Today I again welcome Stuart Bennett, for Part II of our interview where we discuss his new book The Perfect Visit, a time-travel tale, a romance, and a pure escape into the Regency world of Jane Austen and the Elizabethan world of William Shakespeare! [Please go to this link for Part I of the interview.]
You can enter the book giveaway by commenting on either post before 11:59 pm 15 April 2012. Winner will be announced on Monday April 16, 2012. [worldwide eligibility]
Talking about the Feminist Question: [because I always have to ask…]
JAIV: Vanessa is in all ways a 21st century woman, yet when she finds herself stranded in the early 19th century England she is “visiting” she must, I assume, “just fit in” – she even goes to the lengths of wanting marriage for protection alone – she cannot earn a living as she would have done here in the present – she is trapped and at times just so incredibly sad. You do have her debating women’s rights and voting and the realities for women publishing, and she does stand up for herself innumerable times – and you did create Meg, a lovely character, true to her time and herself – but I am perhaps taking Vanessa and her story too much to heart here? – she feels very real to me [and I thought only Jane Austen’s characters are really real!] – and I felt that if I were there, I would be pushing Wollstonecraft’s Vindication on every passer-by, screaming for equality, hanging out with the bluestockings! – yet you have her taking such a back seat in these socio-political conversations of the day. I just see that as a difficult issue for you as a writer – making her a very modern woman living in an earlier time and not scaring all the people around her! Did you feel this in creating her? – needing to make her an almost “invisible” being, with your own time travel rules at play to not change things, to lay-low so to speak, to not bring too much attention to oneself? … And did you find her enforced silence painful as well? Or is this more my response as a female reader moved by her inability to speak out – more so than even for you who created her? [you might just answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and head on to the next question!]
SB: It is tempting just to say “yes” and move along. But a question that shows such close and sympathetic reading deserves better than that. Vanessa is young at the beginning of The Perfect Visit. Resourceful and tough as she is, she still has to deal with the triple-whammy of being trapped in another time, imprisoned, and ill. Without Meg (and other interventions which I hope readers will discover for themselves) Vanessa would surely have died.
And so she does her best to lie low, to get by, to fit in. And at times it all makes her feel like she is about to explode. This is the Vanessa who came alive for me, and as a writer it brings me joy to know that she came alive for you too. Thank you!
Talking about Books:
JAIV: All references to book titles, authors, prices, etc. are you say valid – in your words, you may have “tinkered a little with history, but I have done my best not to tinker with bibliography.” [p.341] – and this book abounds in Bibliography! I love to come away from such a story with pages of things, people and places, and books to research! – And I thank you for your “Historical postscript – the truth in Jane Austen’s life and her fiction, and the amalgamations of real people to create your heroine and hero and all the various booksellers… [though I did miss the Godwin reference I am ashamed to say! – so clear after reading your postscript…]
So I would ask, can your story be enjoyed by the non-Austen aficionado? The non-bookseller? The person little acquainted with Shakespeare bibliography? – What can you tell us about your basic plot without all these fabulous extras that give the book such depth and meaning…?
SB: I suspect most authors, like me, have readers they can count on for honest opinions. Several of my readers, warned that the typescript was on its way, voiced advance worries about the time-travel, others about the bibliographical elements. Virtually all reported that neither got in the way of what I wanted above all to be a romance: a romance for those who wish we could meet the authors we love, and for those who love (or wish they could love) someone as bookish as they are. The rest of the novel could perhaps be seen as illustrating the old adage “be careful what you wish for. . . .”
JAIV: The value of Jane Austen’s books today either seems outrageous [to those who know that she received so little for her labors] or a fair accounting of what the market will bear… what are your thoughts on this, as a bookseller and an author?
[Pride and Prejudice – 1st edition, 1813. Sold for $35,000, Sotheby’s, June 17, 2011]
SB: First, I don’t think Jane Austen fared too badly in the context of the commercial publishing world of her day. It may have helped (here comes the gender discrimination again) that she had her father and brothers on her side in dealing with publishers, and she certainly had the last laugh when in 1816 (through her brother Henry) she bought back the manuscript and copyright of what became Northanger Abbey, for the same ten pounds a neglectful publisher had paid for it in 1803. The net proceeds to JA’s heirs from the first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion amounted to a hefty £453.14.11 – somewhere (by my rough reckoning) on the order of £35,000 in today’s money.
Second, I suppose if JA’s first editions are selling at today’s hefty prices (a nice Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice, the two most difficult first editions, might well appear on the market for the same £35,000 I just mentioned) then those prices must surely be judged a fair accounting.
But I’m not sure those prices are sustainable. When I was selling J.A. first editions in the early 1980s, auction prices were normally in the mid-hundreds of pounds, and my copies – almost never more than £1,000 – flew off the shelf. When the modern movies came along prices went up, and up, and up – and now many high-end antiquarian booksellers have copies of the first editions that have lingered for years.
JAIV: You have published the book Trade Bookbinding in the British Isles (2004), which surely comes into this story with the variety of publishers and booksellers and Vanessa’s publication of children’s books. What were the realities of publishing in the Regency period? And how different from today? …
Indeed, you created your own press [the aptly named Longbourn Press!] to publish your book, as well as offer it as a kindle ebook. Did you try to publish with a traditional publisher? And how is this form of publishing any different from what was available to Jane Austen as a first time novel-writer [sell her copyright outright or pay for printing and marketing costs herself, etc.]?
SB: I’ve given a couple of clues about Regency publishing in my previous answer. “How different from today?” Well, today’s publishing, with Kindle etc., seems to me to be reverting more to the Regency model than otherwise, with those able to pay for self-publication able to get their books printed and distributed more easily than in the last half-century or so.
Regency publishers were, of course, always on the lookout for potential blockbusters, especially if they could buy the copyrights outright (often for small sums, like the ten pounds originally paid for Northanger Abbey – then titled Susan). Many women writers, often publishing anonymously, produced novels and other works, especially children’s books, at their leisure; others were desperate for money and sold manuscripts and copyrights for whatever they could get. Those (men and women) able to pay the cost of their own publications could negotiate commissions with commercial publishers. John Murray took only ten percent of the net proceeds of Jane Austen’s later novels, a deal which if available to J.K. Rowling might have made her a whole, whole lot richer than the Queen of England.
The Perfect Visit had wonderful literary agents in London and New York who offered the manuscript to commercial publishers in the even-darker-than-usual publishing days of early 2009. There were no takers; one London publisher described it as a nice “potential mid-list” novel, but not the blockbuster they were looking for. But some wayward typescripts kept bringing notes and e-mails, and when a couple of enthusiastic ones came from perfect strangers as far away asAustralia, I decided to consider the Amazon route. Another bonus, as a much-published friend observed: printing the book meant I had to stop revising.
JAIV: Well, I for one am certainly glad you listened to those perfect strangers! And yes, it is interesting to read about Austen’s publication history – very ironic that the only work for which she sold the copyright outright was Pride and Prejudice, always her most popular and enduring work.
One question I have about the story: what might the ethical issues be about this bringing of old manuscripts and books into the present to sell? even if the resulting profit is for a good cause?
SB: I think any reader’s guess is as good as mine. Would it be unfair to the original author? If so, how? Certainly if I could go back to Jane Austen’s time (not to mention Shakespeare’s) and buy new copies of her first editions to bring back to sell in 2012, I could also undercut the prices of my high-end bookselling colleagues. Does caveat emptor apply in such circumstances?
But of course the paramount ethical issue involves time-travel itself. Surely time-traveller appearances would change the past, à la Ray Bradbury’s “Sound of Thunder,” and so skew subsequent history. People who should have been born might not be, and vice versa.
Someone once wrote an apocalyptic story where only the very rich could afford to travel back in time to escape the end of the world. Against those kinds of fantasy possibilities, surely sneaking a few otherwise-vanished books and manuscripts out of their own times seems comparatively harmless. Or not?
JAIV: Yes, it is an interesting question – one way to look at it is to believe you might be preserving a work that would have been destroyed in a fire or such, and otherwise lost to posterity…. [and I do have to remember, this is a fiction, after all!]
Here is a very specific question about a book you mention: You place your heroine in a library reading The Invisible Gentleman – I had to research this one I confess – written in 1833 by J. Dalton, author of Chartley the Fatalist, and The Robber, all published by Edward Bull of Holles St, London… you call it “a heavy-handed historical romance set in the twelfth century” [p. 312]… no wonder Vanessa tossed it aside! – So I ask, why this book for that scene?? –
SB: Because Vanessa wished she were invisible – and because I found it on an 1833 list of novels “just published” and couldn’t resist.
JAIV: Oh good! glad I don’t have to add this to my TBR pile!
Can you share anything about your writing process? – When, Where, and How [and maybe even Why?] – any advice for budding writers?
SB: I don’t think this is any kind of advice for budding writers, but here’s the truth behind my Perfect Visit process. I’d written a couple of non-fiction books, lots of magazine articles on rare books and auctions, and during the 1980s attempted and abandoned a couple of novels. I knew a little bit about sitting down and writing, and even writing with deadlines. This helps.
But the inspiration for The Perfect Visit and its (unpublished) sequels came as a surprise. I have George R.R. Martin to thank – and if your readers aren’t sure who he is, the ubiquitous advertisements for the television version of his Game of Thrones gives the clue.
[SPOILER ALERT re: Game of Thrones] At the beginning of 2006 I started reading Martin’s “Fire and Ice” series (Game of Thrones is Book One). Initially I was hooked, but I started having doubts somewhere in Book Two. By the middle of Book Three (I’ve repressed the books’ individual names) I felt like I was being had, that the author had realized he was onto a cash cow and decided to turn what might have been a trilogy into a five-parter (is there a name for that?)
And Martin also killed off the one character I felt close to, whose name happened to be Ned. Sometime towards the end of January 2006 – I remember the moment – I flung Martin’s Book Three across the room, stood up, and said “I’m going to write a book I’d want to read.” The result was The Perfect Visit, central male character by name of Ned Marston.
I should add, in case I appear delusional, that I am in no doubt Mr. Martin’s formula has a much broader appeal than mine.
Are there any nuggets of gold here for budding writers? I don’t know. All I can say is that once I started, my characters took over large parts of my life. They woke me up in the middle of the night with their dialogues; I started walking to work with bits of paper in my pockets so I could write down what they were doing and more of what they had to say. And I would scribble, or clatter away on the computer most mornings, until I thought I’d done them some kind of justice. Then I’d work at my business until the characters interrupted all over again. The original typescript of The Perfect Visit went on, and on. . . .
JAIV: I love this story of your inspiration! [I have always thought a really good blog post would be to question people about the one book they most remember throwing across the room!] I have not read the “Fire and Ice” books but do admit to being quite absorbed with the Game of Thrones on HBO, and like you, stunned at the outcome of Book I – indeed the only character I liked as well [being Sean Bean helps too!]
You mention above other books revolving around The Perfect Visit. Can you tell us more about these? A sequel to this tale, or another time-travel book to another time? And if so where would you next most like to go?
SB: Oh yes, there are a couple of sequels, one close to finished, and a kind of “part-prequel” set in 1823 in which Vanessa discovers the “truth” behind a lost episode in Jane Austen’s life. There’s even, for better or worse, a half-written (maybe “half-baked” would be a better term) prequel about Ned Marston’s adventures in classical Greece.
JAIV: Can’t wait!
And finally, in your answer to my question on London – because it was so convoluted and actually contained four questions, so no guilt please for missing it! – I asked what is your favorite London haunt, other than perhaps the British Library?
SB: I confess I love the London Library more than the British. It’s climbing around in the stacks that does it, and all the books you find that way that you’d otherwise never known existed.
London Library label – wikipedia
But you asked my favorite London haunt, and I have to confess a hopelessly bourgeois affection for the Wolseley restaurant on Piccadilly. I take myself there for breakfast whenever I can, all alone, reveling in perfectly-cooked bacon and eggs, and the best pastries in the universe. People-watching there brings me as close as I can get to the way I think Vanessa must have felt at Molland’s Tea-Rooms in Bath.
JAIV: You make me want to go back to 1833! Just for a cup of tea!
Thank you Stuart for answering all my questions – you have been a gentleman and a scholar and I appreciate it!
Readers, please ask any question you might have for Stuart or leave a comment on either this post or the Part I post, and you will be entered into the random drawing for a copy of The Perfect Visit. Please do so by 11:59 pm, April 15, 2012. The winner will be announced on Monday April 16, 2012 – all are welcome to particpate, i.e. worldwide eligibility.
Stuart Bennett was an auctioneer at Christie’s inLondon before starting his own rare book business. He is the author of the Christie’s Collectors Guide How to Buy Photographs (1987), Trade Binding in the British Isles (2004) which the London Times Literary Supplement called “a bold and welcome step forward” in the history of bookbinding, and many publications on early photography, auctions and auctioneers, and rare books. He currently lives and works near Boston, Massachusetts.
The Perfect Visit, by Stuart Bennett
Longbourn Press, 2011
For more information:
You can read an interview with Stuart Bennett by Sheila Markham at ILAB here [and the source for the above photograph]
You can view a video interview with Mr. Bennett on ILAB here
C. E. Brock. illustration for Persuasion, image from Molland’s