When I read the announcement in June of 2008 about Michael Thomas Ford’s new novel Jane Bites Back, my jaw dropped and I stared at my computer screen in astonished disbelief! Jane Austen is a now a vampire? No. What next? Darcy and Elizabeth on Mars?
As I read further about his concept of Austen being frustrated by everyone making money off her name and unable to get another book published after 200 years, I laughed so hard I startled my cats! As I smiled in acknowledgement that Austen would appreciate the irony of this folly and nonsense, the first question that sprang to mind was where the heck did this idea come from? And, would it be a light, bright and campy parody or a dark, sadistic, really angry Jane takes revenge on the world for ripping off her novels kind of gothic madness? My questions would not be answered to my satisfaction for over a year.
In December 2009 Jane Bites Back landed on my doorstep and by the ninth chapter I was smitten. You can read my full rollicking review here. So how was this staunch defender of Miss Austen’s reputation wooed and subdued? I will duly acknowledge Jane Austen’s vampiric ability to “glamour” me of course, then throw a crumb of credit Michael Thomas Ford’s way.
Please join me in welcoming today author Michael Thomas Ford. He has graciously agreed to answer a few questions about his new book.
Jane Austen as a vampire is quite a startling notion. How did you arrive at this high concept characterization and what did you think the response from the Austen community would be?
As many of the most delightful things in life do, it happened a bit by accident. One day my agent and I were discussing the state of publishing. He commented that the only books selling well were about either vampires or Austen. I jokingly said that in that case I ought to write a novel about Jane Austen as a vampire. We laughed about it and my agent suggested I write something up. I was in the middle of another book, so it took me some time to do it, but I eventually did and he sent it out.
Shortly thereafter I left on a trip to British Columbia, where I go every year to scuba dive. So I was on a dive boat with very infrequent cell service and not really thinking about the book, as my experience with the submission process is that it takes quite some time to hear anything. One day I noticed the message light on my phone blinking, as we’d just come into range. There were several excited messages from my agent informing me that there was enormous interest in the project and that he would be holding an auction for it the following week. As you might imagine, I was thrilled.
As to the response from the Austen community, I suspected that most of her fans would respond well to the idea. I think Austen readers are an unusually imaginative group of people and appreciate a good satire, which is really what JBB is. I also knew that they would be wary, as there have been so many Austen-related books that have disappointed them, so I wanted to be sure to give them something they would enjoy.
Since Pride and Prejudice and Zombies became a publishing phenom last April, there has been a plethora of imitators flooding the market attempting to cash in on the Austen mash-up craze. Your book is a completely original work incorporating Austen’s life, works and witty personality. What was your motivation in writing Jane Bites Back and what is your response to those who say you have hitched your star to a literary icon?
Initially I just thought Jane as a vampire was a fun idea. But the more I thought about it, and as I wrote the proposal and the first chapters, the more I realized that her story is really the story of a lot of writers who are frustrated with the publishing industry and with the writing life in general.
Now, at the time my book was making the rounds PPZ had not even been announced and the subsequent mash-up phenomenon had not yet begun. Once PPZ came out I found my book being mentioned in virtually every article written about the trend. This was lovely, but as you can imagine it was also a little frustrating because not only was my book not coming out until later in the year but as you said, it isn’t a mash-up at all. It was natural that people might think it was, as no one had read it yet, but I did get a little tense about the whole thing. Fortunately, as soon as people began reading JBB they realized that it isn’t at all like the mash-ups and is a novel featuring Jane, not her characters.
There are of course some people who say that I’ve used Austen’s name simply to make money, and there is undoubtedly some truth to the notion that I’m relying on her popularity to interest readers in my book. Obviously the enormous interest in Austen is what inspired the book, and her name will encourage some readers to pick the book up who might not otherwise pick up a Michael Thomas Ford novel. But I think I’ve created a story that holds up on its own and that displays my affection for Austen and her work, and ultimately the commercial success of the book is not as important to me as the fact that other Jane fans enjoy it.
One of the most endearing aspects of ‘your’ Jane Austen is that like her own characters in her novels, she has foibles and personality quirks like the rest of us. From the many references to Austen lore in the book, you are obviously an admirer of her life and works. How did you place yourself in her shoes and create the character?
It’s interesting. A handful of readers have complained that the Jane of JBB is not the “real” Jane Austen. When you’re dealing with someone who is as beloved as Austen is you inevitably have to accept the fact that not everyone perceives her in the same way. So no matter what you do, there will always be someone who doesn’t care for your portrayal of the character. I decided I had to let go of that fear and make Jane the Jane I see when I read her novels. Then I put that Jane into a contemporary setting and imagined how she might respond to her situation. Her personality quirks grew out of that, and I hope they feel natural and unforced. I did my best to let that Jane emerge, and I’m quite fond of her, so I want other people to be as well.
Something else to consider is that the Jane of JBB has had a life-altering change in becoming one of the undead. She has existed for nearly two centuries in a variety of cultures and circumstances, and while her fundamental characteristics may eventually prove to have survived essentially unaltered, she has to act a part to help hide her true identity. So if she sometimes does not act “like herself,” it is partly a function of deliberately trying not to.
As to how one writes a character, I’ve written a great many novels at this point in my career, in genres ranging from supernatural fiction to mysteries, and featuring dozens of different characters. People will often ask me, “How can you write from the perspective of a teenage girl/drug-addicted comic book collector/Vietnam soldier?” The answer is, that’s what I do. Some people know how to fix cars or make vaccines or teach mathematics. I tell stories. It’s really the only thing I’m good at. And that means imagining what it’s like to be all kinds of things I’m not. This time I imagined being Jane Austen after being turned into a vampire. Then I told that story.
Vampire novels can be scary and gory. There is also a lexicon of vampire lore that is expected by today’s pop culture. Could you elaborate on the tone and direction you have chosen for Jane Bites Back?
That was one of the first issues I needed to address — should this be a vampire novel with Austenesque qualities or an Austen novel with vampire touches? I’ve written traditional vampire stories in the past, so I’m familiar with that genre. But the story I wanted to tell wasn’t really a vampire story, so I decided to take a different approach.
Having decided that, I early on chose to abandon the traditional “rules” for writing vampires. Jane can eat. She can be in the sun. She can be photographed. Partially this was for the sake of convenience, but I also made this choice because Jane being a vampire is not really the point of the novel. It’s a device that makes Jane’s story more interesting.
As far as the level of bloodiness, I always intended to keep it to a minimum. Jane, vampire or no, is still a lady.
Every author hopes to connect with their readers and win their respect and approval. I had my ah-ha moment when Jane revealed her infatuation with nineteenth-century actor Richard Mansfield, the pattering comic baritone of the D’Olyly Carte opera company. Brilliant choice! Of course Jane would like Gilbert and Sullivan. I imagine she would also have enjoyed Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker – having all been cut from the same irreverent cloth. One of the advantages of Jane being undead is that not only do we see her in the modern world, we have the potential to travel back in time and experience events and people in her past life. What is next for the undead Jane Austen? What are your aspirations for your next two books in the series?
I’m so pleased that you noticed Mansfield! I was so happy that I could work him in, particularly because of his connection to the Jack the Ripper case. As for the next two books, the second is called Jane Goes Batty and it deals with what happens after Jane’s newest novel is a huge bestseller. It’s being made into a film, which causes Jane no end of trouble when the filmmakers decide to shoot it in Brakeston. In addition, her relationship with Walter takes an unexpected and very disconcerting turn. And now that Byron is back in her life he’s teaching Jane all of the vampire-related skills she’s neglected for so long. So a lot happens to her in the second book. I’m planning the third right now and have a number of ideas, but nothing is finalized. At some point I would like Jane to return to England and perhaps run into some old friends, and possibly enemies.
Many thank to Michael for sharing his thoughts with us today. Jane Bites Back is published by Ballantine Books and was released on December 29, 2009.
Win a copy of Jane Bites Back
Enter a chance to win one of two copies available of Jane Bites Back by leaving a comment by 11:59 pm PT January 24th, 2010 stating which Jane Austen characters deserves to be turned or which producer of a Jane Austen movie should be! Winners announced on Monday, January 25th. Shipping to US or Canadian addresses only.
UPDATE 01/25/10: The contest has concluded and the winner announced. Follow this link to discover if it was YOU!