In December of 2010 I played Mary Bennet and Charlotte Lucas in a community theatre production of Pride and Prejudice. At first I was disappointed because I reeeeaaallly wanted to play Elizabeth. But when I got (mostly) over my desire to be the leading lady and (more or less) embraced my character actor self, I began to fall in love with Mary, though not as much with Charlotte. During the course of the production’s run, the actor playing Wickham and I developed a story about how Wickham tried to ingratiate himself with the whole family and gave Mary a book: The Mysteries of Udolpho, a popular novel that Jane Austen herself makes fun of in Northanger Abbey. I was reading it at the time because, well, that’s just the kind of method-y thing I like to do, a little like Daniel Day Lewis insisting that he kill all of his food while filming Last of the Mohicans, except that I should have been reading Fordyce’s Sermons. It became our little back stage joke. And it grew. One night during the scene when Lydia brings Captain Wickham home after eloping with him, I found myself smiling like an idiot at Wickham. Mary, it seems, had fallen in love with her sister’s dashing husband. Had the director seen that, she probably would have told me to stop. She didn’t see it, so by the time the run ended, Captain Wickham couldn’t look my way because of my increasingly maniacal grin. But then the show closed, the cast party ended, and I said goodbye to Mary and Charlotte.
A year later I was sitting in a cafe in San Rafael writing a very short story. I called it, creatively enough, “A Story About a Girl Named Mary Bennet.” It turns out that she had never really left me. I don’t know why that surprised me—except for one character who shall remain nameless because I don’t want to think about her, they never do leave. The story was a tiny thing—maybe five handwritten pages—in which Mary finds a mysterious magic book and has an adventure. It had a rather raunchy ending, which surprised the hell out of me as I meant to head into something like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe territory. Instead I ended up somewhere just short of what I understand to be the main thrust of Fifty Shades of Grey. When I finished writing, I was flushed and a little breathless. With that bodice-ripping scene I had set my own heart to pounding. And Mary, well, she has a saucy streak in her, I suppose. I always thought there was something more to her than what she presents to the world.
I readily admit that it was a silly little story, but it was the only thing I had to give Emily when we started our writing group. She liked it and gave me lots of notes. So I went to work on it, wondering where it might take me. Over the next months the story grew. Mary’s adventure took her to London and then back to Hertfordshire. She learned some spells, discovered an aptitude for magic, and got wrapped up in a battle of good versus evil. Eventually the raunchy sex scene was replaced with a sweet moment. (There is a sex scene that I wrote just for fun—bawdy and ridiculous. I read it to my sister over the phone and she laughed for ten minutes—at least. One of these days I’ll get the courage to post it.) I finished the draft and let it simmer.
When I finally sat down to do the revisions (or in this case the massive re-writing), I needed to find a way to capture Jane Austen’s voice as best as I could. To that end, I re-read all of her books. But it turns out that just reading her words wasn’t enough. So I began each writing day by transcribing passages from Pride and Prejudice into a Word file. It turns out that if you want to evoke someone’s style, it’s best to copy her words for a while. Eventually the rhythm and vocabulary made it into my fingers and I could get to work.
Slowly, chapter by chapter, the next drafts grew. The backstage joke I shared with Craig Neibaur made it into the story around the second draft, which thrills me to no end since it represents the coming together of disparate parts of my life. As I worked, I learned more and more about the enormous community of Jane Austen lovers and the shocking number of “sequels” to her books that are being written as I type this post. I also found this marvelous website—a Jane Austen thesaurus—that was so helpful during the sentence-by-sentence revisions.
I also learned a lot about my writing process, which involves working on fragments then stitching them together. Kind of like knitting a sweater. Having begun my dissertation by writing the final chapter first, this makes sense to me, as does something I plan to write about later: the importance of dilatory time in the creation of anything. Sometimes things just need to simmer for a while before they make sense. That’s why the whole process ended up taking a little more than eighteen months.
I worked in the shadow of not one but two wonderful writers. From Jane I get the Bennets and their neighborhood. For the magic I turned to J. K. Rowling and the rich world of Harry Potter. Some of Mr. A. H.’s ideas about spell casting arose out of my efforts to steal something of Ms. Rowling’s and make it my own. And though it was tempting to write Hogwarts and Diagon Alley into my story, in the end I landed more on the side of Austen sequel than Harry Potter fan fiction.
It is both marvelous and terrifying to write a book with characters whose lives were invented by someone else. I had plenty to work with, but I also felt a duty to the characters as drawn by their author. I walked a particularly thin line with Mary. When I played her, I stepped away from the interpretation that was obvious—uptight, prudish, and judgmental. My Mary was a geek. She had an adenoid problem, and she simply didn’t know how to relate to the other characters. I think that’s why I fell in love with her and why I wanted to give the poor girl an adventure. I flatter myself by thinking that the Mary I’ve written stays a little closer to Miss Austen’s. I’ve tried to explain some of her annoying behavior in a way that makes her more sympathetic. I think that works. But while I am fond of Mary, as I am of those characters I invented such as Mr. Huntley and Mr. Hartbustle, I must confess that Mr. Bennet is my favorite, in part because I can still see Alex Ross who played him in the production I did. Alex reminds me powerfully of my own father, whom I adore. And he seemed to channel Mr. Bennet perfectly. So Mr. Bennet wrote himself, amusing me to no end and astonishing me more than once, especially as I was finishing the book. One day I was revising the last bits of the last chapter when Mr. Bennet said something that I had not anticipated. I wrote the sentence and then said “Really, Mr. Bennet?” He insisted. So there it is. You’ll have to read the book to find out what I mean.