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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Interview with Lynn Shepherd, author of Murder at Mansfield Park

[Note and apology (and irritation at Blogger): This interview should have posted on the 25th, as scheduled, with the rest of Lynn's pieces -- thanks, Blogger!
Very sorry, Lynn -- but how's about a little plug to compensate?  Lynn shepherd's Murder at Mansfield Park is pretty damn awesome, and I think you should go read it! :p]

Today we have a pretty fantastic interview with Lynn Shepherd, author of Murder at Mansfield Park; welcome Lynn!
Tell us a little bit about your motivation behind writing Murder at Mansfield Park; Fanny is notoriously Austen's least popular hero, and you've given us even more reasons to want to throttle her...
I first studied Mansfield Park for my school leaving exams at age 18, and even then I remember thinking how different it was from Pride & Prejudice. I found it hard to like Fanny then, and I kept wondering why Austen had made her the heroine, when she seemed to have such an obvious alternative in Mary Crawford! Even them, it seemed to me that there was another Mansfield Park struggling to get out, and one of the motivations for me was to see if I could unearth that ‘other’ Mansfield Park – something lighter and funnier, and more like Pride & Prejudice, with a heroine much more like Elizabeth Bennet, too. As for Fanny, even Jane Austen’s mother thought she was ‘insipid’, so it’s not just a modern preference for gutsier heroines. I must admit I’ve always loved that Kingsley Amis quote about her being a ‘monster of complacency and pride’, and it was enormous fun to take that quote and push it to its logical extreme.

Fanny's character is not the only shake-up in the book; you seemed to have played a little personality-switch game.  How did you decide who ended up with what personality, and do you have any desires to "reshake" them up and do another shuffle?
It was fun to play a little with the characters – playfulness in general is one of the things I hope people will find in this book. Some of Austen’s characters are so powerful I didn’t need to do much with them (like Mrs Norris), but I enjoyed making Edmund more human and vulnerable, and giving Henry Crawford a dangerous darker side. And it did make me laugh to turn Mr Rushworth from being the nonentity no-one bothers about, to the biggest hit with the girls! A lot of this, of course, comes down to the money, which is always so crucial in Austen. The minute you make Henry and Mary poor, and Fanny rich, the whole balance of power and influence shifts.

One of the things I most liked about your take on MP was that you didn't just use Austen's words and occasionally interpose your own to try to claim a "new" slant: this read like its own story, but with ties to the original, like an altiverse-Austen.  What was behind this decision, and how has the reception to this been?
I did work very hard to get the language right – I have an academic background, even though that isn’t my actual job - and I decided from the outset that if I was going to do this at all, I would do it properly! As for the idea of an ‘altiverse’, you’re right – it goes back to what I said about unearthing the ‘other’ Mansfield Park – the Mansfield Park Jane Austen could have written, but decided not to.  So far almost everyone has been really enthusiastic – of course there will always be some people who don’t like the idea of fiddling with classic works at all (though they should remember Austen did quite a bit of that herself!), but I’ve had a lot of truly wonderful feedback from the UK and Australia, where the book’s been out a couple of months now. I think readers can tell how much I love and respect Austen’s work, and that Murder at Mansfield Park has been written in that spirit.

You in effect had to write two different types of stories, one a literary period piece and one a murder mystery: what was this process like for you? How much research was involved, and what useful bits did you learn?

You’re right, the book broadly divides into an ‘Austen’ half, and a ‘murder’ half. The first part was very much about taking a new angle on the characters and episodes of the original – each time with a new twist. The research aspect of that was all about the language, and I genuinely did check just about every word, to make sure it was either used by her, or in use at the time.  Thank goodness that these days you can just download the novels and do a wordsearch! Though you still have to be careful, because a word may be there, but the way it’s used may be quite different. One of my favourite examples is ‘atmosphere’, which Austen only uses in the very narrow context of the weather, and not in a more general way as a synonym for ‘mood’ or ‘ambience’.  The second half of the book is much more ‘mine’, and that was enormous fun to write. I had to do a lot of reading about the criminal justice system in the early years of the 19th century - England had no police force then, and the victims of a serious crime like murder either had to rely on catching the perpetrator red-handed, or (if you could afford it) pay for a ‘thief taker’ to investigate it for them, which is what happens in the book.

Any plans to rework any of Austen's other work, or any other classics?

Not Austen next time, but possibly something similar with something else – watch this space!

If M@MP was to be made into a movie (and you had a say), who would you cast in the principal roles?
I would truly love to see Philip Glenister play Maddox – he’s a British actor who has exactly the right combination of bad boy charm and a dash of danger. US viewers may have seen in him the first series of the BBC Cranford. As for the others, I don’t have such strong views, so over to your readers – who would you like to see playing Fanny and Mary?

What rules should one follow to avoid being offed in a Regency murder mystery?

Try not to make yourself into a ‘monster of complacency and pride’!

Who is your favorite JA character?
I have to say Mary Crawford, but I also have huge admiration for Elinor Dashwood, and Captain Wentworth.

Favorite side-character?

Ones that make me laugh! Mrs Elton, Mr Collins.

Character you most want to shake?
Fanny Price – of course!

If you could visit any one location in one of Jane's novels – besides Pemberley! -- what would it be and why?

Probably Lyme Regis – I have been there, but it was a long time ago, and I’d love to go again.

Picture yourself as Charlotte (Lucas) Collins -- now, swallow back the horror of that and give us a brief idea of your day-to-day...How do you keep your sanity?

By finding Mr Collins interminable and arduous domestic tasks that keep him occupied from dawn till dark, and leave him too tired to do anything much thereafter….!

Would you rather spend the day with Lady Catherine or Mrs. Bennet?
Lady Catherine – it would be a delicious piece of civilized conversational duelling – I would certainly give that lady as good as I got!

Which "bad boy" would you rather end up with: Wickham or Willoughby?

If I can’t opt for my personal favourite, Henry Crawford, then Willoughby I think – but perhaps I’m being too influenced by an image of Greg Wise on a white horse!

You van have Greg Wise as long as I can have my Willoughby, Dominic Cooper.  Mmm...

Thanks, Lynn!!!


  1. Wow, sounds fantastic! I'm so glad Lynn Shepherd decided to write for Mansfield Park! I can't wait to see what happens! I don't mind people "playing" with Austen's work, as long as they are respectful!

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