Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Q&A with Natalie Jenner

Natalie Jenner is the author of the new novel The Jane Austen Society. A career coach and consultant to law firms, she founded the independent bookstore Archetype Books in Oakville, Ontario.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Jane Austen Society, and what did you see as the right blend between the actual people who created the society and your fictional characters?

A: I sort of back-ended into writing this book!

I had been coping with a very difficult medical diagnosis for my husband by rereading Jane Austen, whose works have always comforted and calmed me, and then found myself wanting to read and understand more about Jane herself, especially given the difficult circumstances (poverty, grief, crippling ill-health) under which she had written.

I was also at the time binge-watching a ton of British period dramas, including Downton Abbey.

When my husband’s health started to stabilize and we could look forward again, I was very surprised to feel both hope and the impulse to creatively write. At first I thought I would write a book about a group of people who come together to save an old British estate house.

And then one day, after attending a conference in Philadelphia on Jane Austen, everything came together and I knew the book would be about her cottage, which is now the Jane Austen’s House Museum.

But even though I knew that the first real-life Jane Austen Society had started in 1940 with the mission to acquire this cottage, I wanted my book to be a work of fiction that explored themes of grief and community, and how a shared passion can bring different people together.

Most of all, given where I was myself in life at the time, I wanted my characters to emerge from past loss and trauma with a sense of newfound hope and purpose.

Because I was not trying to document the real historical founding and purpose of the Society, I very quickly decided to fictionalize everyone involved, so that I would not be constrained by the real-life events and arcs of the original founders’ lives, or disrespect them in any way.

And because I don’t plot or outline before I write, this approach also liberated me to follow my characters in whatever directions they chose to go.

Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?

A: My research for the book was primarily unintentional, as it stems from all the reading I was doing for pleasure and distraction during that difficult time. This was a new experience for me, because usually I research as I write.

But I do think that a lot of what I learned, and was surprised by, seeped into some critical aspects of the plot.

For instance, I had not intended for a Hollywood film actress to be part of the society. But when I started writing the auction scene in Chapter Three, I recalled the wonderful story of singer Kelly Clarkson acquiring Austen’s turquoise ring at auction (now part of the museum’s own collection through a fascinating chain of events).

This made me appreciate how Austen’s fans have historically traversed all strata of society, income, and education, and this emboldened me to include a film star in the plot.

The other thing that surprised me was the extent to which men had been some of her earliest and most influential fans, and I wanted to also pay homage to that in my book.

This is one reason why, I think, the farmer Adam and the auctioneer Yardley are two of the most rabid and literal Austenites among my characters.

Q: What first intrigued you about Jane Austen’s writing, and do you have a favorite book?

A: I think the very first thing that intrigued me about her writing was how remarkably fresh it sounded, especially to my 12-year-old mind reared on Nancy Drew and Happy Days. I was definitely a precocious reader as a child, but even back then I felt her books had an immediacy and clarity of voice, and such wonderfully human and recognizable characters.

My favourite of Austen’s books is Pride and Prejudice, but with Emma almost too close to call. With both books there is such a range of comic characters and tales of personal growth to learn from, but at the heart of each pulses a romantic love story that always sweeps me away, no matter how many times I read it.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?

A: It’s very simple, in a way, and it’s set out near the end of the book: that sometimes it feels like everything we are holding onto in life has been stripped away, or lost, and that hope is all we are left with. But that sometimes—and I am living proof of this—hope can also be just enough.

The key thing is not to give up, but to do the absolute minimum you can to keep moving forward—whether that be by reaching out to a new experience or new person in your life, or even something as simple as trying a new type of book.

One never knows where anything might end up leading to in life, but the only way to get there is to keep moving forward.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I seem to gravitate towards stories with large casts of characters, usually set in the past, at least far back enough not to have to deal with iPhones and other advances in technology! Thematically I am also very interested in the role of both place and art in our lives.

This awful pandemic situation we are dealing with has brought home to me, all the more, how important culture is, and how lucky we are that people before us, often under similarly distressing circumstances, have created art that we still enjoy today—or saved little bits of history for us to visit and take solace from.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: One thing I am particularly excited about is the audiobook narration of The Jane Austen Society, by British actor Richard Armitage. I have listened to a clip from Chapter One, and I honestly can say that no one could have done a better job narrating my book.

Of course, Mr. Armitage was slightly set up to succeed in that area, only because I heard his voice in several of my male characters as I wrote!

This is just one of many examples of the dreams made true by the interest in, and support of, my book, and I can’t wait to share it with the world.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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