Anne here, welcoming back Lucy Parker, author of the delightful and very successful "London Celebrities" series, fun contemporary romances set in London's theatre world.
The series begins with "Act Like It" which launched Lucy's career, garnered rave reviews from all over (and made the word wenches her fans.) I first interviewed Lucy here, if you'd like to read it, but I've invited her back because her new book, the fourth in her "London Celebrities" series is called The Austen Playbook — and yes, it's that Austen, the one we all love, and I knew you'd all be interested. I was lucky enough to read The Austen Playbook early, and I loved it.
Anne: Lucy, welcome back. Tell us about The Austen Playbook.
Lucy: Hi Anne, and everyone! Thank you so much for having me back. I’ve been a huge fan of all the Word Wenches for a long time.
The Austen Playbook is the fourth book in my London Celebrities series, but it works absolutely fine as a stand-alone, too. It’s an opposites-attract contemporary romance with a very effervescent, optimistic heroine and a complete icy grouch of a hero. Like the previous books in the series, the setting is London theatre, but for the first time, this one takes the action to the countryside, where a play based on a Jane Austen video game (a murder mystery with characters from Austen books) is going to be performed and televised live from a country estate. The heroine has been cast as Lydia Bennet, and when she arrives at the estate, she discovers that its current owner is the most fearsome (and sexiest) theatre critic in London, who’s frequently bashed her performances of late. He’s in the process of trying to get a film about her famous playwright grandmother greenlit, so there are complications all round as they find themselves surprisingly fascinated with each other.
Anne:The heroine is up-and-coming West End actress Freddy Carlton, building a career as a "serious" actress, but longing to play lighter parts and musical comedy. Our unexpected hero is Griff, a London theatre critic known for his scathing—if also perceptive and entertaining—reviews. He gives Freddy no quarter. And the sparks fly.
A writer friend of mine likes to ask in what areas a hero and heroine bond (meaning personality) and where they clash. Apart from the romance, what do Griff and Freddy bond over, and over what do they clash?
Lucy: Oh, I love that question. Freddy and Griff clash hard over family issues in this book. Basically, Freddy is a happy dreamer in a family of practical-minded cynics, and Griff is a practical-minded cynic in a family of dreamers; so there’s this element of “The last thing I need in my life is someone else like that.” Griff’s younger brother, Charlie, is very similar in temperament to Freddy — the two of them immediately form a fast friendship, to the occasional jealousy of Griff — and Griff tends to write Charlie off as a bit feckless and useless, which infuriates Freddy. Conversely, Griff finds it frustrating that Freddy has let her father, in particular, walk all over her, career-wise. They’re each instrumental in helping the other become both more tolerant and more assertive.
However, for all their differences, they’re both good, loyal people — even if they express that in disparate ways — and they have a strong mutual love and respect for theatre. Each of them absolutely supports and understands the other’s career, to the point where Freddy can take professional criticism from Griff on the chin because he knows his stuff, and she often agrees with him, and she’s fairly fundamental in the eventual turning point for his own project.
Anne: I must say, the idea of The Austen Playbook — the actual TV show in the novel — was both brilliant and also mind-boggling. I would love to see it happen in reality. Could you explain it, please? (Image on the right is from this site)
Lucy: Ha, The Austen Playbook within The Austen Playbook — the televised play that Griff predicts early on in the novel will be an absolute disaster (I won’t spoil whether he’s right or not J). In the story, there has been a very popular, viral game in which characters from all Jane Austen’s books assemble at a house party in the country and things get a little homicidal. Think bodies in the library. A playwright has adapted that video game into a play, which will be shown on television as a live event. Like in the game, people at home will be able to direct the course of the storyline, by casting votes at intervals as to which A to D choice they’d like see play out. Which means that the actors have to learn a dozen more scenes than normal, and won’t know until the production has started which scenes they’ll be running. It’s a daunting prospect for both the cast and the crew. And the people who are depending financially on a successful performance!
Anne: It sounds amazing. I loved the thread about Freddy's famous grandmother, the playwright and actress Henrietta Carlton, the pressure on Freddy to live up to her grandmother's reputation, and the slow unravelling of that backstory. Then there was the pressure on Griff (and his brother) to maintain the family pile against all the odds. There were so many intriguing threads in this book and the way you brought them all together at the end was nothing short of brilliant. Was there any point in the writing where you wondered whether you'd bitten off more than you could chew?
Lucy: I have to admit this question made me laugh (and also, thank you so much!), because emphatically yes. I would say of the series, this book has the most going on plot-wise, and when I hit the middle to probably the beginning of the final third, I was starting to pull my hair in frustration. There was a lot of scribbling on a whiteboard at that point, trying to make sure I wasn’t leaving any loose threads, so that everything would hopefully come together at the end. There is one chapter towards the end, without spoiling anything, where things happen in a back-and-forth sequence — where you might see one character talking to another, through a third character’s eyes, for example — and then later you see what was going on there. But definitely, I had a lot of “Why did I do this to myself” moments.
Anne: Well, you pulled it off wonderfully. I was all admiration! (Image on the left is from this site)
Okay, here's a pick and mix selection of questions. Pick one you'd like to respond to.
* You're noted for your sparkling dialogue. Does dialogue come easily for you, or is it something you work hard at?
* What is the most enjoyable part of writing for you? The least?
* Could you tell us a little about your writing process, please?
Lucy: I can probably combine all three a bit, actually! J The most enjoyable part of the writing process is when a mental switch flips for me and I’m fully invested in the story, to the point where it’s pretty much all I’m thinking about. Dialogue will start to come into my head while I’m not writing and I’ll have to immediately jot it down a notebook. I often use dialogue as the measure of whether the book is working for me or not — if things are going well, I do find the dialogue tends to flow quite easily (although I still have to edit it a lot); if I’m stuck and none of the characters are saying anything, there’s a problem with the story as a whole for me. Generally, the switch-flip will happen when I’m between 10,000 and 20,000 words into the story. And that first 10,000 words is my least favourite part of the writing experience. I have Blank Page Phobia, and I find it very daunting starting a whole new project. Once I’m properly into it, I can have fun with it.
Anne: I completely identify with that. The beginning of a book is the hardest for me, too. Could you share a little piece of The Austen Playbook, please?
Lucy: Yes, absolutely! This is a snippet from a scene soon after Freddy arrives at Griff’s estate.
Still cuddling the mammoth script, she walked around the perimeter of the small room, taking in the details—the peeling wallpaper and dusty shelves. Somehow, she expected there to be something spectacular—magical—about the places where great works of art were created.
This was just a room.
She looked closer at the images on the tiled feature wall and hid a smile. Albeit a room that had been decorated according to Sir George’s very particular tastes.
She didn’t need to absorb the ghosts of her grandmother’s ambition and conviction, anyway. She wasn’t Henrietta. She was Freddy, she did know what she wantedto do, and the only person who could turn wistfulness into action was her.
She put down the script and sat gingerly on the edge of a rickety stool, mindful of her oath to stay out of the way. “You know Fiona Gallagher is involved with The Austen Playbook?”
Griff paged through a file. “She’s a major financial backer.”
Freddy tucked her feet into the rungs of the stool and rested her forearms on her knees. “Fiona’s just picked up the rights for the Allegra Hawthorne stage adaptation, and she’s scouting me for it. I haven’t done a stage spectacular or any comedy for a while, though, so she wants to see how I do with The Austen Playbook.”
Griff set his file down. His hands were large and strong-looking. “And it’s a job you want?”
Freddy tapped the back of one heel against the wooden stool leg. “Yes. It is. I’m a huge fan of Allegra Hawthorne, and it’s the sort of role I love.”
“It’s the sort of role that made you so popular with audiences in the first place,” Griff said levelly. “When you obviously feel passionate about what you’re doing, your performance has a very visceral joy that affects every person in the theatre.”
For a few seconds, the only sound in the room was the tap tap tap of Freddy’s shoe against the wood. And probably the creaking sound as she tried to close her jaw after it had performed the anatomically difficult feat of dropping to the floor. “Calls me a contagious joy fairy when we’re alone in a dusty backroom. Compares me to a stagnant pond in a London newspaper. Timing, my friend. It’s a beautiful thing.”
“My judgment in London is based on what you give in London. And for the past few years, that’s been a stream of—for the most part—competent, steady, totally uninspired performances in dramas that seem to suck the life out of you.”
Well. She’d always known he had the ability to cut to the chase with a few well-chosen words.
Anne: Love it! Thanks so much for doing this interview, Lucy. I loved The Austen Playbook, and am sure readers will too.
Lucy: Thank you, Anne, it was my pleasure.
If you haven't read any of Lucy's books yet, be assured they can all be read as a stand-alone. I highly recommend them. We're giving away a copy of The Austen Playbook to someone who leaves a comment on this blog, or answers this question: Which is your favorite Austen adaptation or your favorite Austen character? The photo collages above might help jog your memory.