‘Persuasion’ of the future: How Diana Peterfreund gave Austen a dystopian twist

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By Jennifer Abella

Last week we rounded up a few “Persuasion” retellings and updates. This week we look at one of them in depth, with a Q&A with Diana Peterfreund, the author of the YA dystopian novel “For Darkness Shows the Stars.”

darknessCan you tell us a little about the book?
“For Darkness Shows the Stars” is set in the far future, hundreds of years after a devastating war ended civilization as we know it. The lone survivors (as far as they know), are anti-technology fanatics who have rebuilt society in their own image, one that views all technological progress, from mechanical to genetic engineering, as absolutely forbidden. They have very few machines, ride horses, and use what we would consider old-fashioned farming techniques.

The heroine, Elliot North, is the daughter of one of the largest landowners in her area, and because of her father’s indifference to his land and the people on it, it falls to Elliot to try and keep her farm together and her workers alive.

When one of her crops is destroyed, Elliot rents out part of their estate to a group of mysterious shipbuilders, and is shocked to discover that one of them is her childhood sweetheart, Kai. Kai was a worker on her family’s estate who ran away four years ago to seek his fortune. He invited her to come with him, but she believed her duty was at home and refused. Now he’s back, still angry at her and the culture that tore them apart, and determined to build a ship that will explore beyond their island to see what else of the world has survived their disaster.

The book is about these two characters, the very different backgrounds that drive them and the way they are both feeling their way to a better future.

Have you always been a Jane Austen fan?
I first read “Pride & Prejudice” my junior year of high school and loved it! I still remember falling off the couch in shock at Mr. Darcy’s first proposal. That was, fortuitously, the year that Jane Austen mania hit big time, with the BBC’s “Pride & Prejudice” miniseries (I made my whole family watch), the Ciaran Hinds/Amanda Root “Persuasion,” and the Ang Lee “Sense & Sensibility.” By the end of the year, I’d read all of her books. Over 20 years have passed and I’m still finding new things to love in Austen.

I’ve read that “Persuasion” is your favorite Austen novel. What is it about “Persuasion” that draws you to it?
When I first read “Persuasion” as a teenager, I didn’t love it. I read it again in my early 20s, after I’d had a little more life experience and I was blown away. She captures the essence of what it means to experience loss and regret and also to go on with your life. I don’t think I understood Anne Elliot when I was younger. Certainly, our personalities were not remotely similar. I was much more like Elizabeth Bennet, unafraid of speaking my mind and standing my ground. But when I really looked at Anne, I realized that she was not weak, she was just quiet. She had an unshakeable will, despite the “Persuasion” of the title, and she was devoted to doing what she felt most deeply in her heart, perhaps even more so because of the “mistake” she’d made when she was younger. With Anne and Wentworth, there were two people who were not without flaws — Anne let herself be persuaded, but Wentworth treated her like crap when he came back to town — but you just rooted and rooted for them to get past this and see how much they really needed each other.

How did you decide on the setting for the book? And how did you decide to tailor it for a young-adult market?2
I love retellings. For years, I’d had “A Persuasion retelling” sitting on my massive Ideas list. I also had “something post apocalyptic.” One day they collided — post-apocalyptic Persuasion” — and I couldn’t get it out of my head. It took me a long time, how I wanted the apocalypse to work out, but I love research and sci-fi, so I really dug in there. There is so much more than ever shows up on the page, because naturally, the characters being stuck in this anti-technology dark ages means they do not have access to the records or the truth of what happened to their civilization. (I actually got the opportunity to go into a lot more detail in the companion novel, “Across a Star-Swept Sea,” in which you meet a different society who has been through the same history and responds very differently. Since “Star-Swept” is based on “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” I got to write a very lush, decadent world in that book, whereas For Darkness is very stark and cold and subdued.)

One of the biggest challenges for me was making the distance and time and regrets between Kai and Elliot be believable while still making them teenagers, so hitting upon the idea to make them friends from their young childhood was key for me. Even despite four years apart, they are the two people who know each other best in the entire world.

Were there aspects of Austen’s novel that you wanted to include in your book but ultimately couldn’t? Were there aspects of her novel that you knew right away you’d include, besides the main plot?
The most obvious change is I ended up cutting Anne’s sister, Mary Musgrove, and her immediate family. Again, with the intention of making this a YA novel, having a younger sister married with children would add a difficult dimension to the novel. So my Elliot North only has one sister, who is much more like Elizabeth Elliot than like Mary. There are other characters who I combined elements of, or parts of the novel that didn’t fit with my story (the dear departed Musgrove who worked on Wentworth’s ship, for example). With a retelling, it’s not an exact replica or transformation — I focus on the parts of the story that works best for the independent and original story I’m telling.

One of the most memorable parts of “Persuasion,” to me, is Wentworth’s famous letter to Anne at the end.– Darcy, Marianne, all of Lady Susan, as well as Austen’s own significant correspondence. Elliot and Kai have been sending each other letters since they knew how to write, and being able to seed those letters throughout the book to show how their years together informed every aspect of their interactions once they were reunited was very important to me.

1What do you think younger readers can take away from “Persuasion”?
My goal with this book was to make “Persuasion” a story that teenagers could really grasp and understand, in a way that I failed to when I was a teenager. If I’ve done my job, readers can go from “For Darkness” to “Persuasion” and understand the depths of the loss that Anne/Elliot suffered and the obstacles and scars she and Captain Wentworth/Kai must overcome in order to move forward with the lives and futures they deserve.

Which Austen character are you most like, in “Persuasion” or otherwise?
Oh, I think everyone would want to say Lizzie Bennet, right? Snappy, sparkling, fun-loving, smart, loves nature, good at dancing, fine eyes? I’ll tell you what, the older I get, the more I aspire to be Mrs. Croft. That woman doesn’t miss a beat! In the movies, they always cast her as a middle-aged woman, but she’s actually only 38. I will soon be her age!

Do you have a favorite “Persuasion” film adaptation?
Oh, definitely the 1995 Ciaran Hinds/Amanda Root production. They were obviously much older than the characters, but I think that reads more as “on the shelf” for a modern audience. We’re more inclined to think an actual 27-year-old is too young to marry than the other way around. The production is so gorgeous in that one — their final meeting on the street, with the circus coming through! But I do love them all. I’m actually really partial to the 1971 version, if you can believe it. The hair in that one is… wow… but Anne Elliot gives a stunning performance.

Fantasy-casting: John Cho as Kai and ???? as Elliot North.

If you could cast Elliot and Kai in a film adaptation of your book, whom would you cast?
Oh, goodness! I am just terrible at these questions. I often thought Kai would look a lot like the actor John Cho when he was young, whom I have loved since he was playing a teenager in movies like “Better Luck Tomorrow” and “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.” Obviously, he’s a decade or two too old for that part now. But he also make a fantastic romantic hero. For Elliot, I have no idea. If they ever make a movie, let’s hope casting agents get someone who can do the seriousness and quiet strength. Who do you think?

What are you working on now?
I’m finishing up a trilogy for younger readers called “Omega City,” which I describe as “The Goonies” with rocketships. It’s about a group of children who discover a secret, Cold War-era underground bunker city and go exploring.

And when that is done the field is wide open for me. There’s a modern social romance I”m working on, and I thought I was done with Austen but recently there’s been another Austen-based idea marinating in the back of my mind. Of course, that one will take a lot of research, since it would actually be set in Austen time period and I am determined to do that justice.

Find out more about Diana Peterfreund at dianapeterfreund.com.

Find links, photos and friends on our Jane Austen Summer Program page on Facebook — and follow @JASPhotline on Twitter and @janeaustensummer on Instagram!

Jennifer Abella is a TV/movie/pop culture/knitting/sewing/Jane Austen geek. Oh, and a total Anglophile. Find her on Twitter: @nextjen.

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