In 2013, we celebrated the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s iconic novel, Pride and Prejudice. After two centuries, we still can’t get enough of Austen’s “own darling child.” Much has been written about its timeless themes, its characters, and the love story at its heart. What I have discovered is that experiencing the novel is unique to each reader. For those of us who read it over and over, it has become something treasured, a part of ourselves, so personal and intimate that it is difficult to share it with other people. It is something to turn to when the world seems unforgiving and unwelcoming.
One of the great scenes in the book occurs when Elizabeth Bennet and her aunt and uncle are visiting Pemberley, the estate of Mr. Darcy. Months earlier, Elizabeth has turned down his proposal of marriage. She consented to visit Pemberley only because they’ve been assured that the family is not at home. So imagine her surprise, and the delight of Austen’s readers, when the two suddenly encounter each other for the first time since the fateful night Elizabeth rejected him. No, his shirt isn’t wet, he didn’t dive into the pond to cool his ardor—that’s only in the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of the book—but he’s suddenly and unexpectedly present. And to our further delight, he is completely flustered when he encounters Elizabeth. He struggles to find the right words and then repeats himself. After a few minutes, we realize that he has changed in some fundamental and profound way.
Even if Elizabeth can’t see it yet, we, the reader, can, and it is this change that leads to the great wellspring of joy we feel from our reading of this novel. When I thought of writing an Austen-inspired sequel, it was that joyousness that I wanted to capture. I wasn’t interested in re-writing Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s story. How could it be more perfect? Rather, I wanted to extend the story with a different sister at its heart.
I settled on Mary Bennet, the discontented and perhaps misunderstood middle sister, as a character I could work with. She’s a bit of a conundrum, isn’t she? Mary’s presence does not loom large in the novel. She has only minimal scenes, and sometimes she’s present only because another character happens to mention her. Mary is more irritating than funny; more foolish than wise; more unlikeable than sympathetic. And perhaps it was for these very reasons that she stood out as a likely choice for an Austen sequel. Mary had the most potential to transform herself and take a new direction.
What most defines Mary? I believe it is her isolation. Wedged between two pairs of sisters, each of whom are the other’s best friend and closest confidante, she becomes the odd woman out. Left to her own devices, she often acts outside the norm, which not only makes her an outcast within her own family, but also in society.
The essential nature of stories is that characters who inhabit them change. Pride and Prejudice is a textbook example. Elizabeth, too quick to judge, is forced to reconsider all she knows about Mr. Darcy—and Mr. Wickham. Mr. Darcy, to win Elizabeth, must reexamine his disdainful treatment of friends and acquaintances and his derisive opinions about them. Only then can they each open themselves to the attraction and love they have for each other.
To belong, to find her place, Mary must change as well. To do so means examining herself in uncomfortable ways. When a possible suitor enters the picture, this complicates her new life and thrusts her back into self-doubt. She must also break from the dismal future her family has planned for her. Mary’s own pursuits, then, are as much a part of the story as a lover’s pursuit of her.
What’s the highlight of my day? Usually it’s that first cup of coffee, and if I’m lucky, a beautiful sunrise peeking over the roof of the theater just across the street. I live in the city now, having left the burbs behind a few years ago.
Somehow, with hard work and a little luck, I’ve found a third career as a writer. I was a librarian first, then a teacher, and now a writer. I love the sound of that! In the summer of 2012, my debut novel, Kissing Shakespeare, was published by Delacorte Press. It’s a time-travel romance for teens. In the fall of 2013, my second novel will be published by William Morrow. It’s a Pride and Prejudice sequel about the socially awkward middle Bennet sister, Mary. If you’re a Jane Austen fan, I hope you’ll watch for it.
No matter how positive I am something I’ve written is worthwhile, I’m never really sure. And even reaching the point where I’m so damned positive I’m not quite sure takes time and requires negotiating numerous detours and obstacles, many of my own devising (though I’d happily blame someone else if I thought I could get away with it).
During the faltering early stages of a project I often find it necessary to fabricate a belief in what I’m doing, or in its potential. I do this both while I’m working and while I’m considering the possibility of attempting to think about the theoretical eventual prospect of, perhaps, working—two states that are indistinguishable in both appearance and yield. Without this feigned belief I would never finish anything. I feed this belief by binge-snacking and deluding myself. I sustain it by drinking.
And yet there are moments during the process when I feel genuine confidence, when I know it’s working. Unfortunately these moments are transient and not to be relied upon to rush in when I’m considering a glass shard sandwich on lye.
When the first draft is complete and it’s time to revise and edit, I slide into a bipolar state, vacillating wildly between confident enthusiasm and demoralizing doubt, occasionally stopping at random locations in between to catch my breath and howl into the mocking silence. This can last a couple lifetimes and is cause for heavy medication and random acts of violence. A piercing pain shoots from my eyes to my kneecaps. I’m inordinately gassy. Teeth rattle and drop onto my lap. They don’t look familiar.
Finally, months or years later, when I am convinced my work is done, when I view it as an entity rather than a work in progress or mere potential, my feelings about it crystallize and petrify. Life is wonderful. Birdies sing Lithuanian lullabies.
Well, that’s what should happen (without those damned birdies). Unfortunately this is how it really works:
For a day or two I might think it’s pretty good, and I’m relieved that it’s done (though for a while, when I sit down to consume a 17-pound bag of chips and slip into a coma, part of me will sense that something is missing), but buried deep in the murky but fertile recesses of my brain is a seed of doubt. What if it’s not an entity, a thing, a complete work? What if it really isn’t … anything. Perhaps, think I, it is shit. Ahoy! Look, over there: It is shit! It’s not even good shit. It’s bad shit. Very, very bad shit. “Bad shit,” I chastise my computer screen. I’m ashamed. It’s not too late to get a regular job, as … as … as a sack of poo! Or a congressperson! Or I could just quietly succumb after an appropriate period of suffering.
But then, a week or two later, stubborn and desperate, I summon the courage to read it again, and I think, Whoa, this is one heck of a good book! And once again I’m strapped to the bipolar seesaw, waiting for that final painful landing, the one where my nibbly bits will launch from my undercarriage into my stomach before shooting out of my mouth and into the atmosphere, where they’ll write my shame in puffy letters across a clear blue sky. This, mind you, is a best-case scenario.
I believe it’s impossible to see your own work clearly, free of the set of filters only the work’s creator—familiar to the point of irrational contempt with every word, every sentence, every turn of the plot—would have, so that the experience of reading it is permanently tainted, rendering you dull-witted and brain-tied. You simply can’t know if what you believe is there will be visible to anyone else. At least I can’t. I can only know how I feel, what I believe and hope I expressed, what I think is funny or tragic or touching or vile. But if no one else finds in my work what I believe is there, isn’t it a failure? Don’t I deserve to die?
Recently I came to believe that my novel Ways of Leaving was a good book, maybe better than good, certainly one worthy of publication. I reached the point, even before anyone else had read or commented on it, where I “knew” it was funny, sad, touching, painful, perhaps illuminating or life-affirming. I was absolutely positive it was a complete and valuable work. But I still wasn’t really sure.
It was only after receiving several wonderful and, to my mind, insightful reviews from people who owed me nothing, who knew nothing about me and probably didn’t care to, that I felt myself drifting toward really, really sure. Their words, read and then reread, convinced me that what I believed was there, what I knew was there, was actually there. They enabled me to me see that my novel was an entity, a funny, sad, complete, emotionally complex work of … well, let’s not get carried away.
But what a strange and wonderful feeling that was!
And how I fear I’ll never feel it again.
It might be easier to suck.
Grant Jarrett grew up in Northwestern Pennsylvania and currently lives in Manhattan, where he works as a writer, musician, and songwriter. He has written for magazines including FOW and Triathlon, and is the author of More Towels, a coming-of-age memoir about life on the road. He is an avid cyclist and a reasonably competent flosser. Ways of Leaving is his first novel.
Several years ago, I started writing my novels at a 24-hour donut shop a couple of blocks from my house in San Francisco. Unlike the new minimalist coffee houses in the Mission District, where each cup of coffee is individually brewed and where every customer there is a twenty-something year old wearing a sixty-dollar t-shirt and working on a MacBook Pro with a Retina display, Happy Donuts is decidedly unhip and old school. The coffee is industrial strength, the donuts are full of trans-fats, and a 40-something-year-old woman can feel perfectly comfortable plodding away for hours on her five-year-old, suitcase-size PC.
Originally, it was my effort to avoid both the solitude and the distractions of writing at home that drove me out of the house. For one thing, I’m a total CNN junkie and will tune into the news if there is a TV nearby. My other role, as a mother of two teenage children, means that there are always mounds of laundry waiting to be folded and hundreds of appointments to schedule. The orthodontist and the dermatologist come immediately to mind. And working in a public place, where life is unfolding around me – but where people are oblivious to me and my characters – also diminished what I saw as the “too serious,” scary, and solitary aspect of writing alone.
And for a writer like me, who is a consummate eavesdropper and people watcher, Happy Donuts is the perfect place to watch the ebb and flow of neighborhood life. Mornings bring people on their way to work and students on their way to school. Late morning to midafternoon brings the elderly, the unemployed and underemployed, people who work at home, and in general, more miscreants than at any other time of day. And of course, there are the regulars, like the man who looks like a Hell’s Angel but reads the Financial Times cover to cover every morning. Or the trim and dapper 94-year-old man in the seersucker suit, who eats three meals a day there. Three!
In the afternoon, it is all students again, and this is good for someone who writes about love and romance. These kids have one thing and one thing only on their mind and it’s not donuts. Though it goes down pretty well with donuts. They come to flirt, to plan hookups, and to pretend to do their homework, but really, again, to flirt. Like the teenage boy, with the soulful eyes and the weary slouch, who hangs out after school with his girlfriend. I’m sorry, did I say girlfriend? I meant girlfriends. There are at least three of them. And sometimes, he’ll meet more than one there in the same afternoon. I keep wondering if he’s going to slip up sometime, confuse his schedule and have two girls there at once, but it hasn’t happened yet. Night, on the other hand, is a quiet time at Happy Donuts. I always feel like I’m in a Hopper painting, as there’s something a little melancholy about the whole affair, but it’s usually my most productive time there.
I must say, over the years, I’ve overheard some terrific lines at the donut shop, especially among customers under 30, who are apparently biologically programmed to not see middle-aged people. I have lifted several lines from conversations and put them directly in my novels, but my favorite was one I heard a teenager say to her boyfriend: “I have to wait four hours to be alone with you? I don’t think I can wait four minutes.”
Another advantage of working in a donut shop is that it’s cheap. I could rent an office, and God knows what office space is going for South of Market these days, but a morning at Happy Donuts is mine for the price of a Diet Pepsi and the dollar bills I stuff in the tip jar.
But more importantly, working in the midst of it all makes me feel like I’m part of something bigger than myself – something, frankly, happier than myself. I mean, who doesn’t love donuts? And who isn’t happy when they’re eating one? Of course, I can’t eat donuts there myself. I’ve never, ever ordered one there. If I did, I would begin a slide down a slippery slope that would end with disastrous results and morbid obesity. So instead, I confine myself to the vicarious pleasure of watching other people eat them. I drink Diet Pepsi, my personal form of crack, and while that carries its own health risks, its caffeinated buzz has powered me through three novels now.
Mary McNear is a writer living in San Francisco with her husband, two teenage children, and a high-strung, miniscule white dog named Macaroon. She writes her novels in a local donut shop where she sips Diet Pepsi, observes the hubbub of neighborhood life and tries to resist the constant temptation of freshly-made donuts. She bases her novels on a lifetime of summers spent in a small town on a lake in the Northern Midwest.
“So what’s up with this first novel? The Sandpiper? Why did you write it?” Questions I keep hearing from members of book clubs I talk to. While I am all about the story, they want to know more about the storyteller. I wasn’t ready for that. And not until I came upon a sentence by Isak Dinesen (Out of Africa) did I even understand for myself the “why.”
All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them.
When I was seven years old, my parents divorced. My mother left our small West Michigan town, took her trust fund to California, and never came back. Oh, I’d see her maybe once a year when she came to visit her parents, my grandparents. But she was a distant aunt. I never really knew my mother.
What I did know was that all our family’s screaming fights had come out of brown bottles. I got punished more than once for emptying those bottles into the toilet. But I knew I was on the right track. I just didn’t have the language for it then.
Now I do. My mother had the disease of alcoholism that makes good people – she was one – do bad things. She did them. My mother died of esophageal cancer, as alcoholics often do, when she was a beautiful, smart, trim 55-year-year old without a grey hair.
No matter that it wasn’t intentional, The Sandpiper turns out to be my way of coming to terms with this horrific disease that not only ruins the alcoholic’s life, but also wreaks havoc in the lives of everyone who loves that person. Maybe, I thought, by living in the head of Jamie Cameron, my shining-star alcoholic character, I could finally understand the power of addiction. And from the opening chapter, I was that stunning, athletic, bright, troubled young woman whose war-hero father died before she was born.
Yet no matter how nearly I became Jamie for those writing hours, at some level I knew imagination could never replace experience. And somewhere along the chapters, I realized I could never plumb the depths of Jamie’s – or my mother’s – guilt, pain, and aching remorse.
Creating Jamie’s big sister Kate Cameron, the perfect daughter, gave me the chance to imagine how it feels to face another challenge increasingly common among women today. Infertility. Having walked the walk with a cherished loved one struggling to conceive, I had a sense about that heartache too. Again, however, imagination is not experience; but it can build compassion.
Jamie’s and Kate’s mother is a cateress; I don’t even cook. Maybe it’s because we always admire in others the talents we don’t have. But Ellie Cameron didn’t get rounded enough in The Sandpiper. No wonder that in the sequel, Behold A Rainbow, Ellie is becoming a major player.
And dear big, slobbering black lab Pogo is a way of remembering all the dogs I have loved. Either you’re a dog person or you’re not. But if you are, you’ll meet Pogo as a character every bit as rich as his owners.
Finally, my favorite character, Aunt Nina. And again, from my unconscious right brain came Helena ‘Aunt Nina’ Judd. Not once writing The Sandpiper did I recognize her. Not until this novel was written, rewritten, and edited did I realize who she was.
When my mother left, my two grandmothers stepped up for me, each in her own way. My mother’s mother, a petite honors graduate of the University of Michigan in 1911, spoke German and wrote poems for every occasion in our family and everyone else’s in town.
My father’s mother was a bosomy, devout Methodist who pounded out every Stephen Foster song ever written on our grand piano. She also overflowed with hugs and praise and adoration for me to the point I knew I must be special. She told me Pollyanna stories so often I decided that’s who I would be!
My grandmothers didn’t like each other – the divorce was the fault of the other one’s child. But I loved Nana and Mommie Nelle with all my heart and soul. And do still as they are part of me. In the magic way creativity works, somehow the unconscious brain merged my adored grandmothers into Aunt Nina where my language brain found her.
I hope you, too, will love my Aunt Nina grandmothers. As they were for me, Aunt Nina is the guardian angel of the Cameron women in The Sandpiper.
Susan Brace Lovell earned undergraduate and graduate degrees with honors in English from the University of Michigan and taught high school and college English. She co-founded Cadence, a weekly newspaper in East Grand Rapids, Michigan, and is the author of four non-fiction histories. Lovell is a longtime member of the Salvation Army and sits on the Grand Rapids Salvation Army Advisory Board. She and her husband live in Grand Rapids. The Sandpiper is her debut novel.