Please join me in welcoming author Lane Ashfeldt to our JASNA-Vermont blog today! Ms. Ashfeldt is the author of one of the selected stories in the 2009 Chawton House Library Jane Austen Short Story competition, set to appear in the forthcoming collection Dancing with Mr. Darcy, to be published in October by Honno Press. [See below for link to my previous post on this]. Her story is titled “Snowmelt” and she tells us about it here:
Lane, what was the inspiration for your own story?
My story, ‘Snowmelt’, has an obvious parallel with Austen’s life in that it’s about woman who moves to Chawton to write. My main inspiration came from a visit to Chawton House Library one bright snowy day in February 2009, after an unusually heavy snowfall across England. We don’t often see much snow in south east England, and the snow worked its way into my story — even providing a title.
Sounds interesting. Can you tell me a little more?
The central character in ‘Snowmelt’, Miss Campbell, works in a suburban library which is undergoing radical modernisation. Potentially, this is the end of the library as she knows it. Miss Campbell’s own life is reaching its autumn years, and she also suffers a more general “end of the world” malaise triggered by reports of extreme weather and by fears of a viral plague. (Coincidentally, I wrote the story in early 2009, a month or two before the international swine flu epidemic.)
Oh! I can imagine that must have felt a bit strange!
Well, I might have felt awkward if the swine flu epidemic had happened while I was still writing, but in fact my story had been completed before then. My interest as a writer was in how we manage — or don’t manage — fears like the fear of dying in a pandemic, or fear of terrorism, fear of change. This is what I wanted to explore in ‘Snowmelt’.
In the story, Miss Campbell visits Chawton House Library and reads a novel written nearly two centuries earlier in which a plague causes the end of the world. This sets her own fears in context and makes them seem faintly ridiculous. People often fear the end of the world; this does not mean it is imminently about to happen. And even if it is, panicking is unlikely to help. At any event, Miss Campbell makes an uncharacteristically upbeat and impulsive decision to quit her job and move to Chawton, where she will work as a library volunteer at Chawton House Library and write in her free time. We leave her as she’s on the train, on the way to her new life.
How much, if any, of your story was autobiographical?
I have to admit, my own visit to Chawton while writing ‘Snowmelt’ was so enjoyable that for a while I toyed with the notion of moving there, but without actually taking a moment to peer in estate agent windows — I didn’t have time. On a later visit, the day of the award presentation, I learned from author Lindsay Ashford that one of the reasons Jane Austen chose to live at Chawton was that her house there was a short walk from the shops. This struck a chord with me, as I’d been thinking the exact same thing myself! But sadly there’s no danger of a family member bequeathing me a stately home in the area, as happened to Jane Austen’s brother, thus affording her a place to live in Chawton.
It’s an interesting question, though. Curiously, when I attended the award ceremony at Chawton, two of the judges who had read my story thoughtfully advised me that there was an imminent vacancy for a librarian at Chawton House Library. We had a chuckle as I confessed that, unlike the character in my story, I am not a trained librarian. I was flattered though, since it suggested they found ‘Snowmelt’ believable — it’s always nice to be told when you’ve written a convincing piece of fiction.
This short story award is a new prize for stories inspired by Jane Austen and themes in her writing, or by the Chawton House Library. Do you have any advice for other writers thinking of entering in future years?
There’s talk that the competition may run again in 2011. If anyone is thinking of entering a story for the next Jane Austen Short Story award, and if you are not too far away, then a visit to Chawton is very much recommended. Chawton House Library’s ongoing programme of public events are listed on its website (as are events at the nearby Jane Austen House Museum which is managed as a separate concern).
Partly because judge Sarah Waters is known for her historical fiction, my guess was, the winning stories would have historical settings. But it doesn’t sound as though ‘Snowmelt’ does…
I do like historical fiction — in fact I previously won the Fish Short Histories Prize — but this particular story has a contemporary setting. That said, a consciousness of history runs through it, perhaps because Chawton is one of those areas that seems to catapult the visitor back in time. In ‘Snowmelt’, as Miss Campbell develops a stronger sense of history and of how she is connected to it, this becomes a crucial trigger of change for her.
What about the other winning stories, I wonder?
I don’t yet know what proportion of the stories submitted were historical as I’ve not read them, but Sarah Waters said as she presented the prizes that over half the stories she selected for the anthology are contemporary.
Well, I very much look forward to getting a copy of the book to read “Snowmelt” and all the other stories! Lane, thank you so much for joining us today and sharing a bit about your story and your visit to Chawton.
Thank you, Deb; it was very nice of you to invite me!
Lane has graciously offered to answer any of your questions – so please leave a comment on this post and I will see that she responds to them here.
For further information:
- Dancing with Mr. Darcy, the anthology of winning stories in the Jane Austen Short Story Award will be published by Honno Press on October 15, 2009; it is available for pre-order at their website.
- Author Lane Ashfeldt’s website [go to www.ashfeldt.com – the link is currently only bouncing me to her blog Lane7]
- Chawton House Library
- The Chawton House Library Jane Austen Short Story Award
- The Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton
- JASNA-Vermont post on Dancing with Mr. Darcy
- Read Lane Ashfeldt’s winning story “Dancing on Canvey” for the Fish Short Histories Prize [from the Fish Anthology 2007]
Posted by Deb