North Carolina author Charlie Lovett has always had a passion for books and writers—his father was an English professor, and Lovett is an expert on the Victorian writer Lewis Carroll and a former antiquarian bookseller. His 2013 novel The Bookman’s Tale combined these interests to create a compelling story about a bookseller who uncovers a mystery in a used bookstore.
In his latest novel, First Impressions, Lovett again combines antiquarian intrigue and a literary mystery—and this time, Jane Austen herself is at the center. We asked Lovett a few questions about books, collecting and, of course, Jane.
Can you talk a little bit about where the idea for First Impressions came from? What made you choose Jane Austen and Pride & Prejudice as the “real world” literary connection for this novel?
One of the working titles for my first novel, The Bookman’s Tale, was The First Folio. As I worked on editing that book and began to think toward my next project, I thought—if The First Folio, then why not The Second . . . something. As a book collector, the obvious continuation of the phrase was “The Second Edition,” so I began to imagine a book that would be worthless in its first edition, but priceless in its second edition (it’s more likely to be the other way around). My father had taught English Literature for 40 years, with a specialty in Jane Austen and the 18th Century. When I added the “second edition” idea to what I knew about Austen and her creative process, the idea for First Impressions began to gel.
It must be an interesting challenge to take real people and weave fictional stories around them. How do you approach this task, and in the case of Jane Austen, was there any specific research you did (or didn’t!) do?
It’s important to remember as a novelist that I am treating a real person as a fictional character; I want to be respectful to the facts of Jane Austen’s life, while at the same time being true to the fictional story I am telling in which she is a character. To understand the basic facts of her life, I used as my primary source an early biography written by family members—Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters by William Austen-Leigh and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh. But to write Jane as a character, I went straight to her novels. I wanted my Jane to be the sort of person I imagine could have written those books. I re-read the novels and came up with a character who is bright, witty, bold, loyal and quietly revolutionary.
For a Jane Austen fan, First Impressions has a rather incendiary central mystery. Did you ever worry that such a scandalous premise might alienate Austen fans? What would you say to urge them to give the book a chance?
To me the central question of the novel is not “Did Jane Austen plagiarize Pride and Prejudice?” but “How can Sophie Collingwood prove that Jane Austen didn’t plagiarize Pride and Prejudice?” Because Sophie believes so strongly in Jane, I think Austen fans will relate to her. And I hope that the portrayal of both Jane and Sophie will leave readers rooting for these two heroines, born 200 years apart.
There’s a good deal of talk in this novel about the importance of opening lines, with the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice being held up as one of the gold standards. As an author, what do you believe makes a great opener, and what’s one of the best ones (other than P&P) that you’ve ever read?
I think the best opening lines are both simple and intriguing. In that sense, the opening to The Hobbit is one of the best: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” You can’t get much simpler than that. But what the heck is a hobbit (the reader of 1937 would ask)? And why does it, or he, live in a hole in the ground? I like a line that is both completely straightforward yet totally mysterious at the same time.
Every Austen fan has to make this difficult choice at some point: Of all her novels, which is your favorite and why?
I love all the novels for different reasons, but if I had to pick one, it would probably be Sense and Sensibility. Why? Well, Pride and Prejudice is too obvious a choice. And I love the relationship between Eleanor and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility. I like to think it is something like the relationship Jane had with her sister, Cassandra. I love the twist at the end when the reader discovers something about the identity of Mr. Ferrars. It’s a great bit of plotting that I didn’t see coming the first time I read the novel.
Finally, there is the fact that I am so fond of Austen’s sense of humor, and that is so wonderfully evident in the first conversation between Fanny and Mr. John Dashwood.
One of your book-loving characters in First Impressions says, “A good book is like a good friend. It will stay with you for the rest of your life.” What’s one book that has been a constant companion over the course of your lifetime?
There have been many. I used to listen to a recording of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a child, and I now have a collection of hundreds of editions and many other works by Lewis Carroll, about whom I have written several books. So, I suppose that is the most obvious answer. But there are books that I read at important times in my life that I like going back to again and again: The Hobbit, which I used to read every summer as a teenager (along with Huck Finn); The World According to Garp, which I read the first time while backpacking through Europe. I can remember our school librarian reading us From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, a book I loved reading to my children and will soon be reading to nieces and nephews.
Back in the 1980s and1990s, you owned your own antiquarian bookstore and you’re still an avid book collector. In First Impressions, your heroine Sophie is on the hunt for the first draft of Pride and Prejudice; in real life, what is your most exciting literary find?
I was called out to do the appraisal for an estate one time. The house was little more than a shack in the woods and I was thinking I had wasted my time, but inside were about 6000 books—mostly 20th-century and mostly in excellent condition. I ended up buying most of the library, which included first editions of books like The Catcher in the Rye, A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Road, and many other highlights of American literature. The owner had not been a book collector per se. He simply bought books when they came out and took good care of them. We didn’t sell paperbacks in our shop, and I was about to toss a pair of paperbacks into our front porch bargain bin when I realized they were the Paris-published first edition of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. I sold the book the next day for a lot more than the 25¢ bargain price.
As a former bookseller, how do you feel about the increased digitalization of books and literature? In your opinion, what are the advantages of physical books over eBooks?
I think eBooks are great at storing text, but there is a lot more to a physical book than just a text container. The Bookman’s Tale begins when Peter Byerly finds an old watercolor pressed between the pages of a book—something that couldn’t happen with an eReader. Some of our earliest experiences with books (pop-ups, board books, etc.) are multi-sensory and go well beyond interacting with the text alone. To me a perfect reading experience is a three-way interaction of reader, text, and physical book. I do use an eReader when I am travelling and I think they can be great in many situations, but given the choice I still prefer a physical book. And it may seem counterintuitive, but a printed book will probably last a lot longer. A well-made hardcover book that I take good care of can be read by my great-great-great grandchildren more than a century from now with ease. The same probably won’t be true of my eBooks, which are really just licenses to read the text in electronic format and are unlikely to transfer through multiple generations
You own property in England and have traveled extensively around the U.K. Have you visited any places during your travels that have any interesting literary connections?
Absolutely. In the late 1990s I wrote a book called Lewis Carroll’s England about the places around England associated with Carroll and his life. We visited places all over England for that book. In preparing to write First Impressions, I visited Steventon, where Jane Austen was born and spent the first 25 years of her life. Even though we were only there for an hour or less, it was extremely helpful to me. I like to feel a strong sense of place when I am writing, and since most of my Jane Austen chapters are set in or near Steventon, it helped to soak up the atmosphere. We also had a lovely tour recently of a village that I have run through on many occasions, as it is only about three miles from our cottage.
Adlestrop was the home of Jane Austen’s maternal cousins, and she visited there on three occasions. We had a nice tromp round the village with Victoria Huxley (grand-niece of Aldous Huxley) who wrote a book about Jane Austen and Adlestrop. I am always on the lookout for literary connections as we travel around Britain. Last year I happened into the church in Norwich where Robert Greene (a minor Elizabethan writer and character in my novel The Bookman’s Tale) was baptized. We had no idea there was any literary connection until we started reading plaques.
You’ve now tackled both Jane Austen & William Shakespeare in fiction—are there other authors you would like to feature in future novels?
The novel I’m writing at the moment is in the early stages, so I won’t say much about it except to say that I think it will appeal to fans of mysteries about old books. I’m often asked if I will write a novel about Lewis Carroll and I think probably not. I have so many fictional versions of him on my shelves that I can’t see my way to adding another. But there are many other authors that intrigue me, especially the greats of English literature like Dickens and the Brontës. I have a Christmas book coming out next year that, while not strictly about Dickens, is a sequel to A Christmas Carol in the style of Dickens. There are lots of ways to incorporate great writers into stories. Austen is a major character in First Impressions, Shakespeare (though he makes a brief appearance in person) is present more through his literary reputation in The Bookman’s Tale, and Dickens is the authorial voice of The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge.
RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of First Impressions.
A version of this article was originally published in the November 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.