Interview with Cassandra Austen, author of The Portrait
25 Feb 2019
What can you tell us about your new release The Portrait?
I have always loved Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, and the Regency period in England. However, it can be challenging to find novels that are both true to the period and that focus on the thoughts and feelings of real people. Historical fiction is sometimes very dry or obsessed with names and dates; romance novels sometimes dispense with historical accuracy and “feel” because they are mostly interested in the romantic fantasy. I come at it from a different angle: what it was like to live in such a class-stratified society? What if you make a single youthful mistake that then follows you around forever? How do people know whom to trust if their families are cold and unfeeling and can’t give you good advice? That’s what The Portrait is about. It’s the historical romance that I wanted to read but had a hard time finding…a slow-burn romance set in an accurately portrayed historical world where the characters have to struggle with real constraints.
What or who inspired you to become an author?
I’ve always written. I wrote by hand starting at about age seven and graduated to my dad’s manual Royal typewriter by about age ten. I took manuscripts with me to college, in fact! But oddly, I never planned to become a novelist. Writing fiction was something I knew I would never stop doing, no matter where I was and no matter what kind of job I had. But recently I began to realize that I hadn’t completed the circle; if no one ever read my words, what was the point? It’s as if I wrote diaries, not novels. And that’s when I knew I had to respect my work enough to put it out into the world.
What’s on your top 5 list for the best books you’ve ever read?
Persuasion, by Jane Austen.
The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman (I love all three books from His Dark Materials but this one is my favorite!)
The Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper (The entire series is amazing!)
Imperial Woman, Pearl Buck
Venetia, Georgette Heyer (great slow burn!)
Say you’re the host of a literary talk show. Who would be your first guest? What would you want to ask?
I would absolutely want to have a conversation with Philip Pullman about His Dark Materials; every time I read them I see more and more craftsmanship that I didn’t notice the first time round. He also narrated the audiobooks (along with a full cast! It’s wonderful!), and I would love to ask him why he wanted to do that, and if he had an acting background or any voice training. There is a new BBC/HBO production with some big-name talent and I would also love to ask him to talk about the intersection between books and other forms of media today.
What’s your favorite thing about writing?
I really love how slow the act of writing is. It’s one thing that you simply cannot force. Sometimes the ideas come fast and furious, but I can’t force those occasions. I’ve always been an impatient person, but with writing I have to just let things happen on the page. And a lot of the “work” of writing is not actually in the writing itself. It’s in the life you live and the art you consume, and the extent to which you’re willing to let your mind wander.
What is a typical day like for you?
I’m one of these people who gets pulled into narratives easily. So whatever is going on, I tend to get sucked into it! That means I have to get rid of important tasks early in the day and late at night, when no one is around. First thing in the morning I always meditate, read, and leaf through my planning calendar, before I look at any electronic media. If I don’t get those three things done first, they don’t happen at all, and that’s no good. The middle of the day usually involves whatever fire needs to be put out. I try not to over-plan because I really don’t know in advance what will need to get done, so I try to address whatever seems most important. In the late afternoons I am normally at the gym, because writing is an occupational hazard! It’s not healthy to sit as much as I do, so I am very dedicated to my workouts. And in the evenings I try desperately to catch up on everything I didn’t do earlier in the day. I stay up quite late because I’m basically a night owl; and fortunately I can get up late the next day!
What scene in The Portrait was your favorite to write?
I have sometimes wondered whether the book is primarily about Catherine or if it’s primarily about Captain Avebury, because so much of the emotional journey of the plot belongs to the captain. My favorite scene is actually between the captain and Sir Lyle, his nemesis, where Avebury is called to Sir Lyle’s house and sees the portrait. Comparing these two men and their individual senses of honor was quite an experience!
Do you have a motto, quote or philosophy you live by?
Yes! I truly believe in the Muse, and I also believe that we all have our own gifts. Not everything is about “work harder.” I think a lot of damage is done when a coach, teacher, or family member offers the “work harder” critique. Sometimes “stop efforting” is the best way to untangle a knot. Find your unique gift, and see if you can settle there. Of course, this often requires a painful degree of honesty. I knew in about eighth grade that I probably wasn’t talented enough to become the musician I wanted to be. Could I have “worked harder?” Sure. But it would have been a grind, and I don’t think I would have produced good art that way. Reach out to the Muse, find your superpower, and rest in it.
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