Linda Beutler recently let me interview her and discuss one of the many characteristics of her writing, her sense of humor. Anyone who has read her books knows it's a necessary ingredient in her writing. Like Elizabeth Bennet, I dearly love a laugh, and Linda's books are definitely a great fix for the funny bone.
Z: If I can make at least one person smile, pee their pants a little or maybe spit out a drink, then my day was not wasted.”
How does this fit you?
L: I actually shared that when it came through on my facebook news feed. Renowned garden writer and speaker Ann Lovejoy said an audience will only remember 30% of what you say, but if you add humor, they will retain 60% of the serious content because they are listening more attentively for something funny. Now that I, too, do a lot of public speaking, I find this to be true. Keep people on their toes, and then deliver the occasional off-kilter observation or crazily juxtaposed metaphors. Getting people laughing is often the gateway to getting them thinking. And I love a good spit-take.
Z: Why be funny?
L: Maybe the question is, why try to be funny? Because I don’t always succeed! But all of my favorite authors are, by some definition or other, funny. Whether it is a gently rendered caricature like Cousin Charlotte in E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View, the all out seriously irreverent joy ride of any title by Christopher Moore (Sacré Bleu, You Suck: A Love Story, An Ugly Job, and so on), or the deeply imbedded impatience of garden writer Christopher Lloyd, all of the books I read for pleasure are carefully or broadly funny. The master is P. G. Wodehouse—satire, simile, and all-in sincerity—he commits to comedy 100%. Jane Austen’s letters are a delightful tutorial in clever word play and wry observation—she is even (horrors!) unkind.
Z: What made you realize humor was your thing?
L: Ha! I am not sure I’m all that committed to being “the funny one”, and there are many writers who do it—“it” being Austenesque comedy—better (so looking forward to Meryton Press launching Mistaken later this year). After that disclaimer, I’d have to say that many of the short pieces I have written for “the playground” or one-off short stories at A Happy Assembly, are really where I started to write to be “on purpose” funny. And quite often, those stories come out in a burst, written quickly in an evening or in under a day or two, and then polished to as much brightness as I can rub into them.
Z: Who influenced you to let your sense of humor have free rein?
L: My father was Mr. Bennet. There were only two of us girls, not five, so his favoritism was pretty glaring. Just like the clear-eyed Elizabeth Bennet sees her father is wrong to play favorites, it is hard to not love the man who makes you feel special, and who does it with wit and a twinkle in his eye. The unspoken praise in my father’s eyes when I picked up on some little pun was reward enough to have me striving to be clever. Laughing ourselves to tears was the great bonding event for Dad and me. We did it a lot. He was the master of the comedic aside.
Z: You started your Austen-inspired novel career on a more serious bent with The Red Chrysanthemum, but progressively have added more and more humor to your subsequent stories with your current project, a Wodehouse-Austen mashup, giving over completely to the idea of being a comedic take on Austen's world. What led you down that journey?
L: In truth, here’s how it went: Longbourn to London was written first! Because it is so wound around the Andrew Davies’ screenplay for P&P’95, it is lighter and funnier than The Red Chrysanthemum. And sexier. I was nearly through writing L to L when it occurred to me no one had mined the potential of the language of flowers to augment Pride and Prejudice, and given my real-life career in horticulture, it seemed to be the obvious directional choice. TRC was more publishable, and I already had two books of garden-writing under my belt—I knew Meryton Press would not turn it down. As I worked with Gail Warner on the edits, the basic premise of A Will of Iron emerged in a random conversation, and I began to work on it in spare moments. Now that story honestly did have a will of its own (#sorrynotsorry) and would not be rushed, so Meryton Press agreed to put out Longbourn to London while I chiseled away at AWOI. I had not been working long on AWOI when I was blind-sided by the only full-length “modern” P&P I am ever likely to write, and it was posted at A Happy Assembly (at this time I am not planning to publish it). The modern has some slapstick I just love, as well as some droll, unexpected casting. Every time I went back to AWOI after wandering away, it became loopier and darker and I came to love it more and more. I regret not posting it at AHA, as I think I have fans there who have yet to find it.
Z: You won an award for the more serious The Red Chrysanthemum, why change style?
L: In the real time line of my writing, TRC was the aberration in the progression to Austen court-jester. If I wrote to win awards, they’d have carried me to a padded cell years ago. And do I want to be known as just “the flowery one”? Okay, maybe I should go for “the funny-flowery one.”
Z: Does it come naturally to you, or do you work at the humor?
L: Yes to both. I wrote a short story, “Nothing Like a Dispute” that is a Monty Python/Jane Austen mash-up, and that story took less than two days to write, then a week to fine tune. In My Mr. Darcy & Your Mr. Bingley, I would often see opportunities for laughter after the first draft was on the page, and added as I went.
Z: Elizabeth Bennet said, “I dearly love a laugh.” She also qualified it with “I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.” Would you describe yourself akin to Elizabeth Bennet or maybe closer to Jane Austen herself with her dry wit? Or maybe another literary character/author altogether?
L: I am closer to Jane Austen as the writer of her letters, than to Elizabeth Bennet the character or Jane the novelist. In her letters she said, “Life seems but a quick succession of little nothings.” I love that—capturing the little nothings with words. In the novels, Jane had much to say about her times, the untenable place of women (especially unmarriageable women), a view of characters through the vale of money. I do not presume to be so holy and honest.
Z: At the heart of your novels is a love story. How do you keep the balance between romance and humor?
L: When one limits oneself to exploring the permutations of one fictional couple (and it appears I have), and when those two, as originally written, always think they’re the cleverest ones in the room, the humor and the romance seem to be in balance from Jane Austen’s conception of them. The balance can be juggled, but one has to be careful. My copy of the Spacks annotated P&P has several of my comments penciled here and there saying, “What a little bitch!” after something Elizabeth Bennet has said, so even Austen didn’t create a perfect Lizzy, and I don’t think she meant to at all. And we only know Darcy’s capacity for levity at the end of the story, but with that revealed, it is easy to go back into a “what-if” and provide his point of view with a lighter touch.
Z: I had a teacher who categorized authors into two creative methods. One was scientific - methodical, outlined, detailed planning, set schedules. The other was described as analog-letting inspiration take over, flexible outlining, and organic, piecing things together afterwards. What is your process in creating a story?
L: Given those choices, I tend towards analog. Although when I have a plot firmly in hand I will write out a flexible outline as a guide, I don’t usually write in a linear fashion. Some little mote from somewhere will lodge in my brain and a whole chapter will pop into existence; then what comes before and after has to be altered a lot or a little to fit in the latest inspiration. A Will of Iron is a perfect example. With the dual storylines of “real time” and Anne de Bourgh’s journals, more journal entries had to be written as “real time” got wackier. But throughout there was a rigid time frame within AWOI, so dates and timing mattered.
Z: What inspired you to be different and take your humor on a 'macabre' bent in A Will of Iron?
L: How I wish I remembered more of the early emails with Gail that inspired this story! It wasn’t truly macabre at first, just sad, given that we start with the death of a major character (although a minor one per Austen) in the first paragraph. But maybe it’s Lady Catherine who is really to blame. She took over the tone of the story quickly. Through it all, Darcy and Elizabeth mostly take Lady Catherine in stride. They expect the worst of her; they just don’t know how bad things will get. Their attention never quite leaves the awkwardness of being together again too soon after the Hunsford proposal, and the action distracts them from seeing each other clearly.
Z: How do you balance a modern sense of humor for a modern audience in a Regency (or historical) world?
L: Oh, I’m not sure I accomplish that at all well. I am modern, writing for myself, first and foremost. I delight in the Regency wordplay, exploring modern vs. Regency word usage, and with My Mr. Darcy & Your Mr. Bingley, I set myself the great challenge of including quotes and snippets from Jane Austen’s letters, too. Putting the words together with as much Jane Austen tone and Regency vocabulary as possible is where my head is at, and I hope that sense of fun I feel is in some measure infectious.
Z: In your most recent published novel, My Mr Darcy and Your Mr Bingley, reviewers said
- "It made me laugh and cry..."
- "I really enjoyed this story, and it's the first JAFF I have read that made me laugh out loud."
- "I loved this book… laugh...cry...unable to put it down - yes!!!"
It shows that you highlight the humor by contrasting it with sad emotions, or the feels. That’s a great principle to follow in any form of creative work, but not everyone uses it quite so effectively. How did you arrive at this point of getting these ingredients to play off each other in your storytelling?
L: There were several goals that were very clear to me as I wrote what started as “Your Mr. Bingley”. Obviously I wanted a stronger Bingley, but not a man comparable in confidence to Mr. Darcy. Therefore, Bingley goes from Darcy’s influence to Elizabeth’s, and eventually even Mr. Bennet’s! I tend to write to place Mr. Bennet in the best possible light, again without straying too far from the indolent squire of a small estate. If Bingley is stronger, Jane can be too, so I took her even further afield—she goes a little power-mad, but not so twisted that Mr. Bennet cannot real her in once he sees the problem.
Bingley is the foil for Darcy’s seriousness in Pride and Prejudice. He lightens Darcy. So does Colonel Fitzwilliam. By the end, Elizabeth takes on this role. The progression is the same here. Darcy can be buoyant with people he trusts to like him.
As for Elizabeth and Darcy, she gets to keep her prejudices through Hunsford, thanks in part to Jane Bennet’s poor memory for mailing addresses. Once the Hunsford bombs go off, it is up to those that love them to conspire to get Elizabeth and Darcy together. He’s all for it, although just as in canon, there is a timidity in Darcy until he has inside information about Elizabeth’s true feelings. In Pride and Prejudice, this insight comes to him in the unlikely form of his aunt’s confrontation with Elizabeth. In my story, Darcy gets hints from everyone, and the appearance of Lady Catherine only serves to hasten his proposal. It happens in a most unlikely manner, the opposite of what anyone’s self-respecting Darcy would want, but since he cannot fault the outcome, he doesn’t complain.
Z: A reviewer described you as “Linda Beutler is known for her love of gardening, her snarky humor, and her ability to craft a JAFF story that’s original and entertaining.” What would you say to someone who is hesitant to try reading a version of Pride and Prejudice with your particular brand of snark?
L: According to Webster’s Dictionary snark is: “an attitude or expression of mocking irreverence and sarcasm.” Okay…I’ll cop to that. But for the hesitant I would suggest they read Pride and Prejudice again with less of an eye for finding a perfection in Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy that Jane Austen did not intend. Let’s not punish Jane Bennet’s simple goodness as simplemindedness, and Bingley’s cheerfulness as a lack of depth. If we truly look at how Jane Austen uses her characters, I fail to see her as any more or less snarky than I. And when it comes to the clergy, no one tops Austen for snark.
Z: What would you say to someone hesitant to veer from Austen’s original work to try something original by a modern author within Austen’s framework?
L: For me, writing like Austen, or making a valiant attempt anyway, is like putting together a lively and amusing puzzle. Move a few pieces, even lose a piece, and it is still possible to attain a fascinating and entertaining result. The framework of Pride and Prejudice is less tightly held in place than her other novels. We have long periods where important characters are beyond the binding, which fills both a reader’s and a writer’s mind with quandaries. I am not suggesting there is anything lacking in Pride and Prejudice—quite the contrary. It is so good that we must have more, and since we have no drafts or notes to the contrary from the author, our spirits are free to fill in what we will.
Jane Austen said it best: “Give a loose to your fancy, indulge your imagination in every possible flight.” There now, if that isn’t permission to carry on with this nonsense, I don’t know what is.
Thank you Linda for taking the time to 'humor' me with these responses. I look forward to seeing how your Austen-Wodehouse project turns out.
Linda Beutler is an Oregon native who began writing professionally in 1996 (meaning that is when they started paying her...), in the field of garden writing. First published in magazines, Linda graduated to book authorship in 2004 with the publication of Gardening With Clematis (2004, Timber Press). In 2007 Timber Press presented her second title, Garden to Vase, a partnership with garden photographer Allan Mandell. Now in 2013 Linda is working with a new publisher, and writing in a completely different direction. Funny how life works out, but more on that in a minute.
Linda lives the gardening life: she is a part-time instructor in the horticulture department at Clackamas Community College, writes and lectures about gardening topics throughout the USA, and is traveling the world through her active participation in the International Clematis Society, of which she is the current president. Then there's that dream job--which she is sure everyone else must covet but which she alone has--Linda Beutler is the curator of the Rogerson Clematis Collection, which is located at Luscher Farm, a farm/park maintained by the city of Lake Oswego. They say to keep resumes brief, but Linda considers Garden With Clematis her 72,000 word resume. She signed on as curator to North America's most comprehensive and publicly accessible collection of the genus clematis in July 2007, and they will no doubt not get shut of her until she can be carried out in a pine box.
And now for something completely different: in September 2011, Linda checked out a book of Jane Austen fan fiction from her local library, and was, to put it in the modern British vernacular, gobsmacked. After devouring every title she could get her hands on, she quite arrogantly decided that, in some cases, she could do better, and began writing her own expansions and variations of Pride and Prejudice. The will to publish became too tempting, and after viewing the welcoming Meryton Press website, she printed out the first three chapters of her book, and out it went, a child before the firing squad. Luckily, the discerning editors at Meryton Press saved the child from slaughter, and Linda's first work of Jane Austenesque fiction, The Red Chrysanthemum, published in September 2013. Her second work of fiction, From Longbourn to London was published in August of 2014, followed by A Will of Iron in 2015, and My Mr Darcy and Your Mr Bingley in 2017. Linda also wrote The Incomplete Education of Fitzwilliam Darcy Included in the Sun-Kissed anthology.
Linda shares a small garden in Southeast Portland with her husband, and pets that function as surrogate children. Her personal collection of clematis numbers something around 230 taxa. These are also surrogate children, and just as badly behaved.