Robert Rodi’s eagerly anticipated new novel, Edgar and Emma, is his first Austen-inspired fiction. A longtime Austen devotee, he previously published the Bitch in a Bonnet blog and book series with his irreverent and insightful takes on Austen’s six novels. He was our guest speaker at the Fall 2016 meeting in Pasadena and graciously agreed to share his approach to transforming a short piece from Austen’s Juvenilia into a full-length comedy of manners.
What inspired you to write an Austen-related novel?
I spent many years working on Bitch In a Bonnet — first as a blog, then editing and collecting it for publication — and once that project was finally completed, I felt both a sense of accomplishment and a sense of relief. I thought, “I can live in the real world again, instead of Austen-land!” But then I found that I missed Austen-land, and started scheming a way to get back there.
I didn’t want to do any more literary analysis, because I’d already exhaustively said my piece there; and I liked the idea of doing a novel. I came to see it as a natural follow-up; after all, I’d gone to such lengths to argue that Austen was a satirist and an ironist rather than a romantic. Writing a novel in what I see as the Austen style would be the illustration of that argument. It would also be tremendous fun.
What led you to the Juvenilia, and Edgar and Emma in particular?
The Juvenilia is so wildly, brazenly funny — so over-the-top and shameless. I unabashedly love it. And no one else had really done it before; people have done prequels and sequels to the major works in the canon, or written their own conclusions to the unfinished novels, so I wouldn’t be doing anything new there. And I wanted to break new ground. As for Edgar and Emma in particular, I just saw certain opportunities in it — the way, for instance, that at one point Austen has Emma telling her troubles to “Tom,” with no indication of who Tom is, and no subsequent mention of him anywhere in the text. Tom was thus mine to flesh out, in any way I saw fit. Who could resist?
What was the most challenging aspect of turning the four-page story into a full-length comedy of manners?
Austen’s story really comprises just two very short set pieces; so extending them into an actual novel meant building an entire narrative world around them. It was a little different from the way I usually write a novel, which is fairly linearly, starting with my characters and an idea of what I want to happen to them, and then leading them through it. Here I was sort of inventing sideways, out of these incidents that already existed.
There was also the matter of having to tone down the wonderful absurdity of Austen’s story. I mean, she gives Mr. and Mrs. Willmot about 24 children — which is achingly funny when Mrs. Willmot is giving the inventory of their current whereabouts, because you have no idea, and the names just keep coming. “Amy is with my sister Clayton. Sam at Eton. David with his Uncle John. Jem and Will at Winchester. Kitty at Queen’s Square. Ned with his Grandmother. Hetty and Patty in a convent at Brussells.” You’re just dying by the end of it. But alas it would strain credulity in a literary novel; so I whittled down the Willmot offspring to just nine — which is still considerable. There were a few other similarly zany details that I had to modify for the sake of credulity. Though not the story’s conclusion, in which a heartbroken Emma runs up to her room, where she “continued in tears the remainder of her Life.” Rather than alter that, I decided to keep it as is and turn it into a running joke: Emma is always tearfully shutting herself up in her room for the remainder of her life. She’s been known to do it two or three times a season.
How difficult did you find it approximating Austen’s style?
It was as natural as breathing. I’ve always had an affinity for what I call Regency-speak. It’s what I love best about Austen: the simple elegance — the bell-like plangency — of her writing. There are a few simple rules I followed, like avoiding gerunds unless absolutely necessary; that’s a jarringly modern usage, to my ears. (An Austen character never says, “Am I interrupting you?” She says, “Do I interrupt you?”) And then there’s that wonderful British habit of answering in the affirmative by use of a negative: “I am not unmindful” instead of “I’m well aware.” Oh, I loved writing in Austen’s style. I can’t wait to do it again.
What are you working on next?
Right now I’m wrapping up the second volume in my Young Adult science-fiction series, Parallel U., which is about a university where all the students are from parallel universes. Freshman Year came out in 2014; Sophomore Year should be out in a few months. It’s published under a pseudonym, Dakota Rusk. I’m very fond of this series and have high hopes for it.
But I’d love to follow that with another Austen juvenilia adaptation. If Edgar and Emma sells respectably, I’ve got some killer ideas for Frederic and Elfrida.