Over the years, there have been some pretty interesting retellings and adaptions of our favorite books. Sometimes they work and other times they don’t, but it’s always fun to read another author’s take on the original work. Now Julia Sonneborn, English professor and debut author, has written our favorite adaptation yet. By The Book is not just a fun, fantastically written read, but it’s also an updated, modern version of Jane Austen’s Persuasion.
Anne Corey, an English professor in California working to make tenure, gets the surprise of her life when her ex-boyfriend, Adam, becomes the college’s new president. She knows she should have other, better things on her mind – her aging father, that book deal she’s been trying to get, her brand new romance with the writer-in-residence – but Adam just keeps on showing up everywhere she turns. As the school year continues, things begin to heat up for Anne and she may just get her second chance at real romance.
Julia Sonneborn talked with BookTrib about writing an updated Jane Austen novel, the advice she gives her undergrad students and more.
By The Book is your first novel – can you talk us through your writing process? Was there anything that came up that you weren’t expecting?
Julie Sonneborn: I wrote the first draft of the novel very quickly, in a semi-manic state. I was so excited about my characters that I just pushed past any doubts or insecurities. The revision process, on the other hand, was tortuous. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to trash the manuscript and give up. I really struggled with the plotting and pacing of the novel, and I give all the credit to my agent for helping me figure it out.
BookTrib: This is a version of Jane Austen’s Persuasion – what did you find to be the hardest aspect of writing a modern retelling?
JS: The novel was absolutely inspired by Persuasion, but I figured out early on that I couldn’t hew exactly to the original plot. If you go back and read Persuasion, it’s actually surprising how little Wentworth and Anne Elliott interact with each other. There were so many more social barriers in Regency England—the two couldn’t just chat over a drink. In my retelling, I had to create more opportunities for Anne and Adam to meet up, more moments of intimacy. Otherwise, it just didn’t seem realistic for the two to get back together.
BookTrib: In By The Book, Anne loves Jane Austen, which is clearly something that you relate to! Can you talk to us a little bit about how you discovered Austen, and what drew you to her?
JS: I first read Austen in 11th grade, when we were assigned Pride and Prejudice in my English class. I remember devouring the book and then being almost embarrassed at how much I adored it. (It was the 90s and we were all supposed to be ironic and cynical about love.) I loved the romance between Lizzie Bennet and Darcy, of course, but I also adored how acidly funny Austen could be. I wanted to capture that in my novel—the Austenian combination of romance and humor.
BookTrib: Anne acts as a mentor for Emily, her undergrad student, who was thinking of going to graduate school – as an English professor, what advice do you have for students, or those thinking about going to grad school?
JS: The advice Anne gives to Emily is essentially the same advice I give to my students. Don’t go unless you absolutely cannot ever imagine doing anything else in your life and you’re ok with not getting a job or having no control over your geographic circumstances or even your personal life. That being said, if you are a person of color, a first-generation college student, or someone else who is underrepresented in the academy, we desperately need you. In the same way #weneeddiversebooks, we need professors who reflect the increasing diversity of our student bodies and the nation.
BookTrib: Do you have any advice for aspiring or struggling writers?
JS: In the novel, Larry gives a pep talk to Anne when she’s in despair about her writing and the prospect of ever getting published. He tells her she must be a “glutton for rejection,” and I think this is so, so true. Writing is hard—it’s solitary, and every writer I know is riddled with self-doubt. You have to keep going, even when the voices in your head are telling you that you suck; even when agents or editors—or even readers–reject your work. My other piece of advice is to read a ton. You can’t write unless you read.
BookTrib: Finally, can we expect to see any more novels from you?
JS: Ugh, I’m having second novel paralysis. I hope so. I have the beginnings of an idea for a second book, but check in with me later!
By The Book: A Novel is now available for purchase. For more information on the author, please visit her website at juliasonneborn.com.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Julia Sonneborn is an English professor and a Los Angeles native. After heading east for college and graduate school, she hightailed it back to California, where she now lives with her husband, two kids, two cats, and a dog. When she’s not reading, writing, or talking about books, she enjoys trying new restaurants, reading online gossip blogs, and throwing dinner parties. She is the author of By the Book.