By Mark Medley
Reprinted from The National Post
photo credit: Tim Fraser
The National Post's Mark Medley spoke to bestselling author Kenneth Oppel about his latest young-adult epic.
Mary Shelley published Frankenstein, her first and bestknown novel, when she was only 21 - an age when most people are still in university. Impressed? Well, Kenneth Oppel was still in high school when he published Colin's Fantastic Video Adventure, a novel he'd begun at the age of 14.
Now, 25 years after the start of his writing career, Oppel has mined Shelley's masterpiece for his latest book, This Dark Endeavour: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein, one of the most talked-about young-adult novels of the fall.
"I think any time you use a classic as a springboard, you might be asking for a bit of trouble," says Oppel, sitting on a patio near his Toronto home earlier this week. "You're begging for a comparison. And it would be pretty tough to come out on the winning end."
Oppel was rereading Frankenstein a few years ago when he was struck by descriptions of the scientist's childhood. "No human being could have passed a happier childhood than myself," Frankenstein says in an early chapter, before chronicling carefree days spent seeking the elixir of life, searching for the philosopher's stone and raising demons.
"What kind of happy kid spends his time trying to raise the dead and commune with devils?" Oppel asks. "But, as a writer, I looked at that stuff and I thought, 'Hmm. It's pretty interesting kernels for stories.' "
Although he jotted down some ideas, Oppel was hesitant to write an origin story. The market was already flooded with prequels - Young Sherlock Holmes, Young James Bond - and Oppel didn't want to be seen as jumping on a bandwagon, however lucrative it might be. Eventually, after finally deciding to explore Frankenstein's childhood in a novel, Oppel typed up a couple of pages and sent them to his agent, who "flipped" for the idea. He then wrote two sample scenes, which his agent sent to publishers around the world. "There was a bidding war for the book based on the idea," Oppel says.
In This Dark Endeavour, a 16-year-old Victor Frankenstein, with the aid of his pseudo-sister Elizabeth and friend Henry Clerval, set out to find the Elixir of Life, which Victor hopes will save his twin brother, Konrad, who has been afflicted with a strange malady. Oppel describes it as an alternative history of the Frankenstein family.
"I'm just trying to capture the flavour of the book," he says. "It's not supposed to be a total simulation of what Mary Shelley might have written had she gone back further in the chronology of the story."
Those familiar with Shelley's life or her 1818 novel will spot elements Oppel has borrowed for his own work, but readers needn't be familiar with Shelley's book to enjoy Oppel's offering, though he hopes young readers will seek out the original afterwards.
"What's exceptional is the story and the subject matter," he says of the original. "It's mythological. It's a cautionary tale about science and religion and early technologies - our relationship to the things we create on the planet and the other creatures on the planet. So it's a very moral and ethical book. I think that's one of the reasons I like it - it's got everything: it's a page-turner, it's a great story, it's got a monster for God's sake! It's sci-fi! It's horror! It's everything! But as a writer, it's all material. I look at it as, what a great story. I'd like to dig around in that and see where I can go with it."
Oppel, who says he's drawn to "heroes with huge cracks in their character," sees some similarities between his own work and the scientist with the Lazarus complex.
"We're grave robbers," he says of writers. "We dig stuff up. We chop it up. We sew it back together. We do our best. Sometimes it's ugly. Sometimes the suturing isn't good. Actually, when I think about it, it's a pretty excellent metaphor for the creative process. Because there is theft - subconsciously if not consciously. My imagination is informed and made up with all my favourite books, everything I saw, every comic I read, every movie, every video game I played, every theme park ride I was on. Every experience that I had is somewhere in there. And you pilfer, and you poach, and you try to recreate these amazing moments you had as a kid - these perfect, amazing, moments - and create this world."
The 44-year-old Oppel has been creating worlds since 1985, when his first novel was published. Since then, he's written more than 20 books for children, young adults and adults, including 1997's Silverwing, which has sold almost a million copies around the world, and 2004's Airborn, which won the Governor General's Award for Children's Literature.
This Dark Endeavour may prove to be his most popular book yet. It has already been sold to 13 territories around the world, and optioned for film by Summit Entertainment, the powerhouse behind the Twilight franchise. Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) has been tapped to direct. Although Oppel is realistic about the movie's chances of being made - he says seven Frankenstein features are currently in development - This Dark Endeavour has one thing going for it: "Mine ... is the only one with hot teens."
Whatever happens with the movie, Oppel is not leaving Shelley's world behind just yet - a sequel called Such Wicked Intent will be released next year.
Midway through our interview, I ask Oppel if he'd mind it if another writer used his work for their own fiction.
"After I'm dead, I don't imagine I'll have any say in it anyway," he says with a laugh. "It's an interesting question. Sure, if they did a good job, all power to them. Go for it. I don't mind that, it's really quite flattering. Too bad I wouldn't be around to get some of the residuals."