Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Jane Austen Week: Day 2 - Q&A with Kathleen A. Flynn

Welcome to Jane Austen Week, Day 2!

One of the many pleasures of being a writer is getting to meet other writers. I haven't had the pleasure of getting to meet author Kathleen A. Flynn in person, but I was a third of the way through her debut novel, The Jane Austen Project, when I was in the planning stages of Jane Austen Week.

With its mix of Jane Austen, time travel, and philosophical speculation, it landed squarely in my reading sweet spot. In a nutshell, time travelers Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane are sent to 1815 to recover Jane Austen's letters to her sister Cassandra, as well as a previously undiscovered completed manuscript. But their objective becomes messy as they become involved with Jane's social circle and begin to notice small changes in the historical timeline. And after a while, Rachel  a doctor  begins to wrestle with the mysterious illness that ultimately takes Jane's life.

Intrigued? So was I! After all, Jane Austen Week is all about the 200th Anniversary of Jane's passing; a celebration of her life's work. And because the plot of The Jane Austen Project centers very much on Jane's life, the looming reality of her death, and what might have happened if history had unfolded differently, I'm thrilled Kathleen could participate!

Hillary Manton Lodge: The Jane Austen Project opens in what feels like the near future. While you’re very specific about the historical dates, Rachel and Liam’s present day is hazier. Why is that? When do you think they’re originally from?

Kathleen A. Flynn: Great question! I wanted to be very specific about 1815 and more vague about the world Rachel and Liam had come from, because I wanted to leave some space for the reader’s imagination to roam. And because I did not want the story to be about the world they came from. Their world is not our world at some point in the future; it would be more helpful to think of it as an alternate possible world, where certain features of our own world are taken to a logical (or absurd) extreme.

HML: Almost immediately upon arriving in Regency England, Rachel and Liam come across a grisly remainder of local justice. The stakes are high from the very beginning, and we’re very aware that this isn’t the BBC’s 19th century England. What were your intentions when it came to writing a portrayal of that time period?

KAF: I was interested in challenging the romantic, idealized image of life in Regency England. Especially because of the dominance of movie versions of Austen’s novels, it’s easy to picture life there as quite idyllic. Which it was in some ways, particularly if you were rich, and a man, and white, and the proper sort of Protestant. But even for those fortunate ones, there were a lot of unpleasant, unsanitary aspects of life that the movies – and Austen novels too – tend to gloss over. I wanted to explore how all this would seem to someone not used to it, which was why I needed time travelers.

HML: I can see that - Rachel in particular functions really well as an audience surrogate, but is still interesting in her own right. The blend of genres works really well. As both a work of science fiction and historical fiction, what kind of research did The Jane Austen Project involve?

KAF: Rachel and Liam are new to 1815 – they take nothing for granted, and we are seeing this world through their eyes. I needed to know things like what people ate, how they traveled around, bought clothing, and found servants. I researched what the customs of socializing would have been, the state of medicine at that time, and what the Austen family would have been doing at this particular moment in history, when I wanted to insert some visitors into their lives. 

Jane Austen’s work itself, though not much help on things like cookery or hiring a servant, is impressively precise about social stuff, full of telling little details that are easy to read over unless you are looking for them. Like the social significance of what time of day people eat their main meal, or who drives a curricle vs. who drives a barouche.

There is a certain amount of science in my story, but not a lot. I was interested in creating a plausible-seeming, logically consistent method of time travel (no magic), but I did not want to go into too much detail about it. Certain ideas already part of the furniture of my mind – from having studied physics (at a very basic level) in college and currently working with people who know a lot about data science and statistics – got a little more airing and research, and a chance to be playful.

HML: I felt it was just the right amount - enough to answer questions, but not so much that it overran the characterizations or relationships, especially since those relationships are so crucial to the book's main themes. When it comes to those relationships, in what ways do you feel that Rachel’s relationships with Henry and Liam echo Austen’s marriage plots?

KAF: I wanted my story to honor Austen’s novels and yet not try to imitate them too slavishly. I’m fascinated by how Austen turns the marriage plot to her own ends, using it as a vehicle of self-discovery for her heroines. In Rachel’s relationships with Henry and Liam I’ve tried to have something like this.

Also in Austen there is so often what we might call the false love interest and the true one: think of Wickham/Darcy, Willoughby/Brandon, Thorpe/Tilney, Crawford/Bertram, Churchill/Knightley Elliot/Wentworth. The false love interest might be a foil to the true one, an obstacle, a distraction. But somehow, the false always points the way to the true, and this is something I tried to do in my story also.

HML: In many ways, Rachel – with her career, her independence, and her modern frankness about her sexuality – feels like the anti-Austen protagonist. Tell us about your intentions with her character.

KAF: One thing that struck me in thinking about Jane Austen as a person was how incredibly brilliant she must have been, with such a limited outlet for her abilities, and how well she managed to function within those restraints. I imagined how frustrating it must have been to be a woman of that time – any woman, but especially a genius. And how much more frustrating for a modern woman to travel to the past and voluntarily submit to this life. 

To be a person who chooses to travel in time, you have to be pretty bold and adventurous, yet as a woman be willing to suppress all that in the interests of the mission. It seemed like a good setup for conflict. I wanted Rachel to be competent and feisty and forthright about sex because all those things put her in collision with 1815. I was also intrigued by the challenges she presented as my first-person narrator. She’s very perceptive in many ways, but she also has some blind spots.

HML: Which Austen character do you feel Rachel most resembles?

KAF: She has some elements of several: She’s a bit like Elizabeth in her self-confidence and sense of humor, like Emma in her capacity for self-deception about certain important things, such as her true feelings about Liam and her own fear of emotional intimacy. The setup of Rachel and Liam coming to London has many echoes of Mansfield Park, which makes her like Mary Crawford – and she does play that worldly temptress role with Henry.

HML: You’ve been a longtime Austen reader and member of JASNA. What has it been like to write Austen-inspired fiction?

KAF: Both fun and intimidating. When I got the idea to write this book, years ago now, I was a longtime fan of Austen but not obsessed to the degree I became subsequently. It’s been great to immerse myself in this world, and in Austen’s work, but I did not quite realize what I was getting myself into, when I began. Exactly how much of a genius Austen really was – and therefore how perilous to take on in homage. Also, just how much Austen-inspired fiction there is, and therefore what a challenge to try to be original.

HML: I hear you on that! So, much of The Jane Austen Project deals with the death of Jane Austen, what may have caused it, and how Rachel’s present is affected by it. One of the ideas you present is the thought that had Austen lived long enough to be prolific, she wouldn’t have enjoyed the fanatical popularity she does now. Why do you think that might be?

KAF: Anthony Trollope was someone I discovered only in the course of writing this book – I’d heard of him, but somehow had never read him. When I read The Way We Live Now, I was blown away – I could not believe I had missed out on such a wonderful writer all this time. As I learned more about him, how disciplined he was about writing, and how prolific, it struck me that maybe part of his problem in the literary afterlife was that there was too much of him to get a grip on. In our time we see this with Joyce Carol Oates, for example.

Whereas with Austen it is quite contained – it’s possible to study her entire work in considerable detail. There’s not one of her books that people say, well it’s not as good as the others. I wondered if she had lived longer, and written more, would this still have been true? I can’t picture her cutting corners just to finish a book quickly and make money, but she might have experimented and taken directions that disappointed some of her fans, the way Henry James got more and more obscure in his writing style, for instance. 

I think in general it’s true that when there is a lot of something, we tend to place less of a value on it, and it amused me to think this could happen even with Austen. I am not entirely sure I believe it, though. And frankly, like Rachel, I would take the risk, for 17 additional Jane Austen novels.

HML: How do you feel our current reality might be different if we had that greater library of Austen’s work?

KAF: Haha, I don’t know. I’d like to think it would be a better world, like we could have prevented the disaster of World War I or something, that reading more Austen would have made us all more insightful as a culture. But that might be putting too much faith in the power of literature.

HML: During your day job, you edit for the New York Times Upshot section. How did your journalism background help prepare you for writing/publishing fiction? What about publication surprised you?

KAF: As a novelist yourself, I am sure you know how you are always kind of living on two levels – the day-to-day reality of life, and the imaginary world that is playing out in the background of your mind all the time, and in the foreground when you sit down to write. Before I started working at The Upshot, and for much of the period I was working on The Jane Austen Project, I was a copy editor on the Foreign/National desk, which meant I might find myself editing stories about a whole range of topics, anything you might find in the A-section of the paper. I had to read the newspaper very closely every day, because I needed to know what had already happened to be able to see that day’s news in context. So I had all these current events in my brain, which the world of 1815 was such a welcome contrast with.

Daily journalism, especially for a copy editor, typically has a very short time horizon – you work on a story intensely, but then it’s over and published, and you go on to something else. Learning to think in the long time frame of writing a novel was a challenge for me. Also, I was quite struck by how slowly everything happens in the world of book publishing – this makes sense, but it was still surprising.

HML: I get that  especially after the pace of print journalism! Kathleen, thank you so much for your work on The Jane Austen Project, and for coming to the blog this week!

Readers - use the form below to enter to win a signed copy of The Jane Austen Project!


  1. If I could go back in time to 1815, I'd like my name to be Daphne Autumn. I like the name Rebecca too. Haven't come up with a last name ;)

    1. I love the name Daphne! There's a minor character in my new book named Daphne :-)

  2. What an interesting interview! If I were to travel back to 1815,I would like my name to be Sarah Smith.
    Martha T.

  3. I would like my 1815 name to be Lady Emma Alexander :) Love time travel stories :)

  4. I would like my name to be Lady Cecily. I love Jane Austen and time travel! Meganleigh844(@)gmail(dot)com

  5. Katherine King would be my name.❤

  6. Duchess Susannah! Well, I can dream, can't I?

  7. I'd use the name Elizabeth because it's my middle name :).

    1. Perfect! You could flip it and be Elizabeth Courtney (just an idea for your future time travel needs).

  8. Replies
    1. Ooh, I like that. Frances Scott, in general, is a great name.

  9. I would use the name Elizabeth, in honor of my mom.

  10. The 1900's and my name would be Marie. Susan steveac@bellsouth.net

  11. Wonderful interview! If I were to travel back to 1815, I would want my name to be Countess Caroline.

    psalm103and138 at gmail dot com

    1. I think Caroline is so pretty - glad you enjoyed the interview!

  12. Elizabeth Jane! Of course! LOL :) Great interview and thanks for the giveaway!

    1. Haha! Good job covering the bases. Thanks for entering the giveaway!

  13. I've always loved the name Jane since it's my sister's middle name :)

  14. My middle name is Beth so I'm kind of partial to Lizzy.

  15. Oh good question! I have no idea what I would pick, something that is part of an ancestor's name perhaps. I'd need to dig into my genealogy a bit more to see what female ancestor names I like from back then!

    1. Sounds like fun! Thanks for entering the giveaway!


Join in on the discussion!