Debut Novel Finds Resilience in Reading Jane Austen

Posted by Cybil on May 1, 2020
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Natalie Jenner wrote for years, finishing five novels, but never quite landed a publishing deal. When her husband was diagnosed with a life-threatening lung disease in 2016, she set aside her creative ambitions for more practical ones. She closed the bookstore she’d just opened and became her husband’s health advocate. 

Part of her coping strategy in that time was to reread Jane Austen, a writer she has always found soothing. She became so interested in Austen that she delved into the author’s history. She wasn’t planning to write a book about Austen—she was just finding solace in this new interest. 

About two years later, when her husband’s health began to stabilize, she felt an impulse to write again. Her efforts led to The Jane Austen Society. It’s a fictional telling of how the Jane Austen Society—an actual group founded in Chawton, England—came to exist. 

The novel revolves around a motley group of characters shortly after World War II. United by their love of Jane Austen, they band together to preserve Austen’s estate, located in their small village. As they dedicate themselves to this cause, they heal deep wounds from the war and beyond, uncover secrets of their small town, and change the course of history. 

Jenner caught up with Goodreads contributor Kerry Shaw in mid-March while quarantined in her home outside Toronto. They discussed releasing a book during a pandemic, finally getting a book deal, and the healing power of writing. Their conversation has been edited.

Goodreads: What's it like releasing a book during a pandemic? Though as of today, we don't actually know what the state of the world will be when your book will be released.

Natalie Jenner: When you're a debut author, you don't know anything anyway! I remember saying to myself, If I ever have another book published, I will actually know what copyediting is like! I will know what “first pass” means. 

I feel like everything is going to work out the best that it can. We live in a digitally connected world. I'm trying to stay hopeful in terms of advance momentum and also for what readers decide is the best book format for them. Maybe your Kindle is going to be the best way for you to read my book? I just want people to read my book. But I have no crystal ball! 

GRHow are you spending your time now that you're in isolation?  

NJ: I had to do 14 days of self-quarantine because I had traveled to six American cities in about nine days and got home two weeks ago, tomorrow. So unfortunately, the hardest part is not being able to interact with my family. I have been spending a lot of time yelling through walls. 

GR: Oh, so you're really alone.

NJ: Yes, I'm really alone. And unfortunately, my husband, even though he's only in his 50s, has a rare form of lung disease, which puts him in the high-risk category, which is why we're being especially careful. 

I've been doing a lot of reading and have been able to do some writing, which is wonderful. Also, I've been spending time online, dialoguing with this amazing group of debut authors I've met since officially having a publishing deal. Our group is called the 2020 Debuts, and it's a torch that gets passed every November to the next year. I’ve been pre-ordering or ordering and downloading their books. I've been reading about a book every day or two. Oh, and people bring me tea every couple hours. 

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GRThat's dreamy. I mean, the part about reading a book a day. It's not dreamy that you have to worry about your health, your loved ones, and that you’re alone. 

NJ: That's the great part about being a reader—you're never alone! And I've raised a reader, my daughter, who's at university now. Just the other day we were saying that when you love to read, you will never say, "I don't know what to do tonight! No one's around this weekend!” Instead you’ll think, “Ah, I can get to that book!" And it's heavenly. 

GR: What are you reading now?

NJ: I just finished a great, very atmospheric Gothic tale by another debut author, Jane Healey, The Animals at Lockwood Manor. And I am rereading Sanditon by Jane Austen. And I am just about to delve into a book by another debut author that came out in February. It's kind of like Big Little Lies, set in a high school, Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes. And then I have some Edith Wharton and Ethan Frome coming up. 

GR: I appreciated your book for many reasons, but I was particularly grateful to be transported to another time and place. Especially now.

NJ: Somebody wrote to me through my website this week and said, “Your book was an unexpected balm for me in really stressful times” and thanked me for writing it. And I was like, "Well, my job's done!" 

I don't think people understand, when they send those emails, just how much it actually transforms your whole day knowing that you have put something on paper that might be a net positive for another human being. 

GR: Can you say more about what was going on in your life when you wrote The Jane Austen Society?

NJ: When I wrote the book, a couple of years ago, my family had had a difficult couple of years. My husband had been diagnosed with a very rare, progressive lung disease. When we got the news, I had just opened a bookshop. And so, just as I was building up this store, I was having to take it down, which is really bizarre energy. I got into a zone of aggressive medical advocacy and research because this disease is quite rare. 

I was finding a lot of solace in reading Jane Austen. I find the way she writes really calming. So I was rereading all her books and got sucked into this rabbit hole of reading more about her as a writer and as a woman. I didn't know I was going to write the book—all the reading I was doing was just for pleasure. That's what I call "unintentional research." 
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GR: What was the impetus to write the book?

NJ: About two years ago, I was walking to a job that I love. I've been a career coach for decades, working primarily in the legal industry because I used to be a lawyer. My husband had just been put on these very expensive drugs that can sometimes slow down the disease. Wonderfully, they seem to have stabilized him for the past year or two and hopefully longer. 

I remember I was whistling as I went to work. And I realized I hadn’t done that in a while. Sure enough, a month later, I felt a creative impulse I wanted to explore. I think I had come through some of the trauma and reset myself, learning to live with this new normal. And so that was the impetus for writing the book: wanting to explore what comes after trauma, that first little step in how to put yourself out there, even when the most you can do is try a new book or talk to your neighbor. Sometimes when you go through a really difficult experience, the tendency is to turtle a bit and pull back. But life demands, in order to be lived, that we keep moving forward and venturing and exploring. 

GRHave you been able to do that? 

NJ: We had been taking some amazing bucket list trips as a family. I went to the Jane Austen Festival in England for the 200th anniversary of her death. I took my daughter to a Jane Austen conference in Philadelphia for my 50th. The result of all that was this creative impulse to write again for the first time in ten years. And for me, it was also the beginning of hope. 

GR: What happens at a Jane Austen conference?

NJ: It was wonderful: lectures on different themes. Whit Stillman, who's one of my favorite film directors, was there. There was a luncheon. But primarily it’s an academic environment in which people have prepared a pretty innovative program. In this case, a lot of it was about Persuasion. It’s an environment in which people go really deep with Jane Austen, like maybe deeper than you should go...? [Laughs.]  You're reading a lot of her and starting to really start to pick up on parallels and themes. And it's wonderful to connect with others who are also at that stage of their enjoyment of her.

GR: Has your relationship to Jane Austen changed in the process of writing this book?

NJ: I started to feel very connected to her and why she wrote the way she wrote, and I think it seeped into my writing. I am not saying I'm anywhere on the spectrum with her! 

For example, I never set out to have parallels between my characters and hers. And as I was writing a scene, I became conscious of a vibe between two characters and thought, "Ooh, there’s an age difference, it’s socially’s basically Emma and Mr. Knightley!” 

So the joy of the book was the surprises it gave me. I also felt very close to Jane Austen as an author and tried to convey some of that in my own writing. That sounds so presumptuous, but I hope you know what I mean. 

GR: Not presumptuous! It makes sense. Your book works on many levels. First, it’s a story. Readers who love her work can appreciate the book on another level for all its Austen references. And then there's this third layer, of the plot mirroring a Jane Austen book. I had assumed that that was intentional, but what a happy accident! 

NJ: Yes, because I don't plot at all. I start writing and let the chips fall where they may. My characters start telling me what they want and what they need. And that's why it's so fun for me—I love a first draft. For most of my author friends, that first draft is the one they like the least. But I love it because I have no idea what's going to happen. 

GR: Can you say more about your process? Do you have a daily routine?

NJ: I like writing in that 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. zone, when you first wake up, and nothing has interfered with your creative subconscious mind. You haven't had that bad email yet. And when I'm really in my first draft and want to know what's going to happen, my husband says he can feel the energy rising off my body, like my characters are literally waking me up, and I can't wait to get to the computer and continue the conversation. So I tend to write very early in the morning, but I can also write any other time in the day. 

GR: I saw in the acknowledgements that you had called this a ten-year process. 

NJ: I think I wrote five books in my 30s and got close, but nothing happened with various agents and independent publishers. I was heartbroken at the lack of response. It’s called a gatekeeping industry for a reason—there are so many books being written all the time, and you can really meet a wall of silence. And that can be hard. You can tell yourself, “Nobody cares about my writing. My writing is no good.” But I got to a point where I simply needed to divert my time to more income-generating sources and behavior, and my family life. It was a pretty economical decision. 

GR: What did you do differently when you decided to write again? 

NJ: I remember saying to myself, I have to enjoy every minute of this. And I really hope that shows through in the book. I had a blast writing it. 

GR: What else helped your writing this go-around compared with your earlier efforts?

NJ: I think when you start to write, there’s a tendency to not want to kill your darlings. The key thing you learn, the more you write, is how everything is in service to your reader, to the story. And the more you write, the more feedback you get, the more it helps you hone in on that and develop better intuitive radar for it.  

GR: I love that you bring up the joy of writing. That's not something I usually hear from authors. 

NJ: I think the joy can be satisfaction or feeling productive. When I was writing this book, I felt a level of happiness that was very personal and very reflective of the circumstances under which I was writing this book. Like I said earlier, it was about coming through a fairly traumatic time. 

And after many years of meeting a wall of silence from publishers, I had developed a skill in writing. I could exercise it for free, I could do it whenever I wanted to. And when I did it, it made me feel close to Jane Austen. It made me feel close to my own creative mind at a time when I needed to feel hope and feel energized. 

But it also allowed me to engage on a really deep, subconscious level with aspects of my journey that I was not consciously wanting to deal with. I realized only after I'd written the book how many of my characters have qualities, experiences, or reactions that were similar to mine. 

And I can go back and look at all eight of those characters and see them as refractions of my own behavior in trauma, of choices I made. I can see that, through my main characters, I was working through the very choices that I, too, had made or was going to have to make. But I can honestly say I was not aware that I was doing that while I was writing! 

GR:  I can imagine readers will find your publishing story inspiring. 

NJ:  I would say to people, If it's adding to your life and it gives you enjoyment on any level—even if it just makes you more understanding of yourself and what gives you joy and turns you on—that you should keep doing it. 


Natalie Jenner's debut novel, The Jane Austen Society, will be published in the U.S. on May 26. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf!

Comments Showing 1-13 of 13 (13 new)

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message 1: by Mairy (new)

Mairy I read The Jane Austen Society earlier this year and it was a real treat! Very emotional at the end.

Sarsha tyreca mota I read that book

Psychowellnesscenter Nice to read about the author herself. Its wonderful to know where did they start and how has the journey been.
Journery is love

message 4: by Darlene (new)

Darlene Foster As a former member of the Jane Austen Society, I can't wait to read this book. A fabulous interview!

Natalie Humphrey I so enjoyed reading the interview by Natalie Jenner; I too am a great fan of Jane Austen and look forward to ordering the book. Thank you Natalie (from another Natalie .... Humphrey)

message 6: by Linda (new)

Linda Ford Great interview. Author revealed so much about her process and who she is as a person and author.

message 7: by Eileen (new)

Eileen Keane Thank you for sharing so much about your life and process. I've added this book to my TBR list.

message 8: by Karen (new)

Karen Mount Now I want to watch read more about Jane Austen. I look forward to your book as well.

message 9: by Gail (new)

Gail I received a pre-release copy. While beautifully written, I was a bit lost because the characters discuss Austen's books at length, and I have only read a few, but many years ago. To get the most of of this book, I think readers should have read many of her books.

message 10: by Viola (new)

Viola Kim I love how you talked about the joy of writing! I also think that is the most important aspect about doing an activity.
Being only 23 with an Asian heritage background, I had very little knowledge and contact with Jane Austen's writings. I knew her as a classic author but not much more than that. But! I got a chance to watch the latest motion picture 'Emma' and I was completely blown away by the characters and the story. Being a young woman, I could relate to Emma with her unavoidable prematurity despite her efforts to look like she-knows-it-all and has-it-all. So I really wanted to read the novel and I'm really enjoying it. When I've read rest of Jane Austen's books, I would love to read The Jane Austen Society.

message 11: by Emmanuel Madaki (new)

Emmanuel Madaki I read few of Jane Austen's novel. There was no regret. I'm looking forward to the the Jane Austen society book soon.

message 12: by Thebooktrail (new)

Thebooktrail A wonderful and inspiring interview which really showcases the book and the story behind the story! I was very keen to find out more after I'd read the novel and where it is set etc and I'm now really wanting to visit Chawton where Jane Austen wrote some of her books.

I love it when authors are inspired to write fiction and fact merged into one like this and do it so well!

message 13: by Boneva (new)

Boneva Mischo-Allinger Reading the authors interview comments has been very pleasing. I am a JASNA member and belong to a local Austentacious Study group. I have just ordered the book and look forward to reading it.I have visited Chawton twice and also Alton plus other places that Jane Austen lived. She is an amazing author.

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