Cathleen Schine is all too aware of the perils and pitfalls of reimagining the works of one of literature's most beloved authors.
"I never in a million years would consider myself in a position to write something as good as Jane Austen," says the author of The Three Weissmans of Westport (Sarah Crichton, $25), who will speak at two local Jewish book fairs in November. "When I thought of this, I thought, ‘I can't even tell anybody.' It's embarrassing and presumptuous. I'm just being inspired by a book, but oh my God, there are all these crazy Jane Austen books out there, and that's not what I'm trying to do."
What Schine accomplished with her delightful novel -- a warm, funny, contemporary take on Austen's Sense and Sensibility -- is remarkable. Plenty of writers have tried cashing in on the Austen name (thanks, Helen Fielding). Schine's novel is one of the rare gems that doesn't merely borrow a plot and themes but deftly echoes Austen's wonderfully comic, pointed prose.
The Weissmans are mother Betty, who has just been dumped for a younger woman by her husband of 48 years, and adult daughters Annie and Miranda (think Elinor and Marianne), whose lives have also fallen into a sort of limbo due to romantic and financial complications. The women find themselves regrouping in a rundown beach cottage in Westport, Conn., where Schine grew up.
"No matter where I live, it's a place I've gone back to," says the longtime New Yorker, who now lives in Southern California. "It's a place that has a very strong pull on my memory."
In the end, taking on Austen was more fun than intimidating, she says.
"I always felt free to change things," says Schine, who counts Anthony Trollope as her favorite writer. "Sometimes I felt a kind of giddiness about it all. I just could not keep my hands off some things. When I would appropriate certain plot points, that's when I felt like: ‘Is this OK? Would she mind?' ''
Hard to imagine she would mind at all.
A: I had an idea for a book that wasn't really jelling, and I was rereading Sense and Sensibility, which I love, and when I finished it I was thinking about it. This book has this very modern vibe. Jane Austen's characters resonate; we always recognize the relationships. But there was something else that struck me as feeling familiar and kind of modern. The book is about money, based on this law of primogeniture, which doesn't exist in England any more and never existed here. But it's also about social pressure and the sudden vulnerability of these three women when the father dies.
I was also thinking I wanted to write about older people and their love affairs, and it struck me that what the book was reminding me of was a lot of women in my mother's generation who suddenly and to their great surprise at a late age were divorced by their husbands. Suddenly they were in a position -- while fighting the divorce and never having anything to do with finances -- of selling diamond rings to get by. When I made that connection I got very excited. What fun to examine the relationship of mothers and daughters and how they help each other and misunderstand each other.
Q: When you're using a classic as a sort of template, how bound do you feel to stick with the original plot and characters?
A: I did not set out to use the book as a template to the extent that I did! Every time I would go back to look at the book because of some thought I had or because some character was urging me, I wanted more and more to see how Jane Austen handled the situations and the problems she had set up and how the human problems would play out in a modern situation. For much of my book it was closer to the [original] plot than I expected. For me it was wonderful. I did an incredibly close reading; I was standing on someone's shoulders and getting the benefit of that view. By the end I started seeing ways that no longer made sense to follow. What she was examining was no longer a realistic way for my characters to be in the world.
Q: What is it that appeals to you about Jane Austen's books?
A: Jane Austen's books are just about perfect novels. The way they're structured and the balance of humor and sadness and worry is all wonderful. But the real thing about them, the reason people come back to them, is that the characters are wonderfully imperfect. I would say the book that is my favorite has the most imperfect character, which is Emma. There's tremendous sympathy and understanding of human nature.
Q: When you're a woman, and you write a comedy of manners or a domestic drama, you get
tagged as a "chick lit'' writer. Does that bother you?
A: When I first started writing, the genre did not exist. . . . It became a commercial phenomenon. Successful publishers started pushing books by women as chick lit, and suddenly people were asking me about chick lit, and I was sort of astonished, like, ‘What does that have to with me?' I think for about five minutes it bothered me. But any way that anyone can sell a book seems good to me. And I like chicks, and I like lit, so I can't really object to the name! I know a lot of writers who feel they're not taken as seriously as men are, but there are lots of genres men get stuck in, too, foremost among them comic writing. When you're a comedy writer, as Woody Allen said, you're sitting at the children's table. I personally think writing really good humor is one of the hardest things you can do.
Q: Earlier this year you wrote a column for The New York Times about all the classics
you've read and loved. Which classic haven't you read?
A: I'm embarrassed to say it: Catcher in the Rye. Every time I think, "I should read that," I think, "I don't want to read that." I just don't want to read it. . . . Another thing, I've read War and Peace twice, each time I was pregnant, in different translations, but I cannot read Anna Karenina. Every time I start it, I get so upset and anxious. It's just too awful. I've tried a number of times. I haven't read a lot of the
good contemporary fiction. I sort of discovered the 19th century, and it's really a sacrifice to get my head out of there and read something modern.
Schine appears at:
Nov. 8: Bet Breira Samu-El Or Olom, 9400 SW 87th Ave., Kendall, for the Alper Jewish Community Center Book Festival; 7:30 p.m.; $7; 305-271-9000, www.alperjcc.org.
Nov. 10: David Posnack Jewish Community Center Book Festival, 5850 S. Pine Island Rd.; 11 a.m. (includes lunch); $40, reservations required; 954-434-0499, www.dpjcc.org.