Part One may be found here.
Both Austenland and A & H tackle romantic fantasies and the nature of romantic comedies, their “grotesque mimicry of actual love (A & H 304).” And when Becky tries to decide whether or not she could actually love Felix romantically, she writes a screenplay with a movie ending. But the novel’s conclusion isn’t a “Hollywood ending.” Did you feel that writing it the way you did was risky?
Oh sure. I knew some readers would be angry, and I was sorry for that, because I knew absolutely that the ending was the right one for this story. I think it goes back to genre–those who expected a certain ending might not be willing to go with me where I wanted to take the story. And this story just might not be a good fit for their sensibilities. That’s okay. I knew (was told) that the book would sell better if I made the Hollywood ending work, but for me that would have made the story pointless and been sheer betrayal of the characters. I try to do right by the characters.
Speaking of that ending, it isn’t really an ending, especially as far as romantic comedies go. How have readers reacted to it?
One of my sisters sobbed when a certain character died, and was elated by the ending. Another of my sisters was dry-eyed throughout the book then sobbed at the ending because it wasn’t what she wanted. I’ve had many letters from women who have experienced Becky’s personal tragedy who were so happy and relieved by the ending, and that was a huge validation for me. I crafted the book carefully to lead to that moment, and I wonder if those readers who were unhappy with it could read the book a second time, what they’d think then. We are often shackled by notions of genre! And the truth is, our lives don’t fit cozily into any particular one. I love genre fiction–I write genre fiction–but I think there’s a place for this kind of story too. I think exploring the great mystery of a genre-less life is exciting, and it gave me a chance to look at how stories affect how we conceive of our own lives and how we tell ourselves our own stories.
Do you think of A & H as subverting the romantic comedy, or does it do something more like open possibilities for other stories than what the conventions of romantic comedies allow for?
Someone said that all artists are by nature subversive, and I guess that’s true. And maybe true of me too, insofar as I’m a possibilities junkie. For me, that’s the most beautiful part of the religion I follow: agency. Choices. We can trap ourselves in life by expecting things to go like they do in a story, and being disappointed when they don’t. The romantic comedy is a fine and ancient genre, and one I respect tremendously. And I think it deserves exploration: why do we honor it? Why do we revisit this story again and again? And what does it mean in our own lives? What draws me as an author, what fascinates me, is both the clash and marriage of two very different things. Becky and Felix. Fantasy and reality. Comedy and tragedy. Ancient and new. Spiritual and mundane. My life is a series of clashing and coupling in strange and enticing ways. I want stories to provide that. A great story should be a place where we can see the messy wonderfulness of life from arm’s length, be entertained, and come away from it seeing our own world a little bit differently.
As I read this novel, I got the feeling that writing it might have changed you. Did it? How?
I went to a place in A&H I never thought I’d go. Grief is so hard for me. When I write a book, I live in the world where I wrote it, and the death of one character especially was agonizing. But it was good too. I kept chanting that old Greek word to myself–cathartic, cathartic, it’s cathartic. It helped me own the pain and make it productive. I lost a sister a few years ago, as most people have lost someone, and it made me very wary of tragedy and death. Why seek it out in stories when it can accost us so suddenly and so horribly in life? And of course the kind of death in the book is a horror that I tried to never contemplate without shuddering away. But it was good for me to face it and see what it would be like, and to move through it to a different place again. I think that’s part of the wonder of stories. They can take hold of all those kinked emotions inside us and lay them out straight where we can view them, thoughtfully.
What do you hear about A & H? Is it generating as much discussion as you’d hoped?
I don’t google myself or eavesdrop on others’ conversations in that way, so I only know what comes to me. What I hear both delights and discourages me. I am very sorry when people refer to Becky Jack as “evil.” The judgement in that word makes me worried for us as a people. Is no one allowed to make mistakes? To think differently than we do? I hear the book often dismissed because of the premise, which I’m sorry about as well. The premise was a place to start and a way to explore and ask questions that intrigued me, as well as a way to play with a kind of a story that I’d never read. I’d hoped it could be read and thought about. I think sometimes our lives are precarious, and we can be afraid if they’re nudged a bit, it’ll all come falling down. And some people very honestly have reasons to be worried by the premise, and I understand that. I am so grateful for those readers who are willing to set aside prejudgement and go on this journey with me.
Austenland and A & H seem to be establishing a trajectory of romantic comedy/social prodding for your writing. Do you think you have more books like these two in your head?
I am writing another Austenland book, which has been tremendous fun. I never considered it until a few months ago when a new story occurred to me, ever so tauntingly. It’s a very different exercise than writing a period fantasy, and I really enjoy doing comedy. As a teenager, I was all about drama, but as I get older, I think making people laugh is one of the noblest things on this planet. Humor requires intelligence, and to laugh and cry together is divine. I haven’t yet explored all that I want to with these stories–why do we need romance? How do stories affect our self-concept and how we see others? Where do fantasy and realism meet? I write whichever story shouts at me the loudest, and I’m always listening, so we’ll see what comes.
Thank you, Shannon, for this wonderful interview!