Karen M Cox, the award-winning author of Austen-inspired novels, stands out in the Jane Austen Fiction genre for taking Austen's characters and placing them in not often explored historical settings. She allowed me to take the time to pick her brain about Austen, other eras, and the JAFF genre.
Z: What lead you to write Austen-inspired novels?
Karen: When I first read Jane Austen, what struck me was how I could apply her themes and see her characters, even in modern times. If I could relate to her novels across the Atlantic Ocean and the span of 200 years, I figured the “nuggets of story” she originally created must be timeless. I wanted to bridge that gap for readers who, like me, loved those universal Austen themes.
A couple of years before the publication of the first “Austen Project” novel by Joanna Trollope, I had an idea for an “Austen Project” too. (I feel certain I wasn’t the only one to have such an idea, but it was something new to learn, and I like learning new things.) I wanted to take Austen’s novels and set them each in a different decade of the 20th Century—in chronological order if I could—and set them in my neck of the woods, the US South, specifically in my home state. Austen’s work adapts well to this setting, because she wrote about the “quick succession of busy nothings” that feel close and personal in the small communities that propagate most of Kentucky.
At the time, I thought my little project would be a kick for other people around these parts to see how a classic story like Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion could apply to them. I expected it would be a little novelty for local area readers, and some die-hard Austen fans—nothing more.
When 1932, my Pride and Prejudice variation set during the Great Depression, became popular with Austen fans in other areas of the US, and even in other countries, I was surprised. Looking back though, I probably shouldn’t have been – it demonstrates the universality of Austen’s novels.
I don’t know if I’ll ever make it to the end of my little “Austen Project” or not. It’s been wonderful, but the thought of adapting Mansfield Park is daunting!
Z: Do you have a favorite historical era?
Karen: I’m pretty much up for writing any era, as long as it interests me. I tend to like eras that haven’t been explored extensively in Austen-inspired literature, because that makes the familiar stories new again.
The 20th Century fascinates me because the changes in history, in science, in society hit us at a much more rapid rate than ever before in human history. Lots to write about!
Z: Is there a setting from your published books that you feel an affinity to?
Karen: I’ve always felt an affinity for the 1930s because I heard so much about it from my grandmothers. I loved hearing about how their lives as young women were so different from mine. Simpler, yes—and there is a charm in that—but there was also hardship and tragedy beyond what I had ever experienced.
Z: Is there another era you’d like to explore?
Karen: The early 20th Century is starting to look interesting to me, say about 1890 to about 1925.
Z: How do you keep the integrity of Austen’s Regency era characters so well in 20th century settings?
Karen: Austen makes it easy: her characters’ traits are so subtly, yet completely explored that it’s not that big a stretch of imagination to put them in another era. Doing that does change some things about them, however. A Darcy in the throes of the Great Depression might have a little more humility than a Regency Darcy. A college-aged Wentworth with financial woes and family troubles might seem more brash than a Regency Wentworth off to join the Navy. But finding those changes while still keeping them in their character skins is part of the fun!
Z: What would you say to someone afraid to venture out of the Regency era?
Karen: Hmm. I mean, I guess it depends on why you read Austen. Or what you’re interested in reading at that point in time.
Sometimes readers are drawn to the Austen era: the courtly manners, the expectations for behaviors that are clearly defined, the idea that life could be easy and beautiful (although it really was easy only for a very few, and even those few experienced frequent tragedy, like dying in childbirth, and perishing from what we now think of as "minor" disease, injuries, and infections.)
Some readers are drawn by Austen herself: an intelligent, witty, lady with a keen eye for human foibles, and strong opinions about genuine class and integrity. For her time, she espoused an atypical view on a pretty sheltered corner of her society.
Some readers are primarily drawn to her characters and what I've called her little “nuggets of story"—almost universal truths about human nature that hold true across time. For example, Pride and Prejudice is about the unreliability of first impressions; Persuasion - second chances; Mansfield Park - good people are not always attractive and attractive people are not always good. And so on. This isn't new—I've said these things before.
If a reader only reads the Regency era, I think eventually the paraliterature begins to take you farther and farther from the story as Austen wrote it. I'm talking story on a meta sort of level here. Suddenly, you're in a Regency romance with a slightly different story, perhaps some different characters. And that's fine—I love well-written Regency Austen-inspired stories. They’re often romantic and fun, and a great escape into the past.
If, however, a reader is stuck on Austen herself—well, she or he is out of luck. Austen only completed 6 novels, and a handful of other writings. We can study her, try to emulate her, but as writers, we'll never BE her. So a reader looking for Jane Austen in Austen-inspired work is doomed to some level of disappointment, I’m afraid. Jane Austen was an original, and honestly, I can’t think of a single JAFF author who says, “I can write just like Austen.” Sometimes we wish we could, but…no. I think we all realize the futility of that.
The Austen characters and story arcs, though, they're almost myth-like in their universality. You can take them anywhere, anywhen and watch them go. In this time and place Darcy and Elizabeth could learn thus and so, and that's analogous to the original story because thus and so. This gives you a sense of learning something that's real and powerful about how life works, how people work.
I think a lot of readers start out in love with the Regency, but as they read more JAFF and maybe re-read the original novels (or read Austen herself for the first time) they start to peel back the Regency dressing to find those bare bones of story myth that Austen explored so well. And when that happens, they're ready to enjoy other eras, because then, they're discovering similarities and making comparisons. That kind of curiosity, blending the old and new, is fun.
I, personally, happen to think that demonstrating those “nuggets of story” through another setting is what a good alternative era story can do for an Austen fan. It can make her see that story essence, and maybe apply it to her own life or see the world a little differently. Which is what reading novels is about, yes?
Z: How deeply do you research your time periods?
Karen: I’ve always tried to do my best with the research. Sometimes I’ve been more successful than others, I think. I remember having a panicked moment right before 1932 released: my Richard Fitzwilliam character makes an off-hand comment about LaGrange penitentiary, which is located near Louisville Kentucky. I woke and sat straight up in bed one night with a single thought in my head—Was LaGrange even open in 1932? I looked it up and sure enough, it wasn’t open until the 70s. I must have heard that tidbit sometime in my life, and sleep brought it to the surface. At any rate, I changed LaGrange to Eddyville, and all was right with the world again. But moments like that make a writer wonder what other detail she’s missed or messed up along the way. Terrifying thought for a perfectionist, let me tell you!
Z: Which time period was the easiest to write?
Karen: Probably the 1990s and 2000s of Find Wonder in All Things, because I lived it.
The era of At the Edge of the Sea seemed to flow right out of my hands and onto the screen, and I don’t have a clue why.
Z: Which era was the hardest?
Karen: Actually—and this may surprise people—but the Great Depression was probably the biggest challenge to date. Undeceived was more challenging to write, but it wasn’t the time period so much as the settings that were the greatest hurdle.
Z: What are the challenges of writing in time periods that are unique to the JAFF world?
Karen: Getting readers to come along for the ride 😉 Once they do, though, they often enjoy it.
Z: Was there an essential plot point that you found difficult to adapt?
Karen: A couple of issues come to mind:
In Find Wonder in All Things, I was trying a modern adaptation of Persuasion, and I struggled significantly with how to construct the story so that Laurel, my Anne character, was believable in a modern setting. The Anne Eliot of Persuasion, because of the constraints on women in Regency society, can look like a doormat in modern-day stories. How could I make her sympathetic, not pathetic? I decided to focus less on external, society factors, and more on her intrinsic personality characteristics, with a little family dysfunction thrown in—because it’s not Persuasion without family issues, right?
In a similar vein, when I was writing Undeceived and came to the plot point where Darcy saves Lydia without Lizzy’s knowledge, I had to find a way to make that kind of interference believable. A modern woman would just pick up the phone and ask what’s up, and she certainly wouldn’t be expected to stay in one place. By putting Lizzy in hiding, she was confined in a similar way to Regency Lizzy, stuck waiting at Longbourn.
Z: Why not write Regency?
Karen: I never made a definite decision to not write Regency. In fact, I’ve written a couple of short unpublished stories set in the Regency era. For me to write a full-length novel set in that time and place, however, I would need to believe that what I was writing contributed something relevant or unique to the paraliterature. If and when that happens, I’ll write Regency.
Z: When I read your stories, I get completely immersed in their worlds. Knowing you didn’t experience the Depression or masquerade through Europe as a spy, I am impressed that they feel so real. How do you do it?
Undeceived was the biggest challenge in this respect. I started with reading books like The Charm School by Nelson DeMille, Molehunt: The Secret Search for Traitors that Shattered the CIA by David Wise, and A Short Course in the Secret War by Christopher Felix. I read books for writers about violence and about body trauma. I took notes as I read, on terminology, people, events—as well as notes that I thought might be analogous to Pride and Prejudice. I also watched documentaries, TV shows and movies, particularly about East Germany and Aldrich Ames (the mole in the CIA who was finally arrested in 1994 after spying for the Russians for nine years.) I also watched video about spies in general. Then I had the good fortune of having some natives of East Germany and Hungary read those chapters to look for errors. Invaluable feedback that made the book much better, in my opinion.
So, yeah, it was a lot, and I still took a little artistic license for the sake of the story. It took me over two years to write Undeceived, but I think it was worth the time and effort to make it as accurate as possible.
I have a Pinterest board for some of my resource material: https://www.pinterest.com/karenmc1932/undeceived-spy-moviestvbooks/
Z: How do you reconcile Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy from a culture of strict social behaviors with characters inspired by them on the cusp of the sexual revolution of the 60’s?
That was the biggest stretch I took with a story, and it’s the main reason why At the Edge of the Sea has characters with different names and events from the Austen novel. It’s truly “an original story inspired by Austen.” Some Pride and Prejudice themes are still there—bridging differences in background for love, the danger of believing in first impressions, the light and dark sides of small towns. But this was a book that went to a different place as I wrote it. It became, at the heart of it, a story about forgiveness—forgiving other people and forgiving oneself, and accepting the past so the rest of life can then begin. It has a special place in my heart because of that.
Thank you, Karen, for taking the time to indulge me with my questions when life happens to be hectic for you. I appreciate your insight.
Karen M Cox writes award-winning novels accented with romance and history. Three of her published works have garnered awards from the independent publishing industry. Her four full-length novels are available from Meryton Press. Her favorite part of writing is when she hears from readers that she made them smiles, or think, or remember - or maybe, all three!
Karen was born in Everett, Washington, a circumstance that resulted from arriving in the world as a United States Air Force officer’s daughter. By the age of twelve, she had lived all over the country, including stays in North Dakota, Tennessee, and New York State. Her family then returned to their home state of Kentucky, and she still lives there in a quiet little town with her husband. She works as a pediatric speech-language pathologist, and spends her spare time reading, writing, and being a wife and mom - and spoiling her new granddaughter.