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Shannon Hale on turning her novel 'Austenland' into a movie

Eight years ago, novelist Shannon Hale read an interview with a writer who was on the verge of publishing her first book.

“Ohhh,” Hale sighed sympathetically. “It doesn’t sound like she has writer friends.”


This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.


The author of the well-received young adult novels “The Goose Girl” and “Enna Burning” remembered how lonely she’d been when she was starting out, so she sent the new writer on the scene a friendly email, and they hit it off. Nothing too unusual about that — Hale, a self-described extrovert in a solitary profession, has reached out to fellow writers repeatedly — but in this case, her new pal was “Twilight” author Stephenie Meyer.

Hale, 39, went on to pen the comic novel "Austenland," about a modern woman battling a debilitating obsession with the BBC "Pride and Prejudice" television miniseries starring Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, and Meyer went on to — among other things — become a strong supporter of that novel.

"We were talking on the phone when she was working on the first 'Twilight' film, and she said, You know what would make a great film? 'Austenland,'" Hale says.

Hale's first adult novel might seem an unlikely candidate for the big screen: a charming but decidedly understated romance that takes place at a Jane Austen theme park, where actors and customers court in period dress. But the independent film version starring Keri Russell is opening this month in several major cities, including Chicago, thanks in part to two powerful Hollywood forces that aligned with the book's unassuming author.

Hale, who lives near Salt Lake City with her husband and four young children, credits Meyer, a producer of "Austenland," and "Napoleon Dynamite" co-writer Jerusha Hess, who directed "Austenland," with helping her book beat the big-screen odds.

"It was really just the three of us, having a lot of passion and wanting to make a movie together," Hale says.

The film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was bought by Sony Pictures, reportedly for about $4 million. Printers Row Journal spoke with Hale recently by phone; following is an edited transcript.

Q: How did you connect with Jerusha Hess?

A: I heard her say later that she'd actually contacted me because she wanted to make a movie out of one of my young adult books, but she didn't tell me that at the time. I had no idea she was even considering that. I thought we were just getting together as people who have something in common.

Q: So someone called you and said, do you want to get together with this person?

A: Yes, it was really funny. Actually his name is Duff and he works in the Utah film industry and he had known my older sister in college, so I'd met him a couple of times, but I hadn't seen him in years. He actually called my mom and said, 'I'd like to get a hold of Shannon, I have someone who would like to meet her.' So my mom gave me the information. And then a couple of days later my sister called me and said, 'Hey, do you remember Duff from 15 years ago, we went bowling one time?' He really wants you to meet this person who's in film.' I occasionally get contacted by people who want to be in film, but aren't really, so I've just learned not to respond. It can cause problems. My mom called me again a few days later and then my sister called me again.

Q: So you finally called the poor guy?

A: I called him and he called me back immediately (and) he told me what films [Jerusha had] done. And I was like, "Oh my gosh!" I was so embarrassed. As a writer I should learn the names of screenwriters of films I'd enjoyed. I was like, "Of course I know her work! I would be honored to meet with her. I'd be delighted."

We had a lovely lunch, [and] as we were leaving the restaurant, I went to my car and I had a copy of "Austenland" in my car. And I don't even remember why, but I never carry my books around with me. But she had paid for lunch and I just felt I wanted to give her something, so I just said, "Here." She didn't even know I had written books for adults. So she took it home, and she contacted me 24 hours later and said, 'I want to make this into a movie.'

Q: How did you get to be writing friends with Stephenie Meyer?

A: It started really early when she still had a public email address. I just sent her a friendly email saying, "Hey, I know you went to school in my state." I just barely had two books out myself. I said, "Hey, if you ever have questions or want to complain to a fellow writer," let me know.

Q: What happened?

A: She just writes the most delightful emails, and we were almost like penpals for a year before we met. And then we read each other's stuff, and we both really liked what each of us did. We write I think quite differently from each other, which is really fun — to enjoy books that are different than what you work on. We just ended up having a lot in common. She's just a really smart, funny delightful person.

Q: Do you do that often with other writers? Reach out to them without an introduction?

A: I have sometimes, yes. I don't always become as close as I think Stephenie and I have become. But writing is a very lonely business, and I'm an extrovert, so it's sort of painful to have a job where you work alone in your room. I really love community, but I also have four small children, so I don't get out much and see other adults. I end up making a lot of connections online with people, now on Twitter.

I love writers. I think we're such a bizarre breed. It's really nice to have other people that get you.

Q: When did you know the movie was going to actually happen?

A: Once Jerusha and I started working on the screenplay, and I got to know Jerusha and her husband, Jared, it was just clear that these are people who get things done. They don't mess around. They're not "Hollywood" people. I've had enough experience of Hollywood to know that people say, "Oh, we love you and we want to do stuff," and then nothing happens.

And Jerusha and Jared — there's no artifice to them. They just are who they are. They don't tell you pretty things. They (said), "We're going to do this," and I was like, "I believe you." And then once Stephenie came on, she just has the clout, and she's not one of those people who mess around either. She's just a force, and if she wants something to happen, it's going to happen.

Q: What was it like on the set?

A: I was never bored, not for a moment. I was completely enchanted. I must be egotistical, because I enjoyed hearing the lines I wrote repeated over and over again. In the romantic scenes, my heart was pounding through every single one. I was like, please, can we do another take of that, because I'm enjoying it so much.

And then probably my favorite thing about it was that some of the actors are improvisers, particularly Jennifer Coolidge. It was so fun because I spent so much time with the script, I know it really well. It was really entertaining to have fresh material brought into it. The hardest thing was just to keep from laughing.

Q: And then you saw the film on the big screen.

A: I saw it at Sundance with a (sold-out) 1,000-seater, and it was amazing. Everyone around me is laughing, and I'm just sitting there crying. I have tears rolling down my face. It was just so transcendental. I've written books for many years, and I get wonderful emails from people, telling me what the books mean (to them), but I'm not there while they're experiencing it. I've never been present while the audience is experiencing it, and to be there and actually hear the laughing!

There was a really important moment in the film where something happened that the audience wasn't expecting, but perhaps hoping for, and I heard a thousand people gasp in surprise and then sigh in happiness. It was just like probably the best moment of my entire career. It was just so lovely.

Nara Schoenberg is a Tribune lifestyles reporter.

"Austenland"

By Shannon Hale, Bloomsbury, 208 pages, $14.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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