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March 23, 2019

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‘Messing with the classics’ not a bad thing: author tells university audience

“When are you going to write something original?”

It’s a question that Dr. April Lindner says she is asked “every now and then by well-intentioned people—mainly family members who wish me only the best.”

And the English professor and author of retellings of classic novels has two stock answers. The first is that “it takes originality to pull off a retelling, to make the story your own,” she related Oct. 20 in a Bluffton University forum, part of the university’s 32nd annual English Festival. The second, she added, is that “authors have been retailoring existing stories since the oral poets stitched together existing bits of narrative to make something new and deliberate as their own.”

Then there’s the reimagined stories’ popularity with readers. Their appetite is fed by retellings of fairy tales and myths, as well as classic fiction, that “are suddenly everywhere,” including stage and screen, said Lindner, who has updated the Brontë sisters in two novels for young adults.

“Messing with the classics,” as she called it, provides certain benefits, including “an opportunity to ride on the shoulders of giants, to borrow some of their strength,” noted the author of “Jane” and “Catherine.” Those books are reimagined versions of Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” and Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights,” respectively. Most recently, she has also updated E.M. Forster’s “A Room with a View” in “Love, Lucy.”

“Potential readers will read a novel’s book jacket or the title of a poem and have a moment of recognition—a hook to hang their interest on,” said Lindner, who is also a poet. “Lovers of the parent work might well find themselves drawn to its offspring.”

But a prospective writer of retellings should be aware of “an equal and opposite pitfall” as well, she told her listeners, who also included high school students on campus for the daylong English Festival. Some “purist” readers “will never read a retelling,” and others “will only hate-read such a book,” she maintained.

Even given a more open-minded reader, though, “the task of reimagining a beloved classic story comes with the very real potential for failure,” she said. It can look, from one angle, “like an act of extreme hubris,” and, in fact, she continued, failure to live up to the source material is “almost a given.”

Lindner said retellings aren’t, as some critics have claimed, fan fiction, which she defined as “writing for one’s own satisfaction, or sometimes that of a small audience of fellow fans. A retelling goes a step farther, is conscious of a wider audience and of making something that can stand on its own.”

But both forms, she added, start with the same impulse—“coming to the end of a story and looking for a way to dwell in its world and its thematic obsessions a bit longer, to spend more time with beloved characters, to make them your own. Like fan fiction, a retelling is what happens when rereading a story for the fifth or 10th or 100th time simply isn’t enough.”

So it was with “Jane,” which “grew directly out of an ongoing fascination with ‘Jane Eyre,’” her mother’s favorite novel and, eventually, one she loved, too.

“I found myself hooked on the challenge of translating the idiom of the past into the present, and in doing so, the challenge of making the story my own while still seeking to retain something essential about its themes and characters,” she explained.

“The experience was so satisfying that I decided I was going to write more,” said Lindner, who transformed the “Jane Eyre” character Mr. Rochester into a rock star in “Jane.” Next came “Catherine,” and on the heels of “Love, Lucy,” she plans retellings of “Persuasion,” by Jane Austen, and “Romeo and Juliet,” where “there’s room for endless retelling, I think.”  

“I love doing it, so I keep doing it,” she said. “Retellings are just an awful lot of fun.”