WIPs Conversation: NancyKay Shapiro on her work in progress

NKShapiroNancyKay Shapiro is the author of a previous novel, What Love Means To You People. She lives in New York City.




NancyKay, your novel Céline Varens gives resounding voice to a minor character in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. In the excerpt we find Céline in Paris discovering that the woman whom she left her young daughter Adele with years before has already turned the girl over to Adele’s father, Rochester. Céline tells M. Carmichael that Rochester only took the girl “To punish me. To punish me. To punish me.” What intrigued you about Céline that inspired you to write a novel in which she becomes the protagonist? Do you feel she was overlooked in Jane Eyre?

Not overlooked. In Jane Eyre Céline’s not a character—she’s a necessary object, part of the plot function, referred to in dialogue but not otherwise seen by the reader, who has to take Mr Rochester’s word for her. Céline is a key figure in Rochester’s past, which he’s got to confess and live down in order to be worthy of Jane in the end. She helps make the story wheel turn, by representing for him the venality of women in general, and birthing the little girl whose presence requires Rochester to need a governess.

But to step back from the immediate question, I’d like to describe a little about where the idea to write a novel in conversation with another novel came from.

My first published novel, What Love Means To You People, is set in New York, in what was the present when I wrote it. In coming up with a new project I wanted to do something very different in texture. I spent a few years working on a novel set in the 1950s bohemia of Greenwich Village, but after a while I sadly realized it wasn’t working, and set it aside.

At the time I was involved with a community assembled around transformative works that bring new sensibility and expression to pre-existing characters. I was attracted to the opportunities afforded by using a set of characters already known to the reader to explore alternative in-character options for their lives. Since my early twenties I’ve read and reread a lot of Victorian novels. I always wanted to write something set in the 19th century—among the attractions of that period are the more restricted and mannerly mores of both the time and the literature of the time, which provide an opportunity to play with language, character, emotion in a way quite different from the contemporary setting.

I’ve admired a couple of other contemporary novels that were derived from earlier ones, including Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs, which is in conversation with Dickens’ Great Expectations, and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, which also takes Jane Eyre as its launch point (though it wasn’t a direct inspiration for me—in fact once I decided to write Céline Varens I’ve deliberately not looked again at WSS).

I liked the idea of beginning a piece of fiction by breaking off a little piece of some existing work and taking it from the periphery to the center. I made a quick mental inventory of my favorite 19th century novels for a minor character whom I could possess myself of, and explore, and came pretty quickly to Jane Eyre, which is so rich in back-story. I’d read the novel a few times over some 20 years, and felt that, much as I love it, there were aspects of it I wanted to push back against and interrogate. I believe in Jane, I completely buy the romance of her love for Rochester, and her happy ending thrills me, but at the same time I reread the book with a squint because hello, Mr Rochester really is a shit.

What got me writing was the idea of the little girl Adele. She’s obviously Mr Rochester’s child, but he’s cagey about being her father, he ‘s condescending to the child, his kindnesses to her are coated in irony, and the account he gives to Jane and to Adele about her mother is cagey too, and contains omissions if not outright lies. So there’s little Adele, and certainly she’s going to grow up into a young woman with “issues”—issue around her parents, abandonment, her role as a kind of stepchild in her former governess’ happy new family, and so on. I began with her, but quickly realized that she wasn’t the center of my story; it was her mother.

I want to emphasize that in Céline Varens I’m not attempting to rewrite Jane Eyre, or continuing it. My novel can be read by someone entirely unfamiliar with Jane Eyre. I wasn’t interested in imitating Brontë’s prose or story-telling style. Rochester is a character in my novel (though he’s off-stage for much of it), Jane appears in a couple of scenes, but she’s not a point-of-view character; the novel isn’t about her. While I certainly enjoyed writing my takes on Rochester and Jane, I was much more involved in bringing my original characters to life. In my story, Jane Eyre Rochester almost takes the place of Céline in the source novel, in being a part of the situation rather than an active character.

In Jane Eyre; Rochester tells Jane about his affair with Céline, and his account is spiteful, ironic, sarcastic, and oblique; it’s dismissive. She’s gone and never coming back. She’s just a few paragraphs in the novel. I thought, ‘there’s a whole other side to this very biased and self-serving story Rochester tells, and wouldn’t it be fun to know what it is”.

In making up an inner life and experience for Céline, I wasn’t looking to “exonerate” the character, from a feminist or any other perspective, or “correct” Rochester’s account, but rather to open out its possible interpretations, to make Céline into a fully-realized character, and the star of her own life, rather than a bit player in Rochester’s.

What can readers expect to find next, beyond this excerpt? Does Céline come to trust M. Carmichael and accept his offer to help her find Adele? Are there instances where Céline Varens collides with those of Jane Eyre?

Part of what attracted me to play with the 19th century novel form is that many of the novels of the time have large casts of characters, and multiple subplots; the mid-century sensation novels of Collins and Braddon revel in the kinds of outlandish plot turns that would be hard to get away with in a novel set in the 21st century.

In telling the story of Céline’s life, my novel moves through about 25 years of time, and is set in both Paris and Florence, which was counter to my original association of the kind of “Victorian” novel I wanted to attempt as taking place mostly in London. Most of my characters turn out to be not English but French and American. It spans Céline’s life from the time when, as a young dancer, she meets Mr Rochester and has a child with him, to the time some twenty years later when her daughter finds her and they’re reunited. In the years between, Céline is involved with Leon Carmichael, an expatriate American she meets in Paris when she’s seeking her daughter. After her disaster with Rochester and with the man whom she followed to Russia at the time she leaves Adele, Céline thinks of herself as hardened, scarred, disinclined to trust; she takes a practical view of where life has led her and what she needs to do to go on. She’s bemused to find herself attracted to Leon, who is eccentric, tubercular, impecunious, impractical in every way for her purposes—and who, in refusing to take her at her own face value, utterly charms and wins her. Leon draws her into the other important relationships of her life, which will be with him as his common-law wife, in a peripatetic life that takes them around Europe, and with his niece, Laura, a young painter who finds in Céline a model, a muse, a confidante, and ultimately, when she makes a break from her marriage a conspirator. The novel is almost as much about Laura and her disappointed husband Inigo as it is about Céline, and Adele. Inigo, who re-appears in Céline’s Paris life as the chaperone of her secretive daughter, ties together the gap between Adele aged 7 and Adele aged 20. (And because, emulating Collins, I’ve made a rather busy plot, I won’t attempt to summarize it here more than that. There’s a lot going on.)

As far as the actual writing, to what degree are you emulating Brontë’s tone and style? Is it something you consciously considered from start to finish as you wrote the novel?

An attractive aspect of writing a “Victorian” novel for me was the chance to play with vocabulary and sentence structure in both my prose and my dialogue. In evoking my early 19th century world, I use language that’s mannered and even a little archaic in places. For me there’s pleasure in evoking strong emotion through the sieve of the formal, perhaps more restrained manners of that time. In coming up with the prose style for Céline Varens I worked instinctively and without making direct reference to the style of any particular other writer, including Charlotte Brontë; years of reading and rereading her, Dickens, Eliot, Trollope, Henry James, Mrs Gaskell, and other 19th century fiction writers has brought me to find a cadence and vocabulary which seems to be my own. I try to avoid anachronisms but I’m more interested in the right “feel” than in absolute period accuracy. I also tried to write as if I was a contemporary, not noticing or describing things the characters themselves would take for granted, or feeling a need to indulge my theoretical reader with excess period detail just because I could.

What is the novel’s status currently? Is Céline Varens something you’ve run by agents or publishers or will be doing soon?

It’s still in progress, though it’s complete enough that I’d be happy to show it to interested agents.

What other creative projects have you got going these days?

I can only do one project at a time. I envy writers who always have lots of ideas brewing. I find I need to be finished with one thing before I can begin to develop characters and find out what they want, which is always how I find my stories.

Read an excerpt from NancyKay’s novel Céline Varens