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.

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.

As I began writing, it was immediately clear that the original settings would need to be reconsidered. Devonshire is lovely and all, but this isn't Sense and Sensibility and Lake Monsters. (And yes, I know, there is a great Austen novel set on the water, but Persuasionisn't as ripe a target for satire as Sense and Sensibility. Also, Persuasion and Sea Monsters doesn't quite have the right ring to it.) In Austen's original, the Dashwoods, upon their disinheritance, are invited to live in what is essentially the guest house of a wealthy relation, Sir John Middleton. In my version, their move is to Pestilent Isle, part of a vast archipelago controlled by Sir John—now an elusive explorer/collector with a beard "as white as the snows of Kilimanjaro" and a necklace of human ears.

The long, central portion of Sense and Sensibility takes place in London, a bustling cosmopolitan capital in Austen's time as in ours. I needed to transfer that big hunk of story to a location that could represent all that London represented for the Dashwoods and also be beset on all sides by hideous sea monsters. My answer was Sub-Marine Station Beta, a great domed city planted on the floor of the ocean, "the greatest engineering triumph of human history since the Roman aqueducts."

(I had room to describe Sub-Marine Station Beta at considerable length, by the way, thanks to one significant difference between my book and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. In that work, Grahame-Smith wrote 15 percent of the final text; the rest was Austen. The readers who gobbled up Zombies reported back to Quirk that as much as they loved the Jane Austen stuff, they wanted a little less of it. So my mandate on Sea Monsters was to deliver a book that was 60 percent Austen and 40 percent me. Which made my life easier: I don't know if you've ever tried to describe a city built entirely underwater, where wealthy Britons attend costume balls dressed as pirates and government scientists conduct ill-advised experiments whereby fish organs are transplanted into men, but it takes a few paragraphs.)

One of the most consistent creative challenges of writing the book was on the basic level of vocabulary. For the conceit to work, the new material would need to sound as much like Austen's marvelous and precise early-19th century diction as possible. So how to find the right vocab words to describe stuff that Austen never would have described in a million years? I borrowed a lot from my sources. From Verne, I got great fish-describing words like cartilaginous and bioluminescence. From Stevenson, great deserted-island words like miry and marish, not to mention nautical words like cockleshell and flying jib. I also turned frequently to the thesaurus. Poring through my Roget's, I arrived at the appropriately eloquent and disgusting phrase to describe the slimy stomach of an oversize hermit crab just before it smothers someone to death: mucocutaneous undercarriage.

Throughout this project, I found that Jane Austen and I collaborated best when I used the monsters and other interpolations not to replace but to accentuate what was already there in Austen's novel. She made Col. Brandon a bit too old for Marianne so she would have to struggle to see his goodness; all I did by giving him an octopus face was make her struggle a little harder. Whenever possible, I coordinated monster attacks with the moments of high emotional peril that Austen had already created—the Devonshire Fang-Beast pounces just as Elinor learns the truth of Edward Ferrars' past; Marianne's heartbreak at Willoughby's betrayal is heightened by the march of the death lobsters.

I will not hazard a guess as to whether Jane Austen is spinning in her grave over all this. I will say only that part of what makes her such a great novelist is how funny she is. Mr. Palmer trying to read the newspaper while his wife prattles on; Mrs. Jennings' endless gossip and insinuation; the vast gulf between Edward's mild ambition and his family's lofty plans for him: All of these story lines—and the sly sense of humor behind them—remain in the book she and I have written together. I've just made them a bit more mucocutaneous.

Ben H. Winters has written several books in the Worst Case Scenario Survival Guide series and lots of plays and musicals. His young adult novel, The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman, will be published in 2010.