I first encountered Mark Brownlow on Twitter in 2017 and saw his debut book Cake and Courtship getting quite a bit of chatter. Ever since I've enjoyed watching his readership grow in the Austen fandom. I only know of a handful of male Austen-adjacent authors, so I was pleased when Mark agreed to my interview.
CHRISTINA: When did you first think you had a book to write and how did you start?
MARK BROWNLOW: Curiously, the start kind of came before having a book to write.
Mr. Bennet's sense of humor in Pride & Prejudice always amused me, so I began drafting a few diary entries for him. I thought it might be fun to see the story unfold through the prism of his sardonic wit. Given his capricious nature, I then found myself wondering what had made him so. And so, a book began to take form.
The desire to write a novel had always been there for as long as I can remember. But life always seemed to shift it down the priority list. One day you're a teenager, the next planning for your fiftieth birthday. Which is when I thought I should start putting pen to paper before a wish for the future became a regret for past inaction.
The diary morphed into a wider memoir in novel form with its own storyline. And that eventually became Cake and Courtship.
CHRISTINA: So the character came first, then plot? Is that true of all your books?
MARK BROWNLOW: Initially, yes. The first book (and its sequel) came into being because of my curiosity about Mr. Bennet's character. Why is he like that? What explains him? How would he cope if forced out of his library?
My other protagonist in her own series is Charlotte Collins, another Pride & Prejudice character. That also came about just because I wondered what her life would be like married to Mr. Collins. I mean, it's not an enticing prospect, is it?
How would Charlotte manage her relationship with her spouse? How would she cope uprooting herself and moving to another village? What would be her position in local society? How would she use her obvious intelligence and pragmatism? So, the plots form the story but also answer those questions I had about Jane Austen's characters.
CHRISTINA: Obviously, as the curator and editor of a few short story anthologies that focus on some of Austen's secondary characters' backstories, alternative stories, or parallel stories, I love that your novels deep dive into these other Austen characters.
Is there one of your characters you most identify with and why?
MARK BROWNLOW: Nobody as such, though I (unfortunately) do see a little of myself in the reticent, somewhat hapless secondary male romantic interests that pop up now and then.
I had a small moment of panic once when I realized both my main protagonists share a common trait: dissatisfaction with their marriage partner. But they really don't get that from me!
But both do have a kind of wistfulness about them, and that perhaps comes from within. Not in the sense of disappointment or regrets I might have, but a series of "what ifs?" Should I have made more of myself? What if I had started writing earlier? I'm taking lessons now in other artistic pursuits, which I adore. But a small part of me is constantly poking with a stick and asking why I waited until I was fifty-five to do so.
CHRISTINA: Having turned fifty-five myself this year, I understand that well.
What do you think is your strength as a writer?
MARK BROWNLOW: I'm told humor, but that is tough to judge in yourself. As soon as I write something down I think might be amusing, I lose all capacity to judge whether it is. Then you just have to trust instinct (and beta readers.)
Dialogue comes relatively easily, especially the ebb and flow of a verbal skirmish. Description takes a lot of work. I remain in awe of writers who can describe people's physical characteristics well. There's a reason I often leave such descriptions to the imagination of the reader.
If you could look at any first draft of mine, it would be ninety-nine percent conversations with various footnotes along the lines of [Add description here] or [Insert witty metaphor].
CHRISTINA: So, would you consider the humor your main accomplishment as a writer?
MARK BROWNLOW: Of sorts. The full answer is perhaps a touch twee but meant genuinely. I have no grand ambitions with my writing except one. I hope if people read something I wrote that they smile or laugh or are moved in some way.
Like for many others, books have always been escapism for me as a reader. A means of stepping outside of daily life and all that is going on in the world. So if I can give a similar moment to somebody, then that's my personal definition of success as a writer and my accomplishment. As for other accomplishments, I'm still working on a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages.
CHRISTINA: All this you must possess, and maybe add something a little more substantial, in the improvement of your mind by extensive reading.
Since your writing is so connected to the world of Jane Austen and the Regency era, have you gone on an Austen pilgrimage?
MARK BROWNLOW: Well, I grew up in Wiltshire, England. And though the county's biggest claim to fame is Stonehenge, it also lies between Bath and Hampshire. So Jane Austen territory, and I've taken the opportunity on family visits back home to make a couple of pilgrimages.
I love objects and locations that offer a direct connection to people of the past. Tourists file through Mozart's former residence here in Vienna taking their selfies, but you find me simply standing open-mouthed and internally screaming.
So, a trip to Jane Austen's House in Chawton (and to Chawton House) took that to another level given the books I write. Particularly seeing Jane Austen's writing desk. And, of course, temptation struck. A little devil on my shoulder: "Go on. Ignore the sign. Nobody's watching. Touch it." Spoiler: I didn't.
CHRISTINA: There is something about walking where great people have walked. I remember standing in the garden at the Cottage at Chawton (Jane Austen's House) and putting my hands on an old tree, imagining Jane Austen touching that very tree. So corny, I know, but still... It was a moment.
Thank you, Mark, for your time and sharing some of your story of how you became a writer. Good luck with your next offering. Looking forward to reading it!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Brownlow has published three Regency tales narrated by Mr. Bennet: two novels and a short story. He has also authored three novellas in the "Charlotte Collins Mysteries" series, the latest being The Hunsford Curse published in May, 2023. Born in England, he emigrated to Austria in 1994, where he works as a journalist in local tourism and occasional lecturer. You can find him at Lost Opinions or on Twitter and Instagram.