Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Q&A with Tirzah Price




Tirzah Price is the author of the new young adult novel Manslaughter Park, a retelling of Jane Austen's classic Mansfield Park. Price's other novels include Pride and Premeditation, also part of her Jane Austen Murder Mystery series. A senior contributing editor at Book Riot, Price lives in Iowa.


Q: In Manslaughter Park’s Author’s Note, you write, “If I had to rank all of Jane Austen's books, Mansfield Park would probably come in as my least favorite.” Did your opinion of the book change as you wrote your retelling?


A: Honestly, Mansfield Park is still probably my least favorite of all of Austen’s work, but I definitely acquired a deeper appreciation for the story and characters as I re-read the book so many times and retold it.


Fanny catches a lot of flak for being meek and never standing up to her horrid family, but spending so much time with the original book made me stop and consider how a girl raised in poverty and then sent to her wealthy aunts and uncle at a young age, where she was mistreated and always made to feel as though they’d send her away at any time, might not be the best at standing up for herself in a vocal way, like Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse might.


And in my closer readings, I saw that she really does have a strong sense of morals and what is right. While I think sometimes some of her opinions come across a little bit self-righteous, I appreciate that she stands up for what she believes in and is savvy enough to recognize that what Henry Crawford is offering her isn’t a Cinderella story, but another form of entrapment.


Her preoccupation with propriety really makes sense when you consider that at that time, women really only had wealth, connections, and their reputations to commend them to society. As Fanny has no wealth, it makes sense that she’s keenly aware of her own reputation and that of her family’s.


Q: As you were working on the book, what did you see as the right balance between Austen's Mansfield Park and your own version of the story?


A: This was a difficult thing as in reading Mansfield Park, I would often get frustrated that Fanny feels rather passive—she allows things to happen to her, and she’s always in the corner watching the drama unfold.


There are so many moments in the original where Fanny is wronged—from Mary Crawford taking her horse to everyone abandoning while visiting Sotherton—that I always wished she’d finally snap and stand up for herself! In writing mystery fiction, you simply can’t have a protagonist be that passive. There would be no investigation, no stakes, no story.


So my difficulty in balancing my own version with Austen’s original was making Fanny convincingly active in the story while still staying true to her character, which is someone who doesn’t willingly want to rock the boat.

It took a few drafts to get that just right, I think, and the result is that my Fanny is a little more active, although reluctant to drawn into a murder mystery, and part of her journey is learning that it’s okay to allow herself to feel her negative emotions and stand up for herself.


Q: The Kirkus Review of the novel says, in part, that “choosing a less-popular Austen novel frees Price to take narrative risks and detours that enliven the proceedings.” What do you think of that assessment?


A: I’m happy that they think the risks enliven the proceedings! It was fun to play around in the Mansfield Park world, even if there were some challenges.


To a certain degree, I think there are fewer people coming to Manslaughter Park with set expectations about the basic story beats because not as many people have read the original novel. That means you can have a bit more fun with it without (hopefully) angering your Austen fans.


There are also fewer Mansfield Park retellings out there (although shout out to a great one—Hearts, Strings, and Other Breakable Things by Jacqueline Firkins) so I think there is more room to play.


I think it’s one of those novels that’s difficult to translate for a more modern audience because understanding the story really depends on understanding the very particular rules and etiquette of the time period, which the casual reader will not always do.


The most obvious example is that Edmund Bertram is Fanny’s love interest in the original and he’s her first cousin—perhaps not so shocking 200 years ago, but there is no way that will fly with modern audiences, especially YA audiences. So to a certain extent, I had to change up some details and I hope that they add to the story rather than take away from it.


Q: What is your favorite Jane Austen novel, and why do you think her books have remained so popular after two centuries?


A: It sounds basic, but I love Pride and Prejudice, closely followed by Emma. My entry into Austen was initially through movie and TV adaptations, where I think the emphasis is often on the romance, and romanticizing the time period.


It wasn’t until I was older and started reading Austen with a more critical lens that I could see her books were satirical and often a very incisive view of society and women’s place in society.


And I think that’s a big reason why her work continues to be so popular—a lot has changed since 1813, women can own property and vote and work. But the sexism and the societal constraints are still there, and women still pursue marriage and some can feel trapped by the institution, the particulars have just evolved.


And I think readers can really relate to Austen’s characters and their pursuit of happiness on their own terms, which has always struck me as very feminist, even if Austen might not have identified as a feminist.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I just wrapped up a draft of a sequel to Pride and Premeditation, starring Lizzie and Darcy in a brand-new murder mystery. I’m really excited to get to revising!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I hope that people will enjoy Manslaughter Park, and Pride and Premeditation and Sense and Second-Degree Murder. You do not have to have read the classics first to enjoy them, and you don’t need to read them in order!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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