Friday, April 13, 2007

Enchanted Fridays - Journey of a Novelist

Do you read Jane Austen over and over again?

Do you secretly wish you lived in the 19th century?

Do you invite friends over for high tea?

Do you wish Jane Austen was still publishing novels from "the other side"?

Wish No Longer—I have the book for YOU!

After you read my chat with this awesome new author, Polly Shulman, fly on over to your nearest bookstore or library and grab her very first YA novel, ENTHUSIASM!

Once you start, I swear you won’t be able to put it down.

Polly Shulman


G. P. Putnam’s

Contemporary Young Adult 2006

Kimberley: What was the seed of the idea for Enthusiasm? How long have you been a Jane Austen fan and how did your novel get its title?

Polly: I've been a Jane Austen fan since seventh grade, when I stayed up until dawn reading Pride & Prejudice. I remember trembling when I read Darcy's letter putting Elizabeth in her place. It was one of the most intense literary experiences of my life.
Oddly, I don't remember exactly how I got the idea for Enthusiasm. All my life I wanted to write novels for young readers, but I somehow could never get past the opening chapter. I had a bunch of beginnings squirreled away in my hard drive. In the early Aughts, I had a fantastic freelance job writing weekly book reviews for Newsday, then my column got cut from the paper's budget, so I said to myself, "All right, Polly. Time to either get a job in an office or finish one of those novels." I consulted my best friend, who said, "What about that book you started a while back, with the girl climbing in her friend's window?" I said, "Girl climbing in a window? What are you talking about?" She said, "You know, the one where she's dressed up as a Jane Austen character?" So I searched my hard drive and found it, but I didn't really remember anything about writing it.

Funny you should ask about the title—it does have a story. I thought of "ENTHUSIASM" pretty soon after I buckled down to work on the book, which is about two girls: the narrator, Julie, and her best friend, Ashleigh. Julie is bookish and a little shy; Ashleigh is wildly outgoing and given to crazes, for everything from King Arthur to candy making. When Julie lends Ashleigh a copy of Pride and Prejudice, Ashleigh decides they need Austenesque romances of their own, so she drags Julie off to crash a dance at the local boys' boarding school. I knew I wanted an Austenesque title, an abstract noun or noun pair—something along the lines of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion. Enthusiasm seemed like the natural choice.

In fact, it seemed so natural that I thought someone must have already used it, so I Googled and found that someone had: Jane Austen's niece Anna! I found a series of letters from Aunt Jane thanking Anna for sending her manuscript and giving her material advice about it. Apparently, Anna originally named her book Enthusiasm but changed the title to Aunt Jane's suggestion: WHICH IS THE HEROINE? Aunt Jane says she prefers ENTHUSIASM: "I like the name ‘Which is the Heroine’ very well, and I daresay shall grow to like it very much in time; but ‘Enthusiasm’ was something so very superior that my common title must appear to disadvantage."

I thought about using "Which is the Heroine" for a subtitle, but my editor wisely talked me out of it.

Kimberley: What a fascinating peek into history! That’s a great story, Polly. So I have to ask, what is your favorite Austen book?

Polly: Pride and Prejudice. No, Persuasion. No, Emma. No, Sense and Sensibility. Whichever one I happen to be rereading at the time. Austen's juvenilia is amazing, too. She was a comic genius as a teenager. It's a different style from the novels—broader, more overtly satiric—but just as funny.

Kimberley: What were some of the challenges in writing Enthusiasm, the hardest parts, the easiest—if there is such a thing as easy writing! (An oxymoron if I ever heard one.)

Polly: Actually, once I got going I found it astonishingly easy to write. I was doing what I thought of as "real work" at the same time—editing books and articles about science (which continues to be a big part of how I make my living). I found it pretty freaky to go back and forth between Julie's love life and particle physics, or Ashleigh's friendship and the latest news from Mars. I did have some trouble with the narrative voice in Enthusiasm. I wanted Julie to sound a little old fashioned and Austenish, but I also wanted Ashleigh to sound like an over-the-top Austen parody when she spoke. It was hard to strike a balance and get the contrast right.

The love scenes were a little embarrassing to write—as if I were reading Julie's diary over her shoulder.

Kimberley: Which character do you most identify with, Julie or Ashleigh?

Polly: Definitely Julie. But sometimes my friends laugh and say, "You're such an Ashleigh!" Oddly, the ones who say that tend to be Ashleighs themselves.

Kimberley: That’s hilarious! So I gotta ask: Did you dream about Parr? He’s like, the perfect guy; sweet, romantic, poetry writer, stands under windows pining after his true love, great kisser, totally yummy.

Polly: Of course! He's my hero! I'm lucky enough to be married to someone from the same universe; those adjectives of yours pretty much describe my husband. Andrew doesn't stand under our windows or write me sonnets—he’s a graphic designer, not a poet—but he does make me the world's most romantic works of computer art. Enthusiasm was published right around my birthday, and to celebrate, he had my favorite chocolate shop make a chocolate bust of Jane Austen holding a copy of Enthusiasm. They had to build a special mold for it, which he designed.

Kimberley: Wow, what a great husband! Sounds like he is your Parr. Tell us about your journey to publication. Give us the low-down on the agent/editor hunt and where were you when you got THE CALL that somebody wanted to publish your book?

Polly: After I wrote "The End" and finished jumping around the room shrieking, I called my friends in the publishing business and asked them to suggest agents. I compiled their suggestions, researched, and sent out the manuscript to three agents; after an agonizing wait, three rejections came back. I cried for a couple of weeks, then called some more friends and sent the manuscript to three more agents. This time two of them wanted it. I loved them both. I chose the more experienced one, Irene Skolnick. She's had her own agency for many years and I was impressed with her client list. And she represents two of my friends, who both adore her.

She sent out my book and got three offers for it. That part's something of a blur for me, because just when it was happening my stepfather had a bad accident and had to spend several weeks in the hospital; I remember a lot more about that than about the sale of my book.

Once Irene got the offers, I talked to the editors and chose the one who I felt understood the book the best. One thought it was close to perfect the way it was, but I've been an editor all my working life, so I knew that it couldn't be perfect. Nothing ever is, let alone my writing! One thought it was too sweet and wanted me to make the story darker, which didn't feel right to me. The third one had a number of suggestions for improving it, which I thought were right on the money, so I picked her. I feel very lucky to have such a smart editor with such a good ear.

Kimberley: Any pitfalls? Advice for aspiring writers—or even us seasoned writers (meaning the ones that have already survived many bruises and brick walls?)

Polly: Hm... Don't give up. Don't throw out those first chapters, even if you think they're going nowhere. Don't let the inevitable rejections stop you. Take advice from readers, but be picky about whose. People might correctly identify problems with your book, but you might not like their suggestions for solving them. Or they might put their finger on the most interesting, vital part of your story and tell you to take it out because it makes them uncomfortable.

What helped me the most was my best friend, Anna Christina Buchmann[umlaut over the u], who's also writing a novel. We're each other's first readers, critics, cheerleaders. As soon as I finished a chapter, I would email it to her. She would read it and tell me "That's great, keep going." To a large extent, I wrote Enthusiasm for her: I wrote a book I knew she would want to read—a book she and I would both want to read. I'm glad other people turned out to want to read it too, but it would have been enough for me if it just pleased Anna Christina.

Kimberley: Yay for good friends! Any books coming down the pipeline?

Polly: I'm working on a fantasy novel about a pair of sisters who are witches. They live in Brooklyn with their mom, also a witch, who's trying to save the world from an evil magician. Unfortunately, she's trying too hard, so the girls have to save the world from their mom going overboard trying to save it.

It's much, much harder to write a fantasy than a romance. You have to invent a whole world and make it consistent. It's taking me a million years and every ounce of brain power I have. Not to mention all the mathematicians I've had to consult! I'm not kidding—so far I've had very generous help from a topologist at Brown, an applied mathematician at MIT, and a physicist at Harvard. I hope they don't get mad if my magic turns out to have contradictions in it.

Kimberley: The most surprising or unexpected thing that has happened to you since publishing your novel.

Polly: I'm thrilled at the email I get from readers. Some of them tell me about their friendships—there are a lot of Julies out there with Ashleighs for friends. Some of them tell me about the fiction or poetry they write, or ask for advice about their love lives. Every time I hear from one, it makes me happy all week. I especially like it when they say Enthusiasm made them read Jane Austen.

Kimberley: What is your own secret wish?

Polly: I've lived it—it came true. I always wanted to write a book that would give young readers at least a slight echo of what I felt when I read Pride and Prejudice for the first time. Now I wish and hope that I can do it again.

Kimberley: All your fans sure do – and that includes me!

Let’s hear it for Polly Shulman! Thank you so much for taking the time to let us peek into your world! You‘ve got lots of Enthusiasm and you're a doll!

Don’t miss Polly’s website for more delicious details and to play "Spot the Sonnet", the secret sonnet contained within the novel.

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