Jane Austen Made Me Do It, an Austen-inspired short story anthology, arrives in stores today!
In honor of the JAMMDI release, I’ve posted some Q&A I did for the JAMMDI “extra” portions below.
Q. How did Jane Austen make you do it? What inspired you to join this anthology?
Really, Laurel Ann Nattress made me do it. When she emailed me to ask if I’d write a short story for a Jane Austen-inspired anthology, I said “yes” without a second thought. After all, it was just a short story and I’d just finished writing a book with Jane Austen in it, and wasn’t Laurel the hugest sweetie to think of asking me, and, ooh, an email from my best friend after Laurel’s email! And was that a sale at J. Crew?
It wasn’t until at least an hour later that it hit me that, wait, I hadn’t written any piece of fiction under 100,000 words since, oh, circa 1999. There are some cases where less is definitely not easier, and the short story is one of them. It has its own distinct art and idioms.
But it would be a good writing exercise, right?
I was right in so much as a great deal of exercise went into this story. In an attempt to avoid writing it, I vacuumed my apartment, reorganized my bookshelves, and—the ultimate last resort—even went to the gym until I could avoid the computer no longer.
Thank you, Laurel Ann (and Jane) for making me do it!
Q. When were you introduced to Jane Austen? Which novel did you read first, and what was your first impression?
It’s hard to remember a time when Jane Austen hasn’t been with me. But I do have a very vivid recollection, somewhere around fifth grade, of reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time. My father, seeing me with the book, asked me what I thought the setting was.
“England,” I said. I was eleven. The “duh!” was implied.
He started talking about class and hierarchy and the low gentry versus the high gentry and blah, blah, blah. I went back to Elizabeth and Darcy.
Silly parents, couldn’t they see that it was a love story?
Q. Share with us the inspiration for your story. How did you decide on the theme, setting and characters? Which elements of Jane Austen’s style, humor or characterizations influenced you the most?
When Laurel Ann approached me about writing a story for the anthology, I’d just finished writing a book on Jane Austen’s own turf, Bath in 1803. In fact, Austen had been a character in the story even though I’d sworn right and left I wasn’t going to do that—but that’s another story. I had about six months before the short story was due and I vaguely supposed that I would set it in that same world. I’d already written eight books set in the early nineteenth century, so it felt like home turf. My Austen book, The Mischief of the Mistletoe, had been loosely based on Austen’s The Watsons. The cranky sister, Margaret, could use a redemptive short story—or maybe I should do something about Austen herself?
I have no idea how I came to write a story set in 21st century Britain about an American journalist on a low budget TV program called Ghost Trekkers.
Blame it on Northanger Abbey, blame it on too many formative childhood watchings of Scooby-Doo, blame it on that last gin and tonic, but when Laurel Ann emailed to ask what I’d be writing about, it just popped out. I settled down to watch a few episodes of Ghost Hunters for inspiration, re-read Northanger Abbey, and there you go.
Q. Jane Austen’s heroines have been often imitated but never duplicated. From Elizabeth Bennet’s conceited independence to Fanny Price’s prudent convictions, Austen creates characters with real flaws and perfections that readers identify with. Which of her heroine’s do you connect with personally? Who would you like to offer advice to, and please share what that would be?
I’ve always loved Catherine Morland, the novel-reading heroine-in-training of Northanger Abbey (which, I suppose, makes it somewhat less of a surprise that my short story turned out to be about a Night at Northanger rather than a Morning at Mansfield). As an inveterate reader of gothics during my earlier years, I shared Catherine’s shudders and her hopes that behind that mysterious japanned cabinet there might be… oh, drat, another laundry list. When I first read Northanger, as a pre-teen, I was as disappointed as Catherine that the Abbey yielded only modern venality rather than ancient curses. On later re-reads, I came to appreciate the brilliance of Austen’s social satire, her skewering of Isabella, her creation of Henry’s strengths and weaknesses and the delicate brush with which she painted Catherine’s gradual growth. Here’s to heroines in training, wherever they may be!
Q. The range of writing experience in this anthology covers veteran literary bestselling author to debut new voice. How did Jane Austen influence your writing career? If so, what insights could you share with an aspiring writer on Austen’s technique and style?
Austen was my go to girl on two major fronts: characterization and style. The only writer I can think of whose keen eye for characterization might equal Austen’s and who manages to portray quirks and weaknesses with something of the same tolerance and affection is L.M. Montgomery, who, like Austen, does a beautiful job of seeing the worst in people, but portraying it with humor and charm. They say people fall into two camps, tragedy or comedy. You can tell that Austen sees the tragedies waiting to happen—in Mrs. Bennett’s narrowness, Lydia’s selfishness, Kitty’s weakness—but she chooses to take the comic road, mitigating the potential pain by playing up the glorious absurdity of it all.
Which leads me to style. I remember, early, early on, perhaps in my very first read of P&P, being struck by a description of the Bingleys which went something along the lines of “they were all that was charming and insincere”. As a young writer in training, that sentence was a revelation to me. Austen had achieved her comic hit so perfectly and so easily, all through the placement of one word. No one beats Austen for delicately snarky description. Watch the way Austen turns a phrase or a scene. There’s always that bait and switch. It works beautifully.
Q. Jane Austen’s road to publication was long and arduous before she self-financed the publication of her first novel Sense and Sensibility in 1811. Was your road to publication strewn with rose petals or thorns? What advice can you offer new writers seeking publication today?
It’s a strange world out there right now. These days, when I give aspiring writers advice, I warn them that my advice is dated—with my first book out in 2005, I’m practically a dinosaur with the way everything’s been moving. When I started seeking publication, it was still done by snail mail queries; “e-book” and self-publication were bad words; and almost no-one had a website.
One piece of advice does still apply, though. Find yourself a good agent. Publishing is a confusing, byzantine, and very cliquey world, and never more so than today, with everything so much in flux. Find someone out there who loves and believes in your work, who can decode that world for you, and be your advocate in it.
Q. We obviously all admire Jane Austen and have been inspired by her works. Do you see her influence in contemporary authors today? If so, can you recommend any of your favorite author’s books and share their connection?
The most obvious are the direct Austen take-offs. Back in my grad school days, in the late, lamented Wordsworth Books in Cambridge, I stumbled across a British import called Pride, Prejudice and Jasmin Field. I was enthralled, so enthralled that I missed my stop on the T and accidentally wound up in Alewife. But I didn’t mind because I had Jasmin (aka Lizzy) with me. The conceit was that a modern journalist was acting in a charity version of P&P. Her Darcy was the director, an actor from a famous acting dynasty. I loved the way Melissa Nathan managed to track P&P onto the modern without making it feel too contrived, but, most of all, I loved her bright and lively prose.
I think we see Austen’s tracks wherever we find social commentary hidden in humor, or a love story surrounded with quirky side characters. We always get our happy ending, but we learn a lot along the way.
Q. There are many movie and stage adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels. Do you think her stories transfer well to other mediums? Which of the film adaptations do you think captures the spirit of her stories and the nuances of her characters best, and why?
My favorite of the recent Austen adaptations (sorry, P&P fans!) has always been the late-90’s Persuasion with Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds. I watched it again and again as I was writing my first book, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation. It did a beautiful job capturing both the weaknesses and strengths of Anne Elliott’s character, the social world that constrains her, and the full range of Austenian comic side characters.
As for other media… Austenian interpretive dance, anyone?
Q. Because of the rigid social proprieties in the Regency era, Jane Austen published all of her novels by “A Lady” instead of using her full name. Not many outside of her family knew of her private identity. If she were alive today, how do you think she would react to her widespread popularity?
I’m going to avoid this one, if that’s okay with you. I’m not sure I can deal with the idea of Austen tweeting. It’s funny; I have no objection to seeing Austen’s characters modernized (or the opposite—it might be rather fun to have a Pleistocene P&P, with Lady Catherine de Burgh lording it over everyone from cave with the fanciest cave paintings) but it seems rather unsporting to drag the authoress along with them.
Q. Jane Austen is valued for her keen understanding of the irregularities of human nature. Her famous heroine Elizabeth Bennet is a great observer of their “follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies.” Which of Austen’s characters resembles your personality closest? Who do you admire? Who are you afraid of becoming?
One on my best guy friends in college used to call me “Emma”, due to my propensity for, shall we say, a certain amount of meddling in other peoples’ love lives. For the record, though, I’d like to point out that he really has no cause to complain. Who introduced whom to the woman who would later become his wife? Just sayin’. Part of the genius of Austen is that she has so many characters for so many occasions. I’d say I was Catherine Morland in high school and Emma in college, with flashes of Lizzy, Anne and Elinor during my grad school and lawyer days, depending on day and mood.
And now? I’m working on becoming Lady Catherine de Burgh.
Q. Pride and Prejudice is by far Jane Austen’s most famous work. Of her other five major novels and one novella, which one do you gravitate to on a rainy day? Which is her most underrated?
I still go back to Northanger Abbey. Even though I’ve given up on actual ghosts in the Abbey, I’m still sucked in by Isabella’s machinations and charmed by Henry’s kindness. Northanger Abbey also contains Austen’s stunning oration on the novel: “in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.”
Q. Austen’s bad boys are so roguishly irresistible. We all have met a rake or two in our dating lives. If you were introduced to Mr. Wickham, Mr. Willoughby, Captain Tilney, Mr. Crawford or Mr. Elliot at a ball and they invited you to dance, who would you accept, and what penetrating question would you ask him during the course of the set?
I don’t want to sound like I’m swimming against the stream here, but I’ve never found any of Austen’s antiheroes terribly attractive. Willoughby and Wickham both have a certain aura of desperation and smarm, while Captain Tilney always struck me as a certain sort of frat boy athlete. If he’d been around today, he would have been on the hockey team and kept a list of his conquests up in the frat house.
Of the lot, I’d have to go with Mr. Crawford, who has a certain amount of Richardson’s Lovelace in him (even if sadly diluted).
As for my question…. “My dear Mr. Crawford, have you ever thought of trying your hand at amateur theatricals?”
Q. The Austen family were novel readers in an era when fiction was considered lowbrow fare. Jane makes fun of this through her hero Henry Tilney’s remark “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” If you were to introduce a new reader to Jane Austen’s works, which novel would you choose, and what advice would you share?
I had that opportunity last year, when Cara Elliott (aka Andrea Penrose) and I co-taught a class at Yale on the origins and development of the Regency romance novel. We kicked off the class with Northanger Abbey, partly because, um, I happen to be slightly fond of it, but largely because a recurring theme in the class was the contention that romance novels fuel a dangerous blurring between fact and fiction in the reader, a subject Austen deals with very explicitly in Northanger vis a vis gothic novels.
My advice? Don’t assign Northanger as your first Austen. Our students, ages eighteen to twenty-two, were almost universally agreed in despising Catherine, whom they found poor spirited, or, in more modern parlance, TSTL. I’d suggest beginning either with the archetypal P&P or, depending on the nature and preference of your target audience, Emma (for readers of chick lit or the sprightlier sort of mystery) or Persuasion (for readers of women’s fiction or Literary Fiction).
Q. Poet Ralph Waldo Emerson felt Jane Austen’s novels were “pinched and narrow,” lacking genius, wit and knowledge of the world. She jokingly admitted that her work was “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush as produces little effect after much labour.” As a writer do you agree or disagree with Emerson criticism, and as a reader, do you crave more historical detail in Austen’s novels?
Absolutely not! Austen was writing contemporary novels, in which the background of the day was taken very much for granted. It would have been an interruption in the story if she had suddenly launched into a disquisition about Napoleon’s invasion plans or the latest debates on the Corn Laws. And why would she? There were newspapers for that. Her focus was character, brilliantly portrayed in the small scale of local life. One can see and feel the reverberations of the larger world (all those militia companies are hanging around for a reason), but, fundamentally, her works examine the ins and outs of human nature, and those are best portrayed on a small scale.
Pinched and narrow? The study of what makes people tick has occupied the greatest minds for centuries, from Plato, to Shakespeare, to Hume, and on. Here I can only go back to Austen’s own defense of the novel, as her work is that in which “the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties… are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.” Like Shakespeare, she shows us feelingly what we are, what a piece of work is man, in all our human vagaries. Can there be any worthier or broader topic than that?
Q. After close to two hundred years in print, Jane Austen’s stories still touch our twenty-first century sensibilities. Why do you think her appeal is so enduring?
I believe that there are three reasons that Austen has weathered the test of time so well. (Doesn’t everything always sound more official and scholarly when you number it?)
First, there’s Austen’s wonderful understanding of human nature, which speaks to across the centuries. Put her characters in modern dress, a la Clueless, and they still make perfect sense. Certainly, her stories are dependent upon their specific settings, but the emotions and character quirks they portray carry across time.
Second, you have the archetypal nature of Austen’s stories. It’s no accident that Pamela Regis, in writing her seminal work, A Natural History of the Romance Novel, chose Austen’s P&P as her pedagogical model for the basic structure of the courtship narrative. Austen created stories that resonate deeply across the generations, hitting fundamental themes: family, friendship, betrayal, love.
And then there’s point number three, which defies an easy answer. You could call it the magical ingredient, the secret sauce, the pinch of salt in the pudding. It’s not Austen’s brilliant sense of humor, although that’s part of it. I think the magic ingredient in the Austen pudding is a fundamental optimism, an optimism that works with and because of her awareness of all the pitfalls and negatives out there, all the dark corners of human nature. She sees it all—and still provides us with a happy ending, or, at least, the happiest ending possible under the circumstances. What can be more powerful than that?