Welcome to a very special spotlight post, readers! In an all-new interview, I have the absolute pleasure and privilege of getting to talk to Canadian author Jacqueline Firkins, whose debut, the young adult nove Hearts, Strings, and Other Breakable Things, was recently released.
Jacqueline Firkins is not only an author, but also a costume designer and faculty member at the University of British Columbia. I had the great fortune of meeting Jacqueline months ago during a publishing event; I was so taken in with Jacqueline’s presentation at the event that I reached out to Raincoast Books and Jacqueline in the hopes that I could speak to Jacqueline further… and here we are! In the interview, we talk debut novels, Jane Austen, adaptations, writing love triangles, design, pop culture and more! Tremendous thank you to Jacqueline and to Raincoast Books for their respective time and generosity. I hope you all enjoy!
Firstly, congratulations on your wonderful debut YA novel! For readers unfamiliar with Hearts, Strings, and Unbreakable Things, could you please tell us a little background about your novel and how you approached crafting a contemporary adaptation of a classic?
Hearts, Strings, and Other Breakable Things is a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. The story centers around a love triangle between a shy girl, the guy she’s loved since childhood, and a charming rake who sets out to make her fall for him, initially for the challenge but soon because he really cares. The seed for writing a retelling was planted when a friend and I were discussing Jane Austen heroines. My friend had recently re-read Mansfield Park and was frustrated with the passivity of Fanny Price after enjoying Austen’s feistier and more outspoken heroines. But I’d remembered relating to Fanny more than to Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse. So I went back and re-read Mansfield. I recalled why I loved its heroine. She was like me. I wasn’t feisty and outspoken either. I preferred a book to a party, and I always had a crush on a guy who didn’t notice me. Or more than one guy. So I started thinking about how I could bring that character into a contemporary world, allowing more readers access to a heroine I was grateful to find when I most needed her, during my teenage years.
Pride and Prejudice is arguably the most popular of Austen’s novels, with readers finding so much to relate to in Elizabeth Bennet and in her and Mr. Darcy’s dynamic. Why do you think Mansfield Park has not held the same spotlight? What story elements of Mansfield Park and what main characteristics of protagonist Fanny Price have been the biggest draw for you- and what do you think readers find most compelling about the story?
Darcy and Elizabeth have real sparks on the page. They’re both outspoken, bold, and witty. They reach for what they want. Fanny Price (Austen’s parallel to my Edie Price) is much more passive. She likes gardens. A lot. She’s reactive, so while things happen to her, she makes very little happen, herself. She’s also rather judgmental. The romance is also a tricky one. In P&P, the moment we meet Darcy, we know Lizzie’s met her man. By the end of the book, he’s turned his entire world upside down to help her family and save her sister from social ruin. Everyone in the book drools over how rich and handsome he is, yet he’s too good for anyone he meets. These are still appealing factors in modern love interests. The market bears this out. Hot, rich, almost unavailable men who dote on heroines are still incredibly prevalent in modern romances. Unlike Darcy, the primary love interest in Mansfield wants to be a clergyman. He’s not surrounded by girls who want to marry him or who chatter on about how good looking he is. He’s a younger son, so he won’t inherit. Also, he spends the entire book captivated by another woman, and only in the last two pages of the novel does he decide he prefers Fanny after all. It’s not even a particularly emotional scene. Frankly, the story is at its most dynamic when one or more of the Crawfords is on the page.
I still think Fanny deserves a revisit, namely because we have so many brave and feisty heroines in YA lit right now, and so many retellings of P&P. They’re fabulous, but I think quiet, complicated girls deserve representation in love stories, too. I love that Fanny’s socially awkward and shy, and that she carries around this unrequited crush she can’t seem to shed even when it drives her nuts. It all seems so relatable to me. Also, I love the love triangle Austen structured. In all of her other works, there’s an obvious central pairing. Mansfield was the only one I read where I thought, oh, wait, this could go another direction entirely. Since I’m adapting, I can go as far as I want with that. I loved the challenge of balancing out two love interests so there isn’t an obvious ending. It’s dynamic, and allows me to really draw out what the heroine most values.
The love triangle in Hearts, Strings, and Other Breakable Things is not only thoughtfully written, but it is also one where either love interest could be a perfect fit for the protagonist! How difficult was it writing two equally dynamic, equally irresistible yet disparate love interests knowing that one would have to be left behind? Did you ever waver in your initial decision of who Edie would eventually end up with?
Perfect follow up to the above—and I’ll try to answer it without too many spoilers! This was the hardest part of writing Hearts, Strings, and it took several rounds of revisions. One of the challenges is that what we enjoy as a romantic fantasy isn’t always what we’d gravitate to in reality, so, in general, on the page, a rake has a draw that a nice guy lacks, especially if he’s more actively pursuing the heroine and the other guy’s more conflicted. This meant recalibrating their appeal. Both guys needed characteristics that attract the heroine, but they had to be really different characteristics in order to test her value system and her growth over the course of the novel. Also, the crisis of a story is often most interesting when a difficult decision is faced, when a protagonist has to sacrifice something in order to get what they want. This meant that no matter which guy Edie ended up with, she needed a genuine sense of loss about the other. At one point during editing, I had a talk with my editor about taking the ending in the other direction, and I know readers have opinions about this, but the current end feels right for the central character arc as written. I did, however, strategically position the characters for an after-the-ever-after. So if reader interest were to develop, I could revisit the triangle and re-test it with new variables. (And without worrying what Jane would think!)
Did you ever think about adapting another one of Austen’s novels for your young adult debut, and if so, which one(s)?
I haven’t considered this, namely because there are so many Austen adaptations already. We have countless P&Ps, S&Ss, Emmas, and Persuasions. Northanger Abbey hasn’t been done as often, but the story feels more set in its time than the others. I adapted Mansfield because I was drawn to that specific story and that specific heroine. That said, I’d love to adapt something by Elizabeth Gaskell, or one of Charlotte Bronte’s lesser known works, or a Thomas Hardy novel for a modern audience. All have fabulously complicated relationships at their centers, and characters that are still relatable in a modern day setting.
Not only are you an author, you are also a costume designer as well as full-time faculty at the University of British Columbia in the Department of Theatre & Film! Could you tell readers about some of your costume design projects? Do you have a favourite era of fashion you like to design for?
I remember updating my design resume about ten years ago and realizing I’d designed over a hundred shows. Many designers have done more, but the number indicated how much of my life I’d spent telling stories and defining characters with other artists. My last costume design was for Oedipus Rex at the Court Theatre in Chicago, a place I love working since I’ve built relationships with many of the artists. Oedipus is one of the first plays I ever read so returning to it felt like a real benchmark. Many of the challenges in designing and writing are the same. I have to figure out the rules of the world, and who the people are. I think about colour symbolism, class, race, gender, and thematic overtones. With Oedipus, for example, the production drew parallels between Ancient Thebes and the Great Migration, which was truly fascinating to research. We tried to create a world that could be Ancient Greece, or today, or entirely in Oedipus’ mind.
I don’t know that I have a favourite period to design. One of the joys of getting to work on so many productions is that every job is new and different. The challenges keep me alert and engaged. I get excited about all of it. I love the delicacy of the 1930s but also the structure of the 1880s. No matter the era, the design questions are similar. Who is this person? What do they choose to show the world? What do they choose to hide? What resources do they have available to them to achieve that? What obstacles intervene?
Images of Oedipus can be found here:
Regarding your work as a faculty member at UBC, could you talk a little bit about your research project Fashioning Cancer?
I came to UBC from Chicago, where I was immersed in freelance theatre work. When I started teaching at UBC, I needed to reframe some of my creative activity into what might more formally be called research, though it all links together. I got funding from the Peter Wall Institute to work with Dr. Christian Naus—a microbiologist who was also on the fulltime faculty—to transform his microscopic images of cancer cells into full-scale fashion that we then auctioned off to fundraise for cancer research. The project was inspired by discussions around how women with cancer felt about the pink ribbon and its lack of reflection of the disease—how cancer felt, what it did to the body, what it represented physically and emotionally. So I set about making gowns that reflected the biological imagery but also addressed what the women I talked to expressed about how they felt and how they wanted to feel when battling the disease.
Images of the slides and the gowns can be found here:
On your website, readers can find a very funny and clever series you have created called The Fine Art of Modern Dating, where you have taken classic paintings and added commentaries about contemporary/modern dating. Tell us about this project! How did it come about, and are you still working on the series?
I love that you found this! I started this project when I was setting up my social media accounts after selling Hearts, Strings and trying to create an online presence. I’m a bit daft with social media and I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be doing in these public venues. I hide from cameras. I keep most of my personal life to myself. I don’t photograph pie. My instinct is rarely “Hey, I should share this with strangers!” So I tried to think of ways to connect to my rom-com writing, ways that were reflective of my voice and point of view. The comic series was one way to do that. It didn’t get much response, so I eventually stopped and put the images on my website instead. I may return to the idea at some point, or something like it. I do love juxtaposing the modern against the classic, and finding ways to gently poke at society. So maybe . . .
Images of the series can be found here:
What are some of your favourite book-to-__ adaptions? This can be a classic book to a contemporary novel; book to film; book to TV adaptation; book to graphic novel, etc.
I could write pages and pages on this since I’ve always been fascinated by adaptation. A few faves: I love both Clueless and Bridget Jones’ Diary for their sharp updates of Austen. Ten Things I Hate About You was a great revamp of Taming of the Shrew—an innately difficult piece to stage with its blatant sexism, but the film handled this well. For more straightforward adaptations, I’ve watched the BBC North and South more times than I can count. I’ll also watch any adaptation of Jane Eyre, for sheer curiosity of what each team does with the three part structure and how much they do or don’t romanticise the central relationship when some really bad s**t is going down at Thornfield.
What books or pop culture are you most looking forward to in 2020- this can be in any genre of books, TV, podcast, film, theatre, music, etc.!
I’m thrilled that the second season of Sex Education just released, though I’m so bad at keeping up with television I’m still watching Gilmore Girls episodes. In theatre, here in Vancouver we’re in the middle of the PuSh festival so there’s loads of great international mixed-media art all over the city. For books, some members of my debut community have sophomore releases, including Laura Taylor Namey, Samantha Hastings, and Astrid Scholte. I’ll be grabbing those, though I’m still trying to catch up on 2019 releases!
If you are able to speak to this, could you please tell readers about projects you are currently working on?
I have lots of things brewing. What reaches readers will depend on interest from editors. I have two other YA rom-coms drafted that aren’t adaptations (one of which centers around a costume designer), a middle grade magical realism piece, a YA contemporary that’s darker and more serious than the rom-coms, and a Victorian-set retelling of the Bluebeard fairy tale, told alternately from his and her points of view. Hopefully within all of that, something strikes a chord with an editor and carries on into further development. I’ll keep designing costumes as I get asked and as the projects fit into my schedule, but I can’t just open a laptop and go to it like I can with the writing. So we’ll see! In the meantime I’ll keep making book-themed dresses that I give away on Instagram or through booksellers and events.
Where’s the best place for people to keep up with you on social media?
Thank you so much, Jacqueline, this has been such a delight!
I reviewed Hearts, Strings, and Unbreakable Things for Quill & Quire prior to the arrangement of this interview. All opinions and comments regarding the review are my own and were in no way impacted by the interview. Thank you to author Jacqueline Firkins for her generosity and time, and to Raincoast Books.