Author: Mary Pagones
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Books such as this one are the reason that I purposely seek out books written by independent authors. Reading Pagones was like rediscovering a long lost friend.
I stumbled upon Mary Pagone’s work when I was searching Twitter for Jane Austen related humor. After seeing Pagones’s posts about rainbow bagels, Austen thanksgiving marathons, and adorable little dogs, I knew that I had to read this book for myself. I reasoned that if I was this amused by what Pagones had to say in short little snippets over social media, that I had to read her entire novel.
Liss, the protagonist, and I both deeply love books and literature. Sometimes I wonder if, like Liss, I spend far too much time tucked between the pages of my favorite works of literature.
Although Liss is a unique and fully fleshed out character, she is also highly relatable. Pagones paints her with so much heart that any book loving misfit will find a great deal to relate to in her character.
Truly great art encourages us to examine ourselves. Pagones’s writing caused me to confront my own feelings of inadequacy regarding higher education. Reading Pride, Prejudice, and Personal Statements brought me to tears as I traveled with Liss on a journey of self examination and realization.
At first, I was a bit hesitant to read Pride, Prejudice, and Personal statements because I was worried that perhaps I had finally outgrown the YA genre. Like many Austen fans who find that their favorite Austen book shifts from Pride and Prejudice to Persuasion as they get older, I thought that perhaps I was too old to appreciate a good YA romp. I’m grateful to Pagones for reminding me that great literature knows no genre limits.
Pride, Prejudice, and Personal Statements reminded me of John Green, one of my favorite authors of all time. Like Jane Austen and Green, Pagones is a “writer’s writer.” I delighted in the many literary references and the plethora of her nerdy allusions.
I am grateful for unique voices such as Pagones because I am hungry for something new. I long to see myself and my struggles represented on the printed page. Pagones engages with complex issues such as biracial relationships, affirmative action, the merits of an LGBTQ+ alliance, and the value of art without being preachy or heavy handed (and trust me, I know a thing or two about preaching!)
Reading Pride, Prejudice, and Personal Statements was like having a chance to go back and time encounter my younger self- only with a great deal of wish fulfillment added to the mix. Liss’s high school experience was everything I wish that my own could have been. I laughed out loud with Liss’s exploits and cried right along with her. Her friends, just like Liss, are well fleshed out characters who seem to leap from the page. Pagones’s work is one that I will carry with me for a long time and will continue thinking about for years to come.
I highly recommend Pride, Prejudice, and Personal Statements for anyone who is interested in YA literature that is of genuine high quality, for young people who are making important decisions regarding their future, and for adults who want to remember what it was like to be young and full of hope. If you have ever been tempted to define your self worth by your academic achievements or have felt the desire to take a chance and dedicate your life to art, then I strongly recommend that you give Pagone’s Pride, Prejudice, and Personal Statements a read. You’ll be glad that you did!
I was delighted that Mary Pagones was kind enough to chat with me in order to answer a few questions regarding her work!
Rev. Rebecca: Your characters are so real. It’s as if they leap off the page! You also describe the challenges of high school and college admissions in an incredibly heartfelt yet realistic way. What inspired you to write Pride, Prejudice, and Personal Statements?
Mary Pagones: I’ve been working for a private admissions consultant—a woman in the same profession as my novel’s Ms. Desborough—for eighteen years. I’ve suffered through the college application process many times, with many families. While Pride, Prejudice, and Personal Statements’ characters and incidents are fictional, they are based on trends I’ve witnessed. Including, sadly, a tendency to devalue the arts in high school and as a career. Along with a tendency to pigeonhole and “brand” kids at a young age before they’re even certain of who they really are. But I think if my characters seem real—and no greater compliment could be given to me as a writer—it’s because first and foremost, I love character-driven fiction. I think the best characters are larger in life but seem to have some grounding in humanity. That’s certainly true of Austen’s fiction. All of us have known a Mr. Collins or a Lady Catherine type at some point!
RR: I truly admire your diverse cast of characters and your willingness to engage with complex issues with such nuance. What advice would you give to an author who wants to write diverse characters, but also who still wants to honor the Own Voices movement?
MP: Some writers get hung up on the idea they need to “write what they know,” and think they should only write about what they have personally experienced. That phrase seems very confining. I often feel as if I don’t know anything!
A less intimidating and more useful phrase is to “write what you want to discover,” and do the necessary research to do justice to all of your characters—their thoughts, experiences, and lives. I do think an author needs to write about aspects of diversity that inspire her on a personal level.
The protagonist of my equestrian fiction series Fortune’s Fool is a gay man. I’ve always felt that there has been a lack of queer representation in horse fiction, despite the fact that the LGBT+ population has made such a profound contribution to the sport. The Charlotte character in Pride, Prejudice, and Personal Statements is also gay, partially because I’ve always thought that it’s possible to read Charlotte in the original book as such. Her only intense feelings for any other person throughout the book are for Lizzie. Her fear Lizzie will cease to care about her is her first concern when she accepts Mr. Collins’ proposal, and she’s said to think little of matrimony—or men.
Liss’ friend Jacqui struggles with the fact that although she’s very intellectually gifted, she’s concerned she won’t socially or culturally fit in at a school that’s she’s (over) qualified to attend academically. That’s something I’ve also seen in my work, and in reading about the barriers some students from historically underrepresented groups encounter when transitioning to college.
RR: I have to ask- besides your book, what is your favorite Austen inspired retelling?
MP: Clueless! Some of the lines from that film are as witty as Austen’s. I admit I’m still not totally on board with the idea that a relationship with a non-biological stepbrother has great romantic potential, but I’m not a fan of Emma’s Mr. Knightley, either. I’m not sure I’d want a husband who consider it his job to badger me on a daily basis to become a better person.
RR: Many Austen fans prefer Pride and Prejudice, when they are young and then become fans of Persuasion in their maturity. What is your current favorite work by Austen? Has it changed throughout your life?
MP: Although my character Mr. Clarke wouldn’t approve, it’s still Pride and Prejudice. Along with Hamlet, I think Elizabeth Bennet is one of the most intelligent characters in literature. Like Hamlet, she’s very quick to judge others, and her emotions sometimes govern her reason. Yet she’s always able to stand back and analyze (and laugh at) herself.
I love Persuasion as well, particularly its final scenes.
I think the biggest change in terms of my evaluation of Austen’s works is my love of Mansfield Park. I first read it right after seeing the BBC’s 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice, and I was so angry at how timid and weak Fanny Price seemed. Now that I’m older, I can read a novel as a story about a group of people, without having to identify with one, particular character. I find the emotional chess match between Fanny and Mary Crawford throughout the novel fascinating. It’s like the white queen versus the red, and both of them are fighting over a very weak and malleable king (Edmund).
RR: What was most challenging about writing Pride, Prejudice, and Personal Statements?
MP: The greatest challenge for all of my books has been finding a good editor and book designer!
One of the great strengths of self-publishing is that it enables works that might not seem immediately commercially viable and a bit quirky to get in the hands of readers, often at a lower price point than traditionally published books.
But it also means that a writer needs to find an editor who can look at her work with objective eyes. And the writer is responsible for designing the physical appearance of the book. In terms of the writing process, the most challenging aspect of writing this novel was finding a new character’s voice and being consistent.
After writing a series, especially a five-book series like Fortune’s Fool, it can be very difficult to shed that narrative voice when beginning an independent work.
RR: What was the most exciting part of writing this work? Do you have a favorite character or scene?
MP: Sharing the book with readers and knowing that the work has touched them on a personal level is by far the most exciting aspect of writing for me! Although I’m an introvert by nature, writing for me is always a social experience.
A writer is often the worst judge of what’s most interesting about her own work, but my favorite scene is probably when Liss unexpectedly stumbles upon her teacher in Central Park. It’s my version of the Pemberley meeting, although it’s a meeting of minds rather than a romantic encounter.
RR: I can sense from your writing that you’re a fellow animal lover. I also see that you and I both love horses. Can you share a little about the animals in your own life? Do they find their way into your writing? Have they influenced your books, such as the Fortune’s Fool series?
MP: I’ve had a number of dogs throughout my life, most recently a long-haired chihuahua with a very gentle personality, much like the dachshund Wentworth in my latest novel. I’m currently dogless, as I’ve been focusing on my horseback riding for the past few years. I’m currently riding a fun, opinionated little pony mare, and all of the horses I’ve ridden over the course of my life have found their way into my books, as well as a number of more famous, real life horses.
Of course, given the protagonist of my equestrian novels is a much braver rider than I am, the equine personalities tend to get amped up a bit when they’re in his more capable hands.
RR: What are you currently working on right now? What makes you the most excited? Any upcoming works or plans for a sequel?
MP: I wrote two novels this year, so I self-consciously decided to take a month’s break and just focus on reading. In terms of sequels, I have begun the first chapter of another Austen-inspired work, so if there is demand, I might branch out into a new series! I have one more book planned for the Fortune’s Fool series. It’s always a delicate balance between satisfying readers’ demands and not letting a series drag on for so long it loses its original energy. Austen, of course, never wrote sequels, although she did have opinions about what happened to her characters after her books ended.
Sometimes I disagree with her, though. I know she based Jane Bennet on her beloved sister Cassandra and wanted Jane to live happily with Mr. Bingley forever. Given Bingley’s changeable and fickle nature, though, I’ve always worried about them as a long-term couple. On the other hand, despite Austen’s statement that Mr. Collins’ feelings for Charlotte were entirely imaginary, I can see that couple growing closer as the years pass. I think he’ll come to depend upon her very quickly. Of course, it’s testimony to Austen’s genius that her characters seem so real, we can disagree with even the author about her vision of their future.
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