Zibby Owens: I had the best conversation with Natalie Jenner who is a debut author of The Jane Austen Society. We chatted on Instagram Live. You can watch that there if you would like on my @ZibbyOwens Instagram page. Natalie was born in England and emigrated to Canada as a young child. She obtained her BA from the University of Toronto’s St. Michael’s College where she was the 1990 Gold Medalist in English Literature. She got her LL.B. from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law and was called to the Bar of Ontario in 1995. In addition to a brief career as a corporate lawyer, Natalie has worked as a recruiter, a career coach, and consultant to leading law firms in Canada for over twenty years. Most recently, Natalie founded the independent bookstore Archetype Books in Oakville, Ontario, where she lives with her family and two rescue dogs.


Natalie Jenner: Hi.

Zibby: Thanks for coming on today.

Natalie: Thanks so much for having me, obviously.

Zibby: Sure. It’s so funny, I was recently on Anne Bogle’s podcast which is called “What Should I Read Next?” Your book was one of the ones that she was most excited about reading this summer.

Natalie: I know, it’s been really great. She’s being wonderfully supportive. I feel very blessed right now.

Zibby: Tell us what your book is about and what inspired you to write it.

Natalie: My book is about eight extremely different people at the end of World War II who are all dealing with trauma and loss in different ways. They bond over an unknown shared love of Jane Austen that’s sort of percolating amongst them, either on their own or in little subgroups. They decide to form a society to try and save the cottage where Jane Austen in real life had lived and worked or revised her six major works. It’s a very fictional account of something that actually did happen, though, during the war, which was the formation of the first real-life Jane Austen Society.

Zibby: Wow. What sparked your particular interest in this?

Natalie: I had a shattering experience like Judith and you were just discussing. My husband and I had opened up a little independent bookshop. Four months in, he was diagnosed with a very rare and terminal form of lung disease that’s also genetic. At the time, we were told that most people would pass away within two to three years. We were a young family. We had a fourteen-year-old daughter. I was also a career coach. I used to be a lawyer. I coach lawyers for a living. I had to make some hard decisions about time and travel and income. I closed down the bookshop on its one-year anniversary. It was a hobby farm. I was working for free. I was working 24/7. I loved it, but it wasn’t feasible. We took a year. We traveled and we tried to do things that we’d always talked about doing. I aggressively reread Jane Austen as well. I watched a lot of TV. I blew through all twenty-two years of Cheers and Frasier on the elliptical. I read a lot of Jane Austen. Then I started to read a lot about her. Then my husband went golfing with the guys to Augusta, Georgia.

I’m like, that’s great, I’m going to England. I’m going to go to this little village. I’m going to spend a whole week there, just me. I love you people, but I’m going to go do this. It really changed my life. I loved my time there. I came back energized and at peace in this very odd way. I kept reading about Jane. Then my husband was put on some pretty rare and innovative drugs. His lung decline stabilized. Right now, he’s healthful. He’s able to golf and live a completely full life. We’ve bought ourself time. We have no idea how much, so we have to very much live in the moment, but it gave me hope again, Zibby. It just made me feel like you don’t know what’s around the corner. There’s no point of freezing up and not engaging. I kept putting myself out there a little bit.

I took my daughter to Philadelphia for — I’m from Canada. I’m in my writer’s shed, by the way, like twenty feet from Ontario. I took my daughter to Philadelphia. We went to our first Jane Austen conference. It was amazing. I came back. I looked at her one day and I said, “I feel like writing again for the first time in years. I’m going to write about a group of people trying to save an old house.” I’d been watching a lot of Downton Abbey as well. Then one day I just looked up and said, “I’m going to write about a group of people that come together to save Jane Austen’s house.” I typed The Jane Austen Society. I typed the first paragraph, and it’s all still there. It was the most fun I ever had, was writing this book. It was so much fun. That’s the story.

Zibby: What a story, oh, my gosh. Thank you for sharing that. How great that you took that diagnosis and did something — I feel like it’s so easy to just sit in a corner and cry.

Natalie: I did at first for a long time.

Zibby: Which is fine.

Natalie: I did. Then what I learned was the value of hope. That is probably the one thing that I sort of lost faith in. When the doctors tell you, “Here’s what it is. Here are the stats –” People in his family have died from this disease, so we’re not being Pollyannaish. We’re not going, they’re all wrong. We know that this is serious, but it’s a day-to-day life. I think what we’re all dealing with right now, unfortunately, is you have to go hour by hour. You don’t know what’s around the corner. There’s a great quote by a Persian poet, Rumi. He says you have to life live as if it’s rigged in your favor. I had been coaching people that, but I’d forgotten it in my own pain. Then one day, I was like, you don’t know for sure, so just live your hour. That’s what I’ve been trying to do. I’ve had a great year. I had a wonderful time.

Zibby: So the hour went pretty well. How did you sit down and write it in the midst of everything else you were going through? You wrote the first paragraph. It became this amazing book. You had all this information sort of stored up from your travels. Then did it come pouring out? Is that what happened?

Natalie: Yes. Do you know Susie Orman Schnall who has the book —

Zibby: — Yes.

Natalie: She’s been so lovely and supportive to me. I was watching when Foster’s book came out, Summer Darlings. They were all talking about writing process. I never knew anyone that had my writing process. Susie got on and was like, “I take a year and I research the heck out of something. Then when I finally sit down to write, that’s all behind me. Then I’m eight hours a day.” That’s what it’s like for me. It’s very intensive. In a way, getting all the research done for historical fiction ahead of time enables you to really be liberated from the facts in the way that will serve the story. I was able to kind of have it there in the background of my mind, but really focus on the characters and what I wanted to tell about them and their interior lives. When I do write the first draft, it’s intensive because everything’s just pouring out. It worked for me with this one. Zibby, I have five manuscripts in a drawer from the past twenty years that didn’t go anywhere.

Zibby: That’s the classic story. Yet when they’re your manuscripts, you feel really badly that they’re in there. I feel like people used to always give advice like don’t be afraid of rejection, but it’s not like that. It should just be like you have to write four bad novels before you have a good one. You have to. You have to just take the time. Write the bad novel. Tell yourself that you think it’s great but it’s not and that your next one will be better. Then move on from there and don’t even think twice about it.

Natalie: That’s absolutely it. You know the ten thousand hours theory, Malcolm Gladwell, it’s a muscle. You’re learning to exercise it. You’re learning to exercise it at certain times. As a working mom, when my daughter was in kindergarten, I would get up from five to seven to write. I’m sure you can relate to this because you have four times what I have. I have one child. Sorry, do you have four children? Did I get that right?

Zibby: I do. Yes, you did.

Natalie: My creative subconscious is now trained to kick in at five AM whether I want it to or not. She’s now at university, and I’m still waking up at five to write. A lot of that writing process of the manuscripts that don’t get published is the training. It’s the marathon. It’s the lead-up. That’s the thing I want people to really take away from my story.

Zibby: Wow. This book, how long when it finally finished? You were doing eight hours day of just it pouring out of you. After all the research and all the rest, just wondering how long it ended up taking.

Natalie: It was probably a good couple of months for that preliminary first draft. What was really fortunate for me was I landed an agent in New York who was at Curtis Brown at the time. I’m a housewife up in Canada. I land this agent right away. He grabbed it. Then we worked on it for months. He basically didn’t take a word out, but he wanted me to flesh out things and pace it better. That process was another four months. Then we went on sub.

Zibby: Do you have any regrets about how you went about this, if you had to do it all again? It sounds to me, super inspiring and spot on, not that there’s any way to judge anybody else’s life. When you look back, you went through so much heartache and pain and uncertainty, and you chose to pour it into writing.

Natalie: I don’t have a single regret. I said this to my husband last week. I theoretically should, but I can’t because of where I am this hour and today. Regret is an interesting word to me because it’s negative in a way. I think what you need to do is more forgiveness for the fact that at that time in your life, that’s how you reacted. As long as you weren’t calculating harm to others, as long as you were just doing your best, you might err, you might miscalculate, but if your intent was good, then I think you have to just say, that’s who I was at that time and I did the best I could. There’s a great documentary about The Eagles, the rock band. They’re one of my favorites. One of the later gentlemen that joined said you will look back on your life and in the time, it’s a mess, toxic, throwing the TV out of the hotel mess as a rock band. Then you are now our age and you look back and it has the arc of a Victorian novel and sweep of something by George Eliot. It was very poetic. I remember thinking, that’s what we’re all in. That’s where we’re heading. So I’ll just keep doing what I’ve been doing so far and hope it adds up.

Zibby: Oh, my god, you’re amazing.

Natalie: Oh, thank you.

Zibby: I feel like when people go through shattering experiences, to use Judith’s term again, life sort of opens up in totally new ways. You immediately become somebody maybe you didn’t think you would. You have this perspective that not everybody has. When I start talking to someone like you who has that, it is very apparent. I feel like there’s so much to be learned and so much beauty in that way of looking at life. Really, that’s the only way there is to look at life, but so many people — I’m rambling, but this period of time has caused all of us to stop and look back. That was a long-winded way of saying just that your perspective is so important. I’m sorry you have to gain that perspective through the bad times.

Natalie: I know. We always say we would give our left finger, pinkie, arm, to not have gone through what we went through even for the perspective because it is awful. When you’re given that horrible diagnosis, it’s awful. There’s no way to sugarcoat it. The perspective is the one silver lining. Also, in a very odd way — I’ll get a little emotional talking about this. When my husband was diagnosed and I was reading Jane Austen, something happened to me with my reading of her for the first time in my life. I had read her since I was a little girl many times. I had gone to the village many times. I had read about her, lots of books. This time, she was reaching me on a different level. It was almost as if she’d been waiting for my maturity to catch up to her, to where she was, because I think she had a hard life. I think she was somebody who was one of the handful of geniuses in literature up there with Shakespeare.

I think that she was struggling with the money and the ill health. She had chronic illness. I think she was probably far more sick for far longer than she let on to her family. Culturally, there was a stoicism. We’re a much more open culture. At the time, I remember when I was reading her, she was speaking to me on a new level. Then I was closing this bookshop. I’m like, why? Why did you have me open this bookshop and put all this time and money and labor into it and give us this diagnosis four months later? which sounds self-pitying, but it wasn’t adding up for me at all. Now that everyone is going through fear for their loved ones’ lungs, and uncertainty, and the healthcare workers risk their lives every day, I feel like I was kind of given this bizarre four-year head start. I was able to develop some resilience that now enables me to fully enjoy this publication journey and enables me to be more present for my family. That’s all a gift from the horrible thing we went through, which is my rambling response to you, if that makes sense.

Zibby: Thank you for matching my own rambling. I feel much better now. Thank you.

Natalie: You were fine.

Zibby: I don’t think that that feeling is self-pity. I think anyone in your shoes would wonder the same thing and be just so angry about it. I wouldn’t beat yourself up. It sounds like you’re in a pretty good place. You deserved any self-pity. I think it’s just so great. Here’s my other question. Why Jane Austen? What is it about her that speaks to you so much?

Natalie: It’s a really good question.

Zibby: What is it you see in her that’s — go ahead.

Natalie: I have three or four things that have to do with Jane Austen. The first one is language. There’s something about literally her syntax, the way she does a sentence, the way she does a paragraph. That zinger at the end is a long paragraph that you don’t always get with Henry James, for example. You’re reading and reading and reading, and then bam, she just gets you. She just places the words in this way that is very soothing to my mind as I’m reading. I find her just a very calming ethereal voice, basically. I think the second major reason is that she creates these little worlds. People are like, why do they film Jane Austen so much? I’m like, because there’s a lot of characters in there to get right. You’ll never get them all right, so then you’ll make another Emma and another Mr. Knightley, but he’ll be blond and little younger and a little shorter. It’s a really interesting how she — you don’t think there’s a lot of people in the books because she talked about three or four families in a village. That’s the essence or the core.

There’s a lot of characters. She’s so brilliant at characterization. She sketches them so fast for you. She doesn’t have to spend a lot of time. You know right away what a Miss Bates is like, or a Mrs. Bennet in Pride & Prejudice. What I love is she creates these little worlds that have so many people we can relate to and that we recognize in ourselves, but they’re still different enough from our life that we can go into them and escape from ours and yet still learn some lessons, which I find really fascinating. On that level, I find her like a tonic, very purifying. Then finally, my number-one reason is I am a sucker for a happy ending. I am a romantic. I love that she gives the reader the catharsis. She makes her heroines, they really have to work for those happy endings, but they will get them in the end. I love that about her. I love going into those books knowing that the good guys will win.

Zibby: Aw. Is that like your book? Can you give away the end?

Natalie: Yes. It’s definitely an escape. I will say, I have an epilogue, and when I was writing it I just remember being so happy that I could tie off the arcs of these eight different characters. I still get emotional if I read the epilogue. I haven’t read the whole book for a while now. I know this is the wrong to say on a podcast. You start to kind of hate your book. What I mean by that is you love your story, but the book itself, it’s a year and a half process to publication. After a while, you’re like, I want to talk about something else. Now that it’s out there, this is the most exciting time because people are getting it in the mail. Friends have preordered it. It’s arriving. They’re showing my photographs. Now it has a life of its own. Now it’s like another journey’s starting. There’s a great quote that — there’s some amazing Canadian novelists in action right now. One of them, Sam Bailey, has a great thriller called Woman on the Edge. She was telling me — I have these women mentoring me. Facebook and Messenger, there’s a bunch of Canadian women authors. I’ll just be like, help me. They all jump in. They give me advice. Sam said that Karma Brown, another great Canadian writer, had said to her that once the book is published, it’s not really yours anymore. I thought that was such a brilliant way to look at reviews and buzz and PR. You get emails from people through your website that are not always pleasant, all that part of it that you just learn to accept. The story’s mine, but the book is theirs. I also find, at this stage, that’s really, for me, a liberating lesson. As a very new author who did not think two years ago that any of this was going to happen to her, it enables me to stay in the moment right now as well.

Zibby: I love that. The story’s mine, but the book is theirs. That’s awesome.

Natalie: That’s Karma Brown.

Zibby: I want to write that down. It’s great advice. By the way, speaking of Canadian women authors, I don’t know if you know Sarah Mlynowski. Do you know her?

Natalie: No.

Zibby: I’m going to put you guys in touch because she’s also like, rah-rah Canada. She lives in LA now. She’s the one who actually told me to start a podcast a couple years ago. She’s a good friend of mine.

Natalie: That’s so great. How wonderful.

Zibby: Just if you want another new friend or whatever.

Natalie: I need all the help I can get right now.

Zibby: So you’re living each hour, as we all in a way are in this pandemic. What is your advice to getting through life right now and in general? You’ve already given such amazing advice about the perspective that you have, but advice on writing, but mostly just advice on how to maintain the focus of living in the hour when things get in the way in that hour.

Natalie: I found things were easier if I was completely honest with myself about what I needed at that time. To be absolutely honest, sometimes that meant saying no to people who wanted to catch up over coffee. “Tell me how your husband is,” and you’ve been on the phone all day with doctors and you didn’t want to have that conversation. I would be like, “I’m sorry. I just don’t feel like doing that right now.” The old Natalie would not have done that. Something about paying attention to what I really needed must have given me some kind of buffer or margin because it’s made me now much better at that. I’m now able to give more of myself. I think there is some sort of subconscious energy conservation that we all have to be mindful right now of. People are trying to homeschool. They have to make every meal. They’re worried about their parents. There’s so much coming at you.

I think being honest with yourself about how much you can handle is probably the number-one thing you have to do in order to pace yourself because clearly we have uncertainty for at least several more weeks, if not months, ahead. I think there’s a pacing that needs to take place, and to be gentle and kind and patient with yourself as well. It sounds very self-oriented, but actually, it’s like that expression about the mom putting the oxygen mask on first. I found that by giving myself that quiet year, immersing myself in Jane Austen, and taking the trip that I wanted to take, and writing the book, even though my daughter was in exams, my husband was in Ireland golfing with his friends, that’s when I started to write the book. It wasn’t the best time in life to try and write the book. I made the time for it. I think that doing my year really gave me now an ability to share more openly. I’m actually, believe it or not Zibby, a very private person. I told my husband, I said, “Don’t watch. Because Zibby’s great, I have a feeling I’m going to be — . You’re going to be . Just watch it later.”

Zibby: You’re so funny, oh, my gosh. Are you going to write another book? Do you feel like that got everything out?

Natalie: I think because I had already written five books — I am a writer. There’s a lot going on in here, if you haven’t gleaned that yet. At any given time, I have different stories percolating. I have one, another historical fiction. I think it’s going to be set in New York. I’m very excited about it. I did write another book that is sort of waiting with my agent, things going on. It’s set in more modern times. My books, I think, will always, Zibby, be about a group of characters coming together and dealing with history or art or culture or saving something. I like multi-character stories. I love creating a bunch of people and then having them bash up against each other in a room. That’s something I’m excited to do. I’ve raised a little writer. I have a daughter heading into her third year of university. She’s not published yet, but she’s finished her second novel. We’re just constantly talking right now. We’ve never had that. That’s a whole new facet to the mother-daughter relationship, which is really amazing.

Zibby: Aw, that’s so nice. That is so special. I feel like even when my daughter writes three sentences, I’m like, that’s amazing.

Natalie: It is. It’s amazing. Expression is amazing. Also, it’s them. It’s their own ego, their own creative mind. That’s so separate from you. It’s wonderful.

Zibby: Then parting advice on writing?

Natalie: With this book, the biggest advice I can give — people are like, wow, you tried — I tried really hard for decades to get published. I think my books were actually pretty good. I wrote them authentically and from the heart. My biggest advice would be to write the book that you most need to write. Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. If it’s the book that you most need to write, you’re the only person that can write that story. That will give you a little market edge because it’s a pretty crowded field out there. The other thing too with this book was, I said to myself — first, I wrote it for me because I wanted to be close to Jane Austen again. I’d read all the books. I’d reread them. I was like, how do I ? I was writing this book. Right away, chapter one, I’m like, oh, I get to stay in Jane Austen’s world. I get to talk about her with my characters. I wrote it for me. I wrote it for my husband. The dedication in my book is for husband. I wrote it for him. I remember I said to myself, it has to have more than a snowball’s chance in hell of being of interest to somebody else. That was the hook, I think, with the Jane Austen. I’m very grateful to her because I know that this is why this is happening. I would say to people, it’s very important to have something be very authentic, the story you most need to write, but it does have to have that unique kind of hook that immediately will pull people in.

Zibby: Natalie, I am so excited I spoke to you today. I know this went on. This could absolutely be the podcast. If the sound is okay, I’m going to just use it. I was worried with down here in my basement and all the rest, but I’m glad that despite this we could still have such a nice conversation.

Natalie: It was wonderful.

Zibby: You’re really inspiring. It’s just really great to be connected. Thanks for sharing.

Natalie: Thank you so much. Thank you so much for having me on. Stay well.

Zibby: You too.

Natalie: Take care.

Zibby: Bye.

Natalie: Bye.