In my previous post I reviewed the new book Writing Jane Austen. I was given the opportunity to interview Elizabeth Aston and came up with some questions that I hope you will enjoy. I tried hard to not include any questions that might be considered spoilers.
Q. Elizabeth, I noticed on your website that both your parents are fans of Jane Austen and that you were named after Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. Given such a family history, I wondered at what age were you first exposed to Jane Austen's work and whether it a movie/television adaptation or was it a book?
A. My first encounter with Jane Austen was when I read Pride and Prejudice at thirteen. Everyone had assumed that, because I was named after Elizabeth Bennet, I must have read all of Jane Austen, but I just thought, yuk, who wants to be named after a person who never even existed? My brothers get named after their grandfathers, and I get called after a character on a page!
Anyhow, I finally picked up the book, and, like Georgina, I was utterly enchanted and completely hooked. I went straight on to read all the other novels, and was desolated that she had only written six of them.
Q. Georgina is reluctant to read anything by Jane Austen and when she finally starts she goes on a reading binge barely sleeping until she has finished all six novels. Have you ever had such an experience with any novelist where you gave up normal day-to-day living experiences in order to finish a book or books?
A. With Jane Austen - see above! And I remember, as a student, walking down the street in Oxford, bumping into people and lampposts, reading a John Fowles book called The Magus. Yet, when I tried to read it again a few years ago, I couldn't even finish it. And I neglected work and family when I discovered Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey and Maturin novels - there are twenty of them. A psychologist did a study of what happens to your brain wave patterns when you're truly 'Lost in a Good Book', and discovered it actually is an altered state of consciousness. That's what makes it such a joy to pick up a book that carries you away, so what you're reading is more real than the world around you.
Q. Writing Jane Austen seems to loosely follow the Joseph Campbell model of a reluctant hero(ine) given a Call to Adventure that is initially refused and then the courage and strength of purpose is summoned to accomplish a seemingly impossible task. Writing a publishable novel in three months seems on its face to be an impossible task, that does not include the added complications of having to perform historical research and have it match a literary style beloved by millions worldwide. Have you ever tried to write in the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) style where the goal is to turn off your internal editor and crank out word count? If so, can you tell us how you liked that kind of creative exercise.
A. No, I've never tried NaNoWriMo, but I spend my writing life trying to turn off the critic who sits on my shoulder and snarks at me, sneers at whatever I've written and jumps on every typo. I like to write a first draft with the carping one gagged and blindfolded, which means writing fast and, usually, without being able to read what I write while I'm doing it. I scale down the text on the screen to such a small size that I can't make out the words. Or, if I'm using speech recognition, which I do when my hands and wrists start aching, I just shut my eyes. I absolutely believe that the story you're writing is already there, and you have to get out of the way and let it get written. Then comes the critical and editorial work, you can't have one without the other.
Q. Part of the character transformation in this book for Georgina is for her to overcome her prejudice against Jane Austen's books based on others' opinions without her having formed her own empirical opinions. You not only show Georgina's negative statements, but you use an uncomplimentary quote from Charlotte Brontë and have a character say "Ditsy heroine gets alpha male, sends under-educated women into swoons of fantasy eroticism." Am I wrong in thinking that your novel was in part a vehicle to dismantle these kind of criticisms you've heard over the years and rebut them point by point?
A. I consider Jane Austen one of the very greatest of English novelists, in fact, I'd probably put her top of the list. So it amuses me when people dismiss her as 'just a romantic novelist', or a writer whose milieu is so restricted and feminine and domestic that it has nothing to say to most of the world. But in Writing Jane Austen I wanted to play with various reactions to her, from readers, academics and fellow writers, rather than to rebut any particular criticisms. As Jane Austen knew better than anyone, laughter is powerful.
Q. As a writer of six Jane Austen styled sequels, I would assume that over they years you have heard many negative comments about Jane Austen's writing. What is the most common criticism and what do you think was the most unfair statement ever made about her work?
A. I hate the sweeping condemnation that her novels are just about money and class. I do appreciate that if you don't have much of a sense of humour, and you don't do irony, then Jane Austen is never going to sing for you. I think the famous criticisms of her by Charlotte Brontë and Mark Twain are very wide of the mark.
Q. You even include criticism in your novel of the sequels written by modern authors. You use the terms "definitely second-rate" and "downright lewd." Are you poking fun at yourself or at other writers who have written Austen inspired sequels? Or both?
A. Oh, both.
Q. Your novel includes depictions of Austenmania replete with bus tours, shops dedicated to Austen styled memorabilia and costume balls recreating the dances of the time period. What is the strangest collectible object by Janeites that you've seen? And have you ever been to a costume ball like the one you depicted?
A. As I mention in the book, some of the Colin Firth wet shirt key rings and so on, on sale at Chawton, strike me as bizarre. And I'm not too sure I'd want a lock of her hair, I think from a mourning brooch, that was recently put up for auction. Yes, I have been to a ball like that and it was delightful, but no Darcy lookalikes present, sadly.
Q. There have been many adaptations for television and for movie theaters of Jane Austen's novels. Do you have a favorite? Least favorite?
A. Mostly there are particular scenes or actors that stand out, rather than having a favourite. I loved the dancing scenes in the BBC version and I thought Olivier made a good Darcy in the film version from 1940.
Q. Livia Harkness exploded off the page as shrill and thoroughly unpleasant person. Kudos on that brilliant characterization. Not trying to get you in trouble with your own literary agent, but I'm wondering if Livia was inspired by unreasonable task masters as literary agents for perhaps one of your author friends. Or was she an echo of a Jane Austen character? Or some other inspiration?
A. Livia Harkness was one of those characters who appeared from nowhere. Yes, I'd like to think she had some of the malevolence of some of Jane Austen's wickeder creations, and no, my agent isn't at all like that. But, now I come to think of it, I do know one who does bear a passing resemblance to her, in spirit if not in looks.
Q. With your surname being Aston and your writing topic is Jane Austen, I thought the Aston/Austen similarities might be the cause of some confusion. Am I right and if so, could you please share any amusing anecdotes about that type of name confusion.
A. Some people have thought I chose Aston as a pen name because of the similarity, but in fact it's my married name, which I don't use outside writing. I did once give a talk where I got introduced as Elizabeth Austen who was going to speak on Jane Aston.
Q. There are several mentions of Harry Potter in your novel. Are you a fan of J.K. Rowling's work as well?
Q. Did you know that there was a listing of Love and Friendship (sic) by Jane Austen on Amazon.com? It appears your novel has had an impact already.
A. Ah, that will be the story Jane Austen wrote as a girl: Love and Friendship (sic). That's why I chose it as the title for the newly discovered book by her.
Thank you Elizabeth for your detailed answers.
Now for the contest. I have a few copies of this book, (trade paperback), to give away.
I would love to read comments about a book/series of books that you could not put down until it was finished. Did you stay up late into the night or did you neglect eating? Alternately you can give me your thoughts on Jane Austen.
Please include your email address so that I can contact you later for your mailing address. Feel free to use the emailhandle at internetserviceprovider dot com type of naming scheme to avoid having your email culled by automated computer robots.
This is my first contest and I am limiting it to the United States. Just so I don't get eaten alive by postal rates.
Please feel free to spread the word about the contest to your friends, other websites or blogs.
The contest will end at Midnight PDT on Saturday, April 24th.