Reading While Human

This week I read a wonderful essay titled “Reading Jane Eyre While Black”  that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. Not only does it compare two of 19th -century England’s most fascinating writers — Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen — but it hits on many of the issues I’ve been thinking about lately. About authorial intent, and how there will always  be something a little mysterious about it, even to the author. Also how as both readers and writers we bring our own biases, both the known and unknown, to the page.

Tyrese L. Coleman makes many interesting points along the way, but one key theme is how “Jane Eyre” has been ruined for her by Bronte’s depiction of Bertha Mason, whose craziness and evil is inextricably linked to her West Indian origins and implicit blackness. Continue reading

When Ideas Acquire Solidity, Part II

Almost five years ago now, I wrote about the strange feeling of going to the a local copy shop to print out copies of my novel in preparation for a manuscript workshop. More specifically, about the strange feeling of walking out of the store with them, that something existing only in my mind had now taken a physical form, had become a thing that existed in the world, like a rock or a highway or a batch of cookies cooling on the counter. Continue reading

Get Obsessed, Stay Obssessed

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When the idea first seized me of writing a book about time travel and Jane Austen, I realized that despite being a fan of her work, I knew  little about her life or her England. There was no way around it: I had to do some research. I joined the Jane Austen Society of North America, impressed that there actually was such a group, and started attending meetings of my local chapter. I got an alumni library card and read my way through the Jane Austen shelves at Barnard. My need for more obscure and specialized knowledge about things like the history of housekeeping and slavery-era Jamaica  led me to the New York Public Library reading room and online collection. To great websites  like  Two  Nerdy History GirlsJane Austen’s WorldJane Austen’s London, and many others. In search of atmosphere, I went to  London, Bath, Winchester and Chawton. Also, oddly, Dublin,  better than London for trying to imagine 1815 London, with its streets and streets of Georgian terraced houses and the excellent Number 29 house museum.  I set up Google alerts so as not to miss any Jane Austen news.

When I look back on all this,  I think of a line from John Irving’s weird masterpiece The Hotel New Hampshire: “You’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed.” And when I look back on all this, there seems a kind of innocence, an undergraduate assurance that if one could only learn enough about a subject, the rest would fall into place.

Still. Did I over-prepare? Probably.  Did I need to read that many biographies? Probably not. There are all kinds of ways of not writing, and research is a great one, because it’s so respectable. There is no possible world in which this amount of time spent on one entertaining but slight novel could make any sense, economically or artistically. Not unless love or its mysterious twin, obsession, enters the picture.

For in the end, it boils down to time. Given varying lifespans — but we don’t know that part ahead of time — we are all equal in our allotment of 24 hours to a day, seven days to a week, 365 days to a year. We are crying babies, curious toddlers, restless teenagers and so on, until we look in the mirror one day, surprised to find ourselves trapped in the body of an old person.

You cannot conquer time. Unless, maybe, to lose yourself in something to such an extent that time ceases to have its usual dominion.  It’s passing as always, but you don’t notice. The world just goes on without you, people dying and being born and seeking public office. And that, I see now, was the real gift of my multiyear obsession with Jane Austen.  Not the novel I ended up with, but the experience of writing it.  Not in the finding, but in the seeking.

Rabbit or Writer: On Authenticity

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I have an agent. I wrote a novel that sold to a Big 5 publisher. I  belong to two writing critique groups, and I live in Brooklyn. Yet when one of my newer writing critique group members asked me if I’d been to any residencies — not in a judging way, but in a friendly, encouraging tone — I froze, as if this were a trick question; a veiled insult; a failure of tact. But only people like you go to those, I thought but could not say. Real writers. Not only have I not gone to one; it would never occur to me to apply! Not that I wouldn’t want to —  just like I’d like to go horse trekking in Mongolia. Equally dreamy, equally improbable.

But later I started to think over this exchange, and to wonder. What would it take for me, like the Velveteen Rabbit, to become real? What does it take for anyone? Continue reading

Jane Austen and the Author Photo

by Cassandra Austen, pencil and watercolour, circa 1810
by Cassandra Austen, pencil and watercolour, circa 1810

Jane Austen died on this date in, 1817,  not in possession of an author photo. This sketch by Cassandra is the most we know  about  what she looked like. I would say that I am fine with that, except I wrote an entire book in the effort to imagine what Jane Austen was  like, so clearly I am not.

I’ve been thinking about the  notion of the author photo a lot lately, a strange artifice that I had until recently accepted as a given: Continue reading

‘Eligible’ and the Tradeoff of Updates

eligible-by-curtis-sittenfield-2016-x-200 I stayed up too late reading “Eligible”;  I snorted with laughter; I rejoiced in Curtis Sittenfeld’s clever updates  to plot points in the original and in her cool, dry wit.

Sittenfeld, an accomplished creator of her own plots and characters, here  was given the literary counterpart of a paint-by-number kit: Austen’s people, Austen’s plot, Austen’s wit. But make it modern, please.

Some things are obviously funny, like making Lydia and Kitty crass devotees of CrossFit and paleo diets; others more subtly so, Continue reading