Thank you, Marsha, for joining us at Just Jane 1813. It’s a real pleasure to review your “Pride and Prejudice Continues” series on my blog. Your series was recently completed at the end of last year, and I have to say that turning those last several pages was filled with really bittersweet moments for me.
I’ve loved this series so much and I’m hoping more and more readers catch on to how great this series is, especially for Jane Austen fans. I love JAFF sequels, and yours is the longest series I’ve ever read. Can you tell us what made you decide to take on the challenges, as well as the joys of writing a ten-book series?
I just decided to keep writing fanfic until I was out of ideas, and around book 10 is when I ran out of ideas. Also, it’s a round number, so that’s good. The series was originally 11 stories, but the first two were shorter and got put together in one book. When you’re deeply invested in a set of characters, it’s easy to come up with material for them. And in book 5, it shifts to the second generation, so I had a whole new set of stories to tell.
Throughout your books, you take us all over Europe and into parts of Asia during the early 1800’s, which was an aspect of your series that I really connected with as a reader. What did the research process look like for you in regards to incorporating these travels into your stories?
I learned a lot about doing research while I wrote these stories – mainly, that I should do it ahead of time or while I’m writing the story, not after. I fudged the first two books when they were just fanfic online, but when I got to book 3 I realized I had to start doing my homework, and a lot of corrections had to be made for the published versions.
Fortunately while I was writing the series I was studying Creative Writing at the City College of New York (where I earned my MFA), which has a massive library, full of books that haven’t been pulled off the shelf in a hundred years and had no scanner bar when I went to take them out. I would just have a topic and I would go to the section of the library that seemed to deal most with that topic and pull every book off the shelf, scan them, then take out the ones I wanted to read.
I definitely did the most work for book 8, which is set in Japan, where I think I read around 20 books, most general history but some specialty areas, like about the Ainu and other indigenous minorities, and about when Westerners were permitted in and what they were allowed to do. Fortunately, the early 1800’s was a time where people would write diaries for decades and then self-publish them, which could be very, very, very boring but could also contain a lot of useful information about daily life.
I found the diary of a guy who attended Oxford in 1811, and he wrote down everything he did every day, including what he ate and what time he went to sleep, and he transcribed his entire set of Tripos exams for some reason. And I wasn’t allowed to take some books out because they were so old and in such bad condition, so I would just photocopy the whole book and have it bound at Kinkos. I had to do that with The Regency Encyclopaedia, which is a very famous sourcebook that’s also very hard to get, but the New York Public Library had one copy. I also found a medical compendium – sort of a Grey’s Anatomy for the time – published in Philadelphia in 1815 on eBay, so I bought that because it had recipes for tinctures for all kinds of medical conditions.
Darcy’s relationship with Colonel Fitzwilliam has always been one that I have enjoyed reading about in JAFF books. Your series is a bit unique, which is partially due to your decision to focus on Darcy’s relationship Charles Bingley throughout the series, which I love because Darcy and Charles truly grow older together in this series, and enjoy such great ups and downs as their children’s lives become more intertwined with each other. Can you tell us how you came to decide that their relationship would be a focus of this series?
I don’t know why Bingley gets the short end of the stick in fandom. He’s the first character mentioned in “Pride and Prejudice,” and the plot revolves around him for roughly the first third of it, and he becomes very important again at the end. Colonel Fitzwilliam is some guy Elizabeth befriends while in Kent who unintentionally provides her with a bad view of Darcy, then disappears. Maybe it’s because they cast an attractive man to play him in the 1995 miniseries that people get worked up about him. There’s an interesting book – Jane Austen and Representations of Regency England – which talks extensively about the BBC miniseries, and how sex appeal was used to market it.
If you notice, in that series, Bingley’s sort of a chump, whereas in the 2005 movie – which sparked my series – he’s more of a loveable doofus, and Colonel Fitzwilliam is played by an unattractive man and his role is considerably reduced by the running time. I have seen the BBC miniseries many times, but I was far more influenced by the 2005 movie at the time that I was writing, and that steered my interests in a certain direction. Charles Bingley and Fitzwilliam Darcy were two characters I could write for because they play off each other. I can’t recall a single conversation Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam had. Did they ever have one? I’m not going to look it up.
Please tell us a little bit about your cover art. I love the images you selected for each book and the style you selected to help brand your covers.
The first three covers were done by Sourcebooks, and I had very limited input, which is generally the case with professional publishers. Not every author is also a master of graphic design. I’ve worked in publishing and I can’t remember a single unsolicited cover an author sent in that wasn’t downright terrible. For the fourth book, I was with Ulysses Press, and they wanted to do something similar but not exactly the same in terms of the template (because of legal issues), and I finally said okay to the image they chose because I figured it was as close as we were going to get.
For all of the other books, I went back to the Sourcebooks layout, and found a public domain image, or had my readers help me find one, then handed it over to a friend named Dave Berg who’s a graphic designer, and he would choose the colors based on the image and what color set we had already used, and I would write the back copy (that’s what the paragraphs on the back describing the book are called).
We really struggled over finding good images, because most Regency-era paintings with people in them were stylized and tend to look the same. I’ve even seen different publishing companies use the same images for different JAFF books because they’re public domain and they’re nice-looking women staring at the reader, so why not? Like the two women on the cover of Mr. Darcy’s Daughters – I’ve seen that image a couple of times, including on one edition of Pride and Prejudice.
There’s also not a lot of action scenes in this period of English painting except hunting, and I had a lot of those, so we tried to find images that at least implied that. It took just about forever to land on an image for book 8 because I had all of Japanese art open to me, and we ended up going with a Japanese drawing of Westerners from roughly the same era because of the content when I really wanted some samurai stuff. But I think we made the right decision.
How can readers discover more about you and your work?
I’m most active on the Fans of Marsha Altman Group on Facebook, but there’s also Marshaaltman.com.com, which has a blog that’s updated not-so-regularly, and a twitter which is mostly about the publishing industry, and I have an author page on Amazon. I also publish under Marsha Morman, which is my real name, which I use for other genres. Sometimes authors have multiple pen names not to hide their identities but to help bookstores and libraries with shelf placement. If someone’s writing in one genre and they flip over to something totally different, they don’t want those books put together because it will confuse readers.
Also, back in the day when people went to bookstores, I did a study of sales numbers and discovered that JAFF authors with a late A or early B last name sold better because they were closer to Austen on the shelf, so I used Altman, which is fairly close to my real name, but put me a couple shelves away from Austen. That’s why there are a lot of JAFF authors who are named Elizabeth and Jane and who have last names like “Aylmer” and “Aston.” That’s not a coincidence. I wasn’t the first person to think of this. Of course, now Amazon has its own way of grouping things and you don’t have to bother.
Thank you, Marsha, for spending time with us today and for exploring your JAFF series with us. I know my Just Jane 1813 readers love hearing from JAFF authors as much as I do and learning about the various behind-the-scenes- work that takes place when writers delve deeply into Austen’s work. I also want to thank you for creating a series that takes us way beyond the shores of England, and into various ports and landscapes across Europe and Asia, allowing readers to become immersed into a world of history, romance and the beloved Darcy and Bingley families, which for me, felt like I was growing older with some very dear friends.
I want to offer my readers the chance to help me create my next set of interview questions with you, as I request that anyone who’s interested in leaving a question here for you to please do so by January 27, 2016. I will review all of the questions posted here and use them to craft my list of questions for our final interview.