'Jane Austen Made Me Do It,' Authors Claim

The 19th-century novelist with a modern "sense and sensibility" has inspired a new collection of short stories by contemporary authors. Host Scott Simon talks with husband and wife team Frank Delaney and Diane Meier, who penned their contribution to Jane Austen Made Me Do It under the name F.J. Meier.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Jane Austen died in 1817 and she still breaks into the bestseller lists. Her novels are still made it to hit movies. Even Stephen King might be intimidated by Jane Austen. She was a 19th century novelist with modern sense and sensibility, if you please. A new collection has just been published of short stories by contemporary authors who've been inspired by her manners, machinations, drawing room dialogues and barbed insights. "Jane Austen Made Me Do It: Original Stories Inspired by Literature's Most Astute Observer of the Human Heart."

And among the stories is "Faux Jane" by F.J. Meir, which is a kind of faux name for Frank Delaney and Diane Meir. Both are acclaimed novelists. Frank is also an eminent BBC broadcaster. They're married and they've written what amounts to a modern "Thin Man" story featuring a glamorous couple, their cunning, winsome dog, a posh restaurant and Jane Austen's pride and prejudice.

Diane Meir and Frank Delaney join us from New York. Thanks for being with us.

DIANE MEIR: How nice to hear your voice.

FRANK DELANEY: Hi, Scott. How are you?

SIMON: Fine, thank you. This year we're coming up on the 200th anniversary of the publication of "Sense and Sensibility," Jane Austen's first novel. What were you trying to capture in this story of Jane Austen?

DELANEY: I've always been interested in her because I lived in England so long. I've been to her house. She fascinated me as a human being. She was the last of the solid gold virgins...

MEIR: And you did a number of broadcasts about her.

DELANEY: I did a number of broadcasts about her. And also she had a very interesting take on life.

MEIR: I was not a Jane Austen aficionado except, of course, for what we had to read in school. But I knew all of the movie versions of her works and could talk about Keira Knightly versus Greer Garson, you know, long into the night.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DELANEY: But also, you had been long and aficionado of "The Thin Man." "The Thin Man" movies are new to me, but not to you.

MEIR: No - well, I think most Americans certainly growing up in the '60s with the million-dollar movies came to love Myrna Loy and William Powell in "The Thin Man." It was the kind of glamour that we just don't see anymore and I miss that.

SIMON: And this is Nick and Nora Charles, their dog, Asta...

MEIR: Their dog, Asta.

SIMON: ...of course, appropriated those names. This is a mash up of Jane Austen and Nick and Nora Charles, "The Thin Man" that you've done. But they were...

MEIR: Absolutely.

SIMON: ...you know, they drank, they joked, they loved, they laughed, they solved mysteries.

MEIR: They did, and they lived a glamorous life - a glamorous, urbane, witty life.

SIMON: Well, let's get our listeners some idea of what you've done here. If you could read a section and, Frank, if we could ask you to be Charlie Scott, the restaurateur and crime solver. And, Diane...

DELANEY: Don't know if I can do is suavity, Scott, but I'll try.

SIMON: All right. Well, well, we'll have a really plumy-voiced actor dub your lines later, Frank. Okay?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Let's just get it done now. And, Diane, you can do the glamour, it seems like.

MEIR: I'll set it up a little bit, Scott, to say that Nicola is a photographer shooting for Vanity Fair. And she's just shot a famous movie actress.

(Reading) Get this, she's just paid one million dollars for signed first edition of "Pride and Prejudice."

DELANEY: (Reading) Charles hooted, Then she's an idiot.

MEIR: (Reading) Why? Because she overpaid?

DELANEY: (Reading) Because there's no such thing.

MEIR: (Reading) Of course, there is.

DELANEY: (Reading) No, absolutement. Niet.

MEIR: (Reading) Oh, Charlie. Don't be silly. There must be.

DELANEY: (Reading) Nope. Nope. No-diddily-ope.

MEIR: (Reading) But Jane Austin's books were printed, weren't they, I mean by printers and bound by binders? I mean they're on paper. They're not illuminated manuscripts.

DELANEY: (Reading) Look, Nic, I'm telling you there is no such thing as a Jane Austen signed first edition. They didn't do that in Jane's day. The books were badly made, not valuable, and most of all she didn't do it.

MEIR: (Reading) You don't know that, Charlie.

DELANEY: (Reading) Your actress has bought a pub. She's been royally taken.

MEIR: (Reading) You're just being negative, Nicola said, confused and building a pout. She said she's been offered a signed first edition of "Persuasion."

DELANEY: (Reading) Charles snorted this time.

MEIR: (Reading) That's not nice, Charlie.

DELANEY: (Reading) Sweet meat, "Persuasion" was published posthumously, when Janey was dead, when she was an ex-offer, a former novelist. Dead, don't you know? Dead women sign no books.

SIMON: This mash up of "The Thin Man" and Jane Austen, what do you think makes it work? What do they have to say to each other?

DELANEY: No matter how you slice into "The Thin Man," what Hammett did when he wrote it was...

SIMON: That's Dashiell Hammett who wrote the stories, yeah.

DELANEY: He did something that I love. He is also a social commentator. And Jane Austen was this social commentator par excellence. And any good thriller writer will tell you a lot about the mores of the time and the habits of the times, and the social practices. Well, Jane Austen's observation of social life, not at all the similar from Hammett's observation of, say, the drinking and the clubbing, and the nightclubbing and the dancing habits of Myrna Loy and William Powell in the "The Thin Man."

SIMON: Did writing this story make you appreciate something about Jane Austen all over again?

DELANEY: Yes. The thing that I've always loved about her is her precision. When we were starting this story, I copy typed a page or two of "Pride and Prejudice," and she's exquisitely hard to edit. So what I appreciated here was the sparseness. What Diane started to talk to me about was the actual social manners and whether or not things had actually changed that much in terms of social aspirations, because here we have this actress who has as much social aspiration for marrying a lord as Mrs. Bennett had for any of her daughters in "Pride and Prejudice."

MEIR: I think that's true. I also think the vitality of her women is really at a very important aspect of why she's endured and why she means so much to so many of us.

SIMON: And again, of course, I guess we must note that that was also one of the observations made about Dashiell Hammett's ""Thin Man" stories, that the character we now know played in the movies by Myrna Loy was an independent woman.

MEIR: She was. She was an heiress, wasn't she? And she actually brought the William Powell character a kind of level of society that he wouldn't have had available until...

SIMON: Right.

MEIR: ...their marriage. But her acceptance of his life...

SIMON: A level of everything but sobriety.

MEIR: That's...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MEIR: That's right.

DELANEY: And to Diane's delight, it was always the dog who solved the mystery.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DELANEY: So if we go on, as we're promising to do and write some novels, deriving from this idea of, you know, creating a latter day "Thin Man" with Vanity Fair or Glamour, I have a sneaking suspicion that it would be the dog who solved the mysteries as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Diane Meir and Frank Delaney; they are among the contributors who've written short stories in a new collection, "Jane Austen Made Me Do It: Original Stories Inspired by Literature's Most Astute Observer of the Human Heart." Diane Meir, Frank Delany, thanks so much.

MEIR: Thank you, Scott.

DELANEY: Thank you, Scott.

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