‘The Aziola’s Cry’: Interview with Author Dr. Ezra Harker Shaw

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About The Aziola’s Cry

Love, tragedy, and the pursuit of literary greatness intertwine in a tumultuous journey that defies societal norms and tests the resilience of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

In the year 1814, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, a gifted teenager born into a family of literary brilliance, falls deeply in love with the youthful rebel, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Defying societal conventions, they embark on a daring escapade, accompanied by Mary’s step-sister Claire, leaving behind their respective families and Percy’s wife and children. However, their journey proves to be far from an idyllic romance, for it is fraught with tumultuous challenges.

In their quest for freedom and expression, Mary and Percy immerse themselves in experimental notions of free love and join forces with the enigmatic and infamous Lord Byron. Amidst these thrilling encounters and adventures, the young lovers are confronted by heart-wrenching tragedies that test their resilience and resolve.

Driven to elude the strict laws of England, which threaten to separate them from their own children, Mary and Shelley embark on a nomadic existence, wandering through the captivating landscapes of Italy while constantly evading their haunting past. As their circumstances become increasingly dire, their shared passion for writing emerges as the sole lifeline that binds them together. Through their literary endeavors, they become each other’s guiding force, ultimately crafting timeless masterpieces that will etch their names into the annals of literary history.

Interview with Dr. Ezra Harker Shaw

1) Were there any texts you took particular inspiration from when writing about Mary and Percy Shelley? 

The genre of biographical fiction with writers as subjects provides an exciting opportunity for an author to engage with an earlier author, not merely to tell the facts of their life, but to present the creator as subject, to show the world through the lens of someone we already know from their own writings. 

I have so many biographical fictions I owe inspiration to, but two that absolutely stand our are Thomas Mann’s novel Lotte in Weimar about Goethe that plunges us into an impression of what the great master’s mind might have been like, and Kate Moses’ novel Wintering about Sylvia Plath that is rich with Plathian imagery. Throughout The Aziola’s Cry I have used the Shelleys’ vocabulary and frame of reference, seeking a voice that is part them, as well as part me.

Another things that was important to me was to show some element of the writing process, to show how the works are constant companions to their authors. Colm Toibin’s The Master and The Magician are excellent representations of craftsmen at their task. 

I wrote an article about this as part of my PhD called ‘The Author As Character.’

2) How long were you working on The Aziola’s Cry for? What was your writing process? How did your role as a performance poet influence your writing process? 

Although the idea was there for a long time, I think it was six years of serious work on the novel. 

My first draft was an outpouring of all my thoughts and ideas, and I’m sure it was very, very messy! I’d be researching both the Shelleys so long I had their lives fairly engraved in my mind. At that point I wasn’t entirely clear of the tense or how I would manage the perspectives. I think I needed to get a version of the story out first, and then I could see what I was trying to do, and from there make descisions about how to tell it. 

From there it was a matter of sculpting, shaping the work draft-by-draft. That’s probably not the most efficient way to write a novel, but it was the way that felt most natural way to me. And everytime I was writing, I’d have the Shelleys works beside me, guiding me. 

I continually went back to their diaries and letters to check I was sticking to the facts, following their moods, and not missing anything significant. 

I found the contributions of others incredibly important; I had regular feedback from my PhD supervisor as well as two writing groups. Collaboration felt a vital part of the process to me. As I shared work with others I’d hear their understanding of what I’d written, which was so useful to help me know if what I’d intended had come across. It also helped me to understand what was important to me: several of my beta readers advised against the inclusion of poetry, and that ended up being something I fought for; on one hand I wanted to reflect the writing of both Shelleys, so it made sense to have prose as well as poetry, and on the other hand I felt there was something internal and essential easier to express in poetry. 

As a performance poet I’m especially aware of sound in both poetry and prose — something I think I share with many of the Romantics, who were after all in regular habit of reading poetry aloud. I know when I’m writing in a certain rhythm is crawls off the page and follows me through my days. I wanted to show the Shelleys rhythms and vocabulary permeating their thoughts. 

3) The story of Mary and Percy Shelley has been told, studied, and adapted many times over. What would you say is new or different about the way you tell their story?

I felt compelled to write this story precisely because I couldn’t find the book I wanted to read. 

The elements integral to The Aziola’s Cry that I felt were missing elsewhere are a sense of the lyricism of their works in adaptations, and the view of the Shelleys as partners in writing. 

Outside of Shelley scholarship I’ve found knowledge of the Shelleys tends to extremes…  ‘Frankenstein was actually written by Percy Shelley;’ ‘He was a genius, she’s just a genre writer;’ ‘Mary Shelley was brilliant, but her husband was incredibly cruel to her, forced her to sleep with other men, and then pushed her to change her works.’ 

There is too often an absence of the Shelleys as collaborators, which was where I started my doctorate. Since I began my book Anna Mercer’s The Collaborative Relationship of Mary and Percy Shelley has come out, and I think in academic circles there’s a better view of the Shelleys as partners in their craft, but that hasn’t reached the wider reading audience. 

One other element that has emerged in my writing is the insight gained from our modern understanding of mental health. I wanted to look at the background of his changeable extremes, and her depression, and to show the struggles of these.

Ultimately, I wanted to give the readers a sense of two brilliant people, both of whom were at times difficult to live with for different reasons, and I wanted to infuse the novel with their works in a way that would encourage readers to return to, or visit for the first time, both Shelleys’ works. 

4) What are your favourite texts by Byron? How did you incorporate them into The Aziola’s Cry? 

I have so many favourite Byron poems! Darkness and The Prisoner of Chillon are the ones I come back to most often, and Don Juan is wonderful. Byron is such a complex character, but so full of charisma and power he was a lot of fun to write. 

His relationship with Percy Shelley is so famous and impressive, but I was especially interested to draw out his relationship with Mary Shelley: I don’t believe it was ever sexual, and they seemed to have a mutual respect and a similar pessimistic outlook on life that was very different to Percy Shelley’s idealism. In her times of loss she did copying work for him, and I found that a fascinating little detail to their dynamic. I think there was support there. But a lot of people had Byron’s ear, and he was deeply suspicious and easily led, and sometimes incredibly cruel and short-sighted. 

Because I’m writing from the perspectives of only the Shelleys, the Byron I present is the one they see, and his works occur as the Shelleys read and think about them. 

5) You mentioned that you dropped out of high school at fifteen. What inspired you to pursue further education? What guidance can you give to  aspiring young adults looking to pursue a career in academia? 

I really fell into academia by accident. I applied to university after several years out of education not really sure if I would fit in, and within a few terms had the most amazing feeling of finding my vocation. 

I remember the energy and enthusiasm of my first semester, devouring reading lists, talking to lecturers, getting guidance for areas of further study. Seeking understanding in an intellectual community was something I’d never encountered before and it was an incredible thing to discover. 

The joy of that experience makes me especially sad to note the very difficult situation of the arts in education today. I absolutely love teaching at university level and have always had an amazing connection with my students — I enjoy research, and am pleased with the work I produce; however, as vital as the work is, with current budget pressures I see so much of a toxic culture within the management structures that leads to a high-stress environment for academics. I have seen a shocking number of really brilliant colleagues go through serious mental health crises specifically due to their working environment. Besides which, entrance level is often low-paying, and I have so many friends doing unpaid work to build up their CVs to improve their chances of getting a permanent position, but only those with financial support elsewhere can afford to do that.

In terms of guidance, I suppose I would say — if you have the passion, pursue it. Don’t follow only one path, but be open to new and different ways of stu

6) Are you working on any new projects at the moment? If so, would you be able to give us any information on them? 

I’m currently working on Mary After Shelley, a direct follow-up to The Aziola’s Cry; it follows Mary as a young single mother and professional writer. There’s so much of her later life that isn’t widely known, and much that’s of interest to queer communities today. As a queer writer I’m often presented with the notion that things like trans identities are a ‘fad,’ so I’m really excited to tell queer histories, like that of Mary’s friend Walter Sholto Douglas (someone we would today consider a transman), to explore that intriguing relationship Mary had with Jane Williams, and to track Mary’s persistent support of queer people. 

I can’t wait to share this book with readers!  

Born in Scotland and now living in London, Dr. Ezra Harker Shaw is a non-binary writer who loves all things Gothic. While earning their PhD, Harker Shaw explored the collaborative writing of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley, a project that led them to write The Aziola’s Cry. A celebrated performance poet, Harker Shaw regularly hosts poetry nights in London and was nominated for the Outspoken Prize for Poetry. Harker Shaw has also showcased their talent as a playwright with works such as Tolstoy Tried to Kill My Partner and The Grouchy Octopus Story, both of which were performed in London by the esteemed Pajoda Theatre Co. Possessing a profound passion for teaching, Harker Shaw often conducts university lectures and workshops with aspiring young writers.