coming out on 3rd of October.  She also wrote the Diary of a Haunting series, under the name M. Verano.

 

Hi, and welcome, Amy. As a reader and writer you’ve always been interested in the gothic, but what was it about Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde that drew you to a modern rewrite for teenage readers?

 

First of all, it’s simply a great story. I knew right away that I could have a lot of fun reimagining it and putting it in a new context. But most of all, I wanted to bring the story to a new audience.

The weird thing is, everyone knows the names Jekyll and Hyde, but very few people these days have read the original. The names and the concept have a really solid place in popular culture, but that means most people think they know the story better than they really do.

I didn’t read it myself until a few years ago, when I was taking a class on Gothic literature. I wasn’t excited to read it, since I felt like I knew the ending, so the story couldn’t hold any surprises for me. I was very wrong! In my mind, the story was a simplistic parable about good versus evil. It was only in reading the original story that I discovered it’s a strange, subtle, and sophisticated inquiry into psychology, morality, and philosophy.

I was also surprised by how disturbing the story is, even when you know its “twist”. If anything, it only makes the creeping horror and suspense all the more powerful. It turns out that surprise isn’t a very important component of horror – what’s really effective is the building sensation of dread as you see how far Hyde will go before his secret gets discovered. That sense of powerlessness as you watch a story unfold is key to this particular kind of horror, and I was excited to try to capture that feeling in my own words.

via GIPHY

I also think we’ve entered a perfect time for adapting these old Victorian works. In the days before telephones, plots often hinged on written correspondence: notes, telegrams, letters. Oddly enough, we’re experiencing a kind of second-coming of that approach – text messaging and social media posts slot in surprisingly well for those old, written formats.

On a deeper level, we’re at a moment where stories about the complexities of identity have a new weight for us. A big part of updating the story for me was not just to recreate the philosophical and moral dilemmas of the Victorian era, but to engage with new concerns that might not have occurred to Stevenson – about race and gender and privilege, for example.

 

Both of us have incorporated mind-altering drugs, etc, into our works, and one of the key points of J/H is that interplay between what is the real and what is the revealed. Did you ever feel the pressure to tone elements like that down? I’ve been rereading some of the work I enjoyed in my teens, and one thing that strikes me is how much less moralising the work was. Do you think readers have changed in what they want or even need from stories now?

That’s interesting! We’re about the same age, but my experience is different – I remember teen-lit from my day being *extremely* moralizing, especially about sex and drugs. Back then, if a character popped open a beer on page 5, you could be guaranteed they’d die in a drunk driving incident by the end. And while characters could have sex, no one ever enjoyed it.

But in my career, I haven’t gotten any resistance at all on my portrayals of sex, drugs, and drinking, even though Jek/Hyde is pretty risque in those respects. Nowadays, the attention is focused on social justice issues. It’s what’s in the air right now.

 

What would you recommend to a reader who enjoyed Jek/Hyde and do you have plans to tackle any other gothic novels or novellas for a new audience?

 

Obviously, my primary inspiration was the original Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  I reread it very closely as I was preparing to work on this book: I took copious notes on every plot detail, every character, even details of tone and setting, so I could incorporate as much as possible into my novel.  I’ve seen quite a few adaptations of this story that take the bare bones of a concept as a jumping off point, but then go in an entirely different direction.  That can be fun too, but I set myself the challenge of keeping Jek/Hyde as close to the original as possible, given that I was moving the story from adult bachelors in Victorian London to teenagers in modern-day suburban America.  For example, Stevenson talks about the air in London being thick and brown — natural enough, due to the pollution caused by recent industrialization.  That didn’t make sense in my version, but it inspired me to create LondonChem, an agrichemical/pharmaceutical company whose environmental impact may also be causing sludgy, brown air.
 
Probably the next biggest inspiration was the BBC TV show, Sherlock, which I’ve been basically obsessed with since I first saw it three years ago.  When I first heard they were doing a contemporary version of the Sherlock Holmes stories, I thought it was a terrible idea — but in fact it’s absolutely brilliant.  Steven Moffat has said they wanted to blow the cobwebs off the old stories and help people see how modern they truly are.  That idea was very much in my mind as I wrote Jek/Hyde.  We think of ourselves as very different from (and better than) the Victorians, but that world is still with us in many odd ways, lurking just beneath the surface.  I tried to capture that, especially in the scene when Jek and Lulu are browsing through the junk shop, flirting and playing amid objects that would have been modern to Victorians — including a walking stick like the one that plays a crucial role in the original story.
 
I also had in mind early sci-fi like Frankenstein, for its ambivalent attitudes toward science.  I don’t think that trope ever gets old, though every generation will have a different take on it.
 
As for modern influences, I saw this story as a way to playfully tweak the ubiquitous (and in my opinion unfairly maligned) YA trope of the “love triangle”.  Love triangles are a part of life, and they lend themselves naturally to dramatic situations, so I don’t object to them in fiction… but I had fun subverting the device by creating two love interests who are actually the same person (and are arguably more obsessed with each other than with the heroine).
You mentioned one of your influences for Jek/Hyde was the Moffat and Gatiss take on a modern Sherlock. Do you ever feel that books or shows like Sherlock BBC blur the distinctions between traditional fiction and fanfiction? What do they bring to the table in terms of story-telling and freshness?

via GIPHY

That’s an interesting question!  To start with, I’m not sure there’s ever been a very clear distinction between fiction and fanfiction.  Fan-writers often put it in terms of “fanfiction” vs “original work”, but in that case, where does Jek/Hyde stand?  The concept for the novel is very explicitly not original but derivative.  Or we could, as you did, make a distinction between fanfic and “traditional fiction” – but what could be more traditional than fanfiction?  From Dante to Shakespeare and beyond, writers have always been borrowing from and building on each others’ stories.

That said, I don’t want to just throw up my hands and say “all fiction is fanfiction”, because I do think there are useful distinctions to be made.  Just the other day, I saw that a new book called “The Fanfiction Reader,” defines fanfic as “creative material featuring characters [from] works whose copyright is held by others”.  That strikes me as a pragmatic if unromantic perspective.  In that case, Jek/Hyde isn’t fanfic because the original is in the public domain, therefore I am free to profit from it.  Fanfic is defined as “what you could be sued for.”

Of course it all depends on definitions, but in many ways I think Jek/Hyde does qualify as fanfic.  I certainly wrote it out of a deep love for the original, and a desire to pay homage to it.  And yet, there are other ways that it feels different to me.  Like any genre, fanfic comes with its own conventions and reader-expectations.  It’s very interesting how, for better or for worse, fanfic has become a bit calcified by certain tropes and structures.  The Edenic dream of fanfic is that, without the interference of publishing “gatekeepers”, a truly diverse literary ecology will grow and flourish.  But anyone who haunts fanfiction.net or AO3 knows that is not really the case – yes, in theory fanficcers can write whatever they want, but in practice they mostly take non-romantic stories and refashion them into conventionally-structured romances.  That’s what gets hits, kudos, comments, and recs, which effectively produces a new kind of gatekeeping.

For what it’s worth, Jek/Hyde doesn’t go in that direction.  There are romantic elements to the plot, but it is not, to my mind, a romance – if anything, it’s more about the dangers of human relationships than the pleasures and satisfactions thereof.  Is that enough to make it “not fanfic”?  I don’t know.  Certainly there are stories on AO3 that also resist the standard conventions, as well as traditionally-published novels that conform to them.  I’m not sure there’s any clear distinction that is going to work in 100% of cases.  But I don’t think there needs to be.  There’s always going to be a lot of overlap and cross-pollination between fanfic and “traditional” fic (or whatever we want to call it).  At the same time, it’s interesting and worthwhile, I think, to look at the forces, both explicit and unacknowledged, that influenced and inspired different kinds of stories.

 

Thanks so much for visiting the blog and chatting with us. I hope you have a fantastic launch in a few weeks’ time. 😀

~

If you want to find out more about Jek/Hyde, or Amy Ross’ other work, you can check out Tumblr and her website.

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