Austenesque Reviews is excited to welcome Jennifer Petkus, who has graciously answered some questions of mine about writing, Jane Austen, and her novel Jane, Actually – a science fiction Austenesque tale that creates a world where the dead can still communicate with the living via the internet! The premise of this story centers around Jane Austen, who is able to communicate online, complete the unfinished manuscript of Sanditon, and go to various places like the JASNA Annual General Meeting! Thank you so very much, Jennifer, for your time and participation in this interview!
Thank you, Meredith, for giving me and other Austen authors a place to explain our fascination with Jane Austen, and of course, thank you for reviewing Jane, Actually.
My pleasure! Why don’t we start by talking about yourself a little, Jennifer. I understand you are a fan of Jane Austen, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and science fiction. When did you fall in love with Jane Austen?
I started reading the stories of Conan Doyle as a teenager, but I’m relatively new to Jane Austen. When we booked our trip to Bath, England, in 2011, I wasn’t yet a Janeite, or else I wouldn’t have scheduled it for one week before the Jane Austen Festival. By the time we arrived in Bath, I was already scouting locations for an Austen inspired book.
I first encountered Austen when PBS ran all those Austen adaptations, perhaps in 2009 or 2010. However, I think I was preparing to fall in love with Jane long before then. I think I had reached that age in my life when I had the maturity to appreciate romance. That sounds odd, I know, but when I was younger, I only read science fiction. As I matured, I started reading mysteries. As I got older stiller, I began to appreciate history. And after watching all those Austen adaptations, I realized that in Austen, you have the science fiction of the past—the past is a foreign country truism—and the mystery of romance—what makes a person fall in love. And I became mature enough to appreciate that romance is not a silly thing that can only be appreciated by teenage girls or women of a certain age. I began to desire romance, although coincidentally, I am now a woman of a certain age.
I read all I could of Austen, and then the continuations and then the mysteries and I wanted to contribute. I’d already written in 2005 Good Cop, Dead Cop, my first book about the AfterNet, where the dead can communicate online, but I didn’t immediately think of putting Jane online. I was also reluctant to swim with the big fish, so I created a little backwater where I combined Jane Austen and Sherlock Holmes in my book, My Particular Friend. I thought it a unique combination that would not have me conflicting with established Jane Austen fan fiction authors.
So glad you found your way to Jane, Jennifer! What inspired Jane, Actually? In your novel you give Janeites something we’ve always wanted – the ability to communicate with Jane Austen! What prompted your fictional world of the Afternet and the capabilities of the disembodied?
There’s something about Austen’s use of free indirect discourse that makes me feel like she’s talking to me. I was essentially an only child. My half siblings, a brother and sister, are older than me by 20 and 15 years, so I missed having a sister close enough in age to be a confidante. Austen’s narrator almost feels like a sister who leans over to make a smart remark. In Pride and Prejudice, she seems like a sister near to my age. In Persuasion, she seems like a slightly older sister. Sometimes she’s a sister I can’t quite trust, like Isabella Thorpe regaling Catherine Morland with details from the latest Gothic thriller. Sometimes she’s a more sober sister, like Elinor Dashwood.
And yet despite the intimacy I formed with Austen’s narrator, she’s third person, disembodied. She remains unknowable, like Austen herself, and I think these are the reasons I thought Jane Austen would be a perfect fit for the world of the AfterNet. I envisioned a Jane I could finally talk to and yet who would always be at a remove.
As to what prompted my creation of the AfterNet, the origins can be traced to several sources: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, specifically the scene where Scrooge sees the souls tortured because they’d lost the ability to interfere for good; Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld series; and Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, about a sentient computer.
I love how you feel Jane Austen is speaking to you as a sister in all her books! And yes, she does seem to be intimate but unknowable. Speaking of being unknowable, in your book, Jane Austen deals with many “misconceptions and fallacies” about her character and life. But until such a day where we can communicate with the disembodied, much of Jane Austen’s life will remain a mystery. What do you think are some truths and some falsehoods about the real Jane Austen? And what is one mystery about her life that you are dying to know the answer to?
It’s very easy to forget that Jane Austen was a real person. Since her death, she’s been deified or made into a too cunning observer of the political and economic landscape of Regency England or praised past the point I think she would have found comfortable.
As for being the divine Jane or Saint Jane, consider this comment to her sister in a letter: “Mrs Hall of Sherborne was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, ow[e]ing to a fright. I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.” We laugh at it now, but it’s a nervous laugh. I hope I would never make such a joke of anyone, but I suppose it’s the fear that I might that connects me to a very real and not very nice Jane Austen.
As to my second point: although I do think Austen was an intelligent observer of her times, it’s interesting how the lens of history alters our perception. Consider this—you might despair of a friend who knows too much about Miley Cyrus or who can spout the latest meme or who keeps sending you cat videos. And you might also dismiss as shallow an author who based her heroine on a popular movie star.
At the recent JASNA AGM, however, Jocelyn Harris argued in her talk, Introducing Elizabeth Bennet, that Austen may have based her portrayal of Lizzie on Dorothea Jordan, an actress and the mistress of the Duke of Clarence—in other words, a celebrity. Now if this is true, it doesn’t make Austen any less a keen observer of her times, it just makes me realize we’re all keen observers of our own times.
And now to my last point, that Austen has been praised past the point she would find comfortable. Calling her a genius or second only to Shakespeare is certainly justifiable, but my opinion of Austen, and how I tried to portray her, is that she’d laugh at such praise.
I like to think of her as a craftswoman, meticulously honing her skill, suffering her disappointments and prevailing because she did not give up. Although the manuscript for Pride and Prejudice has not survived, I like to think that toward the end of Chapter 1 of Volume III, she first wrote “Yet her aunt moved slowly …” scratched that out, wrote “Yet her aunt moved apace …” and scratched that out before finally writing “Yet time and her aunt moved slowly—and her patience and her ideas were nearly worn out before the tête-à-tête was over.” I can see her sit back and chuckle, taking pure delight in crafting that sentence. Every author has had the same experience, and recognizing that makes her a real person to me.
As far as the one mystery I’d like to know the answer to … well I think every Austen fan wonders whether she’d experienced a great love. Of course if we knew that she never did, what an even greater mystery that would be.
What an excellent answer! I loved your depiction of Jane Austen and the many accessible and normal attributes you give her. Another thing I loved about your novel was the many fun and entertaining scenes we got to witness! Jane Austen meeting Colin Firth, interviewing possible candidates to be her avatar, the showdown at the AGM, and the dance at the ball – do you have a favorite? Which scene would you say was the hardest to write?
Meeting Colin Firth was fun to write because afterward, I almost felt as if I had met him. Bringing Jane to Denver, however, was the most fun, especially her reading Sanditon at the Tattered Cover Book Store. Later, I got to read from my book at the Tattered Cover in the same room as Jane.
The hardest scene to write was the ball at the AGM. There had to be a ball, of course, but it took me a long time to invent the fiction of how two disembodied people could dance in the same way that Elizabeth and Darcy did at the Netherfield Ball.
How lovely that you got to experience something so identical to one of scenes you wrote! What is next for you? Will there be any more Austenesque novels by Jennifer Petkus for us to enjoy?
Yes, I’m writing the sequel to My Particular Friend, tentatively titled Our Mutual Friends, and I’m writing the sequel to Good Cop, Dead Cop, called The Background Noise of Souls. I’m also working on an untitled story where Sherlock Holmes, eighty years after the events in Emma, has to clear Harriet Martin neé Smith of accusations that she murdered Mrs. Elton.
OOOH! That last one sounds very intriguing! Yo killed off Mrs. Elton? Nice. 😉 How about we switch it up with some Quickfire Questions:
– Which Jane Austen character do you best identify with?
Fanny Price, of all people. I’ve always been afraid to have fun and I can empathize with her fear of being dragged into the play.
– Which Jane Austen character do you intensely dislike?
– What is one of your favorite quotes from Jane Austen’s novels?
“We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.” —Fanny Price
– What is one of your favorite quotes from your novel?
“What poor love can two ghosts have?”
– What would your reaction be to news of a disembodied Jane Austen trying to claim her identity?
I would be extremely doubtful, just as I am with all the purported portraits of Austen. I like her essential unknowable-ness. In the same way, I never want to learn the prosaic solution to the mystery of the Mary Celeste or Oak Island. It is more fun to speculate.
– If Jane Austen were indeed able to write more novels, what novel would you love to see her write?
Foremost would be Sanditon, of course, but I also think Austen might enjoy writing magical realism, in the style of someone like Robertson Davies. I think her narrative style would easily allow her to step slightly aside of mundane reality.
Thank you so much for participating in this interview, Jennifer! It has been a real treat to have you answer my questions!! Best of luck with the release of Jane, Actually!
Jennifer generously brings with her THREE copies (1 paperback and 2 ebooks) of her new release Jane, Actually for me to give away to THREE lucky readers. WOOT WOOT! (Paperback is open to US residents only)
To enter this giveaway, leave a comment, question, or some love for Jennifer!
- This giveaway is open worldwide (paperback for US residents, ebook for international readers). Thank you, Jennifer!
- This giveaway ends October 16th!
Want to double your chances of winning? Read my review (coming Friday) of Jane, Actually and leave some love!