Mother of two, wife and author, Shannon Hale, stopped by Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Ariz. this past week to promote her newest novel, Austenland. Her first book for adults takes the reader to Pembroke Park, a secret resort in Kent, England where the guests have to dress and behave as if they were in a Jane Austen novel. Corsets, dresses, manners and language all have to be from the nineteenth century or the guests are asked to leave, ever so politely. At Pembroke Park, actors fill in the gaps as the gentlemen courting the mostly women guests. Sometimes reality and fiction are blurred, as in the case of the main character, Jane Hayes, a graphic designer from New York City. A nonrefundable gift from her dying Aunt Carolyn, Jane visits Pembroke Park for three weeks as a motivation to lose her Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy obsession. As her last fantacy fling with Mr. Darcy, Jane visits Pembroke Park and meets a gentleman/actor, Mr. Nobely, whose personality is similar to the witty and judgmental leading man every woman wants to undo her corset for. But is it really his personality she likes or is it the character he’s playing? A love triangle ensnares between Jane, Mr. Nobley and a sexy gardener who may or may not be an actor. As Jane struggles to decipher what is real and what is not in Austenland, she winds up finding out more about herself than she originally thought she would.
With her five-month-old baby in her arms, Hale sat down with me to discuss her latest book, her own Mr. Darcy obsession and what she has planned for her future as a novelist. Seeing as she is already a New York Times bestselling author and a Newbery Honor Medalist, what other ambitions does she have up her sleeve?
JC: Do your children always travel with you when you’re on tour for your book?
SHANNON HALE: I said [to her publisher] I can’t go anywhere without my children. If I travel this year, I need to take both my children and someone to take care of them and they said, “Ok.” I just bring a friend or a sister.
JC: How has the response been to “Austenland”?
SH: The reception has been so great. I get these emails, [she takes out a sheet of paper] like she says, ‘I haven’t finished your wonderful book yet, but I read the first four chapters. I can’t tell you how stunned I was to learn that I wasn’t the only woman out there who watched Pride and Prejudice repeatedly.’ She goes to say, ‘I’ve been married for 31 years but there’s not a lot of romance with my husband. I love my husband too much to ever cheat on him so I spend a lot of time daydreaming of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. Upon reading the first chapters of your book, I was shocked, I felt like you had taken a chapter out of my life. Thank you. I feel much better knowing I’m not alone.’ I’ve been getting emails like this with people telling me they’re so relieved. And I thought I was writing a comedy. But it turned into a self-help book.
JC: What made you want to transition from young adult literature to books for adults?
SH: I never think about my market when I’m writing. I just write the story I want to myself. And then they [her publisher] tell me what it is. My first book, The Goose Girl, I didn’t know it was young adult. And I started writing, about the same time as The Goose Girl, in 2000, so I wasn’t actually in children’s book. I’m so happy to be writing young adult books. I just love the world of young adult literature; the different writers I’ve met. I really don’t want to transition out of it. There’s just some story I wanted to tell that fit a different nitch. I’ve got another book, actually for adults, coming up so it’s good for me – writing a graphic novel. I don’t ever want to get in a rut so I’d like to push my writing in different ways. I think it keeps me fresh.
JC: Where did you get the idea for Pembroke Park?
SH: Because I wish there was one. I first got the idea, I think in 1997, when I first watched the Pride and Prejudice movies and they were just so intoxicating and addicting. I realized I wasn’t the only one of my friends who had the same obsession with them as I did. And I thought, I wish there was a place where you could go and dress up in the dresses and interact with the cast of men and live the life. It took me seven years to come up with the story to go along with the character I wanted. If it were true, that would be a great vacation.
JC: Could you stay for three weeks in 19th century culture and attire?
SH: I think it would be really hard. And as I was writing this book and writing the character and going through this experience with her, and I think this comes out in the book too, the idea of it is very romantic but the reality of wearing corsets and dresses all the time and the sort of mundane lifestyle of a lady at that time and the restrictions would actually be really frustrating. What the appeal of it is, first of all that we love Jane Austen’s novels, and we want to be where her characters were, but also there’s a kind of romance that happens when you’ve got those restrictions. And not so much just the restrictions on the women, but the social restrictions, that you couldn’t just hang out and you couldn’t speak your mind. And that was so frustrating. But when it comes to romance, it gives a certain kind of tension to it that I think is really appealing in fiction but is very frustrating in real life.
JC: What did you think of the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice?
SH: With Keira Knightly? I enjoyed it because I thought it was a beautiful spectacle. I thought the production values were gorgeous. I love the way they did her family, her home. But it didn’t feel like the Pride and Prejudice story to me. It was so short, I thought they changed the characters of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy especially. So I enjoyed it as a separate story. I was a little worried about seeing it because Colin Firth is my Mr. Darcy. And I didn’t want anyone to threaten that relationship. So when I saw it, I thought, OK he’s still Mr. Darcy, I was relieved.
JC: Do you think Colin Firth played the best Mr. Darcy?
SH: Absolutely. In film anyway. I think I have my own Mr. Darcy when I read Pride and Prejudice. But in film, yeah definitely.
JC: What was the hardest part about writing this book?
SH: The hardest part, with any book, is finding the story. Books that start with ideas, for me or generally, I think are harder to write than a book that starts with a character because the character is what really drives it. So I went through many drafts over many years, with this, until I found the character I really liked. The story is always about the character; it’s her story. Once I found her story in this place then I finally wrote it.
JC: What books are you working on for the future?
SH: In the fall, I’ve got another book for young adults. It’s a fairy tale retelling called A Book of a Thousand Days. I’m really fond of it. The main character is probably closer to my heart than any other I’ve written. It was a real joy. Writing is always hard on me, but [there] were spurts of joy in that book, writing that book. This book [Austenland] I’m really happy it came out the beginning of summer because I think of it as a really fun, take-you-away kind of read. I think it’s probably ironic that my book for young adults [A Book of a Thousand Days] is meatier, more substantial than my book for adults. And then I have a graphic novel coming out next year. And I’m working on another book for adults. It’s tentatively called The Actor and the Housewife. And I’ve only got a couple of drafts done and I usually go through at least a dozen so it will be a while. It’s about an unusual relationship between a best friend and a housewife, a mother of four, and an actor. [It’s] more sort of in the vein of Austenland.
JC: And is there anything else the Chick Lit readers should know about you or the book?
SH: You know, people always want to know if it’s hard to be as beautiful as I am and I just tell people it’s a challenge and I take it day by day. I just want women to know that it’s not as easy as it seems to be this beautiful.
2 Out Of 10 Corsets.
For more information on this author, please visit shannonhale.com.