In 2018, I curated my third multi-author Austen-adjacent anthology and blogger Rita Deodato recommended I ask author Jessie Lewis to join my Rational Creatures "Sweet Sixteen." Jessie wrote "The Edification of Lady Susan," the backstory to Austen's epistolary novella. I think Lewis's short story, also written in epistolary form, complemented Austen's Lady Susan brilliantly. Ever since, I have been a fan of her smart, well-developed Austenesque fiction. And I'm always in line first to read her latest.
CHRISTINA: What is your writing process? Are you a pantser or plotter?
JESSIE: I’m a plotter, through and through. I find it almost impossible to write anything unless I know what endpoint I’m working towards. It’s probably due to my writing background; I studied Philosophy and Literature at university, so I didn’t come at storytelling via a Creative Writing route. Instead, I was taught Literary Criticism and Critical Thinking. Both essay structure and debate require you to know what you want to say from the outset, so my mind has been trained to work that way. Of course, there’s always a bunch of wrangling and revisions that happen during the writing process—characters don’t always do or say what you want them to!—so I’ve had to learn to be more flexible over the years. But in general, I work on the basis that unless I know what story I want to tell, there’s not a lot of point starting to tell it.
In practice, this means I meticulously plan every story, from beginning to end and everything in between before I begin. When I was working on my first book, Mistaken, I had spreadsheets cross-referencing timelines, locations, travel logistics, and even pregnancy gestations, because it was such a complicated plot, told in a non-linear way. Working this way helps with pacing, because I get to see before I start where there are plot points that I shouldn’t get too bogged down in, the distribution of scenes between protagonists, and so on. That said, there are some days when already knowing what’s going to happen can make "filling in the gaps" with dialogue and narrative feel like a bit of a chore. Nevertheless, trial and error has taught me this is the way my brain works, and no amount of trying has so far persuaded it otherwise!
CHRISTINA: I am impressed with all the planning before you even start. But that makes absolute sense then. Your process becomes easier with some writing days "filling in the gaps." And I am a huge fan of nonlinear stories, if executed well like your work!
What do you think is your strength as a writer?
JESSIE: I’d maybe plump for dialogue. It’s certainly one of the things I spend most time working on. Anyone who knows me, knows I like to talk—a lot. I’m always up for a good debate and tell far too many anecdotes. I’m shamelessly sarcastic, jumping on any and all ironies, double entendres, and puns that present themselves. I think that passion for the versatility of words in conversation has certainly spilled over into my writing.
I pay a lot of attention to making my dialogue realistic, because if characters sound real, they are more believable, which is what makes them come alive in a reader’s mind. I often read it aloud to check it sounds natural. Anything too stilted, prolix, or not funny when it’s supposed to be, I delete it. I’m also meticulous about checking the syntax of conversations. When I’m in the flow of writing a scene, it’s easy to skip a beat here or there, and end up with an exchange that lurches illogically between disconnected statements. To avoid that, I concentrate on making sure there is a clear path from what my characters think or know at the start of the conversation, to what they think or know at the end.
This was something I had to particularly watch out for in my book, Epiphany, where much of the comedy comes from miscommunication. Many scenes contained multiple people talking at cross purposes, and to ensure every character ended up with the correct (mis)understanding of what had been said, I regularly resorted to drawing up tables to compare "what X says" against "what X means" and "what Y thinks X means."
CHRISTINA: This. "I concentrate on making sure there is a clear path from what my characters think or know at the start of the conversation to what they think or know at the end." Every writer working on craft should underline that.
What do you think makes a good story?
JESSIE: Most important of all, for me, is the suspension of disbelief. I’ve always thought of fiction as an escape from reality, a complete kidnap of your consciousness. I want to wholeheartedly believe the story I’m being told. I want to have to blink my eyes and refocus on the world when I stop reading; I want to remember the characters when the story ends. If I don’t, then by definition, that story is not as interesting as my own reality, in which case, why would I invest my time in it? A book that does suck you in like that is magical. I can’t remember which title it was, but I remember being thoroughly shaken the first time a book made me cry real tears. I hadn’t realised that was a thing a book could do—I was a teenager, and it felt akin to my first heartbreak.
I strive to emulate this in my own writing by trying to make the motivations, actions, and words of every character, good or bad, as plausible as possible. The hope is always that readers will be so immersed, they have to blink their eyes to refocus on reality when they put my book down.
CHRISTINA: Yes, I love books because of just that. When you make me believe. Such stories follow me for days after the last page while I ponder the characters and events.
Have you gone on an author pilgrimage or research trip?
JESSIE: In some ways, my whole life has been one long research trip! I consider myself incredibly lucky to have grown up in England, surrounded by the architecture of the Georgian and Regency world I love to write about. My parents used to be members of the National Trust, which owns a lot of these places now, and they used to take us kids to visit them on family days out. I spent a large part of my childhood traipsing around stately homes, dilapidated castles, ruined monasteries, old palaces, and formal gardens. That early exposure has turned into a life-long love of historic buildings, and I still regularly search out and visit any that are open to the public, looking for inspiration and settings for my stories.
There is one place in particular, very near where I live, that I love to visit whenever I’m in need of some "historical romance" vibes. It’s a nature reserve that used to be the grounds of a large country estate, though the house itself has long since been demolished. For many years, it was a quarry, but over the last decade, the site has been slowly returned to its former glory. In it’s heyday, at the turn of the nineteenth century, the estate was modelled according to designs drawn up by the renowned landscaper, Humphry Repton, and the sweeping slopes and winding chalk stream are stunning. Tucked away in the woods at the top corner of the reserve are two absolute treasures: the crumbling remains of the old orangery, and a five-hundred-year-old oak tree, reputed to have been planted by Queen Elizabeth I. It’s a truly atmospheric place that never fails to put me in the mood for writing.
CHRISTINA: Indeed. I am so overdue for a "research trip to England." This place sounds awe-inspiring.
What does literary success look like to you?
JESSIE: All the most obvious answers flitted through my mind when I was first considering this question. Of course, to be able to write for a living, it’s got to work financially, and there’s no denying that being able to say I have several books published is a really nice feeling. But financial success isn’t always correlated to literary merit, and I bet there are millions of classics sitting, unpublished, in people’s desk drawers all around the world, so being published isn’t always a reliable measure either.
In the end, I don’t think it’s something that can be defined, because writing is an artform, the same as painting or music, so it’s completely subjective. All I can do, as a writer, is aspire to produce something of good quality by working at my craft. I take pride in what I write—it matters to me that it’s of as high a standard as I can make it. I try to always think about what I’m creating—and think about what my readers will think about it. I self-edit, many times, and I’ve learnt to really lean into the external editing process—which, to quote a certain romantic hero, was a hard lesson indeed but most advantageous. There are always things to be learnt, honed, corrected, and polished, and I can’t hope to achieve literary success if I’m not constantly striving to improve.
Beyond that, the arbiters of success are ultimately the readers. Whenever someone reaches out to me in a review or on social media and tells me that something I wrote made them laugh, or cry, or smile, or think—that, for me, is a success.
CHRISTINA: What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
JESSIE: The Absent Muse! Those days when the words just won’t come. My husband teases me about this. According to him, I have two very distinct ways of beginning the day. The first is that I chivvy everyone out of the house to school or work so I can rush to my desk and start writing. The second is that I chivvy everyone out of the house to school or work so I can…empty the loft, or clean the skirting boards, or basically do anything at all that is not writing. He's not wrong!
CHRISTINA: That's so funny. And "chivvy." I think I need to add that to my lexicon.
What makes you get up in the morning? What do you love?
JESSIE: It surprised me how much I struggled to answer this question, because I really like waking up, but accounting for why was hard! Unless I’ve had a particularly late night (or too much wine), I generally bounce out of bed pretty easily at six-thirty every morning. I love summer mornings that draw me out of bed because the sun is already up, equally as much as I love the feeling of snuggling under my covers because it’s freezing and dark outside. I am lucky enough to have a job I love, a home I cherish, and family and friends whose company I treasure. I love having things to look forward to as much as I enjoy having nothing to do. But none of this is what makes me get out of bed. I suppose I get up because I can, and everything that comes afterwards is a wonderful bonus. Less, "I think, therefore I am," and more, "I am, therefore I get out of bed."
CHRISTINA: What is your current project or latest release?
JESSIE: My latest release was Unfounded, a reimagining of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that gives Mr. Darcy’s much-loved housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, a shot at the limelight. Generally, my stories are born of one seed of an idea—maybe a particular scenario I want to experiment with, or the consequence of a character making a slightly different decision that I want to try out. With Unfounded, that "seed" was wanting to explore the story from Mrs Reynolds’s point of view, who doesn’t often get much of a look-in within the Austenesque genre. It was a fascinating story to research, and so much fun to write, because it gave a whole new perspective on the people who work for Darcy—including what they really thought when Elizabeth Bennet rocked up at Pemberley!
I’m working on some really exciting projects for publication next year that I can’t wait to tell everyone about. Not long to wait…be sure to follow me in all the usual places for updates, sneak previews, and release dates.
CHRISTINA: Oh, I am all anticipation. I know it will be another bestseller.
Thank you for sharing so much of your craft too. So helpful for writers who want to up their game. You've given me much to think about. You could probably teach a course!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jessie Lewis enjoys words far too much for her own good and was forced to take up writing them down in order to save her family and friends from having to listen to her saying so many of them. With a profound admiration for the potency of the English language, she has always been in awe of Jane Austen’s particular literary cunning and has delighted in exploring Austen’s Regency world in her own historical fiction writing. It is of no relevance whatsoever to her ability to string words together that she lives in Hertfordshire with one tame cat, two feral children, and a pet husband. She is also quite tall in case you were wondering.