A conversation with Amanda Grange

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Amanda Grange is the author of a series of retellings of Jane Austen’s novels written from the hero’s point of view: (Mr.) Darcy’s Diary, Mr. Knightley’s Diary, Captain Wentworth’s Diary, Edmund Bertram’s Diary, and Colonel Brandon’s Diary, and she is at work on Henry Tilney’s Diary. Ms. Grange kindly agreed to answer a few questions for the readers of AustenBlog.

Darcy’s Diary was the first book in your series of Jane Austen hero diaries, but it was not your first novel. Tell us about your previous novels.

My previous novels are all historical romances, usually set in the Regency period although some of them are Edwardian. If anyone wants to try them, Lord Deverill’s Secret and Harstairs House are both available in paperback in the US. 🙂 They involve an adventure as well as a romance and they always have a happy ending!

Darcy's Diary by Amanda GrangeWhat gave you the idea to start writing Darcy’s Diary?

I was rereading Pride and Prejudice and I thought, This is such a modern novel, it’s no wonder it’s still popular 200 years after Jane Austen wrote it. It has a fast pace, lots of dialogue, short chapters and it has the best – and most often quoted – opening sentence in the English language. The only thing it doesn’t have, which a novel written today would have, is a number of sections from the hero’s point of view. And then I thought, It’s such a strong novel that it would make a compelling book even if it was told entirely from the hero’s point of view, because he isn’t a cipher as some romantic heroes are, he’s a real person who has a life-changing journey to make before he can reach his happy ending.

These thoughts coincided with a calendar I’d been making for the events in Pride and Prejudice, as I’d been wondering when it was set, and because I was looking at the dates whilst I was thinking about Darcy’s side of the story, the idea of writing Darcy’s Diary popped into my head.

Mr. Darcy's Diary by Amanda GrangeWhen you started writing Darcy’s Diary, did you think you would end up writing an entire series?

No! I didn’t even know that I’d end up writing the entire novel, let alone an entire series!

How do you prepare for writing these retellings? How do you do your research and how you decide how to approach each character?

I read the book again to put myself back into the world I’m writing about, then I read it again more slowly and make detailed notes on plot, characters and especially names, dates and places. As I’ve written about a dozen Regencies as well as the diaries I’m familiar with the customs of the period, and as I’m English of course I’m familiar with the language, so that’s some research I don’t have to do!

I then try to put myself into the central character, probably in the same way an actor puts themselves into character. I think about their life experiences, their family, their friends, all the things that go towards making them who they are. Then I start to look at things from the hero’s point of view. It’s amazing how different things look from this perspective. Whilst a hero might appear odd, wet or stupid at times to other people, to himself he will appear sensible, intelligent and right because people usually have a good opinion of themselves.. He might change his opinion later about himself and his actions later on, but at the time he will almost always think well of himself. This can often give him a distorted view of what’s really happening, and sometimes it will give him a clearer view of what’s really happening, and that makes for an interesting novel.

Is it easy to figure out the hero’s backstory from the original novel? How much do you have to make up yourself?

The important points are all there, both in terms of plot and character, even if I have to hunt through the book to find them. Once I’ve got the story and major characters sorted out I have to invent the minor situations and characters and then I have to bring the whole thing to life with dialogue, descriptions etc. The backstory will probably only be a few hundred words in the original Austen novel and I will turn it into something like 35,000 words in the finished diary.

Have you had much feedback on the series from Janeites?

Yes, I have. I get a lot of emails from readers, which I love, and of course the best feedback is that they go on buying the books!

Which was your favorite to write so far? Which was your favorite story? (Might be different answers!)

Captain Wentworth's Diary by Amanda GrangeThat’s a difficult question because I’ve liked writing them all in different ways. But if you push me, I think I’d have to say that I enjoyed writing Captain Wentworth’s Diary the most because it was the first diary in which I wrote an entire back story. I particularly liked developing the relationship between Wentworth and his brother – and, of course, delving into the early relationship between Wentworth and Anne.

As for favourite story, I think it would have to be Colonel Brandon’s Diary. It’s just such an epic, full of passion, romance, heartbreak, love and loss and then, unexpectedly, happiness.

Some Janeites declare they could never read one of the many “paraliterature” titles that use Jane Austens novels as inspiration. What would you tell them to encourage them to try one of your books?

Hm. That’s difficult. I think I’d say that if they tried one of the diaries they wouldn’t have to finish it if they didn’t like it, but if they did like it then they’d have found a series of “second best” Austen books to extend their enjoyment.

Other Janeites might have stumbled onto the “wrong” sequels and retellings and might be wary of trying a different author. Do you have any thoughts on encouraging them to try again?

I think I’d tell them that the diaries are true to the tone and style of the originals. There are no outrageous happenings and no rampant sex, the books are the kind of thing Jane Austen could have written.

Edmund Bertram's Diary by Amanda GrangeEdmund Bertram’s Diary will be released in a few days in the U.S. His Lordship isn’t exactly the most popular hero in the Austen pantheon, but you made him quite sympathetic, I thought. How did you feel about Edmund going in?

I didn’t particularly like Edmund before I thought of writing his diary. His character isn’t immediately attractive, he’s the serious brother not the charming one.

Did your opinion of him change after writing his diary?

Absolutely. As soon as I saw things from his point of view I saw him very differently. Instead of seeing him as something of a killjoy I saw that he was in fact responsible, reliable and trustworthy – not the most glamorous attributes perhaps, but necessary all the same. If he hadn’t had these characteristics the Bertrams would have been in serious trouble when Sir Thomas went off to attend to business abroad. If Edmund had been another Tom, the estate would have been riddled with debt by the time Sir Thomas returned home and Maria would probably have turned into another Lydia Bennet. Aunt Norris would have refurnished her house at Sir Thomas’s expense and Fanny would have shrunk still further into herself. Without Edmund’s steadying influence the play could easily have turned into a major disaster which would have resulted in the family losing their standing in the neighbourhood.

Edmund Bertram's Diary by Amanda GrangeDo you think maybe he gets an unfair shake from Janeites?

Yes, I think so. I think that Edmund’s not the sort of man to invite to a dinner party if you want fun and witty repartee, but he’s the sort of man you could rely on in a crisis.

I really liked the family dynamics of the Bertrams, especially in the earlier scenes when the kids are younger. The squabbling amongst themselves seems very real, and there is real affection there as well, especially between Tom and Edmund. What were your thoughts on the family relationships of the Bertrams?

I think they’re a very real family and like any family they have their arguments and problems as well as their friendships and celebrations. I liked writing the early childhood scenes with Tom and Edmund because I’ve always felt that they were close, despite their problems. I knew that they would have spent a lot of time together as boys, riding over the estate, swimming in the lake and enjoying the outdoor pursuits that were open to boys of their age and class. I saw this as forming a bond between them that their later differences couldn’t break and I think this is borne out in Mansfield Park because it’s Edmund who goes to fetch Tom when he’s ill.

I showed Maria and Julia as being more competitive because they couldn’t go out into the wider world and test themselves against school friends, university friends etc so they tested themselves against each other. This competitiveness carried on into their adult lives, of course, when they competed over Henry Crawford.

Edmund’s feelings towards Mary were more tender and real than I had expected–and they were returned. What’s your take on their romance?

I think it’s a question of opposites attracting. The initial attraction was real but once they came to know each other more deeply they became increasingly dissatisfied with each other. Unfortunately, neither of them had the experience or the maturity to realise it just wasn’t going to work. Until, that is, Mary went too far and all at once the scales fell from Edmund’s eyes and he was relieved to have had such a narrow escape.

Dare we ask your opinion on Fanny Price? 😉

I have a great deal of sympathy for Fanny. She isn’t the most exciting heroine to read about ( a bit of an understatement!) but in her situation I don’t see how she could be anything other than what she is. If she tries to show any spirit Aunt Norris puts her firmly back in her place, and what an awful place it is, she isn’t even allowed to have a fire in her room in the winter. She doesn’t enjoy the best of health and yet with all her disadvantages she develops into an intelligent young woman who has a strong set of principles. What’s more, she can’t be bullied out of them.

I also liked the way you used Lovers’ Vows both to advance the plot–especially Edmund and Mary reading together–and also quoting from it liberally to show modern audiences, who are less familiar with the play than Austen’s contemporaries, just how dangerous it was for that particular group of actors.

Yes, I wanted to get some of the play into the novel because I knew that not everyone reading the book would be familiar with the play, in fact not everyone reading the book would be aware that it’s a real play. And of course the subject matter and some of the language is probably more racy than people expect so it’s easy to see why Edmund objects, particularly as he’s in loco parentis to Maria, who is engaged and yet is obviously enjoying the embraces of another man.

Colonel Brandon's Diary by Amanda GrangeAnd in the UK, Colonel Brandon’s Diary has just come out. (We’ll have a review this week.) I’m still reading it, but so far I’ve really enjoyed the pre-S&S parts–I nearly missed my train stop yesterday reading the part where he found out about Eliza’s marriage, and then started bawling on the train on the way home when she died. And yet its not melodramatic or maudlin, which it could so easily become. What were your thoughts about the Colonel’s backstory when you started writing it?

It’s the most fantastic story, it has everything really, romance, passion, tragedy and heartbreak and it made me realise that there’s a lot more to Col. Brandon than we see in Sense and Sensibility.

Was it easier or more difficult to write the backstory when Jane Austen so obligingly provided such a romantic story for him?

Both! Easier, because there was plenty to write about but harder, too, because I knew it would be difficult to write it without it descending into melodrama.

The fact that I was writing from a man’s point of view helped to keep the emotion in check so that it remained moving without becoming sentimental and I put in a lot of fairly dark humour, particularly with Brandon’s father, to counteract the sweetness of the early romantic scenes.

Do you think Colonel Brandon is a good match for Marianne Dashwood? Would Willoughby have been better had he not gone for the heiress, but assuming the younger Eliza was still in the picture? (I’ve found this a controversial subject in my discussions of the book with fellow Janeites!)

I certainly made him a good match for Marianne in Colonel Brandon’s Diary. They are very similar in temperament, they’re both romantics and they both feel things deeply. I think they’ll be very happy together.

I don’t think Marianne could have been happy with Willoughby. Although he’s initially attractive, Willoughby is vain, weak, shallow and cruel. I don’t think that Marianne would have been able to look at Willoughby, much less love him, once she’d found out about Eliza. She’s a very passionate girl and I think her disgust would have been as passionate as her initial attraction.

I dare say there are some Edward Ferrars fans who might be disappointed that you chose to write the Colonel’s diary rather than Edward’s. Any thoughts about taking on Edward’s diary?

The first few diary entries are already written! Mind you, I keep rewriting them because I don’t think I’ve caught the right tone yet, but it’s certainly a diary I’d like to write. I’m starting it when Edward is about ten or eleven and he’s attending a children’s party organised by his mother. The first line, so far, is: ‘I do not know how it is, but with Papa I can do no wrong. With Mama I can do no right.’ I see him as having a good relationship with his father then being devastated when his father dies, which accounts for his shyness.

And now you’re working on your sixth hero diary, Henry Tilney’s Diary. Team Tilney awaits with bated breath. 🙂 We’ve been following your posts about writing the book on the Historical Romance UK blog and its interesting to have these insights into your process. How is it going so far? Is Mr. Tilney behaving himself? Is Captain Tilney behaving himself?

It’s early days but it’s going well so far. Mind you, at this stage, anything can happen! But Mr Tilney, or I should say the young Mr Tilney because I’m starting it when he’s about 16, is behaving himself very well. His brother is behaving himself less well, although in line with most young men of his age and class. Eleanor, or course, is behaving herself beautifully.

Six novels, six hero diaries…what’s next?

I’ve written a short story for the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s fiftieth anniversary in 2010. It’s about Wickham, Willoughby and Darcy meeting by accident one snowy night in a coaching inn. I don’t know yet if it will make it into the RNA anniversary book as the publishers haven’t made a final choice of stories, but if it doesn’t make it into the book I’ll post it on my website.

Other than that, I don’t really know. I’d like to write another Gothic – Gothic as in a Victoria Holt-type Gothic, not an Anne Radcliffe type Gothic – and I’d like to write some more diaries. I think Frank Churchill’s Diary would be interesting and I’d also like to write Mr Darcy’s Diary volume II. In fact, there aren’t enough hours in the day for all the books I’d like to write! But I’ll probably take a break for a while after Henry Tilney’s diary. Who knows? I might even catch up with the housework! Or then again, the thought of washing and ironing might very well send me back to the keyboard. 🙂