Channeling her inner Jane Austen: Local author translates classic works into teenage series

2011-10-16T00:15:00Z 2011-10-16T08:43:24Z Channeling her inner Jane Austen: Local author translates classic works into teenage seriesCody Clark | Daily Herald Daily Herald
October 16, 2011 12:15 am  • 

Pop quiz: Which one of the following is not like the others? “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” “Taylor Anderson is the hottest guy ever!” “Call me Ishmael.” Thinking, thinking. OK, pencils down.

The correct answer, naturally, is that guy thing about Ishmael, whoever that is. Duh. The other two are the first lines of Jane Austen novels. Austen herself wrote the bit about a “single man in possession of a good fortune,” which is the opening to “Pride and Prejudice.” The other was written by 34-year-old Pleasant Grove resident Jenni James.

The connection is that James, a married mother of 10 children, is the author of a new series, “The Jane Austen Diaries,” that transforms all six of Austen’s published novels into teen fiction titles. Taylor Anderson is the Mr. Darcy of “Pride & Popularity,” the first book in the series, published at the end of September by Salt Lake City-based Walnut Springs Press.

The next book in the series, “Northanger Alibi,” will be out early next year, and the others are soon to follow: “Persuaded,” “Emmalee,” “Mansfield Ranch” and “Sensible & Sensational.” It’s a remarkable transformation for an author who didn’t even like Jane Austen in her formative years, or at least not at first blush.

James said that she always loved to read growing up. Other books, that is. “I really didn’t want to read Jane Austen,” she said. “I was kind of being stubborn about it, until I was 16.” Then, only because she’d read every other book in the house, James grudgingly cracked the cover of “Pride and Prejudice.”

And now? “I’m a huge Jane Austen fan,” James said.

A huge Jane Austen fan whose writing may be the thing that leads other stubborn 16-year-olds to give the originals a try.

Painter, actress ... author?

Writing is a relatively new pursuit for James, who’s a portrait painter and actress in addition to being a busy mom. After passing up college to marry young, at age 18, James was perfectly happy with her life that didn’t include any amount of staring at a computer screen, hand poised over a keyboard. “I had no interest in writing,” she said.

That changed about three years ago after the idea for a book and a character, one in particular, took up residence in a corner of her brain. Who was it? Why, only the hottest guy ever. “The Mr. Darcy character would not leave me alone,” James said. “Finally, after three weeks, I was like, ‘Aaaaaah! I’ll write it!’ ”

James grew up in Phoenix, but moved with her family to Farmington in northeastern New Mexico for high school. Worried about increasing crime in Phoenix, she said, her parents headed to Arizona’s more rural neighbor state in search of “the most podunk town ever.”

Farmington is where James met her husband, United States Air Force recruiter Mark James. “His family founded the area,” James said. “When I married him, I married half that town.” Between going to high school in Farmington and meeting the love of her life there, it was only natural that the town of 45,000 would become the setting for the books in “The Jane Austen Diaries.”

Andrea Pearson, a fellow young adult author (“Key of Kilenya” and “The Ember Gods”) who lives in Murray, said that James’s books have a ring of authenticity, but without being “intense” or “stressful.” Reading “Pride & Popularity,” Pearson said, “took me right back to high school.”

James said that she honed her authorial skills by reading books and talking with friends. And by doing a lot of writing. Mostly in the evenings, after her children — seven by birth and three that are fostered, six girls and four boys, all between the ages of 14 and 1 — are in bed. Once she started writing, she said, she knew she’d stick to it until she got published.

“I’m a very busy woman,” James said, “so I actually don’t start anything unless I think it’s worth my time.”

I’ll see you in Hollywood

With “The Jane Austen Diaries” humming through the publication process, James may already be on her way to something even bigger. She’s currently in negotiations with a film production company that wants the book series to become a movie series. “This is actually the fourth producer” to ask about film rights, she said. “This is the one I like the most.”

One thing or another has put the kibosh on each successive discussion. “The last contract I saw was awful,” James said. “The more popular the movies became, and the more movies that got produced, the less money I made.”

Tristi Pinkston, an author (the “Secret Sisters” mysteries) and friend who helped James edit “Northanger Alibi,” said that film production offers “don’t come along very often, certainly not as often as authors would like.” And, of course, talking to someone who’s in the movie business is no guarantee of actually getting a film to theaters.

As Pinkston put it, “I’ve had about five author friends whose books have been optioned, and none of them have panned out into an actual film yet.”

James is optimistic about her current contacts: “They’re amazing. I really feel good about them.” The production company, she said, would make the movies in Farmington (New Mexico has a rapidly growing film industry) and would “keep them clean.” That’s important to James as a mother and member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Whether or not a movie deal falls into place, James will continue writing. For something that she didn’t have any inclination toward even just five years ago, writing has taken up a lot of space in her life. “This really is the higher education I thought I would never have,” she said. “This just allows me to grow.”

Now that she does so much of it, it’s hard for James to imagine how she ever lived without writing. “Writing is my new sanity,” she said. “It just keeps me happy and young.”

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