Interview with B.R.A.G. Honoree Jennifer Petkus

Jennifers book cover

With the invention of the AfterNet, death isn’t quite the end to a literary career it once was, and Jane Austen, the grande dame of English literature, is poised for a comeback with the publication of Sanditon, the book she was writing upon her death in 1817.

But how does a disembodied author sign autographs and appear on talk shows? With the aid of Mary Crawford, a struggling acting student who plays the role of the Regency author who wrote Pride and Prejudice and Emma and Sense and Sensibility. But Austen discovers her second chance at a literary career also gives her a second chance at happiness and possibly even … love.

Stephanie: Hello Jennifer! Thank you for chatting with me today and congrats on receiving the B.R.A.G. Medallion for your book, “Jane, Actually.” What an interesting premise for your story? First off please tell me what the “AfterNet” is exactly.

Jennifer: Thanks very much, Stephanie, for the opportunity to be interviewed at Layered Pages. It’s very much appreciated, as was the BRAG medallion. As an indie author, I rely on the kindness of many people on the Internet I’ve never met.

The AfterNet is a both a technology, a semi-governmental agency and a social network. The technology comes in the form of an AfterNet terminal, a device that can detect the thoughts of a disembodied person and turn those thoughts into text. An AfterNet terminal can be a standalone unit and are often found at public locations, or it can be a device connected to or built into another electronic device like a smartphone, tablet or computer. The AfterNet is also a semi-governmental agency under the auspices of the United Nations. It maintains the AfterNet network, develops new technologies to improve how the disembodied can communicate, and also maintains the AfterNet social networking site—think of it as facebook for the dead. The AfterNet assures that every disembodied person can go online, have an email address and also certifies the identity of those who use the network.

Stephanie: In your answers to the questionnaire I sent you, you said that you are not a spiritual person, despite writing about disembodied souls. So why this story and how did it come to you?

Jennifer: I’m not a spiritual person but I still like to think there is something that defines me as a person. I personally see no reason why that something should survive my death, but technology may one day make it possible for an algorithm to approximate that something. It’s possible that a computer simulacrum of me might reasonably claim to be me. With the AfterNet, I’ve just made the process a little more direct. As I mentioned before, the literary inspiration for the AfterNet came from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but I first encountered the idea of a disembodied intelligence in Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, about a computer that achieves awareness. Then in the 1980s I wrote A Feeling of Electricity in the Air, a short story about an intelligence that awakens during an electrical storm and stores itself in computer bulletin boards before it dies. So I’ve been working on this concept for a very long time.

Stephanie: Tell me a little about Mary. What is her relationship-so to speak-with Austen?

Jennifer: Mary Crawford is, of course, the character in Mansfield Park who unknowingly threatens poor Fancy Price’s chance for love with Fanny’s cousin, Edmund Bertram. She’s also the person in Jane, Actually who is employed as an avatar to represent Austen on the author’s book promotion tour. Mary hears Austen thoughts translated into speech via the portable AfterNet terminal she carries (it also doubles as a smartphone). She can also talk to the author directly by manipulating the AfterNet field of the terminal, an ability few living people possess. My Mary Crawford, however, more closely resembles Fanny Price. She’s unsure of herself and doubts her choice to become an actor, but her association with the famous author gives her confidence. Mary finds in Jane the same wisdom Jane found in her older sister, Cassandra. In return, Mary makes sure that Jane does not ignore a chance at happiness.

Stephanie: Without giving the plot away can you tell me what or one of the purposes that Austen has for coming back?

Jennifer: The reason Austen reclaimed her identity is her need to see her completed Sanditon published under her own name. She could have been content to remain one of the many claimants to her identity, but then the authorship of Sanditon would be in doubt. In her lifetime, she never saw one of her books published with her name, which was her own decision, and she has had a long time to regret that choice.

Stephanie: Tell me a little about Albert Ridings and how he is introduced into the story. What are his strengths and weaknesses?

Jennifer: I’m a little bit in love with Albert Ridings. He’s undoubtedly modeled after Dr. John H. Watson, who is married at least twice in the Canon (and by some estimates, up to six times), and I have no doubt he loved each of his wives equally. Albert Ridings had a great love in his wife, whom he left when he died during the Great War. He’s never found her on the AfterNet and has sadly assumed she has gone insane. So he carries a great deal of guilt when he realizes he’s fallen in love with his Jane Austen, whom he does not know is the Jane Austen. I specifically introduced him into the story as a loss prevention specialist at a clothing store because I wanted to show that some of the disembodied find employment. The disembodied don’t need to work to survive, but if you want to buy Jane Austen’s latest novel as an ebook, you do have to have some money.

Stephanie: What do you admire most about Jane Austen?

Jennifer: I most admire Austen’s skill as a storyteller. Even now, after having read her books many times, I still sometimes find the language difficult. Reading Emma late at night, I’ll realize I’ve read a paragraph without understanding it and have to read it again. But her stories come through, despite the many differences between the situations of her characters and the realities of my life and times. My best friend wonders why I should care about the matrimonial prospects of the Bennet sisters, but I understand the choices before them. I love the practicality you find in Austen’s romance and I really enjoyed letting my Jane Austen ignore all that. Of course I also know the challenges Austen faced as a woman author during the Regency. She’s the very model of the self-published indie author (she paid, with a loan from her brother Henry, for her first novel to be published), and she did it before the Kindle.

Stephanie: Which book of hers is your favourite?

Jennifer: I like best whatever of her novels I’m currently reading, but I probably like the story of Emma best (although it’s the most challenging to read), the perfection of Pride and Prejudice is staggering and the story of Persuasion—a second chance at love—is the most personal to me. As this year is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mansfield Park, it’s a current favorite.

Stephanie: What are the titles of your other two book and do they have a connection with Jane, Actually?

Jennifer: My first book was Good Cop, Dead Cop, and it’s the first book about the AfterNet. Its 99.99% Austen free, but obviously related to Jane, Actually. It’s about a disembodied cop and his living partner. My second book was My Particular Friend, a Sherlock Holmes-Jane Austen inspired mash-up set in Bath, England at the beginning of the 19th century. The main character is Charlotte House, who solves mysteries of the heart with her friend, Jane Woodsen.

Stephanie: What do you think it is that keeps people intrigued and inspired with Austen?

Jennifer: I have no idea why Austen appeals to me and so I’m not a good person to speak to why others find her appealing. I grew up reading science fiction and then hard-boiled detective stories as an adult and it’s only recently that I’ve started reading the classics I avoided in high school. I have no idea why the matrimonial prospects of young women from the lower orders of the landed gentry during the English Regency should be so fascinating to me. My only guess is that as I grow older, I feel the need for romance, but I’m too cynical to accept it on face value. I think Austen’s mix of head and heart must appeal to me on a level I couldn’t appreciate until now.

Stephanie: What is up next for you?

Jennifer: I’m writing the sequels to my first two books—The Background Noise of Souls and Our Mutual Friends—and also another Jane Austen-inspired science fiction story, On Mars There Are Books.

Stephanie: How did you discover indieBRAG?

Jennifer: I discovered IndieBRAG because of another author, Karen Aminadra, who snagged a BRAG medallion for her book, Charlotte—Pride and Prejudice Continues. I enjoyed her book a lot and it inspired me to submit my book to IndieBRAG.

Stephanie: Is there a message you would like to give to your readers?

Jennifer: I’m not big on messages, other than the general admonitions to do no harm to others and to practice tolerance and understanding. And keep buying books.

Jennifer Petkus

Jane, Actually is Jennifer Petkus’s third boo. Previously she wrote Good Cop, Dead Cop (the first book about the AfterNet) and My Particular Friend (a Sherlock Holmes/Jane Austen Mishap). Her next books will be The Background Noise of Souls (the sequel to her first book) and Our Mutual Friends (the sequel to her second book). Ms. Petkus is a member of the Jane Austen Society of North America, Doctor Watson’s Neglected Patients, The Wodehouse Society and Rocky Mountain Ki Society. She has a first-degree black belt in aikido but refuses to test for a second degree because she’s too old. She has been a reporter and a web designer but can now be best described as an unsuccessful author. Her friends derisively call her a kept woman. She is happily married, thanks to being kept. She watched Neil Armstrong walk the moon live. She likes to make furniture and model starships, but is not very good at either.

A message from BRAG:

We are delighted that Stephanie has chosen to interview Jennifer Petkus, who is the author of, Jane, Actually, one of our medallion honorees at indieBRAG . To be awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion TM, a book must receive unanimous approval by a group of our readers. It is a daunting hurdle and it serves to reaffirm that a book such as, Jane Actually merits the investment of a reader’s time and money.

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