Thursday, October 22, 2009

Nashville Focus: Beth Pattillo Brings Jane Austen to the Southern Festival of Books

Story by Allison Berwald

Nashville writer Beth Pattillo is one of the many successful authors who spoke at the Southern Festival of Books. On a very rainy Friday, an eager group of friends, fans, and fellow writers gathered to hear Beth and two other authors speak and read selections from their works. Beth read from her forthcoming novel Mr. Darcy Broke My Heart, which although not a sequel, is linked in some ways to her previous novel Jane Austen Ruined My Life. Each work traces a heroine’s journey in discovering lost Austen documents and dealing with her own related personal issues, including romance, and includes a society called the Formidables dedicated to protecting Jane’s legacy and secrets. Beth has also written eight other novels, including two about the female minister Betsy and two about a ladies’ knitting society.

In the question and answer session following the readings, Beth Pattillo talked about how conferences and critique groups have been very helpful to her in developing her craft. She views feedback as a key part of the writing process, and she often gains significant insight into the threads and themes in her own writing after getting feedback from her editor. Beth also said that she likes to begin with her main character’s life falling apart, because then there is nowhere to go but up.

I am what Dr. Murray calls an “Austenmaniac,” so I very much enjoyed talking with Beth about Austen and England. I studied in London this summer and took a Jane Austen course, and Beth and I were thrilled to discover an amazing coincidence. She also studied in London during college at the same college as I did (when it had a different name) and lived in the dorm room directly across the hall from the dorm room I lived in! Needless to say, we chatted very excitedly about the school and the surrounding area in such detail as to convince ourselves that we truly stayed in the same place.

Beth and I spoke about how she got the ideas for her Austen stories. She said that there is so much that we do not know about the stories of women throughout history, including Jane Austen. Her novels play with the hypothetical situation of finding those lost parts of Jane’s story, specifically the majority of the letters Jane wrote to her sister Cassandra and the original manuscript of First Impressions, which later became Pride and Prejudice. Beth had previously written other historical romances set in the Regency period as well as contemporary stories. Her Austen novels combine the two elements, using a modern setting to explore Regency material and mysteries.

This dual identity of Beth’s novels allows them to appeal to a wider audience. The “Austenmaniacs” love all things Austen, of course, so a well-written novel in that genre will inevitably have a certain degree of success. Austen’s work seems to bear up even after being taken in many different directions, and Beth is happy to be a part of that. She also describes her books as “semi-Christian fiction.” Her publisher, Guideposts, publishes inspirational and Christian literature, but without strict guidelines such as required faith statements from authors that many publishers have. Her work is written from a Christian perspective but is not evangelical.

Beth Pattillo loves being able to travel around England as research for her books. She has been to many Austen-related sites over the years and found valuable experiences and resources there. In the bookshop at Chawton, the home at which Jane was most productive, she found a chronology of the Austen family members’ lives written by the editor of Jane’s letters that has been profoundly helpful in her writing. She also had to write fictional Austen letters for Jane Austen Ruined My Life, and she listened to audiobooks of Austen novels to get the feel of the rhythm and vocabulary of her writing. Beth continues to follow Jane Austen’s trail by traveling in England, reading her works, and writing about her. Through her novels, she hopes to provide readers with a painless way to read a biography of Austen and to encourage them to read and love Jane’s works.

Allison Berwald is a Senior BU English Major.