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INTERVIEW: Devoney Looser is Wild for Austen

Welcome to the Tuesday Author Interview with Christina Boyd for the Who, What, When, Where, and Why.


I first met Dr. Devoney Looser, the plenary speaker at the Jane Austen Society of America Annual General Meeting, in 2017 at Huntington Beach, California. My first impressions? Not only was she a dynamic speaker and deft researcher, but I found her terribly hip. I mean, she wore Jane Austen-illustrated tights paired with funky boots! Coupled with her incomparable verve, who wouldn't want to know her better? In 2018, after discovering Devoney had written Jane Austen and Discourses of Feminism, I could think of none better to write the foreword for my Austen-inspired multi-author romantic anthology, Rational Creatures. Devoney graciously accepted, and I am forever grateful for her thought-provoking words and understanding our intent of that short story collection about Austen's female characters and their power of reason.


group of nine ladies and one gentleman
That time I had drinks and conversation with Austen scholar Devoney Looser and acclaimed screenwriter and author Whit Stillman (Love and Friendship) at JASNA AGM 2017.

CHRISTINA: When did you first think you had a book to write and how did you start? 


DEVONEY: Most professors (and I’m no exception) wrote their first book-length projects as dissertations. It’s a hard genre, and a tall order, because PhD students are told that you have to come up with something original to say and that you need to consult everything previously written on that subject. I wrote a dissertation that I later revised into my first book, British Women Writers and the Writing of History, 1670-1820 (2000). It sent me down a path of studying the history of women’s writings, especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It's definitely a scholar-facing, rather than a public-facing, book, but it does have a chapter on Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1818) and history writing. In so many ways, that first book, and especially that chapter on Austen, set up the writing that I would do for the next two decades. Even if it was lockstep in its dissertation structure, and not as engaging as one might wish in its prose, doing the research and writing for it made so many next steps possible. More than anything, it showed me that I could complete something that was hundreds of pages long!


After doing it the first time, repeating the process became a lot less challenging and definitely

less mysterious.


CHRISTINA: Ah, the dissertation: builder of character and confidence. As in anything, once you've finished the process, the next attempt must be less intimidating. I hope. (Read: Christina staring at the same twenty-thousand words of second novel.)


What is your current project or latest release?


DEVONEY: I’m working on a book called Wild for Austen, which will be published by St. Martin’s Press in fall 2025, to coincide with the 250th anniversary of Jane Austen’s birth on December 16, 2025. It's about what’s wild in, and who’s gone wild over, Austen’s writings, life, and afterlife. I’m having a wild ride already, getting it ready for publication, and I’m so looking forward to the celebration of Austen’s sestercentennial.


CHRISTINA: Sestercentennial. Now that's a word! I am looking forward to Wild for Austen. I'm sure I'll be one of many 'wild for Austen' queuing up to read when it releases.


Best advice for new writers:


DEVONEY: Write even when you aren’t feeling inspired. Don’t read over and fuss over everything you wrote last time, when you next sit down to the keyboard. Leave yourself a note at the end of your previous writing session, prompting yourself about where and how to pick up next. I don’t always do this, but I wish I did!


CHRISTINA: I love that idea of leaving yourself a note so that you aren't tempted to go back to rework what you last wrote. Must keep that forward momentum, especially if in a slump. Reminds me of Austen's words: “I am not at all in a humor for writing; I must write on till I am.”


Have you gone on an author pilgrimage or research trip? Where and what was the most memorable moment?


DEVONEY: I’ve had opportunities to go on several of these, but the most pleasurable was for my last book, Sister Novelists: The Trailblazing Porter Sisters, Who Paved the Way for the Austen and the Brontës. The Porter sisters, Jane (1775-1850) and Maria (1778-1832) were celebrated in their own day but gradually forgotten by ours. The book was their first biography, and I’m honored when people tell me it reads like a novel. One of the reasons that I could feel so immersed in their lives was that I had the chance to visit some of the places (most of them entirely unmarked) in Durham, Edinburgh, Bristol, London, Long Ditton, and Esher where they lived, wrote, and buried loved ones. It was just as moving to see the places that were dilapidated or that had been demolished as it was to see those that still stood. I included some photos on the book’s website.


CHRISTINA: Goodness, to walk in their footsteps. And to compare the present to the past. What a thought-provoking journey for you.


If you could tell your 21-year-old-self anything, what would you share?


DEVONEY: I remember reading, at around age 21, Audre Lorde’s essay “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” and being blown away by its brilliance, strength, generosity, and insight. I knew it was an essay I should regularly reread for the read of my life. Honestly, I should have read it even more often in my 20s! Maybe even daily. I was shy and quiet in both college and grad school. I rarely spoke in class, unless I was called on, and then I was terrified. I hated public speaking unless I had a script in front of me, and even then, I often shook, and my neck broke out in hives.


As a first-generation college student who felt out of my depth among educated people—not intellectually, necessarily, but in terms of self-confidence and etiquette—I wish I’d really taken Lorde’s essay to heart earlier, too. My silence and fears didn’t protect me. It took a long time to understand that a lot of my peers’ self-confidence l was bluster and that people who judge you because you don’t know social rules are usually very insecure themselves, as well as snobbish and small minded. As Lorde writes, “We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired.” I wish my 21-year-old self could have lived in that truth more often.


CHRISTINA: Realizing that lack of self-confidence might just be masked by bluster and arrogance--what a gift to learn that sooner. How often would our own confidence have been buoyed knowing that all the plebes were more alike than not! Good advice to remember throughout life too.


If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?


DEVONEY: Is an artist too close? I wish I’d had more talent in the visual arts and photography. I’ve spent time as an adult doing these things as hobbies but not in recent years. Writing books has taken most of my creative energy. I may become one of those cliched people who takes up painting in retirement. And if I could have shed more of my introversion, then I’d say I would have liked to have been a women’s rights activist.


CHRISTINA: I love when we can find time to expand our creativity. I doubt anything you do is cliche. I'd love to see what else you create.


What makes you get up in the morning? What do you love?


DEVONEY: Coffee? Is that an okay answer? Ha! Coffee, my two adult sons, and the promise of reading, writing, or digging around in an archive to learn more about eighteenth- and nineteenth-century women’s writing. I’m not a morning person, but I love these things.


CHRISTINA: What are you reading now?


DEVONEY: I’m very lucky to get opportunities to read books that aren’t yet out, in advance reading copies. I’m absolutely loving two books I’m in the middle of right now--Jenny Croft’s The Extinction of Irina Rey, out next month, and Natalie Jenner’s Austen at Sea, out in 2025. Watch for them or pre-order. And of course, I’m also rereading Jane Austen. Pretty much always I’m rereading Jane Austen!


CHRISTINA: Oh, I get that--always rereading Austen. For me, maybe not a total re-read of one novel but definitely segments. And what an honor to be an advanced reader for an author. And even more so when they seek out your early opinion.


Thank you for joining me for my Tuesday Author Interview. I appreciate your thoughtfulness and energy. As a scholar, editor, and writer, you have such a remarkable point-of-view. I’m looking forward to your next book! Always fascinating and topical reading.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Devoney Looser, Regents Professor of English at Arizona State University, is the author or editor of eleven books, most recently the biography Sister Novelists: The Trailblazing Porter Sisters, Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontës (Bloomsbury US, 2022). She is also the author of The Making of Jane Austen (2017) and the editor of The Daily Jane Austen: A Year of Quotes (2019). Looser, a Guggenheim Fellow and an NEH Public Scholar, has published essays in The Atlantic, New York Times, Salon, Slate, TLS, and The Washington Post. Her series of 24 30-minute lectures on Austen is available through The Great Courses and Audible. Her next book, Wild for Austen, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in 2025. In addition to being a quirky Janeite book nerd, she’s played roller derby under the name Stone Cold Jane Austen.

You can connect with Devoney via her website and social media.





6 Comments


Well that was an invigorating interview for writers and even readers. Wild About Austen does sound exciting.

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We have to wait a whole year, hahahahhahahaha.

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Terrific interview. Thank you both for sharing?

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Thanks for stopping by!

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Loved this, and thanks especially for the suggestions about writing through slumps and the Lorde quote. Both are necessary today! Looking forward to Dr. Looser's next book!

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Good advice indeed!

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