Jenetta James stands out by her deceptively simple writing style that pulls you in like you are reading a memoir. I’m always curious to explore what’s behind a writer’s craft, and each writer tackles it differently. She allowed me to pick her brain about this and a few other aspects of her writing in the interview below.
Z: In a recent guest post you describe your journey to becoming a writer as being ambushed by it and that maybe you should have realised it was in you all along. What were some of the signs that the fanciful writer existed in you?
Jenetta: Your question reminds me of a car journey with my step Dad around the time that I was graduating, when I had decided to become a lawyer. We were driving along, and he asked me if I was sure, because he wondered whether law was creative enough for me. I was completely flummoxed by this question, because I didn't think of myself as that creative at all. The main reason for that, I think was that I was so academic from an early age and my academic life sort of took over everything else. In fact, there were all sort of signs, from theatrical and writing efforts as a child, to living throughout my childhood (and maybe a little beyond!) with imaginary scenarios and siblings constantly in my head. I have always been a voracious reader, mostly of fiction, and that should have told me something.
Z: In the same post you confess, “I have always been fascinated by finding the right word and putting things in just the right way - even in the law.” Does it flow naturally or do you find yourself like Darcy, studying too much for words of four syllables?
Jenetta: It flows pretty easily but I often spend a lot of time self-editing and going over and over things. When I was little, my Grandmother used to say to me “you’re like a dog with a bone”, and she was right. I find writing something down the first time quite natural (the key is to stop thinking about it and do it) but am then very critical when I read it back. The main constraint on my writing is time - I have a full time job and two small children so finding the time to put finger to keyboard is the biggest problem, not the writing itself.
Z: Reviewers have picked up on this aspect of your writing. It’s what first made me realize why I felt your book was different. They have said:
“Emotionally charged, filled with a strong sense of voice and containing language that is both poetic in its delivery and precise in its meaning" JustJane1813
“Ms. James is a skilled story-teller with a compelling voice and satisfying respect for Jane Austen's characters."Austenesque Reviews
"Jenetta James's writing made it incredibly easy for me to sink into Elizabeth's story and connect with her emotionally" Austenprose
How do you think your fascination with words contributed to this?
Jenetta: I am quite an emotional person - I do believe in following emotional influences and my own emotional reactions teach me a lot. But when it comes to describing emotion on the page - I’m a less is more girl. The challenge I set for myself is to keep the language pared back but the emotion high - that’s what I mean by looking carefully for the right word or critically examining a word that has been used. When I read those quotes above I still feel a sense of complete amazement that my stories have been received like that - I am very lucky. I’ll try to live up to it in future stories.
Z: Austenesque fans are certainly glad that you were ambushed by a Jane Austen inspired story to begin your journey as a writer. Why do you think your muse tossed you headlong in a Pride & Prejudice direction?
Jenetta: I had been reading a lot of JAFF (Jane Austen Fan Fiction) and I had known Pride & Prejudice very well for many years. There is an obvious link between what you read and what you write - if you chose to write at all, because those are the ideas that are floating around your mind. The prologue to Suddenly Mrs. Darcy just sort of came to me - and I had to build the story around it. By that time, I had been living with the characters in one way or another, and to a greater or lesser extent for many years, so it felt quite natural.
Z: The stories you have published thus far show you have continued to be inspired by Austen. Aside from your precise writing style and the inspiration material, your stories are each different entities. One is rooted in the same time frame as the original Pride & Prejudice, another, The Elizabeth Papers explores a time after the events of the original work paired with a contemporary story of the Darcy’s descendants. You also have a short story set in WWII. What drew you to explore such diverse time periods?
Jenetta: I don’t feel rooted to any particular time in my stories and enjoy exploring different time periods. The freedom of that appeals to me and I don’t think I'd like to feel tied to the Regency or any other specific period. In fact, I have a soft spot for stories that link different periods. Some of that is the historian in me. History isn’t just about "what happened" or “what was it like” - it is about source material and de-coding information. So "what happened” becomes “what can we extrapolate from a particular piece of evidence”, be it a painting, a letter, an instrument of trust even. That is what I am getting at in The Elizabeth Papers and in many ways it is the ground that every “time slip" novel walks (although The Elizabeth Papers isn’t technically time slip as it does not contain any time travel, just people in contemporary times trying to understand the past). My WWII short story had been buzzing around my head for ages and it grows out of the same idea. It struck me that JAFF authors frequently use the action of Pride & Prejudice and take it elsewhere - so characters go most commonly to London, Bath, spend more time in Derbyshire etc. But I wondered about keeping it exactly where Jane Austen put it geographically but changing the time period. The 1940s seemed an obvious choice to me as it was a time of war and rigid social structures, but there was enough freedom to play with the characters a bit. I really enjoyed writing it.
Z: Speaking of The Elizabeth Papers, it tells two love stories encased in intrigue and mystery. Readers described it as:
"The suspense keeps you glued to the pages but the romance in this book makes you swoon! I still can't get over the originality of it all and how much I adored it!" ~Margie's Must Reads
"cleverly constructed and supremely suspenseful ... An unusual and gripping page-turner" - Jocelyn Bury in Jane Austen Regency Magazine
What was the genesis of this story idea?
Jenetta: Good question! One evening, while we were editing Suddenly Mrs. Darcy, I sat down on the sofa when the children were asleep and wrote the letter from Mr. Darcy to his solicitors that appears as the prologue to The Elizabeth Papers. I then left it a while before picking it up, but for those who are interested, all of the nuts and bolts of the story are set out in that letter. It is hard to unpick it now, but I suppose that it was the confluence of a set of ideas, all jostling around together. Firstly, I have a big belief in Mr. Darcy’s honourable nature and take the view that they would have continued throughout his life, not just when he is young. Secondly, I am a bit haunted by the treatment of women in Pride & Prejudice - the entail that (potentially) prevents the Bennets marrying for love, the dowries that make Georgiana Darcy, and to some extent Caroline Bingley a focus for fortune hunters, the enormous wealth that means everyone is after the Darcys and Bingleys of the world. I started to think what if there was another way? Not huge riches - but a steady income stream for future generations of Darcy ladies - not money that would be siphoned off by husbands and brothers - but funds that were securely theirs? Thirdly, because I am a lawyer, I do probably think more about the formalities of things than the average person. All of these things came together and the idea of the Darcy Trust in The Elizabeth Papers, was born.
Z: If you could have have tea with one of Austen’s characters, who would it be and why?
Jenetta: Mrs. Bennet. It would be hilarious.
Z: You are unafraid to explore some of the darker realities of Regency life. Suddenly Mrs Darcy touches on some of the less pretty subjects of forced marriage, infidelity, and class prejudices (Sidenote to readers: If you haven’t read this, rest assured that the drama is worth the happy ending). You do it in such a matter of fact way that almost reads like someone relating a factual recounting of their life making it feel like truth. How did you carry it out? Was it intentionally done? Did it come to you that way?
Jenetta: It is intentional, but I don't know that I have a specific method - I just write it! I have been trained over many years in academia and in the law to write briefly - and I just can't shake it. My natural tendency is to say what I have to say and then stop. This is paired with a general inclination to think around the subject and gut it out - which involves looking at the question of how a character feels about their life. We all know what the Regency drawing room looks like from the television screen - but what does it look like from the perspective of one who is in it? That is where I am coming from. It is not particularly consciously done though, I just write things that way.
Z: You live in the land of Austen. Not having the same opportunity, I'm curious. Have you ever had the opportunity to visit any of those places Austen lived or places that have become connected to her works?
Jenetta: I've been to a few but not enough and I’m sure I haven’t paid enough attention when I've been there. I live in London so am a very easy distance (by good road, or otherwise!) from Chawton - and I've been to Chawton House once in all of my 35 years. I have a similar record in Bath, where I have been there once but by no means explored it all. I have been lucky enough to go on holiday to Derbyshire a few times and have seen Lyme Park and Chatsworth as well as the lovely countryside all around. I have never been to Lyme Regis and am conscious that there are so many Austen places that I could and should go to. We are very lucky in England that because the country is small, with a high ratio of historical sites, as well as brilliant institutions like the National Trust and English Heritage, that these places are very accessible. I’ll have to get visiting.
One nugget that stands out to me about your writing experience is you say “I just write it!” That sounds like a great piece of advice for someone with plot bunnies floating around in their head. Just write it. Perhaps they too will be ambushed by it.
Jenetta James is the nom de plume of a lawyer, writer, mother and taker-on of too much. She grew up in Cambridge and read history at Oxford University where she was a scholar and president of the Oxford University History Society. After graduating, she took to the law and now practises full time as a barrister. Over the years she has lived in France, Hungary and Trinidad as well as her native England. Jenetta currently lives in London with her husband and children where she enjoys reading, laughing and playing with Lego.