'There are things I worry about... not being as good as Austen is not one'
Our reporter talks to American author Curtis Sittenfeld about her modern update on 'Pride and Prejudice'
Described as equal parts homage to Jane Austen and bold literary experiment, the news that Curtis Sittenfeld was to publish Eligible, a modern update on Pride and Prejudice as part of the Austen Project to mark the 200th anniversary of Austen's death next year was met with equal parts excitement and trepidation.
Sittenfeld has an excellent track record as an author who mixes gender politics with literary fiction, her novels American Wife and Sisterland were that unusual thing in publishing - critically acclaimed bestsellers. She was an inspired choice for a rewrite of Pride and Prejudice, and she says she was always going to take the commission.
"Two editors reached out to me in December 2011 and said we think you'd be well suited to tell a modern Pride and Prejudice. Only one other novel was taken at that time, Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope," says Sittenfeld.
The list has since expanded to Val McDermid, and Alexander McCall Smith. "It was simultaneously tempting and, for somewhat obvious reasons, a little bit unsettling or intimidating but as soon as I started reading, I thought it would be a lot of fun and I'd be foolish to say no."
So how did she cope with those intimidating aspects of rewriting a classic author's most famous and beloved work?
"In my head, there are certain things I decided early on. One was this was totally an act of admiration done in a festive spirit, not meant to be a super serious literary endeavour, something fun to read and that was about it. I saw it as an extension of Austen and not a replacement of Austen, not like the ghost of Jane Austen came to me in the night and asked me to carry on her legacy! It's just fun and admiring. My husband said, 'Be prepared to be severely criticised'."
There have been "rapturous" reviews and "prominent harsh ones". "Part of me doesn't take the criticism that seriously because there are a lot of problems in the world, people like to get agitated over minor cultural stories. If you don't want to read a retelling of Pride and Prejudice, don't. There are things I worry about in life. Not being as good a writer as Jane Austen is not one of them."
Her take on Austen's novel is brave. Sittenfeld has changed everything to fit with a realist view of contemporary American society, from the names of the characters (Elizabeth is now Liz and Mr Collins is Willy, for example) to the jobs and ages of the women. Jane is a 40-something yoga teacher who craves a child, while Liz is a magazine writer living a joyfully child-free life. Did Sittenfeld find it odd to have to stick to a script, in that she was rewriting a story that she didn't have to create from scratch?
"Weirdly, I never would have come up with this idea on my own. I made choices with this novel that I wouldn't with one from my own imagination. That's part of what drew me to the Austen Project. When they asked me, I thought Austen's work gets a happy ending so I'll always know I'm writing towards a happy ending so I thought it will make me use my brain in a new way."
However, knowing how the story ends is not always a good thing.
"I got to the scene where Darcy proposes his love... I wrote that scene for the first time and then realised every scene I had written up until that point was written in the wrong tone, as if they both understood that they were attracted to each other and didn't want to be, but Liz is pretty clueless about her own feelings. She thinks he's handsome but she thinks she doesn't like him."
Did she feel hemmed in in any way by Austen's story? "It was like an active collaboration except Austen didn't really have a say and has been dead for 200 years. At one point, my American editor said to me, 'we consider this a literary novel by you and we don't want to present it as a gimmick', and I said, 'it kind of is a gimmick. I want it to be fun'. Novel writing for me is more satisfying than fun. I'm just absorbed, it's immersive and fascinating, and I forget myself, that's the ideal. This was more fun on the whole than writing my other books. I had Pride and Prejudice on my desk and I would often refer to it. There's a tremendous amount I borrowed from it. The act of writing a scene, once I'm writing it, the experience is not that different, and what I have to do is climb inside the main characters in the scene and think about how they're sitting or standing and what are they saying."
She had to make some more extreme changes to the storyline, however, because sex and relationships in Cincinnati in 2013 are a little different to what they were in Austen's England.
"I feel like it's organic and not gratuitously provocative. Willy Collins and Darcy are romantically interested in Liz and in the year 2013, for two men to declare love to the same woman within a couple of weeks it was so implausible that she would not be physically involved with either one... If she has clear chemistry with one of them, it seemed like a way of illustrating their attraction. There was a moment where I was describing they bumped into each other jogging and they race up the hill and the sexual tension was there and then I thought, 'oh, of course, they should act on it!' My rule is the thing that almost happens in real life should always happen in fiction."
She also includes a transgender storyline. "Transgender issues were less prominent when I turned the book in than they are now. I wasn't trying to capture the Zeitgeist. The trans character in Eligible is there because there are trans people in the world. I'm not making a political point."
While there is plenty here for Sittenfeld fans to enjoy, it's hard not to feel like Eligible was a fun diversion for the author before she returns to writing her own books. Fans will be pleased to hear she is working on something new.
"I've written two pages of another book. It's embryonic, it barely exists. I like to do something different to what I have done before. I have three ideas and I feel confused, they're all really different. My editor and my agent both think the idea sounds incredibly weird... it almost has a tiny element of science fiction. It has an impossible premise. I live in St Louis, Missouri so I don't feel like my career is something that's being closely observed by other people, I don't worry about literary snobbishness."
Has the intense immersion in Austen for the last two years ruined her enjoyment of those books a little?
"I'll come back to it. It's a different experience to read Pride and Prejudice and to write a novel based on it. It's like you're reverse engineering. I was diagramming certain scenes instead of enjoying them. I have more respect for the technical choices she made and how seamless the novel is, but at this point, people give me Jane Austen board books and prints... After American Wife I got political stuff... I'm not sure I'll read Pride and Prejudice again for five years."
Eligible is published by HarperCollins