By day, College of Charleston professor Sheridan Hough teaches philosophy to undergrads. She lectures on 19th century philosophers and feminist theory, writes academic books and articles, and grades 100-plus papers in the evenings. But somewhere between all this deep thinking and scholarly head-scratching, she allowed her imagination to get the best of her, veering off into the land of fiction.
Hough's first novel, Mirror's Fathom, will be released Nov. 8. Although it's a tale of mystery, love, and adventure, the plot also includes a heavy dose of — surprise, surprise — philosophy. Hough says the book perfectly ties together her two passions.
"I've been writing stories my whole life," she says. "Making books as a girl and making people listen to my stories and so forth. So that's been a constant for me. Then I got into the philosophy biz and did a degree at Berkeley and got very interested in continental philosophers. That would of course include Kierkegaard, who this book is sort of about. So it's a nice conversion of my work as a philosopher and my longstanding interest in writing fiction."
The story is set in Malta in the 19th century and follows Tycho Wilhelm Lund, the fictional grand-nephew of real-life, Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, widely considered to be the first existentialist philosopher.
Kierkegaard's somewhat scandalous history was the perfect jumping-off point for a great novel, Hough says. Between a shocking broken engagement — he broke up with the love of his life to pursue his calling as a Christian author yet continued to dedicate all his works to his jilted love — and publishing conflicting works under different pseudonyms, the man was known to be a bit crazy. And Hough's main character shares that opinion.
"He has no interest in his uncle's writing. He thinks he's crazy," Hough says. "His great uncle probably is crazy. I mean, I think that and I work on him!"
Throughout the story, Lund learns more about Kierkegaard after encountering a reading group of the philosopher's devotees. The story takes a dramatic twist as Lund falls in love with the group's leader and is sent on a quest for an antique mirror to win her hand.
The mystery-ridden plot was written to be purely entertaining, Hough says. Though as the characters live out Kierkegaard's concepts, she suspects readers will learn something about philosophy along the way, too.
"That was really important to me, that this just be a novel and not just sort of whacking you over the head with philosophy. Except there are questions about 'Why are we here?' and 'Who are we?' But those are perfectly good questions for a novel," Hough says. "I think when people read this they can safely say, 'I do know something about Kierkegaard's philosophy."
On top of the philosophical content, Hough says she worked hard to make sure all the historical details are accurate, too. She traveled to Malta, London, Cambridge, and Copenhagen while researching the novel to establish a setting that could be realistic for her readers.
"I get very angry when someone sets a book in a place and then they're irresponsible and don't depict things as they are," Hough says. "So to the best of my ability, down to the carpeting, the furnishings, the settings, how much a telegram costs to send, the names of boats, the passages people were able to take, all that to the best of my ability is accurate."
Although Hough does not consider herself a Kierkegaard devotee, she says she's excited to share his existential truths about finding one's self and ultimate life passions. She now counts writing fiction as one of her own life's passions and hopes to publish many more novels in the future. Her next book is already in the works, this time set in Charleston, a little closer to home.