Did Jane Austen make her do it? Chatting with editor Laurel Ann Nattress

It’s finally time! After a month of time spent in the wild, Jane Austen Made Me Do It — and talented editor Laurel Ann Nattress — are stopping by write meg! today. I’m pleased to welcome Laurel Ann and thank her for stopping by — and answering some of my most pressing questions.

Let’s take it away . . .


Hi Megan, thanks again for hosting me at Write Meg during my Grand Tour of the blogosphere in celebration of the release of my new Austen-inspired anthology, Jane Austen Made Me Do It.

Meg: Laurel Ann, we “met” years ago and bonded through our mutual love of Jane Austen. Your blog Austenprose has been a big inspiration to me, and I love your focus on Austen’s writing – and the many contemporary spin-offs her books have stimulated. When you’re reading an Austen-inspired work, what elevates it from just a decent read to an amazing one? What qualities make a book unforgettable?

“I have read a few Austenesque books in my day. Am I jaded? Hope not. I usually know by the end of the third chapter if it has wings: a fresh concept skillfully rendered, Austen allusions or her characters reverently portrayed and humor in the form of wit and irony, please. I know. It’s a tall order. I’m fastidious.”

I wrote that on my blog in 2010. I have not changed my mind. Even though my reading taste has evolved since the early years of the Austenesque boom (after the 1995 A&E/BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice) my standards have remained the same.

I read my first Jane Austen-inspired sequel in 1999. It was Marjorie Fasman’s The Diary of Henry Fitzwilliam Darcy. I loved it. It motivated me to read just about everything in print up to that point and to continue reading anything new published in the genre to date. I have not read everything, mind you, but I do try to visit them all.

So what elevates an Austenesque book from decent to unforgettable? For most readers it is what books they have already read to compare against the next one, and personal taste. This might sound like a cop-out, but we are what we have read. Some people love the highly romantic aspects of the genre; others the historical details. I enjoy an Austenesque book for the same reasons that I admire Austen’s writing — her acerbic humor and astute characterizations. If an author uses those qualities successfully, it really grabs my attention. Overall, a great novel needs to take me on an emotional journey, teach me about human relationships and myself. Since these qualities are subjective, what I like, might not please someone else.

“Only a 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.” – Northanger Abbey

Meg: Your new anthology Jane Austen Made Me Do It debuted in October and features short stories from many fabulous authors, including Laurie Viera Rigler and Adriana Trigiani. It’s so wonderful to see book lovers making the leap from blogger to author/editor. What was the most rewarding part of the editing process for you? And the most challenging?

Thanks Meg! I am indeed the poster girl for following your bliss! I had no idea that blogging would culminate into a book deal, but it did. That was never my original plan, but sometimes magic just happens. All of my planets and stars were aligned on one amazing day in January 2010 and my book was set into motion.

Working with the twenty-four authors was the most amazing part of the process. They were hand selected by me and my editor because we greatly admired their writing. When their stories started arriving months later, it was like Christmas in my email inbox for about two weeks. Seeing what they had created was so exciting. The variety of genres and inspirational basis was far beyond what I had anticipated. From Regency to contemporary, comedy to romance, mystery to paranormal, it is all there. Quite a selection of Austen confections.

One of the most challenging aspects of the editing process was the Jane Austen Made Me Do It Short Story Contest. Since Jane Austen was so committed to her craft, I thought that it would honor her ideals by leaving a spot open in the anthology for a debut voice. The contest was open to previously unpublished authors and was held online last January. We expected about twenty stories and were blown over when eighty-eight arrived, including your wonderful story Megan, “Spinning White Hair Gold.” Readers narrowed down the list to the Top Ten finalists, and then my editor and I chose the Grand Prize winner. That was a very difficult decision. I greatly admired many of the stories and wanted to include them all, but only one could be selected. Ultimately, we unanimously agreed on “The Love Letter,” by Brenna Aubrey. It was a fantastic contribution and I hope that readers enjoy it also.  

Meg: If you could create an all-star Austen cast for a new production of Pride and Prejudice, who would you love to see in each role?

Wow, a fantasy Austen team for P&P, right? Okay, here goes:

Richard Armitage as Mr. Darcy; Gemma Arterton as Elizabeth Bennet; Emma Watson as Jane Bingley; Hugh Laurie as Mr. Bennet; Joanna Lumley as Mrs. Bennet; Emily Blunt as Caroline Blingley; Laurence Fox as Mr. Wickham; Harriet Walter as Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Charlotte Rampling as Aunt Gardiner. One can dream, can’t one? 

Meg: For an Austen newcomer, which novel would you recommend reading first? Which has inspired you the most on a personal level?

Pride and Prejudice is a great choice for the first Jane Austen book read. It is her most famous and there are so many movie adaptations out there that a new reader is bound to have heard of it or seen one and be familiar with the story. P&P inspired me to love Austen and the unique world that she created. I have read all of her novels, her minor works and letters and I gravitate toward each for different reasons. Some people greatly admire her heroes and heroines: Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth and Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars. I am drawn to her secondary characters: Henry and Mary Crawford, Caroline Bingley, Mary Musgrove, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. I enjoy how she develops the darker side of human nature. It challenges me and makes me think.

Meg: What do you hope readers will glean from Jane Austen Made Me Do It? What has its publication meant to you?

I hope that readers will feel uplifted, inspired and in awe that Jane Austen has left such an indelible mark on literature, and then want to read her novels. Jane Austen Made Me Do It is a tribute to her brilliance. She has been delighting readers and inspiring writers for two centuries. I hope that my anthology both honors her and entertains.

The publication of JAMMDI is personal triumph for me. As a single woman of a certain age, it has shown me that we all deserve a “season of second chances.” It’s never too late.

Thanks Meg, for your great questions. It is always a pleasure to visit Write Meg, and I have so enjoyed following your writing career. I am all anticipation of your first novel. I will be the first to wave its flag!

Cheers, Laurel Ann

Editor bio:
A life-long acolyte of Jane Austen, Laurel Ann Nattress is the author/editor of Austenprose.com a blog devoted to the oeuvre of her favorite author and the many books and movies that she has inspired. She is a life member of the Jane Austen Society of North America, a regular contributor to the PBS blog Remotely Connected and the Jane Austen Centre online magazine. An expatriate of southern California, Laurel Ann lives in a country cottage near Snohomish, Washington. Visit Laurel Ann at her blogs Austenprose.com and JaneAustenMadeMeDoIt.com, on Twitter as @Austenprose, and on Facebook as Laurel Ann Nattress.

Jane Austen Made Me Do It: Original Stories Inspired by Literature’s Most Astute Observer of the Human Heart, edited by Laurel Ann Nattress

Ballantine Books • ISBN: 978-0345524966

Giveaway of Jane Austen
Made Me Do It

Congrats to Elaine, the randomly-selected winner of a copy of Jane Austen Made Me Do It! Elaine, I’ll be contacting you shortly.

BBAW: Laurel Ann of Austenprose stops by

laurel_ann_austenproseIt’s a truth universally acknowledged that anyone with as much Austen knowledge as Laurel Ann of Austenprose and Jane Austen Today would have to be one seriously sensational person. And how true that is! I’m privileged to welcome Laurel Ann as part of Book Blogger Appreciation Week, happening now through Sept. 18.

Laurel Ann and I share a passion for all things Austen — and Austenprose hosts the Everything Austen Challenge X Two, an extension of Stephanie’s popular Everything Austen Challenge (of which I am, of course, a participant)! I often start off my day checking out any number of the awesome, insightful posts at Austenprose — and you should, too!

Let’s pick Laurel Ann’s brain on all things Austen and blogging — and that randy Mr. Wickham!

Meg: Few Jane Austen inspired blogs have such a bevy of interesting posts and refreshing ways of looking at one of our favorite authors as Austenprose, your blog! It’s obviously a labor of love for you, Laurel Ann. What’s one of your earliest experiences with Austen’s work?

Laurel Ann: Thanks for your complements Meg. Writing about one topic, Jane Austen, her works, and new books inspired by her is a very narrow field and can have its challenges. Like Jane Austen, who chose to write about two or three families in a country village, I think that there is merit in the old adage of writing about what you know and are passionate about. With the first episode of the 1979 BBC/PBS adaptation of Pride and Prejudice I was hooked. I read all the major novels shortly after and have my annual re-read of P&P in fond remembrance of my inspiration and initial introduction to Jane Austen.

pride_prejudiceIt’s probably like choosing a favorite child, but which of Austen’s novels is your favorite? Do you find yourself returning to it time and again?

Hmm? Interestingly, whatever I am reading of Austen’s oeuvre is my flavor of the moment! If I had to narrow it down to one novel. Pride and Prejudice is the most rewarding, Mansfield Park is a dark horse I always root for, and Persuasion is growing on me and may surpass P&P soon.

For the uninitiated, which work of Austen’s do you most recommend to those wishing to get acquainted with the author -– but having no idea where to start?

I thought that I would never admit this in public, but I would recommend watching the 1995 BBC/A&E mini-series of Pride and Prejudice if you are a neophyte of Austen and her works. Shocked that a bibliophile and book seller would recommend a movie first? It worked for me in 1979, and I do believe that the movie adaptations have introduced Austen to the masses in an accessible and refreshingly new way. We are after all a visual culture, and once hooked on Austen through the movies, they will pick up the books. There is really, after all, no finer experience than reading the original.

Anne Hathaway as Austen in "Becoming Jane" (Photo by Andrew Eccles)

Anne Hathaway as Austen in "Becoming Jane" (Photo by Andrew Eccles)

One of my favorite Austen quotes is currently tack-pinned up onto my memo board at work. From one of her personal letters, it reads: “To you I shall say, as I have often said before, Do not be in a hurry, the right man will come at last.” Do you consider Austen a romantic, a realist, or a bit of both? Do you believe that Austen may have loved and lost in your youth, as some historians and films like “Becoming Jane” propagate?

Interesting topic. One of the greatest mysteries about Jane Austen is her talent to write so perceptively about romance and love when she was a spinster and did not marry. However, having not married does not disqualify her from understanding love and romance. She was a great observer of human emotion and did have romances herself, so we can throw out the stogy old maid mantle and give her a bit of credit in the experience department.

Austen writes about courting and love, but I would not classify her as a romantic in her writing. I think she is a realistic romantic, wanting love to be the only reason for marriage, but knowing that social position and money mattered. Look how she treated Elizabeth and Lydia Bennet so differently in Pride and Prejudice. Both married for love, but Lizzy’s choice because he was wealthy and forthright, was given a more sympathetic and happier ending.

In her own life, she was bolder, and chose to write instead of marry. This may seem practical today, but in Regency times for a woman it was idealistically romantic. Even though her own romances have been thoroughly investigated and wildly debated, I like to think she was in love with Tom Lafroy or the young minister by the Devon seaside. Who would not want her to experience the greatest emotion of life in full? “Becoming Jane” was, well, a movie. It was not a biography, but a fictionalization of her life. I enjoyed it once I let go of the facts.

jane_austenHas blogging at both Austenprose and Jane Austen Today changed your perceptions of Austen’s work? Do you find yourself looking at the works in new ways after sitting down to write about them once more?

Writing intensely about Austen for two years has increased my knowledge and understanding incredibly. I have however, also learned from reader’s responses and reactions to her books and my opinions. We can sit at home and read the novels and watch the movies and have one experience, and then see so much more online by others’ opinions and insights. Austen is successful as an author because she is so observant and insightful into human nature. That is a great gift that one can apply to one’s own life, if you are paying attention. It may seem odd, but I do use her as a barometer in my life. I ask myself what would Jane do? and it works for me.

Almost 200 years after her death, Jane Austen’s novels continue to inspire dialogue and are exposed to new audiences constantly. Through blogging, have you been surprised by the number of Austen fans who comment, write in and engage in conversation with you today?

Not surprised in the least. Her audience is vast and she touches upon important topics that are applicable today: money, social status, morals, human foibles and strengths, and of course romance and love. Jane Austen has a very strong presence online because people are interested in her and her works and want to know more and chat about it. Oh, and some have homework assignments too!

mr_darcy_vampyreYou’ve read and reviewed many Austenesque sequels, including Mr. Darcy, Vampyre and The Other Mr. Darcy. Do you prefer that an author stick carefully to the parameters Austen established when writing their own novel, or do you like it when a novelist takes the characters in a totally new direction?

LOL! I have been accused of being too much of a Jane Bennet in my approach to Austen sequels. I do try to “make allowance enough for difference of situation and temper.” I admire authors for being creative and taking the risk to write a book inspired by one of the greatest authors ever. That is a tough act to follow. In my view, a sequel succeeds if it is respectful to the original author’s concept and characters. I like the traditional approach that follows Austen’s closely and also an adventure with new directions. Good writing will always win the day with me, be it parody or serious effort.

Without fail, I always find myself drawn to the scores from films inspired by Austen’s work. If Austenprose and Jane Austen Today had a soundtrack, are there any particular artists or songs one would expect to find on it?

The film scores of many of the adaptations are lovely. Some of my favorites are the soundtracks from Emma (1996) by Rachel Portman, Sense and Sensibility (1995) by Patrick Doyle, and Pride and Prejudice (1995) by Carl Davis. For fun I would throw in the You’ve Got Mail (1998) soundtrack too. I am, after all, a modern Janeite!

If you could sit down to tea with one of Austen’s characters, which would you choose – and, importantly, what would you drink?

Mary Crawford in "Mansfield Park" (1999)

Mary Crawford in "Mansfield Park" (1999)

Ok, this made me think more than a bit before I answered. I am fascinated with many of Austen’s darker characters. If you are surprised that they exist, they do, and in each novel. I would like to get inside Mansfield Park’s Mary Crawford’s head, understand her past, and her motivations. Some scholars say that Mary is the closest character to Jane Austen herself. Whoa, that is a bold statement that would curl the hair of her Victorian relatives. First, I would supplant Mary with a good amount of port before I got down to the nitty gritty. Spirits after all, are a great liberator of barriers. Who knows what she would reveal?

George Wickham from Pride and Prejudice would be fun too. But he would just want to shag, and not talk. Tempting, but not as enlightening.

And I have to ask: which theatrical portrayal of dashing Mr. Darcy do you hold closest to your heart?

I have enjoyed all of the Darcy actors so far. Now for the politically incorrect answer. I love David Rintoul’s interpretation of Mr. Darcy in the 1979 BBC/PBS 1979 miniseries of P&P because it is the closest to the novel and Austen’s intentions. On the other hand, I do lust after Colin Firth’s Mr. D. It is a more romanticized interpretation of the character, but on that score, I have no objections as long as he is on the screen, wet or otherwise.