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How to Turn a Classic into a Contemporary Hit
'Eligible' author on tackling Austen and modern day pressures
Book of the Month, Curtis Sittenfeld
May selection Eligible: A modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice was 203 years in the making. When asked to take part in this ambitious project, bestselling author Curtis Sittenfeld had to consider how the iconic characters would live, work and love in the 21st Century. We talked to her about all of these things, plus her thoughts on modern day aristocracy, and which Bennett sister will live happily ever after, below.
When the Austen Project [the project to pair modern authors with Jane Austen's books] reached out to you to retell the story of Pride and Prejudice - you were thrilled. How did you go about tackling this very large project?
When the editors reached out to me, they said, 'we would love to have you participate in this project, and we think that you'd be well-suited to tell a modern version of Pride and Prejudice. If you're interested in another novel, by Austen, we're open to that too. It was December 2011, and I decided to reread Pride and Prejudice over Christmas, before I gave them an answer. And basically as soon as I started rereading it, I thought - I have lots of ideas for updating it, this would be so much fun, it would be such a joy to live in the world of Pride and Prejudice for several years. So that was my thought process in deciding to take on the project. In terms of actually writing it, I didn't start writing it until 2013, because I was in the middle of a different novel when they approached me.
In 2013, I first did an outline where I summarized everything that happens in each of the 61 chapters of Pride and Prejudice. And then weeks, if not months, later I did my own outline for Eligible. At first I had thought that I could work off the outline for Pride and Prejudice and say 'OK if this is chapter 7 for Pride and Prejudice this'll be chapter 7 for Eligible.' I realized that, once I changed one thing in Eligible, it led to all these other changes and so I couldn't re-enter in the same place. I think that I did have sort of a breakthrough when I knew that I had to create my own outline.
You incorporate a lot of modern culture into this retelling - casual dating and sex, reality TV, dating apps, transgender issues. How did you decide what elements of the story you would pull into the 21st century and what parts of the original story you would preserve ?
I thought in terms of structure and plot. If there are two characters who have a conflict, or if there's a character who has a secret - what should that secret be? Then I would consider various possibilities. I never thought, 'I want to introduce these five modern themes into my book, or I want to make comments about reality TV,' it was more like, sort of working in the opposite way, and thinking, for instance with the reality TV: I need to get this single man to Cincinnati, Ohio, I need everyone in Cincinnati to know he's arrived, and to know he's single, well one way of doing that is if he had been on a reality dating show. I really think in terms of structure and making things move forward.
How did you decide on the eldest Bennet sisters' professions - a yoga instructor and a journalist at a magazine?
I did want to preserve the general personality traits of the characters in Pride and Prejudice without making the characters identical to their counterparts, or their predecessors, and so I just thought, OK Jane is supposed to be this serene, kind, lovely person, and that seemed compatible with being a yoga instructor. Meanwhile, Liz is observant, and funny, and kind of fearless, which is more compatible with being a journalist. Of course, I have worked as a journalist, I've never been an investigative reporter or a war correspondent, but I've done enough journalism that I could also have fun drawing from my own experiences.
Chip went to Harvard Medical School and was also on a dating show - Eligible. Is this the modern day aristocrat? Ivy League educated but willing to find love on national television?
I think in the United States, in the present day, there's different kinds of so-called "aristocracy." I probably could have set the entire book in Silicon Valley, obviously it has a Silicon Valley element, but it's definitely not a Silicon Valley novel. I could have set it in Hollywood, or it could have been Wall Street, or something. I think it's more like he's upper class, he's well educated, he comes from a financially stable background, and he's a doctor. I didn't need for him to be like the George Clooney of men, he just had to be a desirable bachelor.
Eligible highlights the fact that there are still social pressures for women to marry. You aged these women about 20 years to 40 years old, so in about 200 years [since Austen's Pride and Prejudice] they went about 20 years. Do you think in another 200 years the same pressures will exist?
It would be nice if it no longer existed. I think one of the differences between the present day and the early 1800s is that the pressure to marry still exists but it's almost a more symbolic pressure. There are financial benefits to marriage, in terms of healthcare and taxes, but really if you don't want to get married, you don't have to get married. You might still have to explain yourself, but you're certainly not going to be shunned. Probably anyone that you'd have to explain yourself to you wouldn't necessarily want to be friends with. So I think the pressure definitely still exists, and I do think that 40 is a kind of symbolic age where people might think - if you're not married by the time you're 40, why are you not married? Or, did you want to be married, and you didn't find the right person, or did you never want it? There's all these nosy questions. I don't think that it's necessary for anyone - man, woman, etc. - to marry to have a fulfilling life, but I think that there is a larger social belief that that's still the ideal among most people, not among everyone, but among most people.
Is Liz Bennet your favorite character in the novel?
Well I love her but I also see her as flawed in Eligible, probably more flawed than in Pride and Prejudice. I have a soft spot for most of my characters, and I like Mary. [Laughs]
What about her in particular? She's very different from her other sisters.
She's just such a grouch. How can you not love a grouch?
Do you think Chip / Jane and Liz / Darcy live happily ever after?
Oh god, of course not! Who does?
Who do you think has a stronger relationship?
That's an interesting question. I think the couples are very compatible. I think certainly you could not swap the men and maintain the happiness that they all finally get - I think that they've all found their soulmate.
Are there any other classic stories you would like to retell?
There's definitely some fairytales that I find really fascinating but there's nothing specific that comes to mind. I work on a novel for three or so years and then I feel ready to do something pretty different from what I was just working on. So I'm not totally clear on what my next novel will be, but I do not think it will be borrowing the existing architecture of another story.
That was going to be my next question - what you're working on now?
I have two pages of another novel [Laughs], which is almost the same as it not existing. I'm considering a few ideas, and I can feel this sort of pleasant itchiness in me where I'm ready to start working on fiction again, which is a great feeling to have.
This interview has been edited.