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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Interview with Margaret C Sullivan, author of The Jane Austen Handbook

Margaret C. Sullivan is the author of The Jane Austen Handbook, and "editrix" of AustenBlog, which yeah, is as awesome as it sounds.
She dropped by for a chat, and to spread some awesome!  Check it out:

The "Serious" Stuff:
Why Jane?  What drew you to Jane initially, and what compelled you to compile the Handbook?

I love Jane’s humor and her honesty and her eye for observation. Mostly the humor—the books are funny! They are books about people, and people are very funny in their natural habitat.

As far as what compelled me to write the JA Handbook, I had a vague idea that, as a dedicated Janeite with a large library and being an aspiring author, I should write a book about Jane Austen (and people kept telling me I should do so). A couple years after I started AustenBlog (which is a blog about Jane Austen in popular culture), an editor at Quirk Books approached me to write the next book in their series of popular culture-inspired handbooks, which would be The Jane Austen Handbook. I loved the idea that I could put in real information but in a fun format with lots of humor. It was the book I wanted to write and didn’t know it.

If you could bring back any Regency rules, habits or ways of life, what would they be?

I would love to have all that leisure time that gentry ladies had to do needlework and read and write and stuff. With my luck, I wouldn't be a gentry lady, though, I would be a scullery-maid, and a smart-mouthed one who couldn't keep a situation and was always being turned off without a character.

Are there any you think are definitely better left in the past?
They can certainly keep their medical practices. They really knew next to nothing about medicine in those days, and many of the "treatments" were placebos at best and unnecessary, ineffective torture at worst; bloodletting being the main example.  And of course if Jane Austen lived in the later 20th century, she would likely not have died at 41.
No joke...

What are some of the difficulties in writing a story using established (and beloved) material?  And is anything sacred, or is it all fair game?
Janeiteland is a big tent, and you get all kinds of people from every background in it. Some of them will avoid follow-on works on general principles. That's okay—they have that right. There is a large group who welcomes such works, some more critically than others (which is also okay).

I personally feel that both in my writing and reading, the most successful works are those that follow the rules set by Jane Austen herself. If you’re playing in her sandbox, play by her rules. Pay very close attention to the originals and don’t impose your own viewpoints, morality, or values upon it. I know I am nicer (in the Henry Tilney sense of the word) than most other Janeites in that viewpoint.

In general, if a media work—book, film, or otherwise—comes from a place of knowledge and love of Jane Austen’s work, it will work well for the largest audience.  This includes parodies. Northanger Abbey is (among other things) a parody of “horrid” Gothic novels that were incredibly popular in her youth, and yet it is an affectionate parody—you can tell she read and really enjoyed the Gothics, though she also saw what was silly and ridiculous in them.

f you could completely rework any Austen character, who would it be and what would you make of them?
Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park. She has such great promise as your most fun BFF and then she ruins it by having no sense of morality whatsoever. I can forgive her a lot—but when she starts coldly calculating poor Tom Bertram's death so that her boyfriend, his younger brother Edmund, can become the heir of Mansfield, that's a bit much. And she does it in front of Edmund—speculating on his brother’s death! I would send her to stay with Elizabeth Bennet and learn from her. You can be fun and sassy and still a really good-hearted person who tries to do the right thing.

Jane has inspired an entire genre, which few authors can boast.  What do you make of it, especially the mash-up craze?  Are you a purist, modernist or mash-up-ist?
I'm certainly not a purist. While the JA Handbook is hardly a scholarly tome (and I am not capable of writing such a thing anyway), I also have written some fan fiction. I have a published sequel to Northanger Abbey called There Must Be Murder (it is a mystery in the same way that NA is a Gothic novel—that is, it only seems that way at first). As far as my reading goes, I prefer stories that show the author is very knowledgeable about the original novels. Amanda Grange's books are great in this way—she reads the originals carefully and in great detail. With the parodies, if the person writing it obviously knows his or her Jane and does it with love, I am likely to enjoy it.

What's your favorite scene you've ever written?

I wrote a very silly meta-thing called "The Very Secret Diary of Henry Tilney" on AustenBlog. It was a reaction to the most recent television film of Northanger Abbey, which I didn't care for. I thought Henry was kind of a weenie in it, mumbling about vampires and such, instead of being the smart, witty hunk he is in the novel. So in my meta-fic I made him a vampire slayer/slayer trainer with Catherine Morland as The One. In the final episode, Henry encounters "one of those sparkly American vampyres" who "whinged about having the skin of a monster." Henry is embarrassed for the pathetic creature and stakes it to put it out of its misery. A lot of people seemed to like that.

[pause for Jane-peeps to check out this bit of fun, which starts here, followed by copious LOLs.  Got it out of your system?  Moving on... ;P ]

If you could be a fly on the wall during any Austen scene, what would it be and why?
The scene in Persuasion in which Captain Wentworth is straining to overhear Anne Elliot and Captain Harville discussing the constancy of women, all the while writing the best love letter in Western literature, and everybody else in the room completely ignorant of the undercurrents.

What's next for you?
I have a short story in the anthology Jane Austen Made Me Do It, edited by Laurel Ann Nattress, which will be published by Ballantine in October (available for preorder!). My story is called “Heard of You”; it’s a sea story and a wee bit  romantic and features an adorably clueless 15-year-old Midshipman Frederick Wentworth. Otherwise, many pots on the fire, nothing ready to serve. Stay tuned!
[Note from Misty: You can enter to win a super early bound galley of Jane Austen Made Me Do It here!]

Quickfire Silly Stuff:

Your Regency Heiress name?

Will my Royal Wedding Name do? Lady Sophia Terrence-Fairdale. I'm wearing a tiara.

A tiara? Then it is acceptable. Favorite scene in all of Austen?
Captain Wentworth's letter to Anne Elliot. GOOSEBUMPS CHILLS TEARS ZOMG.

Your “truth universally acknowledged”?

Pictures of perfection make me sick & wicked. 

Jane, twitter-style: If you could tweet 1 message to Jane (140 characters or less) what would you say?

@jane_austen Do you know any Henry Tilneys you could send my way? #prettyplease #sadfangirl

So, I'm noting a theme on this Tilney thing. Too bad he's up against Darcy in the semi-finals of the Swoon-Off... Poor man doesn't stand a chance... (Go ahead. Prove me wrong.)
Give us some advice for 1 of Austen's characters (for example, advice to Charlotte on living with Mr Collins):

Charlotte doesn't need my advice. She has her man thoroughly under control. Brava!

I would advise Caroline Bingley to read some of the narration in P&P, for instance, the part about angry people being not only wise. Also to lower her sights a little; Mr. Darcy was always a bit above her touch.

Play matchmaker: Which 2 characters from different Austen novels would you pair up.
Follow up: give us a taste of their courtship or their life together.

I would like to find a nice girl for William Price, Fanny’s sailor brother. Perhaps there’s a younger Musgrove sister in Persuasion who has the fine naval fervor of her older sister Louisa. He could become close to the Musgrove clan—unlike the Prices, a fairly happy and prosperous family—and also perhaps gain some interest for his naval career from the family connections to Admiral Croft and Captain Wentworth.  She would probably be happy to be able to travel outside Somerset and see a bit of the world; I see Mrs. Croft and Anne Elliot Wentworth taking her under their wings. I like this story! Maybe I should write it. :-)

Your favorite Austen character?

Henry Tilney, the hero of Northanger Abbey. You might have figured that out already.
Favorite  "villain"?  

His brother, Frederick (nicknamed Tibby) because he is kind of hot and definitely redeemable. I have to write that fan fiction someday.

Character you most want to shake?

Captain Wentworth at the beginning of Persuasion when he is mean to Anne Elliot.

Character you'd least like to be related to?

John Thorpe from Northanger Abbey, because he is really annoying and is more trouble than help for his sister.

Would you rather:
-- be stranded on an island with Lady Catherine or Mr Collins?

Mr. Collins, because I could get him to wait on me and do all the work.
-- attempt to "reform" bad boy Henry Crawford or bad boy George Wickham?

Henry Crawford. Bad and rich > bad and poor. Ooh, good call.
-- have Lady Catherine or Mrs Bennet as a mother-in-law?

I'll remain a spinster bluestocking, thanks.

Thanks, Margaret! And fab answers, btw!
The Jane Austen HandbookAnd now, onto the goodies! One winner will receive a copy of The Jane Austen Handbook, courtesy of Quirk!
To enter:
Answer the following question, which I asked Margaret: If you could bring back any Regency rules, habits or ways of life, what would they be OR which are definitely best left in the past?
US only
Ends June 30th

Click to be taken to the Main Page & Schedule


  1. I loved this interview! Thanks for the heads-up about AustenBlog - I just checked it out and think it's great. Oh, and the letter scene in Persuasion...*swoon*! I never get sick of reading it. :) I'd tweet Jane and ask her for a Capt. Wentworth for myself!

  2. It seems in our current society we see so much rudeness, lack of common courtesy. Dress codes have slipped, even at funerals and weddings. I would love to see a return to decency and gentility.

  3. I would love to see just plain common courtesy come back. Everyone is so rude to one another these days and quick to pick a fight. Not that there were not rude people back then but now hardly anyone realizes how rude they can be it has become so common place.

  4. Loved this interview--looking forward to reading Cpt Wentworth as a 15 year old; like the Wm Price story premise too!

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Great interview! I'd like to see a return of good manners, common courtesy and letter writing. Texting and emailing is fast and convenient but nothing beats a thoughtful handwritten card or a real love letter.


  7. I would like to see people doing more with family and friends, rather than just sitting infront of the TV. Playing games, cards, reading, simply talking or going for walks together. Something that can allow one to think for themself, use their imagination or hold their attention.

  8. I would love to dress for dinner. This also would force people to eat together more instead of in front of the tv and bring about conversation.


  9. If you could bring back any Regency rules, habits or ways of life, what would they be OR which are definitely best left in the past? What i would love to see come back is common courtesy and good manners. What ever happened to being friendly and helping your neighbors? One thing that can stay in the past is where woman where owned/sold to men. I like having my rights!

  10. If I could bring back one thing from this time period, it would be MANNERS! Being a middle school teacher, I remind my students of this EVERY DAY!



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