Jane Austen Appears in Tweed Jacket

Portrait made just after confronting her about Antigua

I met Jane Austen through my parents.  She occupied a top bookshelf between Aristotle and Balzac, wearing the same tan tweedy jacket all the Great Books wore.  From my teenager perspective, she seemed as accessible as a marble goddess in a museum.  Nonetheless, one acutely boring day while wondering WILL I EVER ESCAPE THIS SMALL TOWN, I found myself precariously bereft:  between books with nothing to read, and decades before the day of instant downloads.  Thus, the annoying choice:  either not read, or resort to my parents’ Great Books collection.  I pulled Sense & Sensibility off the shelf and spent several days out of town—in Jane Austen’s world.  I could have mustered greater enthusiasm if she’d included a Heathcliff in her pages, but she was a friend of my parents, after all.

I met Jane Austen again as a young adult, busy launching my entry-level self in the big city and wondering WILL I EVER FIND LOVE, which is to say, I was meeting my fill of characters and navigating rapid plot twists.  Home sick one day, I read Persuasion which led to Northanger Abbey and might have continued except I recovered, went back to work, and lost touch with Jane Austen.  Back then, I read without regard to author, subject, or literary orientation and, in the blur of young life before Facebook, relationships fell through the cracks.

And then I met my husband.

From that moment, I avoided plot twists.  No conflict, please.  The tension that makes fiction so compelling, doesn’t translate to real life, and as my life perspective changed, so did my literary perceptions.  We read Love in the Time of Cholera aloud on our honeymoon.  Heathcliff?  GAH.  What was I thinking?  Books that moved me in my youth no longer had the power.  I was aware of Jane Austen’s growing popularity—and Mr. Darcy’s wet shirt, who wasn’t?—but I was too busy changing diapers to get involved.

Twenty years passed before running into Jane Austen again.  We met by chance in the New York Times Book Review through our mutual friend, The Jane Austen Book Club.  By then, I had four sons and a novel-in-progress.  Jane Austen was an immortal supernova.  My reading program had narrowed to novels reflecting life’s complexity, often leading me to revisit classics, which led to reading all six Austen novels without interruption.  Jane Austen spoke to me from between the lines of her prose, a perfect blend of irony and optimism and we became best friends.  We agreed on many things, most importantly that bookish women should be the heroines of their own lives.  We spent five years together writing My Jane Austen Summer, experiencing ups and downs, including a revelation regarding her father’s trusteeship of a slave-owning plantation in Antigua she never bothered to mention.  But we’ve established boundaries and moved on and, thanks to books, discussion groups, and cyber-celebrations, we meet almost every day; one fixed point in the chaos of life.

What about you?  How did you meet Jane Austen?

Welcome, Austenesque revelers!  This post is offered in conjunction with Austenesque Extravaganza, a month-long celebration of Austenesque novels and authors hosted by Meredith Esparza.  Leave a comment on this post to be included in the drawing for one of 80 Austenesque novels she’ll be giving away.  For more information on the festivities and to enroll in her giveaway, visit Austenesque Reviews.


Advertisements

8 Comments

Filed under Cindy Jones, My Jane Austen Summer

Leaving Town

What did we forget to pack?

Confession: I need a shot of adrenaline in order to leave town.  Other people routinely lower thermostats, lock doors, and depart on schedule, but in the fraternity house we call home, I can’t find the thermostat behind last night’s pizza boxes and we’re lucky if our doors are closed.  Nobody organizes so much as a toothbrush without a packing list and the packing list can’t get created until the increasing pressure of a departure date triggers an adrenaline boost.

Warning: dependence on brain chemicals can have unintended consequences.  For example, one’s desk must be cleared before leaving town and clearing one’s desk becomes so fun and easy on adrenaline-spiked blood that hours are squandered resolving dust-covered medical claims and writing past due thank you notes while the mail and the newspaper cry out to be stopped.

But: This summer, my energy boost took a detour.  Instead of toughing it out in my household office: where work-in-progress goes to hibernate and creative writing takes a backseat to hauling vitamin water, my husband established a window corner of his office just for me: a table, an internet cable, and a chair with a lovely view of the world below.  Cool blue walls and busy co-workers encouraged progress.  No one there fusses about summer reading, whines for snacks, or obsesses over 4-player screen mayhem.

Behold: in the serene setting of my “corner office” the needs of my novel became clear.  Ideas and words packed themselves into efficient paragraphs and problems cleared the revision list.  The closer departure date loomed, the more I accomplished.  I allowed the adrenaline boost go straight to my writing.    How could I worry about thermostats when the motivation of my male antagonist was stark staring clear to me?  The only packing list I could generate was the one my protagonist needed to get out of that lake house before it was too late.

Alas: at the very last possible moment I came to my senses and we left town like a moving target.  It comes as no surprise that some teenagers packed only flip-flops, t-shirts, and cell phones.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cindy Jones, hazards of writing, Motherhood, My Jane Austen Summer, teenagers

Memo to Younger Writing-Self

Me and My Literary Agent

I will never be able to go back in time to visit earlier versions of my writing-self, but if I could, I would offer my younger writing-self a firm pat on the back and tell her that the endless rejection and setbacks would eventually result in a published book. 

Last weekend, I got to do the next best thing.  As a speaker at the Writer’s League of Texas Agents and Editors Conference in Austin, Texas, I was able to tell my story to an audience of aspiring writers who occupied the same seat I occupied four, six, and nine years ago.  In addition to advising them How to Solve Their Soggy Middle Problem and What to Do After Landing an Agent, they got a healthy dose of reassurance from me that, although it might seem as if they took a wrong turn and got sidetracked in rejection and setback, the same path leads to publication, and they are indeed on the right track.  I told them that if they exercised patience and continued to persist through countless revisions, pushed their imaginations two generations beyond capacity, and actually did what the Writer’s League of Texas told them to do, they would one day return to the very same hotel ballroom to sign copies of their published book and deliver their own Craft of Writing Talk. 

But that’s not all.  If they would stand in line to pitch their idea to agents now, they would someday find themselves leaving the Pitching Session early to meet their literary agent for a long conversation about their writing career–over a glass of wine in a quiet corner of the hotel lobby.  And if they would network diligently now, they would someday be invited to mingle among agents and editors at the Conference Faculty Party, not your usual cocktail party chitchat.  And I can witness that the glow from spending a weekend among people who get to work in the publishing industry would persist even after they returned home to a refrigerator full of The Colonel’s leftovers and a kibble bin refitted as a feeding trough by two enterprising dogs. 

I wonder if there is anything my future-self would like to tell my present-self about raising teenagers through structure-free summers.

2 Comments

Filed under Agent, Cindy Jones, My Jane Austen Summer, teenagers, The Writer's League of Texas

My Car Does Time Travel

wet dog on board

Smells like summer in the back of my car since I have neglected to unload the lake house linens brought home to launder.  I’ve left them there because every time I get in my car, the dusty mildew triggers a flood of summer memories that take me way back.  And since my new novel includes time travel, any actual experience in the field is a good thing.  The first time it happened, I traveled to my 20s, when the smell of lake water represented an idyllic escape from a Dallas desk job, when boat rides became romantic, and the future seemed as mysterious and exciting as dock lights flickering on inky water at night.      

Sometimes, driving around with musty linens induces a slight headache, but each mildewy car trip takes me back farther into the summers of my life.  I visited my father’s various sailboats and the summers of my teens where everything smelled like a damp life-preserver and I made the exception to hang with parents to cruise the Chesapeake Bay.  I revisited a canoe in a Northern Michigan lake where we children had a license to paddle reedy shallows while the adults inhabited a separate plane of existence on the shore.        

My summer time travel ultimately lands me in one of those long summer afternoons when the wonder of endless unstructured time, teeters on the brink of death by boredom.  That was the hard part.  We struggled, but were saved by whoever thought of draping a blanket over a table or a refrigerator box, redirecting our next three days to organizing a tent world and spending a half-night sleeping outside.  

Time travel through summers is distracting and causes me to drive beyond my destinations, but what’s a little u-turn compared to the opportunity to commune with the essence of summer?  The smell in my car allows total recall of the feeling of liberation, the same now as in childhood: the suspension of ordinary routines, replaced by summer’s New Best Friend: water.  Sparkling and splashing in pools, raining on hot concrete, shimmering on lake surfaces, growing mildew in lake house linens. 

Must stop.  I have to board my time travel machine in order to fetch son from sailing camp.

4 Comments

Filed under Cindy Jones, My Jane Austen Summer

The Scone Tour*: TV and Me

Time Warner's Studio in Irving, Texas

The Scone Tour took me to Irving, Texas where I arrived “camera ready” to tape an episode of Conversations Cafe with Cheryl Nason.   

Everything takes longer in show business and since the crew was out filming a sporting event, I parked in The Green Room, which is show biz for waiting area, and concentrated on remaining “camera ready”.  

I photographed the door plate

(A bottle of Perrier was the only green thing in the room.)  Sitting there was like waiting for a doctor, and I was glad to have a book to read, even if it was My Jane Austen Summer which I’ve read maybe 2 billion times. 

Eventually, an assistant ushered me into the studio, a cavernous room focused on a cozy living area, with enough light to double as an operating room.  

The actual studio

Everyone was very nice to me, reinforcing my sense of doom, and I was delighted that Cheryl Nason, the show’s talented host, had read my book.  Unfortunately, the moment I took the seat next to her, my upper body contracted rigor mortis.  If this had been a doctor’s office, someone would have explained what was coming and how much it would hurt.  If only I could practice.  

Me with Cheryl Nason of Conversations Cafe

When Cheryl’s TV voice spoke to viewers at home, I knew it was a matter of time.  Like water skiing or having a baby, after a certain point there’s no turning back, camera ready or not.  What would happen if I said, “cut”?    Before I knew it, I was talking, and since I’ve read my book 2 billion times, turns out I can discuss it even in a state of semi-paralysis.  We talked about Jane Austen, the road to publication, and researching characters.  Just when I was getting comfortable with the whole TV thing, thinking about perhaps moving one or two muscles in my upper body or asking Cheryl a question to relieve the one-sidedness, it was time to go.  All done.  And I never felt any pain.  
 

If you subscribe to Time Warner Cable in Texas, you can watch this episode of Conversations Cafe on your TV.  Or, you can watch it here:   http://www.cindysjones.com/cjones-media.htm 

 

*The Scone Tour is my fond name for activities where I share scones and Lily Berry’s Pink Rose Tea in appreciation for book promotion.

4 Comments

Filed under Cindy Jones, The business of writing..., The Scone Tour

Earth to Cindy

Calling Cindy...

My family was hopeful that after the launch of my debut novel, things would return to normal.  And ideally, I would have dropped everything and gone back to matching socks, if only my novel-in-progress had not been weighing on me like a term paper for a class I’d stopped attending.  Since I was already short-listed for Space Cadet of The Year, and considering how little time remained before summer, it hardly seemed worthwhile to switch gears.  If I could just take the momentum from my book launch and apply it to finishing next novel, I could be present for an earthling summer and sort socks in time for camp.  Unfortunately, over the previous year I’d only demonstrated ability to focus on next novel while in solitary confinement, at least 450 miles from home.  Sacrifices would be required to replicate the intensity.  Earth would have to go.  

I printed the existing draft and read it aloud, plunging deep into the world of my characters, maintaining an iron grip on the narrative line while my grasp of reality flirted with black holes.  I solved literary problems while driving the car, but my passengers rolled their eyes as I passed destinations, again and again.  I rallied for the dinner hour, but was no good for conversation, and relied on the puppy for homework patrol.  At the very moment it seemed our household chaos could not possibly get worse, oldest son arrived home for the summer and unloaded a year’s worth of dorm life just inside the back door.  He left a narrow path to the kitchen but that hardly mattered for obvious reasons.

For the record, I entered a grocery store during all this, but the minute I tossed the first item into my cart, a distressed text message originating from afterschool sports screamed:  WHERE R U??  I had to ditch.      

Yes, I managed to finish the novel, but for the first time in my life, I truly understand my late grandfather.  I laughed at the absent-minded professor stories, but now I know why he backed out of the garage before opening the garage door and why he sometimes wore his pyjama bottoms to work.  And I’m with him on driving to the university and taking the bus home.  At the most distracted point of this episode, I hauled three teenagers out of bed for a very early morning obligation at church and then had to explain to them, and the assembly of church people whose morning I disrupted, that I was operating in a different week of the month.  If they had flipped their calendars ahead one week they would have understood exactly where I was coming from, or where I was at that moment.  Someday it will seem funny.    

And then I reached the end.  I pressed send, launching new novel through cyberspace and into my agent’s orbit.  After a brief personal celebration, I reorganized The Sock Department of our Laundry Room, patronized three grocery stores, and relieved the puppy of command.  At one point a teenager grumbled, “don’t you have a book to write?”  It’s nice to be back.   

THE END

9 Comments

Filed under Agent, Cindy Jones, hazards of writing, launching things, teenagers

Guest Blogger: My Sister

MY JANE AUSTEN SUMMER:  A SEASON IN MANSFIELD PARK by Cindy Jones

A Book Review by her sister, Deborah Sundermann

Spoiler Warning:  This Review Keeps No Secrets

One of my favorite bars in college served their version of a drink called “Strip and Go Naked.”  It was part peach liqueur, part whiskey, part vodka, with a splash of beer on top.  And I was rather fond of it.  It was a little odd, but that’s what I liked about it.  I feel the same way about Lily Berry, the protagonist in Cindy Jones’ debut novel, My Jane Austen Summer:  A Season in Mansfield Park.  Lily is part Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, part Cinderella, part energizer bunny, with a splash of Cher.  She’s a little odd, but that’s what I like about her.

We join her as her world, which has been held together rather tenuously by a small string, is unraveling.  Her reality becomes fiction as her most recent boyfriend expresses his complete dissatisfaction with the relationship she thought was perfectly normal.  It is with some irony that we learn that her heart’s desire has always been to escape reality and live in a novel.  Her dependence on fiction as well as her dangerously low self-esteem are expertly combined in her remark, “If only Austen were still alive and writing, I wouldn’t have to stare at the walls of my bedroom, studying the Braille-like texture under the paint, as if the clues to my failure hid there.”

 She loses her job by misrouting payroll deposits because she was more interested in reading her stack of Jane Austen novels over lunch—a time period that is significantly warped in the land of fiction.  Lily observes,

As my boss explained termination benefits, it occurred to me that books should come with a warning from the surgeon general:  Literature can be dangerous to your mental health and should be indulged in moderation.  Read in excess, fiction may blur the line between fantasy and reality, causing dysfunction in personal and professional relationships.  Readers should refrain while operating heavy machinery or driving automobiles.  Or working in offices.

 Through a fellow reader who may be equally delusional, she gets an opportunity to go to England and participate in a literary festival where Jane Austen books are reenacted for tourists—this summer being Mansfield Park.  Impulsively, she liquidates life as she knew it—a complete failure in her eyes—and prepares to embark on a new adventure.

 As Lily prepares to start fresh, one observation struck me as a sermon in eight words.  “If I hadn’t failed, I’d still be failing.”  This was my first clue that this story is not just a fun summer beach read.  Important lessons about failure and letting go, determination, transformation, and rising from the ashes will be woven into a rich tapestry of classic yearnings and modern characters where nothing is obvious and little can be predicted.  That is not just a story.  That is literature.  But Lily’s quirky character does not allow the book to take itself too seriously.

 Lily realizes, perhaps too late, that she is utterly unprepared for the potential consequences of her rash choice to sell everything and go to England.  Standing in the airport, she envisions, “With one foot in Dallas, the other on a departing plane, I would do the big-time splits or splash into the Atlantic.  And be eaten by sharks.”  It’s the shark part that makes me laugh.  If you don’t get it, you need to lighten up or you might miss the book’s subtle humor throughout. 

 Jones’ writing glistens with saturated details that I especially enjoy when Lily is on the move.  “Ducking into a ladies’ room, I took my place at the end of the line, advancing to the rhythm of flushing toilets and banging Band-Aid-colored doors.”  Who among us has not had this ubiquitous experience, brought alive on the page in one beautifully crafted sentence?  Another series of amazingly vivid images comes through in this:  “I ran, but a family of five blocked my path:  a blond Texas Hair woman holding a map, followed by a man and three rambunctious children, progressing in a tangle of limbs and barks like naughty puppies.”

When she arrives at Literature Live, she learns that she doesn’t exactly have a part in this new fictional reality.  Thus the stage is set for conflict as we cheer Lily on through her adventures with a cast of characters that truly breathe.  I have to say that my favorites are Omar and Bets.  With his even nature and fondness for Lily, he brings a welcome warmth to every scene he inhabits.  As long as he is there, I know that everything will ultimately be okay.  And I still laugh out loud when Magda enters the room, they both flinch, and the diminutive Omar, who was leaning back his chair “fell off his toes.”  Bets provides an unexpected contrast to Lily.  While she has assumed a dark Gothic aura, Bets just sparkles in the story, adding spice to the entire experience.  I challenge any reader to compare and contrast Lily and Bets and not find a common thread.

 This book should be read at least twice so that you don’t miss Jones’ exquisite details, such as “On the opposite wall, floor to ceiling lace curtains dressed the windows like spinsters left over from the Depression.”  Or “He paused after each phrase to allow his words to float down and settle on us like snowflakes.”

 My heart beat with Lily as she leaned forward to soak up every detail about Literature Live like the geekiest, most obsessed Jane Austen fan.  And while Lily is very unlike myself with respect to her relationships with men, I could still identify with her desire to please the faculty of Literature Live, her awkward moments, and her difficult recoveries.

 I have read other reviewers who express one form or another of disapproval of The Scene with Sixby.  It caught me by surprise on my first reading.  But upon second reading, I saw the foreshadowing that led up to it.  That is not to say that it is not disturbing.  I think it is supposed to be disturbing.  It is part of the “rock bottom” that Lily must hit before rising up.  As Lily initiates it, she observes, “Plunging into disaster felt so much better than lame suffering.”  Personally, I have a hard time with that world-view.  I’m a lame sufferer to be sure.  So this scene has become a twist in the story that I want to discuss with friends over a good glass of wine—to ferret out this protagonist’s choices and any number of issues dealing with power, self-image, promiscuity, desperation—the richness of this intentionally wretched scene screams for analysis.  That is the challenge and reward of reading good books.

 When the book nears its end, Lily is in Randolph’s room musing to herself, “Do you crave love or pain and are they the same thing to you?”  The theme has returned to reveal the same question posed by The Scene with Sixby, but it is filtered through a stronger, more self-aware and less self-destructive individual.  It is dense, like a consummate red wine reduction for your filet mignon.  It conveys the heartbreak of every relationship in Lily’s life in one comprehensive, yet concise question.

 What I was least willing to accept in this book, on first reading, was the allure of Willis.  I really had no patience for his deception-by-silence and I was angry that Lily seemed so forgiving of it—as if she deserved no better.  But, again, this made me want to lift out that relationship from the pages and marinate with it in a good Zinfandel.   I wanted to understand it, through the eyes of my friends.  It was this that compelled me to re-read the entire book.  Paying more attention to their interactions and the place in his life where Lily made her entrance, I have to admit that his character was a difficult finesse that, once again, Jones pulled off in quiet understatement.  I get it now.  And I have that much more respect for Lily as she navigated her parting of ways with him.

 I am drawn to books in order to enjoy interesting characters and examine difficult relationships.  My Jane Austen Summer is steeped in both.  Lily Berry may appear at first blush to be rather pathetic.  But she has a belief in herself that even she cannot defeat.  She has a determination that is inspiring.  And her character survives an insanely wild adventure to emerge windblown and exhausted, but happier for it.

 The worst thing about this book is that its fanciful plot and contemporary setting might lull readers into thinking it is just a summer beach read.  It’s so much more.

Deborah Sundermann lives with her family in Corpus Christi, Texas where she practices law and meets occasionally with her wine tasting club.

6 Comments

Filed under Book Review, Cindy Jones, My Jane Austen Summer