Teatime Ten: Interview with Margaret C. Sullivan
Welcome to the inaugural "Teatime Ten" Interview Series with your favorite authors and bloggers from across the interwebs! This Tuesday, we're kicking things off with Margaret C. Sullivan, whose accomplishments include:
- Editrix of AustenBlog.com
- Author of The Jane Austen Handbook: Proper Life Skills from Regency England available from Quirk Books
- Author of There Must Be Murder, a sequel to Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, available from Girlebooks.com
- A contributing author to the forthcoming Jane Austen Made Me Do It from Random House's Ballantine Books
Hello, Margert! And welcome to the Teatime Ten! A quick survey of your work shows your love for Jane Austen. How did you come to discover her books?
I managed to get through AP English and several years of being an English major without reading any Jane Austen (I was more into 20th century American authors). People kept telling me I should read her books, and then one day I was in the bookstore and unable to find anything I really wanted to read. I saw a remaindered copy of Emma for a dollar or two and bought it. I read it, and liked it enough to buy a remaindered copy of Pride and Prejudice a few months later. I read that, and liked it enough to buy a non-remaindered copy of Persuasion. And then I fell in love. That was the book that made me a raging Janeite, and while I enjoyed the whole thing, it was The Letter that pushed me over the edge. Has there ever been so much expressed in so few words?
I guess it depends on who you are talking to. For someone (like your Hollywood type) who follows the trends, interest in Austen will always ebb and flow. For those of us who love her, she is always there for us. I could use a little peace and quiet from Hollywood, myself, though I know that some fans can't get enough of the films. But I think for the next few years, the auxiliary stuff (if you will) will be in book form, which will always be more of interest to dedicated Janeites than the world at large.
It's been interesting to watch the spread of the fandom across the Internet. I think the ease of making blogs and Tumblrs and with Twitter and Facebook, it's easy to connect with Austen fans who love the same things you do and in the same way. Things are not so concentrated as they were when I first came aboard.
And by "not so concentrated" you mean...?
I read NA fifth of the major novels (see above--I had also read S&S). In all of those novels, the fun, witty guy at the beginning always turned out to be a jerk. So I loved Henry from "distressed me by his nonsense" and then spent the rest of the novel waiting for the other shoe to drop. What was wrong with him? What was hidden? A natural child? Plagiarized sermons? Was the muslin thing more than it seemed? Imagine my relief and happiness when I got all the way to the end and learned that it's not just fun to love Henry Tilney, but it's the right thing to do.
Tell us a little bit about There Must Be Murder! What is the plot, and how did it pop into your mind?
I wrote the first chapter years and years ago. Originally it was going to be a real mystery with Captain Tilney accused of murder (and the Tilneys would never make it to Bath, because Henry would have to Fix Things). I wrote the first chapter thinking it would be fun to see the newlyweds' happy life before Everything Changed. I never got past the third chapter of that. But as I attempted to work out a mystery plot, it seemed to me that fixing a standard-model mystery onto Northanger Abbey would not work. A sequel to that book calls for lots of fun and adventure, not murder and tragedy, and I thought it would be funnier to make it a mystery like the original was a Gothic--in other words, that it looked like one, but wasn't really.
I really do want to write a Captain-Tilney-redeemed story at some point. I don't have anything specific in mind, though.
I had the original idea worked out and knew where it was going to go before I started writing it, though I did change the ending from what I originally planned--Catherine was really going to be abducted (due to the "misunderstanding" between her and Sir Philip) and Henry would have to rescue her, with the help of MacGuffin, of course! But after Catherine grew and changed so much in NA, I decided to let her solve her own problems and stand up for herself. I think some readers might have preferred the melodrama, but it seemed wrong to me. It is definitely harder to change an ending in mid-stream when the beginning of a story is already published! But I decided early enough on that I was able to lay things out the way I wanted.
Henry's factotum, Matthew. He has an interesting past, I think, and I would like to discuss it with him, and perhaps write a story about it. I've been told by many that he needs a romance of his own (and with someone better than Biddy). I have to agree with that.
I am a canonist at heart (as opposed to a purist; if I were a purist I wouldn't be countenancing this stuff at all). I feel like if I am playing in Jane's sandbox, I should play by her rules. I try to keep the characters as she wrote them--which entails very closely reading the originals and studying the story and characters. I also read non-fiction and literary criticism, which can help me better understand the originals.
It's interesting--people who don't read or like Austen paraliterature will commend me on my knowledge of the novels, and then are surprised to learn I know the novels so well from writing paraliterature. I felt like I had to really know the source material well before I could try to write anything based on it, or using the same characters.
I try to avoid melodrama for the most part, but do not always succeed! I think melodrama is the thing that really kills the Austen flavor, unless it's done with a tongue firmly in cheek. There is so little of it in Austen's novels--there is some, but not much.
I have done some stuff with the Royal Navy (my story in Jane Austen Made Me Do It is a Persuasion-inspired sea story) but I'd love to do more with the military and the battles of the time period. I don't know that I'm knowledgeable enough at this point to write something like that, though.
Most of my research has been done for something I was writing, so most of it has made it in somewhere!
You've been fortunate to work with Quirk, Random House and Girlebooks. You've also been one of the most visible bloggers/site owners for Austen fandom. What has been your experience working with both established and independent publishers? What has been the response?
I've been pretty fortunate with all my publishers! I don't know that there is much difference, really. Since the two main companies, Quirk and Girlebooks, are both fairly small operations, I can usually get hold of someone pretty quickly if I need something. Since I'm only one of many authors on the Jane Austen Made Me Do It project, and one of the lesser authors for that matter, I haven't had any direct contact with the company, but all the contact I've had with regards to editing and that sort of thing has been professional and pleasant.
When it comes to editing, I generally go along with nearly all the suggestions, because then when I really feel strongly about something, it's easier to fight for it if you haven't been fighting all along over stupid stuff. In other words, authors: pick your battles.
The reception for both the JA Handbook and TMBM have been great, both inside the fandom and out of it. Certainly the Handbook got a lot more attention from the mainstream press, and it has been very kindly received. And so far people seem to be enjoying TMBM, and Janeites seem glad to see something NA-inspired.
The Internet makes it both easier and harder for authors--there are more ways to publicize your books, but then you spend a lot of time publicizing your books on the Internet! Whether virtually or in "real life," I enjoy meeting readers. I'm hoping to meet some at the JASNA AGM this year--I'll be at the author signing on Sunday, and there is an event the same weekend in Forth Worth for JAMMDI.
Jane knows what's next! I hope we've seen it all! I'm told that P&P-based stories sell better than others, so we're always going to see a lot of Darcy, Darcy, Darcy, though I'm cheered by the recent stretching-out into other novels, and stuff not based so much on a particular novel as on Austen in general (like Laurie Viera Rigler's books).
I am still waiting for the Austen-based Wide Sargasso Sea - the paraliterature that is also literary. Don't expect me to write it; like Jane, if I couldn't relax into laughing at myself or other people, I would be hung before I finished the first chapter. I don't know what it would be, either. Colonel Brandon: The India Years, perhaps? That might be the problem right there: I think one would have to introduce a great deal of melodrama which, as I said, is rather antithetical to Austen. It works for the Brontes and Shakespeare, but maybe not so much for Austen.
I guess it's been more or less announced or hinted at, so I can talk about it...I'm annotating Sense and Sensibility to be published by Girlebooks/Librifiles this autumn, with illustrations by Cassandra Chouinard, who illustrated TMBM. Cassi is talented and has a great sense of humor and it really shows in her drawings. I think Janeites are really going to love this new edition of S&S! And I've developed a real girl-crush on Elinor Dashwood from spending a lot of time with S&S this year for various projects.
I have lots of ideas (both Austen-related and not) and finding the time and energy to work on them is a challenge! But I shall persevere!
Thanks so much for the interview!
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Full Disclosure: Margaret C. Sullivan is a fellow Girlebooks author, and encouraged me to publish "Nachtsturm Castle" through them. This interview is as much a "thank you" to a woman who's brought so many of us to love of Da Man, as well as an honour to bother her with questions!