If you’re trying to be writer, you know there’s lots to learn – so why not take some cues from the master herself, Jane Austen? In this new writing guide by Rebecca Smith (Jane’s own great-great-great-great-great niece), you’ll gain helpful tips on all facets of the writing process from not one but two pros, as Rebecca, herself a writing teacher, draws on Austen and her works to create an invaluable guide. We spoke to Rebecca about the book, her own writing process, and her deep admiration for Austen.
BR: Your latest book, The Jane Austen Writers’ Club, is a fantastic guide for writers. Is it intended for beginners, or do you think established writers could learn from it too?
RS: Thank you. I hope people will find it useful whether they are just starting out, more experienced or are teaching writing. I read lots of books about writers and writing – there’s always more to discover.
BR: Why do you think Jane Austen’s work remain so relevant, even in the 21st Century?
She was very astute and really understood the workings of the human heart. As well as being great love stories, her novels are about things that will never stop mattering – being part of a complicated family, making mistakes, friendships, being bullied, the love between siblings, money, … the list goes on and on. And they are really funny. The characters she created, not just the heroes and heroines, but people like horrible Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park, slimy Mr Collins and bored, giggly teenagers like Lydia and Kitty Bennet seem immortal.
BR: It’s evident from reading The Jane Austen Writers’ Club that you have a huge admiration for, and in-depth knowledge of, the works of Jane Austen. You’re also her descendant. How has knowledge of your relation to the writer influenced this work?
There are lots of people who know far more about Jane Austen and her work than I do. I’ve learnt so much from the books and scholarship of Deirdre le Faye, Professor Kathryn Sutherland and other writers. I’m an avid reader of books about Jane Austen and love going to talks like the ones they have Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire. I was so lucky to be the Writer in Residence at the Museum and I learnt so much from the staff, trustees and volunteers there. Spending so much time in the place where Jane Austen lived and did the most important work of her life was magical and inspiring. Being in Jane Austen’s garden, walking where she walked, writing in one of her rooms and looking out of her windows made me feel much more connected to her. It’s easy to imagine how Jane must have felt at different points in her career. She had been serious about writing for twenty years before her first novel was published. The family connection is nice, but there are thousands of people who can say the same thing as she had so many nephews and nieces. My great aunts who lived in Winchester had lots of things – little portraits and so on – that are now in the Museum. I used to love looking at those things when we visited them. My aunts gave us lovely teas and there were miniatures of Jane’s father and her sailor brothers, Francis (my ancestor) and Charles looking down at us.
It changes from time to time but at the moment it’s Emma. This is just a perfect novel. With Emma Jane Austen was “at the height of her powers” as blurb writers say. I would love to be able to go back and read it again for the first time so that I could have the pleasure of discovering what Frank Churchill was really up to. I love the way Jane uses the village of Highbury. Her use of language and of free indirect narration and point of view was pioneering in Emma. It’s just a joy to read and explores some important themes like the position of women in Regency society.
BR: As well as your non-fiction, you’re also the author of three novels and a book for children – do you approach writing for various audiences in different ways? What’s your process?
I just see it all as writing – one word after another until the first draft is done. When I hit about 20,000 words with a project I know I’m really in business. It always gets easier after that. I’m most productive in the mornings. Looking at emails before I start work is a very bad idea. Writing fiction is definitely harder than writing non-fiction and writing for children is trickier than writing for adults, for me anyway. I loved working on The Jane Austen Writers’ Club. The book grew from the writing workshops I’ve run at Jane Austen’s House Museum, so much of the work was done before I started the book. Many of the exercises in the book are ones that I devised for days at the Museum.
BR: How much has Austen’s work influenced your own fiction?
A lot. Pride and Prejudice was the first novel for adults that I really fell for. I love Jane Austen’s use of comedy and irony and the neatness of her plots. The way that she uses reflections and parallels within her novels is beautiful and satisfying. There are lots of other writers whose work I love – Anne Tyler, Lorrie Moore, Jane Gardham, Barbara Pym just for starters. I read lots of the Virago Modern Classics when I was a teenager and I still do. I loved Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career and My Brilliant Career Goes Bung. My mother, Shena Mackay, is a writer and so the house was full of books.
BR: What’s up next for you?
I love autumn. The academic year has just started so I’ll be busy with teaching. It’s hard to get much writing done during term-times, but I have a novel that is about 90% finished and I must complete that.