Monday, June 18, 2012

Jane Austen... Meet Vera Nazarian

A goodly while back I reviewed one of Vera Nazarian's anthologies, so when the chance cropped up to read one of her novels, I jumped at it. Northanger Abbey and Angels and Dragons was available as a free download on Amazon recently, and the story so intrigued me, I absolutely had to have Vera over.

ND: Welcome, Vera, and where did your love affair with Austen's writing begin? What attracts you to the Regency era?

VN: I’ve been reading world classics in my native Russian as soon as I learned to read, around the age of 5, starting with the Greek myths. I honestly don’t remember reading kids books at that point as much as the grownup classics. Yeah, I was a weird kid.

Jane Austen came much later, long after I learned English and we immigrated to the United States. I first read Pride and Prejudice as a high school assignment and then saw the wonderful BBC miniseries starring David Rintoul and Elizabeth Garvie, and together with four other girlfriends we formed the P&P club where every lunch period we watched the movie and became the Bennet sisters and dreamed about Mr. Darcy. I wrote the story of the Five School Girls and the P&P Club here.

Writing in the worlds of Regency is a natural outgrowth of my love of historical romance, and I am drawn to the elegance, the beauty of manners and so-called traditional graces of ages past. This is an artificial construct of course, and the ugly underbelly of the period (and any other historical period) is not accurately reflected in most original or modern Regency romantic works which emphasize the gentility of the upper classes in favor of reality. But it is a fairytale mentality of sorts. And, coming to write in the period, and especially in the worlds of Jane Austen, as a fantasy author first and foremost, a fairytale mentality works great for me.

What also works is the fact that my own natural writing is stylized and “bookish,” my core English assimilated and learned from reading 18th and 19th century literature. As a result, for me, dropping into Austen’s vocabulary and sentence structure is like coming home.

ND: How do you approach a mash-up? And how do you ensure that you remain true to the existing style?

VN: Writing a mash-up well is truly difficult, I’ve come to appreciate. Unlike original writing, you are constantly in “edit” mode (as opposed to “create” mode). It is slow-going. And working that way can make your head explode.

In a nutshell, I am faced with an already near-perfect work of literature and my task is to expand it—like a folded silk fan unfurling—with additional material that a) fits the existing storyline without changing the basic plot, and b) adds a new dimension to the story that takes it into the realm of the fantastic.

My process includes several edit passes, done in random order, depending on the work. First, I decide upon various insertion points into which the major new scenes will go that will add the supernatural motif and secondary stories. Second, I do a stylistic pass where I condense some of the more verbose passages and modernize it a bit for clarity and for length.  I make a pass where I add in small supernatural details practically everywhere along the way, and that means everywhere I can, not just the major pivotal scenes. Finally I do a cohesion pass that allows me to integrate everything better, and make it as seamless as possible.

When it’s over, not a single sentence has been left unturned, so that what you think might be original Austen, is usually not. And I remain true to style by echoing the sentence structure, and the complex compound clauses, and using the kind of inverted word order and other quirks of the period, to match the original.

But I don’t stop there. There are also the Scholarly Footnotes which differ from book to book, and add a completely other layer of silliness. Truly, they must be seen to be understood. Then there are the Appendices. Again, they must be seen, because there are no words (in some cases literally, since they are pictures). And did I mention the interior illustrations? Yup, as an artist, I do my own. Finally, the back cover includes very special fake blurbs written by Regency “contemporaries” to express their delight or more often displeasure at the novel. Ahem!

After my first foray into this unique genre with Mansfield Park and Mummies, I realized very quickly that I don’t write monster mash-ups, but fantasy mash-ups, with the distinction being that I aim to incorporate wonder, supernatural elements, wit and comedy, almost entirely lacking in gore or brute force shock value. Far from trying to bash the reader on the head with zombie blood and guts and nastiness, I aim to make the reader giggle at the droll delightful silliness, and general absurdity. And then there’s the Brighton Duck.

As a result, my Supernatural Jane Austen Series was born, and I will be putting my very special brand of silliness and fantasy mash-up treatment on every single Austen novel in the coming months.

ND: For those authors who’re interested in attempting this sort of thing themselves, what are some of the legal implications?

VN: None—Jane Austen is entirely in the public domain, so you can do whatever you like with her work (but please be gentle and respectful).

The same goes for much of classic world literature, which is in the public domain for the most part—but always check first and never assume something is in the public domain in your country, especially in case of literature in translation, because in some cases there are copyrighted modern translations involved where the living translator holds copyright. A good place to start looking is Project Gutenberg online.

Also, the laws of copyright vary from country to country. And there are weird exceptions to “normal” public domain rules, such as in the unusual case of the estate of Peter Pan. To be safe, do your research, preferably with a knowledgeable copyright lawyer.
ND: Obviously research plays a big part of the story. Are there any resources you found particularly useful?

VN: The primary research should be your familiarity with the original classic author’s personal style, and hopefully, years of absorbing it. That means, closely read the work you plan to mash-up and read the author’s other works. Then, read their contemporaries. Some of this research may already be things you know because you love digging around in history, and you have soaked up the social mores like a sponge. Use Google and Wikipedia as starting points, but expand to real third party historical accounts and scholarly work about the period, and be familiar with the slang and everyday life habits of the time, as much as possible.

And if you think that’s nuts, then you really don’t have any idea how difficult it is to write a good mash-up. If the intention is to make a quick buck, and just do a Frankenstein patchwork job of sticking in zombies in every other sentence, then I really don’t have much to say, except “sure, knock yourself out.” It might be crudely funny and it might even work for you (kind of like whoopee cushions work for some people), but it’s not what I write. Yes, I am a mash-up “snob.”

ND: What was your favourite scene to write, and why? Likewise, the most difficult, and how did you get past it?

VN: My favorite scenes either make me laugh uncontrollably, or tug at my heart.

In Mansfield Park and Mummies that included the mummy resurrection scene, Fanny’s debut ball, Fanny and Mary Crawford’s encounter, the Portsmouth scenes at the docks, the scarab invasion scene, the meaningful ending, and various other spots where I introduced some hilarity and supernatural mayhem. I cannot say more for fear of giving it all away.

In Northanger Abbey and Angels and Dragons, I think my favorite scenes were with the dragons, the “secret clues,” and also the various bumbling angel incidents, the legion, the nephilim “temperature control,” and anything where John Thorpe got to show off his grandiose stupidity.

In Pride and Platypus: Mr. Darcy’s Dreadful Secret (which is coming soon), I had tons of fun with the initial full moon transformation scene, the mayhem at the Netherfield Ball, and all mentions of Mr. Collins and his obsession with Australian flora and fauna. And, in all three books, there is of course the Brighton Duck.

The parts I found most difficult were the subtle ones where I mostly did not add significant new material but reworked the prose to add in minor details. Those are always the tough parts, while scenes with lots of new material are always easy and fun.

ND: Do you think the monster mash-up genre still has some energy in it? What are the hallmarks of great mash-ups? And the bad?

VN: Sure it does, but as I said above, I don’t write the monster mash-up so much as the fantasy mash-up. And I give it my all.

For as long a people treat the genre as an easy cash cow and churn out shoddy “Frankenstein monsters” instead of books—Frankenstein in the sense of the poor monster being put together from crude bits of many other literary “bodies,” sewn with hardly any cohesion, and with all the seams showing—the genre might dwindle and eventually die off as a poor fad. But if authors decide it is worthy of respect and take up the torch to do it the right way, I think we might be in for a long and healthy stretch of quality books.

Remember, not all mash-ups are created equal—each one must be examined on its own merits, and it all depends on each individual author’s respectful treatment of the source material, final intent (shock value versus delight in the work for its own sake), and level of craft as a writer.

A good mash-up is carefully and lovingly constructed, shows much respect for and understanding of the original work and no seams, and uses the new additions and supernatural or other elements so that they make perfect sense in the new and expanded storyline (think of that silk fan that opens up to show a marvelous new scene). Anachronisms are employed smartly so that they actually fit into the framework.

A poorly done mash-up is a one-trick pony. The new and original text is poorly integrated, and the additions do not advance a secondary new plot or even make sense in the original plot. Granted, humor is a difficult thing and not every joke pleases everyone, but if the author puts their heart into it, it will ring true to at least some people—the right readers, those who are your intended audience—and that’s all anyone can hope for with any work of literature.

ND: For those about to embark on a Regency education, which are the top three novels you recommend, in order of preference?

VN: A tough question, with so much to choose from. I would say, read Pride and Prejudice or anything else by Jane Austen, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, any book by Georgette Heyer (my favorite is Lord Henry), and then go on to Mary Jo Putney, Mary Balogh, and check out The Beau Monde as a great resource on all things Regency. For a fun look at what kind of stories are a staple of this genre, read my Austen Authors blog post on Regency Romance Tropes.

Vera in short:
Death by milkshake? 
Milkshake, not so much… but death by fancy European pastries, yes!

Favourite holiday destination? 
A bookstore!

What scares you?
A closed mind.

Which book do you keep returning for comfort reading? 
Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott.

If you weren't an author, what would you be? 
A full-time artist.

Official website
Northanger Abbey and Angels and Dragons
Supernatural Jane Austen Series
Austen Authors

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