Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Natalie Jenner

Natalie Jenner was born in England and emigrated to Canada as a young child. She obtained her B.A. from the University of Toronto’s St. Michael’s College where she was the 1990 Gold Medalist in English Literature, her LL.B. from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law, and was Called to the Bar of Ontario in 1995. In addition to a brief career as a corporate lawyer, Jenner has worked as a recruiter, career coach, and consultant to leading law firms in Canada for over twenty years.

Most recently she founded the independent bookstore Archetype Books in Oakville, Ontario, where she lives with her family and two rescue dogs.

Jenner's new novel is The Jane Austen Society.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

My title The Jane Austen Society is so self-evident and obvious that some publishers who bid for my debut book wanted to keep the title “open” – but not St. Martin’s Press, whose judgement has remained unerring every step of the way. I was glad of that, because when I first sat down to write the book, the very first thing I typed was the title. I never once considered naming it anything else. I had been thinking of writing a book about an old British estate house in need of rescue; I had also just spent a year of my life aggressively rereading books by and about Jane Austen. And one day I looked up from my reading and said to my daughter, out of the blue and very simply, “I am going to write a book about a group of people who come together to try and save Jane Austen’s house.” I knew from all my reading about Austen that the first real-life Jane Austen Society had started in 1940 in England for that exact same purpose. I used that one historical fact as the launching point for exploring eight very different characters who have each suffered loss and trauma during WWII, but who bond together over Austen and books. And this is the bond that saves them.

What's in a name?

Because my book is historical fiction, my first goal with the names was to make sure they were appropriate to the time and place of England during the war (no Shawns or Sheryls here). My characters appear to me pretty instantly, fully formed in terms of both appearance (although their faces always remain fuzzy) and temperament, and their names similarly seem to pick themselves. The process is so intuitive, that it is only after the fact that I sometimes see a happy coincidence. For example, I picked the surname Berwick for the grief-stricken farmer Adam, and only later processed that this made a nice variation on the name Captain Benwick from Persuasion, another mourning and gentle soul. And I had picked the name Mimi for the Hollywood movie star character long before I had decided she would be working on trying to produce and star in a movie adaptation of Sense and Sensibility – imagine my joy when I looked up the name one day and saw it was a diminutive for Mary Ann, the name of one of the heroines from that same book.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

I have loved Jane Austen for as long as I could read proper novels, and so I would say that, not only would my teenaged reader self not be surprised by my new novel, she would have written it herself, if she had had three decades of growing up behind her first.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Writing the beginning is, for me, hard in that I only write when I feel inspired, and I am superstitiously committed to keeping the first few pages of whatever I write. The Jane Austen Society is the sixth book I have written (the other five manuscripts being unpublished and firmly locked away in a drawer) and I can honestly say that the first draft of Chapter One almost always remains pretty sacrosanct for me. If I am sitting down to type Chapter One, I have committed 100% to an idea in my head—a hook or tag-line, so-to-speak—and on a creative subconscious level I am now more than ready to start to write. Endings for me are the pay-off for every word that comes ahead. It is an exhilarating downhill speed-race, sometimes 8,000 words in a day, and I don’t stop until I reach the bottom. I once threw my shoulder out typing from this behaviour; I do not recommend it.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I write to get away from myself, and I do my level best while writing to disappear into an entirely imaginary world full of people who are complete strangers to me but whom I can’t wait to get to know. With The Jane Austen Society, it was only long after I finished writing the book that I could look back and see parallels between some of the characters and myself. The most obvious connections were in terms of my own emotional trauma stemming from a devastating and life-altering medical diagnosis for my husband a few years ago, and the different ways I too had coped with what I now understand is a state of “anticipatory grief” (socially “turtling,” excessive reading, being overly direct to save energy and time). I had kept working as a career coach to lawyers during my husband’s medical journey (he is currently stable due to an innovative drug regime), as well as liaising with a lot of doctors throughout North America on my husband’s behalf, and I can now also see that the doctor and lawyer characters in my book are refractions of that strong professional and ethical bent in me, a former lawyer myself.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Movies are a big influence on me generally, and have been my entire life: they really go toe-to-toe with books in terms of my great cultural passions. This was one reason I enjoyed writing the Hollywood scenes in my book. A few news events also affected the writing of this book, including all the Me Too stories from the fall before I began writing, which influenced my movie star character’s own decision to mysteriously pull back from Hollywood. Finally, my book was definitely inspired by a week-long trip I took in the fall of 2017 to Jane Austen’s former cottage in Chawton, England (now the Jane Austen’s House Museum) and the Elizabethan estate house up the lane that had once been owned by her brother (now Chawton House). With both buildings, I was greatly affected by their history and beauty, but also by the many people over the years who saw these landmarks sitting there in their midst and fought to save and preserve them, so that a tourist like me could one day visit them and draw energy and inspiration for the unknown novel ahead.
Visit Natalie Jenner's website.

--Marshal Zeringue