Inquiring Reader: Mansfield Park and Mummies by Vera Nazarian is another monster mash-up of the work of our estimable Jane Austen. The book has been quietly invading all sections of this earth with its parody of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh who seeks Fanny Price above all women. Author Vera Nazarian was kind enough to sit down for an interview:
1. It is obvious that you have a gift for writing parody. Why did you decide to write a mashup of Mansfield Park, one of Jane Austen’s longer novels and how did you go about deciding that mummies were the perfect ghouls of choice?
Thank you kindly. I admit this was my first foray into parody (and into the uncharted and highly peculiar land of literary “mashups”), and I had no idea I was even capable of such a thing. Apparently I am. The fact that I made hyena noises and regularly broke out into hoots of hysterical laughter while writing the passages does hint at a certain level of personal connection — nay, entanglement — with the material.
Now, why Mansfield Park, you ask? It has always been one of my favorite Austen novels, and I adore the heroine Fanny Price, (second only to Elinor Dashwood, my favorite) for her combination of astute wisdom and a genuine loyal heart. I believe Fanny has been sadly misunderstood and wrongfully disdained as too weak and submissive — overlooking the profoundly quiet nature of true fortitude.
Modern readers tend to prefer a more clear-cut example of female strength. Indeed, we have come to expect a more sassy, outgoing, aggressive, and assertive female — commonly summed up by a single term: “feisty.” In many ways this has become a post-twentieth century feminist cliché, with few of us willing to admit it, or vary our expectations. Indeed, in the last couple of decades, the notion of “feisty” has morphed even further into an outright kick-ass sword-fighting brass-and-balls day-job-and-family-juggling female super hero, so that every protagonist heroine must be inordinately “extraordinary” in order to be a heroine at all. But, to quote The Incredibles, “When everyone is Super, no one is.”
Going back to Austen, an example of “feisty” is everyone’s favorite Elizabeth Bennet. Fanny Price on the other hand seems to be mousy and passive and rather “uptight,” at first acquaintance. In reality, Fanny is a rock of strength and constancy. She’s steadfast, honorable, enduring, loyal, and true to the moral standards of both her heart and her time (indeed, Elizabeth Bennet is far more of a futurism-anachronism in Jane Austen’s day — back then she might have been a thoroughly incomprehensible “modern” girl with liberated sensibilities and rather odd notions of personal independence).
Fanny is not flashy, and her strength is quiet, humble, unpresuming. She is not so much prissy or prudish (another misconception) as simply unwilling to compromise her beliefs, and in that sense she’s just as “willful” as Elizabeth Bennet. It’s just that her cause is not as “trendy” or appealing to our modern standards. Fanny stands up for spiritual and moral integrity, while Elizabeth for personal freedom and choices; contemporary culture venerates individualism over standards.
Additionally, Fanny is genuinely perceptive, and able to “read” the true character and motives of others — a quality which I personally admire in heroines regardless of historical context. So, in my “mummy-infused” version I decided to enhance Fanny’s true instincts and her ability to cut through the falsity and illusion, with a bit of supernatural “sixth sense,” and made her impervious to all influences of evil — be it vampires, werewolves or… seductive ancient mummies.
The mummies? Why, they came about naturally, an outgrowth of the time period and the story. Mummies are so versatile — romantic and funny and poignant and terrifying, all in one. Really, think about it: what other monster can be said to be all these things in the same story without switching genres? Firmly etched in my mind was the classic Hollywood silliness of Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, combined with the more recent wacky adventure major motion picture franchise The Mummy starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz — and it all clicked together.
During the nineteenth century, Egyptology was “all the rage,” and archeology was just taking off in Britain and Europe. Unlike the more anachronistic and jarring silliness of other “creature” monsters, mummies actually made perfect historical sense and fit right in. (Zombies, on the other hand, despite their true traditional island origins and rich history, somehow seem more post-industrial, even apocalyptic, and are just not romantic, no matter how you slice — or explode — them.)
In addition, there’s this incredible rich, multi-layered ancient world mystique and period romanticism that is evoked by all that Egypt stands for; all the depth of thousands of years of history. The glamour of Royal Egyptian dynasties and grand treasure, of monolithic pyramids and pharaohs preserved via the arcane and priestly process of mummification for eternity with the promise of ultimate resurrection — this is unparalleled fuel for the imagination. In my mind it easily crowds out the relatively recent erotic interpretation of the gory vampire legend. Enough with vampires, I say (in particular, the sparkling kind), time to focus on other supernatural beings to fire our literary canon.
The notion of the Mummy as an ancient haunted lover came together to shape Lord Eastwind, my tragic-comic, elegant and profoundly romantic Ancient Pharaoh and Regency gentleman character.
Lord Eastwind is the potential third love interest — he’s Edmund Bertram’s true rival, and he courts Fanny Price alongside Henry Crawford, and does a far better job of it, I might say. Plus, he holds his own in matters of philosophical discourse, and makes Fanny not only feel but think — possibly not something one would expect to find in a mere “silly” mash-up.
2. Could you give us just a little back story about the mummies to whet readers’ appetites (just in case they haven’t picked up your book.)
In a nutshell — the mummies ended up at Mansfield Park because Lady Bertram attended a lecture by a famous Egyptologist at the British Museum in London. Her ladyship got interested in the subject, and started to collect various memorabilia and artifacts — admittedly out of boredom and ennui and lukewarm curiosity, but also in a manner true to her bland character.
This went on in mild and harmless form until she accidentally came upon a cursed amulet and fell under the magnetic spell of the grandest mummy of all — a Pharaoh’s Mummy in its splendid sarcophagus (which ended up stashed in her secret attic). The Mummy immediately began to control Lady Bertram’s mind and actions to great comedic effect, and made her acquire even more Egyptian items including endless crates filled with servant mummies, until the estate was filled to overflowing with grave-robbed treasure and general archeological stuff, and caused much hilarious discomfort to the whole Bertram family.
A side-effect of the same Curse also affected the potentially wolfish Mrs. Norris with real lycanthropy. And that was just the beginning of the fun!
3. You leave much of Jane Austen’s plot and words in this novel. How hard was it to use her plot and words as opposed to writing a novel from scratch, and deciding where to put in new scenes and dialog?
At first, it was excruciating. Far easier to write a completely new book from scratch than modify an existing one AND do it proper justice. After all, here’s a self-contained masterpiece, and you are faced with the bizarre task of somehow expanding and merging it with a whole new unrelated plotline. Where to even begin?
I started doing what I told myself was a gentle “edit.” Soon, I realized that merely inserting sentences or paragraphs here and there in “period” style, and hoping it will make sense, was NOT the way to go about it. That’s how you get crummy blatant patchwork and sloppy Frankenstein-like segments that are glaringly out of place. Sure, it might be easy to throw in every scene something to the effect of: “and then the door opened, a bunch of mummies lumbered in, and they all screamed and started to fight,” but that’s a one-joke wonder. First time around it’s amusing, but grows old very fast. A solitary running gag certainly does not justify a whole book (the mistake that some of the other mash-ups make).
The monsters still have to make eventual sense as an integral part of the story, without being idiotic. That’s the first thing the author has to figure out — the logical and entertaining explanation for their being.
Also, the new inserted storyline must enhance the development of the existing characters. Otherwise, things will fall apart, as with application of poor glue. To properly work on a deeper cohesion level, every appearance of these new elements has to be a logical and organic extension of the main plot, relevant, evocative. In short, the additions need to seamlessly advance the ORIGINAL story. I think that’s the secret of both a genuinely successful mash-up and a good parody.
My writing process ended up being multi-pass. I realized that first it was necessary to cut and streamline the original text. Yes, the notion of mangling Jane Austen is terrifying, but I had to make an edit pass for two reasons: a) to slightly condense an already very long book (just my luck, Mansfield Park is the longest Jane Austen novel, twice the length of Pride and Prejudice) in order to make room for my additions and b) just to streamline and generally update the style in terms of modern brevity.
As a result, I left almost no sentence unturned — cutting down the subordinate clauses, deleting a lot of the verbosity and some of the longer speeches and descriptive passages (in particular the marvelous nagging of Mrs. Norris). If you want to see for yourself, compare the original text of Mansfield Park with any passages in Mansfield Park and Mummies that “seem” to be original Austen — in other words, parts of the story sans mummies or Egyptology — and you will see how many transparent changes are in fact implemented at sentence level everywhere. An excruciating task indeed, considering that I was “mangling” delightful rich prose that was just fine as is, only making it a bit more spare, smooth and “up to modern standards” of readability.
Only after this painstaking edit was I able to go in and add in the mummies storyline — my own original story that expanded upon Austen’s characters without changing their fundamental nature, only heightening the already present tendencies.
My own Fanny is more proactive, energetic, inventive, and witty; Edmund is more of a caricature, loveable but overtly “blind” to the truth of things. Mary Crawford is an actual blood-sucking vampire, but with suave Regency manners. Henry Crawford is charming, eloquent, and perfectly attractive but lacking in the ultimate “heroic intensity” department — lacking in that true unselfish depth and sincerity needed to win Fanny over. And my own character addition is Lord Eastwind — mysterious, haunting, elegant, romantic, superbly attractive — well, you’ll just have to see for yourself.
4. How has the book been received by Jane Austen fans? Has there been a difference in the attitude between the die-hard Janeite and the mashup fan? As you wrote the book, who, in your mind, would be your readers?
A great question. It appears so far, the book has been received very well by those who have actually read it.
I notice that many Janeites are initially reluctant to give Mansfield Park and Mummies a try because they are unwilling to give any mash-up a try (in most cases for good reason; I don’t blame them).
That’s been the biggest hurdle so far. There is little I can do or say to reassure them as to the difference in quality of this book except to admit upfront that I am a genuine fan of Jane Austen, and to offer a free reading sample — the first three chapters of the book.
As far as mash-up fans, or better yet, general readers, the reception has been uniformly positive. They give it a chance, have no expectations, and end up pleasantly surprised.
In my mind, the perfect audience for Mansfield Park and Mummies is both a true Janeite and a general well-read fan of classic period literature, with a well-developed appreciation of satire coupled with a modern silly streak.
5. Tell us a little about yourself and your writing background. What are your personal preferences in reading literature. Are you a Jane Austen fan?
In some ways I have an unfair advantage as a modern writer emulating a nineteenth century author, because my own work is stylistically old-fashioned, even stodgy, and my English is naturally bookish and archaic. Indeed, I am steeped in classics of world literature, initially in my native language (Russian), and yes, I do come from a rather different cultural perspective. And there’s that baggage of other languages rattling around in my cranium (Russian, Armenian, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, a smattering of German and Arabic). Born and raised in the USSR, a cold-war refugee to the West, having lived in war-torn Lebanon, and being half-Armenian half-Russian by ethnicity, I am not exactly your typical modern American author.
My reading background is eclectic, grounded in world classics and ancient mythology, legends and fairytales. Some of my favorite authors are George Sand, Victor Hugo, Stendhal, Homer, Zola, Thackeray, various great Russians such as Goncharov, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Lermontov, and a host of others. Modern genre favorites are Tanith Lee, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Gene Wolfe, Charles de Lint, Catherine Asaro, and Catherynne M. Valente.
As far as my writing background, I am a two-time Nebula Award Nominee, write fantasy and science fiction, running the gamut from literary to low-brow, and popular non-fiction. My two better-known novel-length works are the “collage” arabesque novel Dreams of the Compass Rose (with each chapter being a “dream” and a standalone story, which together form a connected sequence of stories of a mythic ancient world in the vein of “The One Thousand and One Nights”) and Lords of Rainbow, an epic fantasy about a strange world without color, a silver sun, and an intense love story.
And yes, I am a passionate lover of Jane Austen’s whole oeuvre, ever since being assigned Pride and Prejudice in high school, and then encountering the wonderful BBC miniseries starring David Rintoul (my favorite and still best Mr. Darcy) and Elizabeth Garvie (also my favorite and best Lizzie.)
As a result of doing this book, I have fallen in love with writing the Jane Austen mash-up. Hence, I am currently at work on Northanger Abbey and Angels and Dragons, which is due in May.
And then, later this fall, I shall do the unimaginable and attempt my very own Pride and Prejudice mash-up, sans zombies. It will be very Kafkaesque, a frightening awe-inspiring figment of your deepest satiric nightmare, titled Pride and Platypus: Mr. Darcy’s Dreadful Secret.
Both of these books will feature my own interior illustrations, and, as with the mummies book, have similar “Scholarly Footnotes” that harangue the reader, inane and guffaw-inducing “Appendices” and hilarious faux back cover blurbs from Regency ladies and gentlemen. And yes, making yet another appearance, will be everyone’s terrifying favorite, a true rival of the Hound of Baskervilles — the monstrosity known only as The Brighton Duck!
More about the book:
If I may humbly add – my reviews of other Jane Austen mashups