Tweeting Austen: a trans-global collaboration…

Over the last couple of weeks the most outrageously daring phenomenon has been occurring on Twitter. An Austenesque novel is being written. Many aficionados are contributing and it’s with great interest that I read each week’s outcomes. The idea came from UK author Lynn Shepherd and American IT specialist Adam Spunberg.

Austen’s sentences, as fresh today as in her time, are renowned for their length and complexity so I thought it a total contradiction in  terms to be able to tweet an Austenesque novel in blocks of 140 characters. (#A4T) So far the result has had tremendous pace and forward motion and is undeniably succesful, so I felt I needed to ask Lynn and Adam about their innovative idea and about their love of literature.

Lynn’s novel, Murder at Mansfield Park is her first. She studied English at Oxford in the 1980s, studying for a doctorate in 2003 and has a profound personal and professional interest in Jane Austen. Her writing encapsulates the tone and taste of Austen and allows my other guest to practice his Anglophilia on a daily basis.

Adam Spunberg has a Bachelor of Arts degree and an Bachelor of Law degree, working currently in IT for major sporting celebrities.  More importantly he claims an affinity for literature to the point where he wished to take residence at Netherfield… Lynn however, informed him that it was let at last and he may need to look further afield. Perhaps Northanger Abbey?

Lynn and Adam welcome, and if I could begin by returning to your schooldays…

How did your English teacher describe you as a student?

L: I remember one report when my English teacher described me as a ‘voracious reader’! I think I must have been about 12 at the time, and I remember having a reading list as long as my arm, which I would solemnly tick off every time I read each book.  I had one particular English teacher who was a real inspiration – I think a lot of people who end up being writers have a similar experience. I’ve tried to track her down since, but so far no luck, though I have managed to get back in touch with the lady who taught me Mansfield Park for my school-leaving exams!

A: It really depends on the teacher. I went to an Arts School for high school, so in one class, I distinctly remember getting extra credit for playing an English horn-French horn duet (I was playing the English horn, and it was supposed to symbolize A Tale of Two Cities). As for what other teachers would say: well, I hope something kind. Then again, I did have a tendency to be late with homeworks.

What impact did reading your first Austen novel have?

L: My first was Pride & Prejudice, though of course it’s Mansfield Park that has stayed with me. I remember loving the sheer elegance of P&P, and then thinking how very different Mansfield Park was when I read that a couple of years later– especially when it comes to the hero and heroine. I always felt there was another Mansfield Park in there, that Jane Austen could have written and decided not to – a much lighter, funnier book, with a brighter, more engaging heroine. In fact, one of the things I tried to do with Murder at Mansfield Park was to see if I could unearth the ‘ghost’ of that unwritten book.

A: A one-way ticket to “Austen Anonymous,” and the compulsive addiction doesn’t seem to have faded (they’re not making a patch, are they?). There was something extraordinary about her – above even her most renowned contemporaries – that resonated with me. Pride & Prejudice was the first of her treasures that I read, and it left me spellbound in admiration.

What aspect of Austen’s work attracted you as young readers?

L: Definitely the language – I read Pride & Prejudice when I was about 11, and had never read anything like that before. And of course the sheer romance of Austen always appeals particularly to girls. And all those sumptuous BBC adaptations on long winter Sunday evenings played their part too!

A: I always had a soft spot for suspenseful romances, so to sink my teeth into these intriguing tales of Elizabeth and Darcy, Marianne and Colonel Brandon, Emma and Mr. Knightley, was immensely gratifying. It’s probably not so different from modern teenage fascinations, like Twilight and its ilk. Of course, Miss Austen is much more accomplished than that.

How has that changed over time?

L: I still love Austen’s style, and appreciate it even more now that I’ve tried to imitate it. In fact nothing teaches you more about a writer’s approach to language than attempting an act of ‘literary ventriloquism’ like that. I hope our wonderful contributors on the Austen Twitter project are enjoying the same experience of getting right inside her mind. As for what I now appreciate about her books, I think her powers of observation are more telling for an adult than a child, and I certainly find her wicked irony more amusing the older I get!

A: Like the child who reads Orwell’s Animal Farm and thinks it’s a funny story about animals – and then grows up and deciphers its real meaning – I began to appreciate Austen as much for her wit and complexity as for her captivating suspense. If I were to make a musical parallel, I would compare her to Mozart, for using subtle suspensions to summon great effect. It really is a shame how many ill-informed detractors want to write her off as “popular literature” without fully comprehending the breadth of her skill. To me, anyway, she is a one-of-a-kind talent, and oh, what fun she inspires!

Which of Austen’s characters best reflects you?

L: It would have to be Mary Crawford, though I’m definitely more like my own version than I am like Austen’s. Her Mary is rather shallow and self-serving, but in my view Austen loads the dice against her in (for me) a doomed attempt to make her less appealing than Fanny. But even so, she still manages to be funny, clever, and occasionally very insightful and kind. I’d like to think I could match her on a few of those!

A: I see myself as kind of a mesh of Willoughby and his roguish good looks, Colonel Brandon’s consideration, Edward Ferrars’ loyalty, Mr. Darcy’s intellect, Mr. Bingley’s joviality, Mr. Knightley’s elegance, Captain Wentworth’s perseverance, Edmund Bertram’s kindness, and Mr. Bennet’s humor. But really – the only one who would dare answer your question in such a way would have to be Henry Tilney.

An aside from Lynn: ‘the entire female #A4T contingent are in agreement that Mr S is a latter day Mr Darcy who has missed his vocation as an Austen hero! A petition may yet be got up demanding him to appear in full greatcoat and breeches!””

(To which Mesmered would add: ‘and of course a wet linen shirt under the greatcoat!’)

But on a serious note once again… What prompted the idea of taking 19th century literature into 21st century technology?

L: Adam and I met when I picked up a tweet he wrote on Austen, and then he started reading Murder at Mansfield Park and we talked online about that. One thing led to another and we ended up with this amazing project of writing a whole new Austen-style novel with other Janeites across the world. If Jane could only see us now!
A: I never really know where my ideas come from. I think I was in the shower and somewhere after a tangent to a tangent to a tangent came an idea – in another tangent – that I then cross-referenced with the second tangent and something else I was pondering earlier that day.  The bottom line – if I don’t have you confused – is that I really liked Lynn Shepherd and ran it by her and she helped develop it into a sustainable idea. She and I have never met, but we seem to work exceptionally well as a team. I can’t say enough phenomenal things about her.

How challenging do you think it is to be Austen-esque on Twitter?

L: I admit the idea was a bit daunting in theory – how can you write beautifully-crafted Regency prose in 140 characters? But once you get started it’s much easier than it first appears (so do join us, everyone, if you haven’t already!). Personally, I love the way some people are actively using the break at the end of each tweet to create a quintessentially Austen-style ‘sentence of two halves’ – in other words, the first tweet appears to be serious, but then the next one turns into very clever irony. Some of those are uproariously funny!

A: “You know the chicken at Tresky’s Restaurant? It’s worse.” Just kidding…Woody Allen said that in Love and Death. But I found it to be extremely difficult, especially when you’re on the spot and your 15 minutes of tweeting are ticking away. And if that isn’t bad enough, imagine having to go after Lynn: that’s like trying to fill the shoes on a leviathan’s feet. Her writing truly is spectacular and a model for us all to emulate.

And finally, a global question. In your view, how profound is the impact of social media on literature?

L: I think the potential is enormous. And like so many other amazing technological developments it could be both bad and good. Bad, if people stop reading serious books and end up with a concentration span that can only cope with tiny sound-bites, but immensely good if it allows people access to literature they’d never thought of reading before, or gives them the chance to be creative themselves. My great hope (and I think Adam would agree) is that the Twitter Austen project will prove to be a pioneering example of the latter – now that really would be something.

A: That’s really a great question, and I think we’re still uncovering the answer. Take a look at a lot of the Facebook statuses and tweets out there, or even worse, some of these vitriolic comments on YouTube. Not exactly what we would define as Austenesque. This is why I genuinely believe programs like our Austen Twitter Project are essential if we want to keep progress in a cultivated way. The Internet affords us such extraordinary capability, but it’s on us to take advantage of it! Never before could 50 people from all over the world join together in a global conglomeration, with the sole purpose of expressing their love for Jane Austen while meeting similar-minded thinkers. I look at the friendships that are developing and the quality of the writing and I still think someone needs to pinch me, because I’m astounded by how well this has all turned out. I hope we can keep it up, because this could turn into a wonderful thing beyond all our expectations!

By your very answers to my questions, you’ve shown that the irony and wit so prevalent in Austen is alive and well  and thanks to both of you for agreeing to be interviewed. It was exciting to find today via email that the Project is to secure another profile via Further than that I have to say that I look forward to a possible  release of this history-making novel!