What other jobs have you had? I always wanted to be a teacher, teaching English, but as I grew older and saw that every class had kids that hated reading books, I went off that idea. All I was certain about was that I had to study English Lit. at university. Well, English Lit at university is not the best qualification for finding work. I had various office jobs doing administration and then I stopped to have children. It was only when I started to think about going back to paid work many years later that I began to teach literature classes at the WEA adult education centre. One thing led to another and in the end I became a teacher of adults in many different places. So perhaps that childhood ambition wasn’t too wide of the mark in the end!
What’s the hardest part of your job? My job is a most unusual one and consists of 3 parts – writing books, lecturing about great literature, and leading literary tours to the UK, USA and Europe. I guess each job has its challenges, but perhaps the biggest is being faced with that blank sheet of paper and knowing you need to write something on it. Once I get started, I’m usually fine, even if I later ditch all that I wrote, but the getting started is sometimes very hard. I find myself making excuses to do other things, and know I just have to sit down and put some words on the blank paper.
What’s the best part of your job? The best part of my job is knowing that I encourage thousands of people every year to read the classics, to find out more about famous writers, and to get pleasure from books. I’ve had drama training and adore reading passages aloud and my audiences love that. One of the nicest compliments I’ve ever had was when I stopped doing a reading and a man called out from the audience “Oh, don’t stop, please don’t stop!”
What inspired you to write this book? I felt it was very important that the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice was marked in a big way and writing this book was my way of celebrating the utter joy it has given me since my mother first read it to me when I was 11 or 12. I also wanted to show why it is such a brilliant book. We all know its first sentence is very famous, but in my book I examine why it is so famous and deserves to be so. We all know Darcy is sexy, but I wanted to show how Jane Austen achieves that sexiness in her hero. I have never enjoyed writing any book so much, and I’m so thrilled that readers have loved it and it’s had excellent reviews.
What was one of the best things that happened because of this book? I was invited by the Royal Oak Society to go on a lecture tour of the USA and give talks in 9 different cities about my book and the power of Pride and Prejudice. It was wonderful to see the passion this novel has inspired in so many different people. I was treated with such wonderful hospitality everywhere I went and had an amazing time.
What do you love most about Jane Austen? There are many reasons to love the novels of Jane Austen – the irony, the humour, the romance, the brilliant use of the English language – but I think for me the main reason I go back to her books again and again and again is her penetrating understanding of human nature. She knew what makes people tick and that understanding is there on every page of her books. Her people are alive and well in our modern world – we all know a Miss Bates (who can never stop talking), or a Mrs Norris (a really stingy person) or a party animal like Sir John Middleton or a sporting bore like John Thorpe. Jane Austen understood people, and shows it in a way that makes you think about yourself and other people and come to understand human nature better.
What would you most like to ask Jane Austen? I think I’d probably have found her rather intimidating, with those sharp eyes of hers. I’d love to know how Sanditon was going to end, and I’d like to know her true feelings for Tom Lefroy.
Do you have a favourite Jane Austen location? The best museum is of course the Jane Austen House at Chawton, which is always fabulous to visit. I once had an incredibly special visit to the house in which Jane Austen died in Winchester. I took a tour group there and read them the letter written by Cassandra describing Jane’s death. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room by the end! The visit was so moving.
Which 5 people would you like to have over for dinner? Can I be greedy and have 5 dinner parties with dead writers? I’d want them one at a time, so I could talk to each properly. Jane Austen would be invited first, then Shakespeare, then Oscar Wilde, then Samuel Pepys and then Robert Burns who would have to recite his Tam O’Shanter for me as that is one of my favourite poems. And I’d be perfectly happy to be seduced by Shakespeare and Burns, and Pepys would probably try and grope me while I asked him questions, but I’d put up with that (he was a chronic groper!).
What are you working on next? I currently have two projects on the go. A book about the marriage of Samuel and Elizabeth Pepys, and I’m trying a novel for the first time. I’m loving writing it, but don’t know whether it will ever see the light of day. Fiction is very different to write than non-fiction, so it’s a fascinating challenge.