Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Woman Who Became Jane Austen

A few months ago, I read a book that made me cry. In public. While I enjoy many of the books I read, many are passing fancies. As a I writer I've learned a trick or two and I can see plot twists and character revelations a mile away. But The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen by Syrie James swept me up and made me forget all about writing. After crying on a flight to Phoenix while reading the book, I emailed Syrie with the hope that she'd agree to a Q&A for the blog. She did and I hope after reading this interview that you'll enter to win a copy of this amazing book!

Chica Lit: When did you come up with the idea for The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen? Has this story been an idea in your head for a long time?

Syrie: The germ of the idea first occurred to me seven years ago, right after watching (for the umpteenth time) the Emma Thompson/Ang Lee movie, Sense and Sensibility and the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth—followed by Shakespeare in Love. I’d read and loved all of Jane Austen’s novels, some many times over, and I remember thinking: what about a love story for Jane Austen? Why hasn’t anyone done that? The idea evolved from there. I started reading every Jane Austen biography I could find. I poured over all of her existing letters. I was disappointed to discover that—according to historians—this brilliant woman, who gave the world such wonderful and romantic stories, never fell in love herself. I simply couldn’t accept that. Wasn’t it possible, I thought, that Jane Austen had a love affair that no one ever knew about?

I was also intrigued by the idea of Jane Austen’s genesis as a writer. According to her sister Cassandra, Austen wrote early drafts of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice in her twenties; how much, I wondered, did those manuscripts change when she revised them years later for publication? What part did real life events play in the development of her stories? When I decided to write this as a novel, I knew the story (since it was a secret romance) had to be told from Jane’s point of view—in her own words—so it became Jane’s journal, recently discovered—The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen. I spent an enormous amount of time researching and developing my story before I felt ready to write it.

Chica Lit: Were you intimidated to become the voice of Jane Austen? What did you do - using an actor's term - to get into character?

Syrie: I was definitely intimidated at first! I knew that, in order for this novel to be perceived as Jane Austen’s memoirs, I had to not only sound like her, but to create a story that was Jane Austen through and through, peopled with her unique roster of characters, and filled with her wit and sense of irony. To “get into character,” I read dozens of Jane Austen biographies, so that I’d know her life story inside out. I researched her era extensively. I watched all her movies. I even took English Regency Country Dance lessons! To “become her voice” (and the voices of her characters), I studied her letters in minute detail, reread her novels, all her juvenilia, and all her unfinished works, over and over and over again. When I finally started writing, her voice seemed to come naturally to me.

Chica Lit: I cried when Jane sees her dream of becoming a writer come true. Were you moved to tears and laughter as you wrote the story?

Syrie: Having suffered myself through all the usual rejections that come with the writing profession, it wasn’t such a huge leap to get inside Jane Austen’s head, and to imagine how she must have felt when her lifelong dream at last came true. I often find myself speaking my characters’ dialog aloud as I write; there were many times when I couldn’t help laughing or crying. Even now, every time I reread the book, my eyes well up with tears when I get to the end.

Chica Lit: Tell me about your career as a writer. You're a working screenwriter. Has your work been produced?

Syrie: My very first screenplay was quickly optioned, and I was hired to write several episodes for a lovely, heart-warming TV series called “Starman.” After that, my screenwriting career took off; I sold nineteen scripts (movies and one-hour dramas) in a variety of genres to Tri-Star Pictures, Fox Family Films, ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX TV. Hollywood typically develops a huge number of scripts that are shelved or put into turnaround. My experience was no exception, but I had a great time writing them, worked with some fascinating people, and five of mine actually got produced; my favorite (in addition to the “Starman” episodes, which have developed a cult following) is the movie “Once in a Lifetime” starring Lindsay Wagner and Barry Bostwick, which first ran on NBC, and now airs annually on the Lifetime Network. (My husband and I even have a cameo in the film.) My favorite script that didn’t get made was a Dolly Parton movie musical entitled “Heavens to Betsy.” I had such a fantastic time working with Dolly on that project!

Chica Lit: How did you select the supporting cast for The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen? Jane Austen-philes will recognize shades of her most famous/infamous characters in your story.

Syrie: Since most writers tend to write about what they know, I looked for ways to project traits and characteristics from the “infamous” characters in Austen’s fiction, onto the people in her real life, as well as the characters I created. For example: based on repeated references in Jane Austen’s letters, her mother was a hypochondriac; Jane created several whiney hypochondriacs in her novels, which gave me a great model to follow. I knew I had to have an odious clergyman, a well-meaning but interfering matron, and a flighty, insipid, self-involved young woman; the fun was deciding when and how to use them.

Chica Lit: What's next?

Syrie: I’m busy maintaining my website at … and I'm researching and writing my next book for Avon: a love story for Charlotte Brontë (another one of my favorite writers.) As you can imagine, I’m having a fantastic time “being” Charlotte!

ATTENTION BLOGGERS: If you would like to review The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen on your blog, email Syrie, mention the name of your blog, and she'll draw the name of the winner! ***Mary goofed and should've told you that the deadline is Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2007!


Erica Orloff said...

This was a great Q&A--and it sounds like a fabulous book.


Bethany said...

This totally sucks! I tried to send a message to Syrie so I can enter the contest and I got banned from her website (PERMANENTLY!). Maybe it was the mention of my blog?!? Ugh...

Ah well, from one writer to another, I'm gonna just go out and buy this one. ;-) Can't wait to read it!

Joanna D'Angelo said...

I'm looking forward to reading this one! Thanks for the Q and A

Mary Castillo said...

Thanks Erica!

Bethany, that's terrible! I'll let Syrie know.

Hi Joanna, thanks for stopping by!

Mary C.

Syrie James said...

Thank you to everyone who left comments, and I do hope you enjoy the book! Bethany, I'm so sorry you had a problem leaving a message on my website. The program asks you to enter a number that's displayed, to prevent automated spam. I've just tested the site several times and it seems to be working fine. I don't know why you were locked out. Please try again to leave me a message! I'll post my favorite messages on my Reader's Page, and send one winner a beautiful leather bookmark from Jane Austen's House/Museum at Chawton, England. Take care!
Syrie James...

Bethany said...

It's okay syrie... I'll just buy the book. I can't even go to your guestbook page anymore. Just says I am permanently banned! (yikes! that just sounds awful).

Aw, well, at least I still get to browse the rest of your website. ;-)