writing · Austen · Becoming Catherine Bennet

On Reviews (I)

Becoming Catherine Bennet was a novel I enjoyed writing. It took a fair amount of work and reviewing Pride and Prejudice itself and watching the BBC and 2005 versions.

As I mentioned yesterday, I had a general idea where the story would go but then decided to go in a completely different direction, though leaving the original idea in since the main plot could be built around it. And that main plot involved Kitty/Catherine–one of the tricks was trying to keep how she was referred by characters straight since several affirmatively decide, at her request, to call her “Catherine,” “Kitty” being, as Anne de Bourgh will say, “such a girl’s name.”

The first two-thirds of the book is told in a third-person narrator’s voice. I don’t know if I’m particularly adept with that, but it allows from moving between characters and providing some insight into their thoughts (without, I hope, the dreaded “head hopping”). As I was going, I knew where it would end.

Or thought I did. There was an Edith Wharton ending. It’s still in the book. But I realized that I couldn’t end it there. So began Part II. Part II is Catherine’s first-person narrative. Indeed, in it she explains how she came to take up writing:

A strange thing about Amazon reviews. If the reviewer is not verified, a review in one region doesn’t show up in the US. So I get a quite good 4-star review on Amazon.uk but not on Amazon.com. I don’t know who this reader is, but I liked the review because it notes that the novel is not your standard Pride and Prejudice fare.

Reviews sometimes point to things that readers might not like. (I’ll get to that in a later post.) Here, the concern seems to be about Jane. Jane Bingley is well down on the list of characters, thought she’s still important, and in the end I wanted her not to be quite the empathetic sister she is in the book. But those are the choices one makes.

I’ll get to some less pleased readers soon. But even there, I like to get responses and feedback. Jane Austen Fan Fiction can be tricky. But fun too.

writing · Austen

Becoming Catherine Bennet

I learned that there is a huge market for Jane Austen Fan Fiction (JAFF). I started writing a book entitled Debt Comes to Pemberley, a play on PD James’s Death Comes to Pemberley, which was made into a BBC thing. The core issue was that Darcy someone went bankrupt. (The cover to the right is for the audio version, which I’ll get to in a later post.)

For whatever reason, as I wrote it, I had Anne de Bourgh come to his rescue. Which got me thinking about Anne de Bourgh as a major character which got me thinking of how could she become other than the sickly creature described in Pride and Prejudice itself. The obvious ploy was to kill off her mother, Lady Catherine. So off she went. This has the additional benefit of freeing Mr. and Mrs. Collins from her shadow.

The plot then morphed into a story built around Kitty or Catherine Bennet.

First about Darcy and going bankrupt. Turns out, as best as I could tell, Pemberley was likely entailed (as was Longbourn which had such an adverse impact on the Bennet daughters and as was not Rosings, which had such a positive effect, in the end, on Anne de Bourgh). So I came up with a way to seriously cut out Darcy’s (and Bingley’s) income, which forced retrenchment of the sort Sir Walter Elliot could not tolerate in Persuasion.

If you read the first chapters–they can be sampled here–you’ll see that I kill off George Wickham too. Now, Kitty did move to be with her sister Lydia–this was the one major change I made from Pride and Prejudice itself–and the two youngest Bennets must come to London, where they’ll live with Jane (as opposed to Lizzy, who lives some blocks away).

And stuff happens. I’m quite pleased with the effort. I learned a good deal by re-reading the novel. And it turns out that I have gotten a very large number of reads. It’s on Kindle Unlimited so I get paid (slightly) for page reads. In about three weeks, I have over 42,000 page views and have sold 18 ebooks. Of course, the proceeds for all that are about $200. So I’m not getting rich on this.


New York, New York

In my life, the longest I’ve spent not sleeping in either New York County–which is essentially Manhattan–or Westchester County–which is the county due north of the Bronx (and the City) and is bordered by the Hudson River and Connecticut–is two weeks. One week in Paris, the second in London. That was forty years ago.

So nearly all of my stories take place in and around New York City, chiefly Manhattan and chiefly the Upper West Side of Manhattan and chiefly the Upper West Side of Manhattan to the east of Broadway and between 72nd and 96th Streets and close to the Park. Where I spent twelve years going to law school and afterwards. Alex Locus lives in my old apartment on West 85th Street. The characters in A Theory About Valentine’s Day are there, as is Suzanne Nelson before she moves to…Tuckahoe in Westchester, where I grew up. Etc., etc., etc.

I say this level of precision in my description because I just saw a well-written snippet about “New York,” meaning (I think) Manhattan. It treats New York as some kind of singular expression. It is how I’d likely treat, say, Los Angeles or Boston.

The thing about New York, and I assume LA and Boston and any other place anywhere (I can say this with more assurance about places I’ve spent (albeit tourist) time such as Paris and London), is that it’s just a bunch of little neighborhoods. Jane Jacobs‘s seminal works about Greenwich Village (with her efforts to prevent Robert Moses from having an interstate cross that fundamental part of Manhattan with an interstate as he did with the Cross-Bronx Expressway) centered on life on a single street, with its comings and its goings.

When I lived on West 85th Street less than 100 yards from the Park looking out over the street (as Alex’s apartment does), that’s what it was. A little street in a neighborhood that simply had no yards and a lot more people and cars passing by than a house I think anywhere else anywhere. Except those Stalinesque, gated communities one finds in certain wealthy parts of Florida and elsewhere.

I can be annoying. If I meet someone who says they “live on the Upper West Side” I’ll follow-up (as lawyers say) with a request for greater precision. “What street?” “East or west of Broadway?” Often, for the UWS, “do you have anything to do with Columbia” since many found themselves there (as I did) when they attended school there.

So as Upper West Siders (of whatever neighborhood) properly believe themselves superior in all regards (excepting perhaps money, which has always been a big thing in New York (as noted in my Gilded Age novels) to those on the Upper East Side, the latter mistakenly (except, as I say, about money) believe the opposite to be true.

All of this helps to explain the precision of my locations. In Coming to Terms, I needed a stoop on West 87th. One main character sits on a stoop in front of the other’s apartment thinking the latter is off doing a summer-associate gig in San Francisco and it changes both of their lives, sitting on that stoop. So I had to find a brownstone that had a stoop. And, voila, there it was on Google Maps Street View. Same with the description of Nancy Penchant’s brownstone on West 94th.

So the fourth “character” in my books is not some amorphous “New York City.” The place where a too ambitious woman in to-die-for outfits works while not in her loft-in-the-Village and plays too hard (and wins) at everything before some crisis or another forces her to return to the farm to find the three-day-old bearded guy with an F-150 and a manual-labor job who can play Mozart on the tuba and recite Shakespearean sonnets while cooking and who is, as an Upper West Sider is to an Upper East Siders (except, you know, for the money thing, which won’t matter because who needs Louboutins in Iowa?), superior in all respects to the Big Law/Harvard JD/Greenwich accented/clean shaven hunk who’s her fiancé.

Still, as I say, it’s not just New York. Yet I have the advantage that readers think they know about it. They’ve seen the external shots in Friends and Seinfeld (“Tom’s Restaurant”? It’s on Broadway by Columbia) and the externals and internals of You’ve Got Mail, etc. so they think they know the place. My job is to populate that place with human characters. (Never dogs; one always wants to know who’s taking the Lab out for a walk or when did someone feed the KCS.)

It’s a big advantage, of course, this already established character. But, of course, as I say, being a New Yorker and especially one with years on the Upper West Side has its advantages.


On Public Readings

A writer whose work I admire recently said she was doing a public reading from one of her books. Having performed my own songs in public, I thought I could make some useful suggestions.

First, don’t worry about how it’ll sound. I’ve been in lots of guitar rounds in which some people with good voices close up and don’t project. I’ve heard you do a poem and you’re too flat. They are your words.

Let yourself open up to them. Practice reading them with changes in rhythm and tone and volume. Don’t exaggerate it but think of yourself telling and not reading and you’ll fall into the natural rhythm of your words.

Make sure you know how long your sentences are so you don’t start on one and then realize you’ll run out of breath and race through the end. Believe me, it happens. Super important: you’ll be reading from your page but make sure it’s legible to you.

This was always my great fear: forgetting the lines and losing my place. If you go in worry about that you lose the ability to just tell your story. So get comfortable reading. And get comfortable with the mic. I don’t know how big the room is, but you should focus on your mouth being near the mic. (If I sing and have my own mic, I touch that foam thing with my lips. It gives me a physical focus.) You’re not doing that but make sure the mic is positioned at a comfortable lever for you while you hold the book and while you are reading from the book.

This all sounds very complicated in some respects but practice what you’ll read a few times, standing or sitting as you’ll be doing. I think once you start tonight, you’ll fall into your story and the words will flow and the people will fall into it as well. They’re good words.

I Am Alex Locus begins (after brief preliminaries) and ends (with some final activity) at book readings at the Barnes & Nobel on Broadway and 82nd. So this is how the first one reads, in part:

I’d been to these readings before and the usual podium with the Barnes & Noble logo and a microphone was off to one side, and after about half the seats were taken, a little past eight, the staffer welcomed us and introduced Karen Adams. Her book was in her right hand, and she opened it as she got to the podium. After looking out across us and covering her mouth with a fist for a brief cough, she started. She thanked us for coming. She stopped. With a shake of the head, a sip of water, and a deep breath, she tried again.

I’d been to these readings before and the usual podium with the Barnes & Noble logo and a microphone was off to one side, and after about half the seats were taken, a little past eight, the staffer welcomed us and introduced Karen Adams. Her book was in her right hand, and she opened it as she got to the podium. After looking out across us and covering her mouth with a fist for a brief cough, she started. She thanked us for coming. She stopped. With a shake of the head, a sip of water, and a deep breath, she tried again.

“I am going to go with the beginning of a story that is one of my favorites, though I know I’m not supposed to say that.” A few people chuckled. “It came to me when I was thinking back on summer vacations I took in Vermont, and I wrote it when I was in college. It’s about…Well, it’s called Lonesome, and here’s how it begins.”

Her hand shook as she tried to keep the book open but after a sentence or two, her voice and her hand relaxed. The murmur of people passing off to the side vanished as her words began to flow.


Covers: A Studio on Bleecker Street

By all rights, the next post should be about Wuthering Heights. I have done a republication of it and I have done a cover for it. I’ve never read it.

I’m again doing one of my own. A Studio on Bleecker Street tells the story of Clara Bowman and Emily Connors. The latter was a character who befriended Elizabeth Geherty after both their families lost their money in late 1873. That was in Róisín Campbell. When I thought of something of a follow-up to that first novel, I hit upon Emily and a line in the book: “Emily Connor, whose family was in similarly desperate straits, had already decamped to Greenwich Village, moving in with an unmarried friend who had artistic aspirations.”

I built the new book around that friend, Clara Bowman. It begins well before the end of Róisín. Clara is a recently out society girl expecting to marry her best friend’s brother until the friend and the brother are killed in a train crash in Queens in May of 1872. Clara becomes an artist and paints portraits of Mary McNabb (Elizabeth’s sister) and both of Elizabeth Geherty’s parents.

The two plots intersect on the day after the final scene in Róisín, which Emily and Clara read about in the newspaper while finishing breakfast on a sidewalk outside in the Village.

“Do you remember me telling you I met her sister when I was in exile after we lost everything. Her family did, too, but Mary McNabb avoided that fate by marrying well. Or at least rich.”
“The Gehertys spoke of that. Why?” She looked up and put the pencil on the table.
Emily held the newspaper up to Clara, pointing to an article on the front page.
“The sister was Elizabeth. Read this.”

With this, I had my intersection, which provided a way to write follow-ups on some of the characters in Róisín for the balance of A Studio on Bleecker Street. After prior covers, when I was doing my revamp limited to paintings with an Open Access pedigree, there was one that was perhaps my favorite of all. Although it was painted sometime after the period of Studio, its era was vague enough for me to use it. So I did.

This too comes from the Met. Study in Black and Green by the American John White Alexander. It was painted in 1906. The Met:

The idealized, impassive woman, shown as if she were a precious object, was a favorite turn-of-the-century subject and one particularly suited to Alexander’s temperament. Here, a young beauty is absorbed in nothing more consequential than pinning a bauble or blossom to the low neckline of her elegant evening gown. The skirt’s sinuous striped pattern, the curves at the knees and shoulders, and the contour of the upswept hair justify the description of Alexander as “the painter of the flowing line.” His dazzling brushwork is especially notable in the rendering of the rich fabrics and in the otherwise plain background.

Classics · Covers

Covers: Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre. I believe I have a contrarian’s view of the book, which I’ve read several times–I believe it to be wonderfully written–and several versions of which I’ve watched.

Yet this is from my I Am Alex Locus:

We’d raided the kitchen, and everything was set up on the coffee table in front of the couch opposite the huge TV in the furnished basement with sliding doors out to the dark patio. Kate hit play and Jane Eyre—the BBC one with Ruth Wilson and wasn’t she so great in The Affair?—began. The desert as Jane imagined traveling as she paged through the large book. Discovered by the horrible cousin John and being struck in the head by the book and knocking the brat down and being carried by two housemaids to the red room, begging and begging not to be taken to the red room and abandoned to the ghosts she knew haunted it and seeing the ghost…and my stomach churned and my head grew light and I rushed up the stairs into the kitchen, nearly running into Kate’s mother.

Kate was on my heels as I fought for breath with my hands spread on the kitchen counter and my head rocking back and forth. Her mother got me water, most of which I downed with barely a break.

“What is it, Alex?” Mrs. Winslow asked as her daughter stood beside me panicking. Kate pulled out a chair, and I collapsed into it as her mother refilled the glass and grabbed her phone, but I told her I was okay.

“I have to go,” I said again and again. “I have to go.”

Kate’s hands were tight at my shoulders, preventing me from getting up.

“Alex. Talk to me.”

It is a pivotal moment, triggering a visceral reaction in Alex. And that reaction flows from something her late mother wrote about the novel and how it was not as much a romance as most appear to think it is.

For the cover, I tried several variants of a largely abandoned, unloved woman finding some sort of a place as a governess for a girl of a questionable relationship with Mr. Rochester. I again went to the Met and found an 1847 portrait of a woman who, in the context of Eyre, might be her after all the dust–and the ashes–had settled, not the woman we see along the way.

The portrait is of Anne Charlotte Lynch (later Mrs. Vincenzo Botta) and was painted by the Frenchman Savinien Edme Dubourjal. Again I can find little beyond what the Met offers:

Lynch, an important figure in the social and literary life of New York City in the mid-nineteenth century, was an author and poet as well as an amateur painter and sculptor. Her New York City home became a lively gathering place for artists and literati, one of the earliest salons in America. Among the artists who visited Lynch’s salon was George Peter Alexander Healy (1813–94), who may have introduced her to the French portraitist Dubourjal. The fine cross-hatching in the face and background reflects his experience as a painter of miniatures. The sitter’s delicate features are carefully described and enlivened with small touches of color. The rest of the drawing is rendered in subtle tones of white, gray, and black.

Classics · Covers

Covers: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

I mentioned Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey and Jessica DeMarco-Jacobson, who put me onto that, suggested I check out Anne Brontë’s other novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. And I am quite glad I did.

It’s a story in three parts. The first and last are told by Gilbert Markham and the middle by the woman who becomes the tenant of Wildfell Hall, Helen Graham, who recites her own history in great detail and how she came to the Hall.

In the beginning, Helen comes to the Hall, near where Gilbert lives, she in mourning for her late husband. So she is in black.

I searched for a suitable image in black–the story expands well beyond that. In the end, the Metropolitan came to my rescue, albeit not of a woman in mourning. Instead she is in a riding habit. It is Woman in a Riding Habit (L’Amazone), painted between 1855 and 1859 by the Frenchman Gustave Courbet.

Per the Met:

This painting of a horsewoman (in French, amazone) was first observed in Courbet’s studio in the late 1850s by the artist and critic Zacharie Astruc (1833–1907). He did not provide the sitter’s name, and her identity has never been confirmed. The artist Mary Cassatt admired this picture as “the finest woman’s portrait Courbet ever did.” What very likely began as a portrait has become emblematic of the independent modern woman. Women riding horseback were still a rare sight, and for a woman to ride unaccompanied by a man was considered scandalous.

Classics · Covers

Covers: Agnes Grey

Anne Brontë’s authobiographical novel Agnes Grey makes an appearance in several of my novels. It is the story of the miserable life of a governess in 1840s Britain. Although Anne’s sister Charlotte wrote about a more famous governess of the time–Jane Eyre (about whom I’ll have plenty to say when it’s her turn)–and was also a governess, my understanding is that Agnes Grey is far closer to the reality. (I learned this from my friend Jessica DeMarco-Jacobson.) It was, as I say, largely autobiographical and its horrible characters are drawn from horrible characters in real life.

When Elizabeth Geherty makes her desperate visit to Róisín when she walks away from everything, Miss Campbell is reading–one of her few friends was Deidre O’Sullivan, a governess originally from Dublin, who was met on the fateful day of the first gig accident that brought our heroine to the attention of Dr. Doyle and who explained, as was explained in Agnes Grey, “that her position was lonely and awkward, being neither staff nor family”–when Elizabeth makes her desperate visit. In A Maid’s Life, it is what Margaret is discussing while a teacher when she is interrupted with her own life-altering news (David Schmidt being the Columbia grad who taught her to become a teacher):

I was tired after a day of discussing Agnes Grey in my class at Miss Fenton’s. It was a popular choice among the middle-class students in its portrayal of wealthy English families and how they treated (or mistreated) the governess and how the spoiled, selfish children were described. David Schmidt suggested I use it.

Getting the cover for this 1847 underrated novel was important and again I elected to go outside the proper time. The portrait is from the Art Institute of Chicago and is by a 22 year-old young Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. It is a portrait of Jeanne Wenz and was painted in 1886.

There was something about the subject, with her steely look at cowlicks sticking out on a plain wooden chair that struck me as having the seething intelligence of Miss Grey. )I’ll note the disproportionate number subjects with red or auburn hair in paintings from this and other periods.) From the Art Institute:

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec painted this portrait when he was only 22 years old and still an art student. He used subtle coloring with accents of pink and green and showed his subject, Jeanne Wenz, in full profile, a compositional device often found in Renaissance portraiture. Wenz was the mistress of Frederic Wenz, Toulouse-Lautrec’s fellow student at the painter Fernand Cormon’s studio. She was also the friend of Suzanne Valadon, an artist in her own right and a frequent sitter for Toulouse-Lautrec.

Classics · Covers · Woolf

Covers: To The Lighthouse

This second Woolf, which entered the public demand on the first of the year, is another I completed via Juliet Stevenson.

To the Lighthouse. I found some fine paintings of–lighthouses. The story’s about people though. Could I find a Mrs. Ramsey? Maybe I did. Maybe I didn’t.

This is Mrs. Charles S. Carstairs as painted by Sir William Orpen in 1914. It is at the National Gallery.

Although the National Gallery has no details about the painting, I found this interesting tidbit on Wikipedia. Charles S. Carstairs was a New York art dealer and:

In 1903 Carstairs met the American actress, Elizabeth Stebbins (19 October 1875 – 7 May 1949), while crossing the Atlantic, he on a buying trip for Knoedler Gallery, and she to perform on the London stage. A romance ensued, and Carstairs divorced his wife, Esther, later that year. He married Elizabeth Stebbins in 1905 and settled in the fashionable Mayfair district of London.

In 1928, shortly after being announced chairman of the board for Knoedler & Co., Charles Carstairs died of a heart attack.[

Classics · Covers · Woolf

Covers: Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

So, famously, does Mrs. Dalloway begin.

Although I’ve tried without success to read the physical version of Virginia Woolf’s story, I have listened to it, through the voice of the English actress Juliet Stevenson. (She’s done numerous classics and each one is a joy to listen to on a series of long walks; I download them to my phone from my local library.)

So this cover needed flowers and a dignified woman. The Cleveland Museum of Art came through. This painting is from 1882 and thus well precedes the 1925 novel and the subject is 26, well younger than Mrs. Dalloway. It is Madame Lerolle by the French artist Henri Fantin-Latour.

From the museum:

Fantin-Latour exhibited this portrait of Madeleine Lerolle, wife of fellow artist Henry Lerolle, at the Paris Salon of 1882. The Salon was the official, annual exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, the national art academy of the French government. At the time of this portrait, Madeleine Lerolle was 26 years old. Albert Besnard portrayed her more formally in his painting Madeleine Lerolle and Her Daughter Yvonne, currently on display in the other Romanticism to Realism gallery.