Author Interview: Kathleen Williams Renk


JMR-Welcome to the Books Delight, Kathleen. Tell our readers where you live, what you do for fun and what does the perfect day look like?

KWR- I live in the Iowa City area, home of the University of Iowa Writers Workshop.  Now that I’m retired from academia, I spend my days researching and honing my writing, playing violin and piano, and volunteering at a refugee and immigrant center nearby.  A perfect day would consist of all of these activities, plus seeing my grandkids who live here.

JMR-What’s your favorite historical time period? Why? 

KWR- As a Victorianist, naturally, I have to choose the mid-Victorian period.  I’m fascinated by the social unrest and the struggle for women’s rights that occurred in Great Britain mid-century.  

JMR-Who is your favorite historical figure? Why? If you could ask them one question, what would it be?

KWR-  That’s a really tough question to answer. I love Ancient Greek philosophy and might wish to speak with Socrates or Plato and ask existential questions.  But I would likely settle on asking Charlotte Bronte whether she knew how influential her novel _Jane Eyre_ would be.  Virginia Woolf thought this novel was too angry, but that’s exactly why I love it and often return to it.  I adore everything about the novel, except the capitulation to a happy, tidy ending whether Jane marries Rochester.  Maybe I would also ask Charlotte if she envisioned alternate endings, such as Jane freeing and helping Bertha Mason and the two of them flee to the Caribbean together!

JMR- You taught for many years and wrote nonfiction. How did you make the jump to fiction? Was it hard? What did you have to learn/unlearn? 

KWR- While I was earning my Ph.D. in English at the University of Iowa, I also studied fiction writing with the Pulitzer-Prize winning author James Alan MacPherson.  So, returning to fiction writing, after writing and publishing literary criticism,  wasn’t difficult.  Actually, it is delightful to continue to conduct research but then, instead of writing an argument based on literary texts, I get to use my imagination to fill in the gaps in what is known about a particular character, characters or event.

JMR- Kathleen, tell us about your new book, Vindicated. 

KWR-  Vindicated is a series of journals written by Mary Godwin Shelley as she learns about her feminist mother’s eventful life and tragic death and then as she embarks on her own writing career.  

Here’s the blurb from the book: 

Mary Godwin is a teenager with a formidable pedigree. Both of her parents are philosophers but it is Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother she never met, who haunts her waking and dreaming worlds. Reading about her mother’s life and death inspires Mary to keep a journal. Just as the tumult of her parents’ relationship comes alive in her imagination, she meets emerging poet Percy Shelley. Even though he is married and his wife is pregnant, Shelley threatens to kill himself if Mary will not elope with him. It’s possible that Shelley is mad, but their intellectual and creative affinities convince her that she is his Child of Light.

Passionate and intellectual, Mary struggles with the demands of her volatile husband and their circle of friends, including her stepsister Claire and George Gordon, Lord Byron. But as she writes Frankenstein, she also muses about her encounters with her creature and the philosophical questions of life, death, and creation that undergird her novel. Justifying their unconventional life and enduring personal tragedies, Mary follows in her mother’s footsteps, as she contemplates a woman’s place in literature and the world.

JMR- Did you visit anyone of the places in your book? Where did you feel closest to your characters?

KWR-  I’ve visited London many times, but I’ve also visited Italy, France, and Switzerland, which are other locations in my novel.  I don’t mention it in the novel, but I have visited the Keats-Shelley House in Rome and have seen what is supposedly Percy Shelley’s jaw and hair fetched from his funeral pyre by his friend Trewalny.  This location did pique my interest and helped me think about Shelley’s death and how disturbing that must have been for Mary.  

JMR- Undoubtedly, Mary Shelley faced many obstacles while trying to write. What do you think has changed for today’s female writers and what has remained the same?

KWR-  Mary Shelley had to overcome numerous tragedies: her mother’s death, abandonment by her father Godwin, Shelley’s infidelity, the death of three of her four children, and finally the death of her love, Percy Shelley.  

Women writers today may experience similar tragedies, but likely not as many.  Depending on where we live in the world, we may have access to more formal education than women writers in previous eras, but we still may be burdened with domestic duties that interfere with our ability to create and dream of other worlds. 

JMR-What projects do you have in the pipeline?

KWR- I’m currently working on two novel projects: One focuses on the Victorian poet Christina Rossetti and her sister-in-law, the poet and painter Lizzie Sidall.  This novel’s title is In an Artist’s Studio and I imagine that the two of them form a Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood that fosters women’s writing and visual art.  The second project is called No Coward’s Soul Have I.  In this novel, I imagine that Percy Shelley meets the Irish rebel and heroine Anne Devlin.  Shelley did visit Ireland in 1812 in an effort to aid Catholic Emancipation and to free the Irish from British rule. He greatly admired Robert Emmet, the leader of an Irish revolt in 1803.  Anne Devlin was Emmet’s housekeeper and colleague who was imprisoned for nearly four years in the notorious Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin.  I imagine that Shelley attempts to obtain Anne’s life story, but fails.  Instead, his young wife Harriet becomes Anne’s friend and learns about Anne’s involvement in the rebellion and the persecution she suffered while in prison.

JMR- Tell our readers how to find you on social media and the web. 

KWR- I have an author page on FaceBook and maintain a  website:

JMR- What question were you hoping I’d ask but didn’t?

KWR- Maybe this -- How can women writers best learn from each others’ experiences and the obstacles they overcome?  Or how can we improve our craft and write something truly memorable and worthy of the historical personages we attempt to recreate?  

JMR-Thank you, Kathleen, for stopping by The Book's Delight and sharing your book with us. Readers, I have included a link for you to check out the awesome novel.


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