Arts Desk

Austen’s Monstrous Legacy: A Q&A with Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters‘ Ben H. Winters

sensesensibilityseamonstersJane Austen's popularity continues to grow, yet in recent years interest in her work has taken a new turn—a monstrous turn. Take last year's hit Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and its follow-up, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, both published by Quirk Books. Respective authors Seth Grahame-Smith and Ben H. Winters will chat tomorrow night in an event titled "Jane Austen: The Author, Her Legacy and…Sea Monsters?" alongside Tara Wallace, an Austen scholar at George Washington University, Regina Jeffers, author of Vampire Darcy’s Desire and Darcy’s Passions, and moderator Bethanne Patrick of WETA’s Book Studio. Visit the Smithsonian Associates Web site for tickets.

I spoke recently with Winters about how he came to write an Austen mash-up, how his book could affect Austen’s legacy, and what makes her such an enduring writer.

Washington City Paper: How did you get involved with the mash-ups Quirk publishes?

Ben H. Winters: I’ve known the folks at Quirk for a bunch of years—I started my career as a journalist and playwright and I happened to live across the street from them in Philadelphia. Last year they had a megahit on their hands with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and they knew they wanted to do a follow-up, so they reached out and asked if I was interested in giving it a crack.

WCP: How did you pick which book to do a mash-up with?

BHW: There was a lot of talk about which book should come next after Pride and Prejudice, and whether we should do a non-Austen author. Emma is very famous, but there’s something about Sense and Sensibility—it’s Austen’s first book, it has a similar stylistic feel to Pride and Prejudice, and the alliteration with sea monsters was tempting.

WCP: What was your relationship to Sense and Sensibility before writing the book?

BHW: I hadn’t read it in many years, but I loved it and I had seen the Emma Thompson/Ang Lee film version. It’s hard to express what’s so great about that book—it has a classic, almost Shakespearean feel to it. There’s something bewitching about Austen’s writing and you really get drawn into the world of her characters. I hope by adding the zany stuff I’ve done justice to the original by retaining what makes it great and having fun at the same time.

WCP: So you know the Austen work, but how did you prepare to bring sea monsters in?

BHW: I did a lot of extracurricular reading and watched the canon of sea monster movies—Creature from the Black Lagoon, Jaws. I read Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson. The books aren’t from the same period, but they have the same themes of danger on the water, or pirates or fish. I thought a lot about what people think of when they think of sea monsters, and expanded it beyond the Loch Ness Monster. I included giant jellyfish, mermaids and mermen, and, of course, pirates. I felt the book would be incomplete without pirates.

WCP: How did you change the world of the Dashwood sisters to incorporate the monsters?

BHW: The book really doesn’t take place on the water at all, so I moved the central location to a deserted island, and changed London, the fashionable place they go in the middle of the book, to a sub base. There were places I stepped back and let Austen do the heavy lifting, and I tried to get monsters in there at the points where Austen’s characters are experiencing their deepest emotional peril. I equate the dangers of finding and losing love with the dangers of sea monster attacks.

WCP: How do you think the Quirk books enter into the conversation about Austen’s legacy?

BHW: I think the books are simply further proof that whatever it is that people love about Austen in her time continue to be loved in our time. Certain authors inspire an enduring legacy, and I think these books and their popularity cinches that.

WCP: What do you say to someone who says you’re negatively affecting Austen’s legacy?

BHW: First of all, I can’t get upset about it, because the reason they get so upset and lash out is because they love Austen so much. I hope people understand that a work like this is no higher form of flattery. Her work is worth enjoying in new ways and I hope people come to it from this spirit.

WCP: Your next mash-up, Android Karenina, besides having such a cool title, is also based on a favorite book of mine. What do I have to look forward to when it comes out on June 8?

BHW: I’ve tried to make this a great science fiction novel. It’s a really intriguing, dystopian, steampunk world with Tolstoy’s intricate and beautiful love stories playing around. Tolstoy was concerned about love and humanity, and I mix that with graphic science fiction—robots, aliens. It was so much fun to see what I would come up with and I think readers will dig it.


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