How I wrote Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.

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Sept. 15 2009 11:40 AM

This Scene Could Really Use a Man-Eating Jellyfish

How I wrote Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.

Elinor and Marianne are sisters looking for love. Elinor is reserved and sensible, Marianne headstrong and sensitive. Unfortunately, thanks to Britain's cruel, patriarchal inheritance laws, they've been booted from their ancestral estate and, what's worse, left without dowries sufficient to attract good and handsome husbands. Then, just when the sisters' prospects are at their lowest ebb, a gigantic man-eating jellyfish drags its gelatinous body from the surf and tries to dissolve them in its corrosive stomach acid.

This story may sound familiar—kind of. It's the beloved Jane Austen novel Sense and Sensibility,except for the part about the jellyfish, which appears in Chapter 11 of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, my parody of the Regency classic, published today.

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Quirk Books, a small Philadelphia-based publishing house, had an unexpected hit earlier this year with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,conceived by Quirk editorial director Jason Rekulak and written by Seth Grahame-Smith. As Zombies sales mounted and Quirk anxiously anticipated imitators rushing to press (correctly, as it turned out), they knew they needed a follow-up, and fast. By the time Rekulak called me, the publisher had considered and rejected hundreds of possible sequels (A Farewell to Arms and Legs, Jurassic Mansfield Park). Everyone was expecting vampires, which meant it couldn't be vampires. Everyone was expecting Quirk to make a different writer its next victim—but Austen had worked so well the first time around.

Next thing I knew, I was dog-earing my Barnes & Nobles classics edition of Sense and Sensibility, writing cryptic phrases like "secretly a merman?" in the margins.

My job was to introduce a B-movie action/adventure plot while preserving Austen's original story and most of her text. I was allowed to add new words, sentences, and paragraphs and to delete Austen's words where necessary, for logic and length. Zombies and Sea Monsters are widely referred to as "mashups," a useful but not entirely accurate description; strictly speaking, a mashup (like DJ Danger Mouse's The Grey Album)combines elements from two pre-existing works (the Beatles' White Album and Jay-Z's Black Album). These "Quirk Classics" instead place one pre-existing work in an entirely new context—meaning, for my book, the creepy, there's-something-beneath-the-surface, the-ocean-will-swallow-us-all context that's been a staple of Western culture from The Odyssey through Jaws.

My first step was to steep myself in these fish tales. I found in Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea not only some first-rate scenes of sea-creature-vs.-man violence but page upon page of lovingly described undersea flora, some of which I borrowed to decorate the world of the Dashwood sisters. Robert Louis Stevenson was also a big help, when pirates made their inevitable appearance in my story. And, God bless his bizarro soul, H.P. Lovecraft: In his classic "weird tales," I found hidden underground civilizations, strange worlds on the fringes of known reality, and I knew I had to get that stuff into Regency England.

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