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From Doctor to NYT-Bestseller: An Author Interview with Sayantani DasGupta

Editor's note: Remember that Jane Austen Books has a curated selection of reading for JASP 2023 available for online purchase (they won't be with us in person this year, so make sure to visit their virtual store!). Sayantani DasGupta's charming and thought-provoking novels are among the titles they have pulled together for us.

 

New York Times bestselling author Sayantani DasGupta has written over ten books, including the critically acclaimed, Bengali folktale and string-theory-inspired Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond books, the first of which—The Serpent’s Secret—was a Bank Street Best Book of the Year, a Booklist Best Middle Grade Novel of the 21st Century, and an EB White Read Aloud Honor Book. Two of her books, Debating Darcy and Rosewood: A Midsummer Meet Cute, are contemporary young adult adaptations of novels by Jane Austen. Sayantani is a pediatrician by training, but now teaches Narrative Medicine, Comparative Literature, and Race & Ethnic studies at Columbia University. She is a team member of We Need Diverse Books, and can be found online at sayantanidasgupta.com and on Twitter at @sayantani16.


She was kind enough to speak with us about her YA adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, the inspiration behind them, and her excitement for JASP 2023 ahead of her appearance in Chapel Hill this summer.

 

You’ve written two Austen adaptations: Debating Darcy, a retelling of Pride and Prejudice, and Rosewood: A Midsummer Meet Cute, which mixes elements of Sense and Sensibility with some of Shakespeare’s comedies. What drew you toward writing retellings of these two works in particular?


I’m sure it won't surprise anyone when I admit that I’m a huge Jane Austen addict. The first Austen novel I read was, in fact, Pride and Prejudice. When I was about twelve, my mother handed me the now well-loved and tattered copy I still have, and after some initial reluctance on my part, I soon fell in love with the Bennet sisters and have revisited the novel dozens of times. There’s always something new to discover at each age and stage of life when re-reading Austen, which is of course what makes her work stand the test of time. I think the next novel I read of hers might have been Sense and Sensibility, but I adore all the Austen novels, with maybe the notable exception of (dare I say it?) Mansfield Park. With all due apologies to all the Fanny Price stans out there, her moralistic goodness is a bit much for me sometimes.


If I was initially drawn in by Jane Austen’s stories of courtship and marriage, it is her razor-sharp wit and her ability to use humor as a tool of social critique that keeps me coming back to her novels. Humor is such a powerful tool to illuminate social injustice, and while Austen used it to examine things like class, gender roles and inheritance laws, I use humor in my adaptations to discuss, among other things, issues of gender, race, colonialism, and colorism, not to mention giving the slimy sexual predator Mr. Wickham his much deserved #metoo moment!


Are there any other Austen novels you would like to adapt in the future?


I’ve been playing around with a comedic Gothic adaptation of Northanger Abbey, but I’m also drawn to adapting Emma. The richness and multidimensionality of Austen’s work keeps so many modern day authors returning to her for inspiration and I’m no different. There can never be too many Jane Austen adaptations, in my opinion!

Both Debating Darcy and Rosewood: A Midsummer Meet Cute are YA novels. Was it difficult to take the source material found in classics and reinvent it for an audience aged 13 - 18? Some of the overall situations in both of your adaptations are based around principles that didn’t exist in Austen’s time—Debating Darcy centers a high-stakes debate competition, and Rosewood follows two sisters at a summer Regency camp attempting to land on a Bridgerton-esque show.

I was a teenager when I first encountered Austen’s work, and while I’ve revisited her novels throughout my life, I wrote these adaptations as YA novels to recapture some of that delight and joy I felt when reading Jane Austen for the first time as a young person. And of course, like anyone writing an adaptation, I began with the original stories, but then made them my own.


For my Pride and Prejudice adaptation, I wanted to reflect the way that in Austen’s original, Elizabeth and Darcy verbally spar as a love language—they debate their way into falling in love. And so, Debating Darcy is set in a contemporary high school setting, with my Lizzie character a scrappy public school debater and my Darcy character a wealthy entitled debater from a private school. Whereas the original novel has Lizzie and Darcy verbally sparring during country dances and society balls, in Debating Darcy, those dances are transformed into speech and debate tournaments. Regardless of if it’s a dance floor or a debate round, however, intellectual and emotional sparks fly.

With Rosewood: A Midsummer Meet Cute, I began with Eleanor and Marianne Dashwood, but soon found myself wondering how much Austen’s two sisters of different temperaments were akin to Katherine and Bianca from Taming of the Shrew. And that’s when this book became as much about Shakespeare as it was about Austen. I wasn’t only involved in speech and debate in high school, but in high school theater. So Rosewood is a bit of a love letter to those over-the-top, fabulous high school theater kids, the ones who live for the drama and dream big, the ones who create a community for each other even if some of their identities place them at the margins of mainstream high school society. I’m a huge fan of Shakepeare, and particularly, summer productions of Shakespeare’s work, and I wanted to give Rosewood that giddy, midsummer feeling of seeing Shakespeare outdoors, the fireflies dancing around the actors heads as they deliver a beautiful soliloquy. The fact that the sisters are attending a summer Regency camp that is scouting extras for a Bridgerton-like show was a bit of a tribute to the campy spirit of the film Austenland.


Speaking of reinvention, your retellings center experiences that were not typically highlighted in Austen’s time; for example, Debating Darcy and Rosewood contain racially diverse as well as LGBTQ+ characters. What first inspired you to adapt classic novels like Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility?


As a young Austen lover, I never saw myself in her work, or any of the other novels I loved when I was young. That’s why the practice of color conscious casting in television shows is one that intrigues me—it’s a way to assert that Jane Austen is for everybody! Yet, in re-casting a traditionally white and (seemingly) heterosexual story like an Austen novel with BIPOC and LGBTQ+ characters, am I letting the original story off the hook—obscuring other critiques about, say, colonialism or homophobia or racism in the original work? That tension is something I don’t have an answer to, but let my characters sit in it within the plot of my novels.

In Debating Darcy, rival high school debaters Leela Bose and Firoze Darcy actually argue about color conscious casting of traditionally white stories: “Why do we need to co-opt the majority’s stories and insert brown and Black faces into them?” asks Darcy. “Why can’t we just write our own?” Leela shoots back: “Why can’t we do both? We’ve been silenced for so long. Can’t we find multiple ways to express ourselves, speak, and have our voices and stories heard?”


Similarly, in Rosewood, Eila is uncomfortable at the giant portraits of white lords and ladies decorating the mansion’s walls, particularly those including dark-skinned child servants. "What am I even doing here?" she asks herself. "I mean, I had relatives who died fighting for freedom from the British Raj." Her love interest Rahul replies, “Think of it as a subversive act. How Queen Victoria would squirm to see two brown ex-subjects like you and me here doing this.”


What has been the most interesting thing you’ve found out through doing research for your Austen adaptations?


I actually did a lot of research for both adaptations. For Debating Darcy, I wanted to make sure I was getting the finer points of high school Lincoln-Douglas debate correct (I was a speech competitor, not a debater), but for Rosewood, a lot of my research was about Regency era clothing, customs, food, slang and the like. My wonderful editor Abby McAden at Scholastic encouraged me to include a lot of that research in these interstitial sections between chapters. My absolute favorite tidbit was about Regency era underwear – the fact that ladies didn’t normally wear anything other than a chemise, and when they did, the underwear of the day was more like chaps, leaving the middle part exposed. They were also tied on with drawstrings, which sometimes came loose, causing the entire thing to fall down and off. A scandalous occurrence!


Your adaptations draw on the works of Shakespeare as well—was it difficult to blend the work of two different writers operating in very different styles?


I have zero evidence to support this theory, but I actually think that the venn diagram of Austen lovers closely overlaps with Shakespeare lovers. We love language, and cleverness, and wit, which is why we love both of these classic British literary forces. So for me, the blending of Austen and Shakespeare was a joy—working with the words of two of my favorite authors!


Since the focus of JASP 2023 is on the juvenilia, or Austen’s teenage writings, I wanted to ask: when did you first become a fiction writer? Did you write stories as a teen, and if so, how did they impact the author you are today? I was an avid reader, and I always wrote. When I was younger, I wrote poetry, mostly, and essays. I was always nervous to write fiction – and didn’t do so until I was actually much older. But I think a love of words and story was always there.




Are you working on anything right now? If so, is there anything you can share about your current project?


Beyond my contemporary YA Austen adaptations, I also have a career as a middle grade fantasy author—most of my fantasy series are based on the Bengali folktales I heard growing up. My forthcoming series is called Secrets of the Sky and it centers two ten-year-old brother-sister twins, their flying horse friends, and a magical flying horse dog travelling across the multiverse solving environmental problems like missing magical bees and polluted waters making the mer-people sick! Is there anything in particular you’re looking forward to during JASP 2023?


I am so looking forward to being among fellow Austen loving people! Nothing like celebrating your favorite author with fellow dedicated fans!

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