The Sweetest Debut: Kathleen Flynn on Time Travel, Early 1800s England, and Hating ‘David Copperfield’


Welcome to The Sweetest Debut, a new and regular installment in which we reach out to debut (or near-debut, we’re flexible!) fiction, poetry and nonfiction authors working with presses of all sizes and find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and how they explain their books to different people in their lives.

Today, Kathleen Flynn talks to us about her bold debut novel, the sci-fi period piece, The Jane Austen Project. It follows Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane, two researchers from the future to the early 1800s to recover an unpublished Jane Austen book. Suddenly caught up in the social constraints of Georgian England, and engaged in the lives of the people they meet there, they have to grapple with the emotional and philosophical implications of leaving not intervening in history.

What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book?

Two people from a dystopic future world obsessed with Jane Austen time-travel to 1815 in search of a lost manuscript. They have lots of (fake) money and a cover story, and they have a year to try to blend into Austen’s world and befriend her, to get the manuscript while not altering history. Project is told from the point of view of the female time traveler, who struggles with the restrictions of being a woman in 1815 and finds herself getting too close to the people she’s come to learn about.

What do you tell your relatives it’s about?

That it’s about Jane Austen and time travel.

How long was this project marinating in a draft or in your head before it became a book deal?

Three years to read books about the topic, four years to read more books while also trying to figure out how to write a novel. But who’s counting?

Name a canonical book you think is totally overrated.

I hated David Copperfield when forced to read it as a ninth-grader: its sentimentality, its absurd plot contrivances, its cardboard-y female characters. I reread it a few years ago and I still hated it, although less passionately.

Name a book you’ve read more than two times.

Jane Austen’s novels, obviously. Possession. Anna Karenina. The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

What’s a book or other piece of art that influenced your writing for this particular project?

The sea stories of Patrick O’Brian, Master and Commander, etc., about a Napoleonic-war-era British naval officer and his physician friend. They are witty and insightful — like Jane Austen but with sea battles. And what’s amazing is that he was writing them toward the end of the 20th century yet there’s no sense of his own time peeking through. It’s not pastiche either; it’s like he was channeling 1805. Reading them made me wonder what Jane Austen might have done if she’d been born a man, still a genius but with more options in life. Would she have gone to sea like two of her brothers, and come home to write stories like Patrick O’Brian’s? Or maybe her genius would have found some other outlet entirely, since she could have done many more things besides write novels. I began to wonder about the reality of Jane Austen’s experience in a way I never had before — what it must have been like to be that brilliant, and yet so constrained by being female. It was that wish to understand her better that sent me down the rabbit hole of trying to write this book.

What’s your favorite show to binge watch when you’re not writing?

I’ve mostly stopped watching TV because of trying to be like Patrick O’Brian and live mentally in the 19th century. The last series I tried to keep up with was Poldark, because I thought it would be helpful to see the interiors and the outfits and the carriages. But it just got too ridiculous – your summaries were better.

What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?

Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship. I go to the movies almost as little as I watch TV, same reason. It’s bad I know, but what I’ve figured out is that you can’t pay attention to everything.

Do you listen to music while you’re writing? If so, what kind?

If I’m making up something new, I need silence. If I’m revising, I’ll sometimes get a song stuck in my head and need to listen to it over and over. This can range from the Goldberg Variations to the Talking Heads to Lady Gaga.

Who is your fashion icon?

Beau Brummell. Not that I dress like him, but he’s a fascinating character who essentially invented modern menswear and the idea of daily bathing.

If you could buy a house anywhere in the world just to write in, where would it be?

I love where I live (Brooklyn), though it would be nice to have a slightly larger apartment, so I could have a real desk and more bookshelves.

What did you initially want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be an artist who illustrated children’s books. Specifically, I wanted to be the next Garth Williams. So much for that.

Did you have a new years resolution for 2017? If so, what?

To work on a new project I have in mind. So far, not off to a good start.

What freaks you out the most about four years of Trump as US President?

I have to choose just one thing?

Do you prefer a buzzing coffee shop or silent library?

Mostly I write at home. I like to pace around and read passages aloud.

Do you write at a desk, bed or couch?

Desk! I’ve tried writing in bed, but I generally fall asleep.

Do you tend towards writing it all out in one big messy draft and then editing, or perfecting as you go (or something in between)?

What I learned in the course of writing Project is that the first way works better for me. The first draft is like scaffolding – totally necessary, but also something you will throw away later.

How do you pay the bills, if not solely by your pen and your wit?

I work as a copy editor at The New York Times.

What is your trick to finding time to write your book while also doing the above?

Getting up early. Also, being obsessed.