Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Q&A with Norah Woodsey




Norah Woodsey is the author of the new novel The States, a modern retelling of Jane Austen's Persuasion. Woodsey's other books include The Control Problem.


Q: Why did you decide to write an update of Jane Austen’s Persuasion?


A: To be honest, The States did not start out as a Persuasion retelling. The manuscript began as a NaNoWriMo in Fall 2020, when I needed a break from my hard sci-fi novel, The Control Problem.


I revisited it after that book came out, and I realized what was best in the manuscript was all very referential to Persuasion. I decided that I needed to either commit to making it a Persuasion retelling, or change it into something else. 


I reread the novel and thought about what to do. Like many of Austen’s works, Persuasion has interesting commentary on class, gender, and family dynamics, but on rereading the novel again, I focused more on a mystery.


Who was Lady Elliot? Why would someone so kind and rational end up with someone so abusive, vain, and irresponsible? And her death instigates Anne’s misery but we never learn details.


When I thought more about Lady Elliot and her relationship to Anne, I decided to push forward with an honest retelling. I kept portions of my original manuscript as Tildy’s dream sequences and many scenes in her romance with Aidan, but essentially rewrote the rest, motivated by this relationship between Tildy and her mother.


Q: What did you see as the right balance between Austen’s characters and your own version as you were writing the novel?


A: Modernizing an Austen story is so tricky. Many of the social limitations and motivations experienced by those characters no longer exist. Women can have their own lives independent of their fathers and husbands.


But some things, like familial abuse, vanity, and irresponsible wealth remain the same. Anne’s sisters and father were very easy to translate to modern society.


Mr. Elliot, whose cousinhood had to be abandoned (of course), was an interesting challenge to tackle. What would motivate a person who sees through this family to ingratiate himself with them? And what would a modern Anne Elliot see in a person like that?


There were some challenges from a storytelling perspective. Saving a Mrs. Smith to nearly the end of the story would be a hard sell. I wanted this book to be enjoyable even if the reader were unfamiliar with Persuasion, and so I kept with modern character introduction expectations.


Still, this is a Persuasion retelling and I needed to honor Austen’s work. With that in mind, it was crucial to start with Patrick Sullivan, the Sir Walter of my story, right from the get-go. He is a black hole that Tildy cannot free herself from, like Anne and Sir Walter.


You can’t appreciate the story without really knowing the patriarch of this family, and how he affects everyone in his orbit. 


Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: I chose The States pretty early on. “The States” was how Irish friends and family referred to the USA, but I also wanted to reference how the characters exist in various states of being. Dreaming and awake, acceptance and rejection, romance and perpetual estrangement.


Navigating these fluctuating modes is part of the challenge for Tildy and, to a certain extent, Aidan.


Q: A review on IndieReader.com called the book a “beautiful and thoughtful modernization of Jane Austen’s Persuasion that explores a modern heroine’s discovery of the difference between fantasy and agency.” What do you think of that description?


A: First off, I am very flattered! The goal of this book, even before I realized it was a Persuasion retelling, was to bring beauty and escape to a reader. I wanted to create something that showed a path through self-inflicted isolation to acceptance and joy.


A common theme in all of my work, from dark science fiction to romance, is a woman’s self-discovery, seizing her own power and letting go of what holds her back, whoever she is.


That was one of the things that drew me to Persuasion as a reader. Even though marriage is, as always, the escape hatch for the heroines in Austen stories, in Persuasion Anne reclaims power she had forsaken. It’s so compelling and joyful, and I hope readers find that in my version as well. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m writing a sequel to my 2018 sci fi novella, When the Wave Collapses. I don’t want to give too much away, but it is a woman’s breakup/roadtrip story set within modern space travel. I’m excited to use my history degree again! It’s been a long time since I published my last historical novel. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: For those who prefer audiobooks, that version of the novel should be out in May. This came together pretty quickly and I’m so thrilled! It is performed by an actor from Galway and it sounds fantastic so far. Can’t wait to share more soon!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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