Featured Interview With Jeanette Watts
Tell us a little about yourself. Where were you raised? Where do you live now?
I was born in Chicago, which says a lot. Chicagoans are a gregarious lot. It takes an extra 15 minutes to get through a grocery store, because somewhere along the way, we’ll end up in a conversation with a complete stranger about where to find the soy sauce, or how long it took me to make the coat I’m wearing.
The first time I moved, I was 3 years old and my father went to graduate school in Bozeman, Montana. That started a trend that has lasted all my life; I’ve lived in Illinois, Montana, California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and North Carolina. I want to add a few more states to that list. I absolutely adore New England, and I’d also like to live in the Pacific Northwest sometime.
At what age did you realize your fascination with books? When did you start writing?
If the family stories are to be believed, I have loved words since I figured out what they were. By the time I was three, I had memorized all my favorite storybooks and would correct the adults if they skipped a word when reading to me. When I was 4 or 5, we were in the college bookstore buying my father’s books for his graduate school classes, and I walked up to my mother and handed her a book. The title of it was “Teach Me to Read.” You can guess the rest.
When I was in 4th grade, I used to entertain my best friend Terri on the walk to school with my own stories. I didn’t know what fan fiction was, but I was making up my own Star Wars fan fiction. I narrated serial installments every day on our walk. When my best friend asked me to repeat some of my stories to another friend, she kept having to stop me because I was forgetting things. Finally she looked at me and asked, “Are you writing this stuff down?!” I wasn’t. I had to fix that. I have been writing ever since. It’s all her fault. She will cheerfully admit it’s all her fault.
Who are your favorite authors to read? What is your favorite genre to read. Who Inspires you in your writings?
My favorite influences since high school and college are Margaret Mitchell and Edith Wharton, but mostly I read history books. I discovered the biography section of the school library when I was in 4th grade, and that started my lifelong love of history. My favorite authors are David McCullough and Shelby Foote and Ron Chernow. Hey, if Hamilton is good enough for Lin-Manuel Miranda, it’s good enough inspiration for me!
Tell us a little about your latest book?
“My Dearest Miss Fairfax” will be released on March 14th. It is a retelling of Jane Austen’s “Emma,” from the point of view of her rival/frenemy, Jane Fairfax.
I have two other books that are inspired by Jane Austen, so I am in a lot of online chat groups. I ended up in a conversation that culminated in my going out and buying a used copy of “Emma,” marking it up prodigiously with highlighters, and using the original text to reconstruct the events as they occurred in Jane Fairfax’s life. It was a very interesting process! When I wrote “A Woman’s Persuasion,” it’s a modern-day translation of “Persuasion.” I went chapter by chapter in order, taking the original text and setting it in 2008 United States and asked what would happen if Captain Wentworth was another woman? It took a lot of thinking, but it was all a linear process.
This time, the information I needed was scattered across the entire book. Only in writing this did I realize that Jane Austen had written a murder mystery of sorts, and the protagonist fails to solve the crime! Of course, the crime in this case is a secret engagement, not a murder. But Emma fails to put all the clues together. I was constantly having to go back and rewrite events, because new details are introduced after the fact. I had to rewrite every letter, and change the book’s title, because I had forgotten about a letter at the very end of the book that was full of important details!
Painstaking as it was, it was worth it. The end result, I like to think, feels like a thorough, honest reporting of what was going on from this different point of view.
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