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Monday, June 22, 2009

AustenFest: Syrie James

I'm delighted to have novelist Syrie James here with me today, author of two exciting historical fiction books: The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen (Avon A, 2007) and The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë (Avon A, 2009). Her second novel is just days away from being released--June 30th!!--and it's bound to garner the kind of excellent reviews her first book received.

About The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, one of my favorite historical fiction writers, Lauren Willig (The Secret History of the Pink Carnation), wrote: "If you thought you'd had enough of Austen spin-offs--sweep off the shelves and make room for one more. Witty, deft, and impeccably researched, The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen will pique the most jaded Austen palette. Syrie James's Lost Memoirs are so deftly done that it's hard to tell where the history ends and invention begins. Lost Memoirs should be required reading for high school English classes. Informing even as she entertains, James deftly weaves history and imagination to create an entirely plausible romance for the immortal Jane."

Welcome, Syrie!

New readers want to know about your books! Can you tell us about them? The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë delves into the passionate mind and heart of the woman who gave us the novel Jane Eyre. Living a secluded life in the wilds of Yorkshire with her sisters Emily and Anne, their drug addicted brother Branwell, and an eccentric father who is going blind, Charlotte Brontë dreams of a real love story as fiery as the ones she creates.

Despite the difficulties in their lives, Charlotte and her sisters all write in secret. A chance discovery leads to the sharing of their dreams and work, and all three become published novelists at the same time. Inspired by Charlotte’s voluminous correspondence, and based almost entirely on fact, The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë exposes Charlotte’s innermost thoughts, feelings, and desires, her joys and shattering disappointments, the inspiration behind her novels, her scandalous, secret passion for the man she can never have. . . and her intense, dramatic relationship with the man she comes to deeply love: the enigmatic Mr. Arthur Bell Nichols. Although I used my imagination to fill in gaps, I believe this is Charlotte’s story just as she might have written it herself!

The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, which I’m thrilled to say became a best-seller and was named Best First Novel by Library Journal, also asks us to imagine that we are reading the newly discovered memoir of a famous novelist. In this case, the memoir reveals the secret, life-changing love affair which influenced every one of Jane Austen’s novels. While staying faithful to the facts of Austen’s life, I interwove a romance with the well-read and charming Mr. Ashford, a pairing which (to my delight) Publishers Weekly called “a perfect match in matters of head and heart” and News Review called “a love affair equal to anything Jane Austen wrote.” Did the romance ever really happen? I leave that up to the reader to decide, but I like to believe it did.

What's one scene from these books you loved writing, and why did it excite you? In The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë, it was such a thrill to recreate the historic moment when Charlotte was inspired to start writing her novel Jane Eyre, that I got chills down my spine when I was writing it. Another favorite scene is when Mr. Nicholls--after carrying a silent torch for Charlotte for seven and a half years--finally gathers the courage to ask her to marry him. Charlotte was so stunned by the deeply impassioned, emotional proposal she received from this man who had, up until then, been so proper and reserved, that she hardly knew how to respond. She wrote a detailed letter about it to her friend Ellen immediately afterwards. Taking the gist of that moment from Charlotte’s correspondence, putting the words into Mr. Nicholls’s mouth, and bringing it to life--that was incredibly exciting.

One of many scenes I particularly enjoyed writing in The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen is the “gypsy scene,” where Jane learns predictions for her future which will, one day, inevitably become true. I loved bringing to life the stuttering Harris Bigg-Wither’s marriage proposal, a real-life event which I had never seen dramatized. It was exciting to get into Jane’s mind when she finally started writing again—to feel her passion and her drive for her art come back to life. And I loved writing every single scene with Mr. Ashford. I had always longed for Jane Austen to have a romance of her own. It was exciting to create the man with whom I believed Jane Austen would have truly fallen in love, and to have the joy of listening in my mind as they interacted with each other.

Did you go on any special trips to research the settings for your novels? I did. For The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë, I went to Haworth, England, and made an extended visit to the Brontë Parsonage Museum, which has been preserved to reflect the way it looked when the Brontës lived there, and is furnished with many of their possessions. What a thrill it was to "haunt" the rooms and lanes where Charlotte and Emily and Anne actually lived and walked, and to stroll through that gloomy graveyard in the pouring rain! I particularly enjoyed my visit to the Brontë library, where I was allowed to read a selection of original letters and manuscripts penned by Charlotte and other members of the Brontë family.

While in Yorkshire, I was also granted a private tour of the former Roe Head School, which Charlotte attended--where the legend of a mysterious attic dweller, the Ghost of Roe Head, still abides!

To research The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, I took a wonderful, self-guided "Jane Austen Tour." I visited Jane Austen's house at Chawton, which is now a museum. I climbed the ancient city walls at Southampton, and found the exact spot at Castle Square where it's thought that Jane once lived. I strolled through the ruins of Netley Abbey, and walked the Cobb at Lyme Regis. I had dinner and stayed the night at the Royal Lion Inn (where Jane dined with Mr. Ashford), and spent three days in Bath. I made a pilgrimage to Winchester Cathedral, where Jane Austen is buried. I was even granted a rare opportunity to visit Godmersham Park (one of the grand manor homes belonging to Jane's older brother Edward), where she often stayed. It was a glorious experience, never to be forgotten.

Could you please tell us a little about your writing background and how you made your first sale? I worked for many years as a screenwriter before writing historical fiction novels. After majoring in English in college, I taught myself to write a film script by studying classic screenplay structure, and comparing it to the finished movie I saw on the screen. I had no contacts in Hollywood, other than a cousin who said she “knew someone in the business.” I gave her that first script, not expecting anything to come of it. That “someone” turned out to be the executive producer of a television series. As he tells it, after the script was recommended by several underlings, he started reading it before lunch, cancelled his lunch date to finish it, and then called me and asked if I’d like to write for his show.

That call launched a screenwriting career that lasted many years and included the sale of nineteen screenplays and teleplays to Tri-Star Pictures, Fox Family Films, ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX TV and the Lifetime Network. I worked with a lot of talented people, enjoyed time on movie and TV sets, and have many wonderful memories. I am still active with the Writer’s Guild of America, and if (when!) my books are turned into movies, I’m ready to write the screenplay!

In fact, the script for my Jane Austen novel is already completed. When I decided to follow my passion and write a book, my new literary agent in New York, Tamar Rydzinski (who liked something else I had written) encouraged me to adapt my favorite, unproduced script: a romance about Jane Austen. It was a joy and a challenge to turn that story into a full-length novel from Jane Austen’s point of view; to (as one reviewer put it) “channel Austen and bring her back to life.” Imagine my excitement when the finished manuscript, The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, sold at auction in a bidding war between three major publishing houses, and became a best-seller!

What’s next for you? Is there a new book in the pipeline? I’m hard at work on my next book, entitled Dracula, My Love. It's a retelling of Bram Stoker's famous novel from the POV of the heroine, Mina Harker: the untold story of her secret, scandalous passion for the man who is not her husband—the young, gorgeous, charismatic, intelligent, fascinating, and highly sympathetic Count Dracula, who she deeply loves, despite herself. This is a Dracula unlike the one we have formerly seen in film and print; a vampire with a heart and soul, who struggles against the evil within him, and whose past actions have been entirely misunderstood. The novel will be published by Morrow in hardcover in 2010. I’m having such a fabulous time writing this book. If you liked Jane Austen's Mr. Ashford, I promise this is a Dracula you will love!

What's one piece of writing advice you've found valuable on your journey to publication? I think this quote is accurate and insightful: “The highest expression of anything is going to be difficult and require a lot of craft and a lot of dedication and lot of just showing up.” I always tell people: writing is hard work. Read everything. Study and hone your skills. Then sit your butt in that chair and work at it every single day for months or years or however long it takes, until you get it done!

I also have this to share with people who are stuck or mentally blocked during the writing process: When I find myself unsure of how to proceed with the novel I'm writing, it's almost always because something important is missing. It's like a cart with only three wheels; it's difficult to move forward until you find and install that fourth wheel. So I take some time out and do some more research, or get to know my characters better, or carefully think through the direction of the plot or the scene I'm about to tackle. How does it fit into the overall structure of the book? How can I best move the story forward? What am I trying to say here? Eventually, the pieces fall into place, and I can't wait to get back to my writing!

What is your writing routine like? Do you write every day? I write every weekday from 10 - 6. Thank goodness I have my husband to come home and tear me away from the computer, or I would never stop! When I’m not writing, I’m reading, researching, or thinking about my book in progress. I keep a notepad and pen beside my bed, and often wake up to scribble notes during the night. Some of my best ideas come to me when I’m on the verge of sleep.

Many people can’t wait for the weekend to arrive. It’s the opposite for me. Although I truly love my jam-packed weekends, from the time I turn off the computer on Friday evening to the moment I’m back in my chair on Monday morning, I am anxious to get back to the characters I left in limbo, who are just waiting for me to continue their story.

Writers are usually big readers, too. How do you make time for reading and what are you reading at the moment? I read every night in bed, generally for at least an hour or two. It’s a time I really look forward to. I usually have two or three books in progress. At the moment I’m reading Dust and Shadow, An Account of the Ripper Killings by Lyndsay Faye and The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova.

What do you think readers might be surprised to know about you? I learned Photoshop and HTML, and I designed and maintain my own website. I was an actress, dancer, and gymnast in high school and college, and performed in more than a dozen plays and musicals. I love the theater and still know how to tap dance. I enjoy sewing. I was the costume designer for eight years for nearly all the theatrical productions at my sons’ middle school and high school. One of my biggest thrills was the year that my sons starred together in a production of “South Pacific”--Ryan was Emile de Becque, and Jeff was Lieutenant Joe Cable. With both of my talented sons in the leading roles, I felt like the Queen Mother.

Do you pay attention to book reviews? If so, has there been any particular review that made your heart do a little dance? I’m so grateful to the many, many reviewers who took the time to share their thoughts about Lost Memoirs. One of my favorite reviews is from Regency World Magazine, who gave it a 9 out of 10 rating, and called it “a thoughtful, immensely touching romance. . . well-researched, well-written, and beautifully plotted.” This thrilled me because Regency World is published by the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England. If the Jane Austen experts of the world loved my novel and deemed my Austen voice to be authentic, what higher praise could I ever hope to receive?

Thank you, Syrie! Anyone who leaves a comment on today's post is eligible to win a copy of her newest novel, The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë, so please take a moment to leave her a quick note. The winner will be chosen on July 7th (and you DO NOT have to be a U.S. resident to win). Also, if you post a comment before the next guest interview on Wednesday, check for your name! I'll be giving away the first of four $10 B&N giftcards on 6/24.

Up Wednesday: Author Kim Wilson!

42 comments:

Trai said...

I'm dying to read The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte, and Dracula from the POV of Mina sounds so interesting! Great interview!

Maria Geraci said...

Great interview:)
Jane Austen is like chocolate. You can never get enough! I have to admit, I don't know that much about Charlotte Bronte. Your books sound fascinating!

Bloggin BB said...

Thanks for sharing about your books! You've piqued my interest with your Charlotte & Dracula stories. They'll be added to my to read list. :)

Eliza said...

Wow, great interview! Syrie James' books sound super interesting. Thanks for the intro, Marilyn!

Pamela Cayne said...

Thank you for such a wonderful visit, Syrie! I'm amazed at the premise you came up with and find myself just itching to pick up a copy of your book (books, as of the 30th!) And, I'm incredibly jealous of your research trips. I'm curious if you discovered anything that had to be in your books or had your muse poke you with a certain idea while you were touring.

Michelle D. said...

I'm really excited about your Dracula book. I'm adding all your books to my list of summer reading books. You have choosen three of my all time favorite novelists to write about.

LaShaunda said...

Now I have three more books to add to my too high book pile. They all sound great.

Syrie James said...

Thank you all for your great comments. In answer to Pamela's question about my research trips... I think everything that I saw ended up in my books in one way or another. There are so many examples-- I could go on for hours! But just to name a few: Visiting the homes where Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte lived was incredibly important, as it enabled me to envision them living there when I wrote my books. It poured down rain the entire time I was in Haworth, so I opened "Secret Diaries" with a similar storm. When I walked on the Cobb at Lyme Regis, I was impressed by the coastline's beauty and surprised by how windy it was, so I put that in Jane's "Lost Memoirs."

Michelle D. said...

Are you going to take a research trip as you work on the Dracula book?

Marilyn Brant said...

Thanks to everyone (and Syrie, of course!) for your thoughtful comments so far. It's wonderful to have you all here.

lainey bancroft said...

I've said it before, but it is worth repeating: Marilyn does THE best interviews and lands THE best guests!

Congrats on the success of your first book, Syrie, and on your coming release. It sounds like you've had an interesting writer's journey so far and I'm sure it will only get better!

Robin said...

I so enjoyed reading this interview! Congratulations, Syrie, on your latest release! And as Lainey said, you ask the best questions and get the best answers, Marilyn!

Erika B said...

I am very much interested in reading you Charlotte book. I read a lot of her stories in college and will enjoy reading yours. I also have just started reading about Jane and a looking forward to adding yours to my list.
Thanks for a great interview Marilyn !

Syrie James said...

Thanks again, everyone. If you have any other burning questions, ask away... and I will try to answer!

Summer Mobley said...

I truly loved The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen and I am definitley going to read the next two books!

Ann Victor said...

Great interview. The "Dracula, my love" sounds wonderful!

natalie said...

All Jane all day! I am a librarian by trade and book lover at heart- looking forward to reading this book. Best wishes and thanks for such a wonderful blog!

natalie said...

I love Jane Eyre and can not wait to read "The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë." Sounds like you had a delightful time researching. Best wishes for your upcoming release.

Debra St. John said...

Hi Marilyn and Syrie. Great interview! Syrie, the covers of your books are to die for. Very romantic. I am waiting here with bated breath for 'Dracula My Love'. I am a vampire girl!

MsHellion said...

I loved Syrie's book about Jane Austen--and I'm sure the Charlotte Bronte book will be just as superb! (And I have a soft spot for Dracula too...that sounds like an awesome book!!!)

Congrats, Syrie!

Marilyn Brant said...

Again, jumping in to say MANY thanks to all who stopped by and shared comments so far (and extra hugs to those who made a special visit just because you're such lovely friends--squish :).

Syrie, I appreciate that you're welcoming more questions!! With your screenwriting background, I'd love to know which film stars you'd like to see in your fantasy movie version of Lost Memoirs... Got a favorite actor or two in mind??

Kwana said...

What a wonderful interview. I look forward to reading this author!

Syrie James said...

Marilyn-- My dream cast for "The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen" would be Emily Blunt as Jane, Hugh Jackman as Mr. Ashford, and Emma Thompson as Cassandra!
(I can dream, can't I?)
:)

squiresj said...

I came here today because I loved Jane Eyre and my Mom had these two originial classics of Jane Eyre and Withering Heights in the old classic binding. I picked Jane Eyre in High School to read and report on for a book report. My teacher was not sure I actually read it so skipped all over the book asking questions. This was the only time I got an A plus on my book report.
I would love to be a reviewer of this book.

Cheena said...

I received an advance copy of this book and loved learning about Charlotte and her sisters. I was saddened when it ended but the read was great!

Brett said...

Thanks for sharing another wonderful interview. Syrie sounds like a really hard-working, life-loving author! I will eventually have to quit my job so I have time to read all of these terrific books that you keep exposing me to, Marilyn! :)

Jswanlake12 said...

I am so looking forward to a good sit and and read the Charlotte Bronte book. I loved your Jane Austen. I have read it twice now. My dad grew up in Harrowgate, the Bronte's backyard, and had very fond memories of Yorkshire and the Ridings. It is still a haunted landscape, and a great influence on all the Brontes. Don't stop writing!
Jeanne Gale

Tiffany said...

This was a fantastic interview and a fantastic read. Now I have to go buy some more books. :) Thanks for doing this. :)

Dina said...

Wow, this is so great, looking forward to it.

Jeanne said...

The Lost Memoirs have been sitting on my shelf, and now I will definitely read the book. Thank you for the inspiring interview.

Marilyn Brant said...

Syrie, excellent casting choices...especially Hugh Jackman. (Can I make a motion that we just put him in *every* new movie?!)

Everyone, I've read each of your thoughtful and enthusiastic comments thus far, and I'm SO glad you enjoyed Syrie's interview and the start of AustenFest! I'm thrilled to have all of you here. Welcome, again, to the new visitors. Thank you and many hugs to returning friends!!

Laurie Viera Rigler said...

Hi, Syrie. Great interview--what a fascinating background you have. Love your casting choices for the Lost Memoirs! And Marilyn, I agree with you about Hugh Jackman being in every new movie. There ought to be a law! :)

Anonymous said...

What an interesting life leading you to today....and your sons obviously inherited some great genes! Congrats on you successes and many more in the future!!!!
Megan R

Christina Brown said...

This wonderful writer Syrie James is so insprational.. it makes me want to write a book myself.. Fabulous!!

Dina said...

I am so anxious to read thus.

Aimee said...

What an awesome interview. Syrie James is so impressive. Thanks for filling my Austen addiction.

Melanie said...

The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte sounds so interesting! I've not studied much of her life, but the little I do know makes it sound like it must have been very interesting!

Luthien84 said...

I really enjoyed your interview, Syrie. I would like to know what are your screenplay credits so I can pay special attention to the show. Thanks

Syrie James said...

Thank you everyone, for your comments! Note to Luthien84: one of my favorite screen credits is the TV movie "Once in a Lifetime" starring Barry Bostwick and Lyndsay Wagner. Originally for NBC, it still airs now and then on the Lifetime Network.

sequesterednooks said...

Syrie, thanks for sharing your thoughts! I know very little about the Bronte sisters and can't wait to read your latest. Is Charlotte actually your favorite, or just the most interesting?

althena12/ ldphotography said...

Syrie: Wonderful work again. You amaze me. Linda

hthideman said...

The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen is one of my all time favorite books. I'm a bookseller at Barnes & Noble and I practically sell it to every customer I see holding an Austen book. It's so great to hear an interview with Syrie. Great job Marilyn!