The Women’s Eye is thrilled to be kicking off summer reading suggestions with award-winning and bestselling author Natalie Jenner. Natalie has followed up her wonderful The Jane Austen Society with an equally intriguing Bloomsbury Girls (St. Martin’s Press, 2022). Once again Jane Austen’s influence looms bright in this tale. Since her last interview with TWE, Natalie graciously updated us by answering some questions, starting with what she’s been up to.
EYE: What has it been like for you since you published your first book, The Jane Austen Society?
NATALIE: Definitely the debut author’s dream come true – I have been overwhelmed by the interest, support and kind messages from around the world. Knowing readers are looking forward to more writing from you is without a doubt the biggest motivator as a writer.
It was a true privilege to know that my first book helped many people during such an unprecedented and challenging time for us all with the pandemic.
EYE: What’s been your biggest surprise with the success of your first novel?
NATALIE: In a way, everything has been a total surprise – I really had no expectations heading in, and very little industry experience.
But on a personal level, what I loved discovering the most was the camaraderie and support which authors at all stages of their career show each other.
The mentorship and endorsement of established authors was critical both to the success of my debut and my ability to put my seat in the chair and keep writing.
The palpable enthusiasm of my fellow debut author friends for my success has been especially generous given the pandemic’s negative impact on so many amazing books.
I was so lucky as I had the jet fuel of Jane Austen behind me while I wrote my debut, and then again as the book entered the world, making me doubly grateful to her.
EYE: In Bloomsbury Girls, is there any significance to “Bloomsbury?” Is it a real town/area or bookstore?
NATALIE: Actually, yes, and even more precisely so: Lamb’s Conduit Street in Bloomsbury, the street where my fictional bookstore is located, was until recently the real-life location of Persephone Books, one of the London bookshops that inspired my own.
Persephone specializes in reviving and reprinting lost commercial works by twentieth-century women, and their example was a huge inspiration for both the overall plot and resolution of my book.
EYE: Did anyone inspire you or your characters in Bloomsbury Girls?
NATALIE: It was only while promoting The Jane Austen Society that I finally made a connection between the character of Evie Stone and both my mother (who, like Evie, had to leave school at age fourteen) and my daughter (who when I was writing the book was sixteen years old, the exact same age as Evie in that book).
Ironically, my daughter right now is the same age as Evie in Bloomsbury Girls (twenty) and, like Evie, works for an academic team doing eighteenth-century research. But these scholars are much nicer than the ones in my book!
Otherwise, all my characters just show up on the page, fully formed, and I don’t know where they come from (although when I look back, I can discern little elements of me in each of the good ones!).
EYE: By any chance, is any one of your characters more like you than others?
NATALIE: No, its pretty democratic like I said. But if I had to pick one, I would say Vivien. The passage where she articulates in her mind how she writes was fully inspired by what writing feels like for me.
EYE: What intrigues you about this time in history and having women be a driving force?
NATALIE: I am always fascinated by periods of time when society as a whole is missing something—that is, not yet processing the incipient change in their midst. Postwar time in particular is always laying the foundation for the next battles and challenges ahead, but it’s done so piecemeal and subtly, that it takes a special person to take note of it.
Those are our forward thinkers, and they help arm us to the extent that we pay attention to them. I am also attracted to risk-takers and renegades who buck the system or social norms.
Historically women, or frankly any disenfranchised group in society, have had to learn to rebel from within those norms, which takes immense creativity and initiative and which lends itself to humor inspiration and poignancy within the context of a story.
EYE: In your previous TWE interview, you spoke about how special bookstores are. Are there now plans to pursue your own passion project of owning a bookstore, after your original plans were derailed by personal circumstances?
NATALIE: Not in the immediate future, but certainly I hope to do so again one day. I have learned so much from being published about the book industry.
I have been the recipient of so many early reader copies of upcoming books, and have enjoyed every author event I have been invited to.
I’d love to put all that into operation again in service to lots of different authors, readers and books.
EYE: Do you have a special place in your home to focus, where you can escape and write these wonderful stories?
NATALIE: I am very lucky because I am able to write even with my family sitting around me talking, but when I want to indulge in feeling like a writer, I escape to a little eight foot by eight foot writing shed in my garden. All the views are of greenery—a pure view of nature free of any artificial distractions—which is so calming and nourishing for a writer.
EYE: How do you unwind, refocus and take down time?
NATALIE: I love to watch movies and documentaries, and to read a lot of classic fiction and current non-fiction (all of which have been known to light the spark of the next book idea). I also love to bake, make a perfect cup of tea, run and kayak and swim, play the piano, and walk my two dogs.
EYE: Is there something you are doing differently with this book that you learned from doing the first book?
NATALIE: I wrote The Jane Austen Society page by page, in chronological order and without a plan or outline, purely to entertain myself and my husband. I was very lucky that both my agent and editor liked it just the way it was!
But with Bloomsbury Girls, I was writing for so many more people and so as I wrote, I constantly asked myself what my “ideal reader” would most want to know. Otherwise it was the same, purely joyful experience, which is a major reason why, even with my husband retired, I still can’t wait to wake up each day and write.
EYE: Do you see films in your future for your book(s)?
NATALIE: I would love that, and a wonderful Canadian film and tv production company has already optioned The Jane Austen Society. But frankly the audiobook narrators for each of my books are the best in the world, Richard Armitage and Juliet Stevenson respectively.
They have done such exemplary, astonishing jobs with my stories that in a way, I already have a filmic impression of them in my head from listening to their performances.
EYE: Is there something specific you hope readers to get out of Bloomsbury Girls more than anything else?
NATALIE: I was a career coach for decades, and I have always held true to the maxims that “sociability breeds serendipity” and “she who gives love gathers love.” I believe in putting oneself out there, making connections, and being kind and curious.
I think curiosity about others is, simply put, the best way to become a good citizen of the world, because it leads to empathy, compassion and mindfulness. And I have found in my career and in the careers of my clients, that the most open, curious, thoughtful and gracious people have also been the most successful in the ways that count.
I wasn’t aware as I wrote of this underlying theme to my own book, but clearly it was in every interaction that built to the climax of the book. I loved looking back and seeing something as prosaic as career advice being transformed into an actual story!
EYE: Thank you for your time, Natalie. Anyone who picks up Bloomsbury Girls probably won’t be able to put it down. Definitely a terrific read! Congratulations and we look forward to your next inspiration!