After her husband was diagnosed with a deadly lung disease at 54, Natalie spent her free time immersing herself in the work of her favorite author. Little did she know this would become the catalyst for her first novel, The Jane Austen Society, which was recently released after a bidding war among major NY publishers.
Tell us a little about your background.
I was born in England to a British father and a Canadian mother. When I was a young child, we emigrated to Toronto, Ontario for my father’s work in the insurance industry (he is an actuary). I was primarily educated at a small private school for girls and then at the University of Toronto, where I studied first English literature and then law.
In my mid-twenties I began a career in corporate securities and Mergers & Acquisition law at one of Canada’s largest law firms, but I left in my third year of practice to work in the recruiting and human resources side of the legal industry. This was a classic example of “pivoting” one’s skills, as I had found that I loved everything about law except the actual practice of it and its demands on one’s personal time (especially back then, in the mid 1990s and in the middle of a tech boom!).
In my early thirties, I moved to a small rural community where my future husband was running a family trucking business, and when I gave birth to our only child, I decided to stay home full-time and work as a consultant around her school days. Eventually we moved back closer to Toronto where I worked, and my daughter entered high school. I found I now had more time to myself as a result, and finally decided to take the risk of starting my own retail business, a small independent bookshop, while continuing my HR consulting work on the side.
When did you start to think about making a change?
My path to becoming a published author is particularly winding. I had wanted to be a writer my entire life and when I left the practice of law at age thirty, I used the regained personal time to write my first book. Similarly, when my daughter started school, I started my second book, and over the course of my 30s wrote four more manuscripts (all unpublished and firmly locked away in a drawer!).
When I turned forty, I decided to put writing aside for a lot of reasons (familial, economic, and my own enjoyment level) and focus instead on my consulting work and eventually my bookshop business. Four months after realizing my long-awaited dream of opening a bookshop, my husband was given a very sudden and unexpected diagnosis of IPF (Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis), a deadly and incurable lung disease. Even more traumatically, we were told that most patients will pass away within two to three years of diagnosis. We were still a relatively young family at the time (he was 54, I was 48, and our daughter was 14) and we had to make some really difficult decisions about how to spend however many years we might have left.
In addition to taking some wonderful bucket-list trips as a family to America, England, and Italy, I spent a year doing only and exactly what I felt like doing. My favorite thing to do is read and my favourite author is Jane Austen. So, essentially, I spent a year immersed in books by and about Austen, took my own solo bucket-list trip to England to walk in her footsteps, attended my first Jane Austen conference, and binge-watched a lot of Downton Abbey and other British television programming along the way.
And then in the fall of 2017, my husband qualified for some incredibly expensive and relatively new treatments for his disease, which can sometimes buy you additional time—in fact, as of this writing, his lung decline has stabilized, and he is still living a very healthful life. All of this meant that, after nearly two years of worry and reflection, I was starting to feel more hopeful and energized again about the future. I don’t think it a coincidence that at that exact same time, I was also feeling a renewed impulse to write. And then one day, my daughter clearly recalls me looking up suddenly from my reading, and saying, very simply, “I am going to write a book about a group of people who come together to save Jane Austen’s house.” I have never had a clearer, more life-altering, or more profound aha moment in my life.
What is your next act?
At the age of 52, My debut novel, The Jane Austen Society, has recently been published by St. Martin’s Press in North America and Orion Books in the UK, ANZ, and other parts of the Commonwealth; we have also sold translation rights in France, Italy, Portugal, and Romania. So my book is literally being published around the world and in five different languages.
After ten years spent trying to land an agent and a publisher in my 30s, this latest book has been the veritable dream: I loved every single minute I spent writing it. It was as much fun as I have ever had in my life. Then I landed an agent right away and we sold the book in a bidding war in New York. Every step of the process of bringing the book to market has been pure joy. I love the business side of acquiring and publishing a new book, I love the sales aspect, I love the social media, I love the deadlines—I feel that all those years in business in different capacities have given me a fairly pragmatic and business-oriented perspective on what my job is, both as a writer and as an author in the public sphere.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
One of the reasons I am sharing this level of detail of my husband’s medical journey, here on this blog, is because my emotional preparation for writing this book was non-existent. I had been so traumatized from this latest health challenge involving my husband’s lungs; he had already lost a kidney to cancer when our daughter was two, then had been subsequently diagnosed with a handful of other unrelated medical conditions, all suspiciously genetic in nature, with horrible implications for our one daughter as well.
Sitting down to write was a sudden creative impulse that stemmed from a period of relative stability after two years of what was, frankly, medical hell. When top experts at Harvard and other medical centers tell you they are not sure exactly what is going on, how to safely diagnose it, or how to treat it without doing further harm, your brain sort of shuts down in many other areas and you funnel in on getting through that one hour of that one day and the next round of medical appointments. In comparison to that, deciding to write another book felt so liberating and joyful, that nothing could have stopped me from doing it.
How supportive were your family and friends?
In my thirties, I loved circulating my novels, both in progress and upon completion, to my very encouraging circle of friends. With my debut novel, The Jane Austen Society, I wrote it for myself and for my husband, who has always been my first—and sometimes only—reader. When my husband finished reading the first draft, he looked at me a little oddly and said (and I will never forget this moment either), “I think you have something here.” It had sounded so ominous, like a firecracker was in my hands, and I needed now to offload it. So in the interest of objectivity, I thought of three people to whom to send this latest manuscript. They are the friends now mentioned in my acknowledgements, because it was their unanimous reaction that gave me the courage, as a housewife up in Canada, to send off queries to the top New York literary agencies after a ten-year break.
What challenges did you encounter?
Well, patience has never been my virtue—I am the sort of person who is really good to have in a short battle, less so in a marathon. The nearly year-and-a-half process that Big 5 publisher books go through, from acquisition to publication, has been a minor challenge for me. It’s still been the best year and a half of a debut author’s life, though, so I am not complaining.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
That I am not patient!
But, also, that no time spent writing is ever a waste; that every time you write, and especially bring a manuscript all the way to completion, you are honing new, intuitive, and invaluable skills. I am so grateful now for all the years spent writing to no discernible audience. I have a skill that I can use any time, any place, sometimes even for financial gain, but also to give others enjoyment. And, most importantly, it is a skill that helps me gain a better understanding of myself: of what is bothering me deep down and of how to work that out through my own characters.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
This current state of the Covid-19 pandemic has given me time to think about the arc of my life and all my choices so far, and I can honestly say that—based on where I am today—there is not one thing I would have done differently. But I would have comforted myself more in the past with the knowledge that I now have in middle age, of how everything in life really does happen for a reason.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Sometimes life simply won’t allow for you to take certain risks, financially or family-wise; this is certainly what happened to me throughout my forties. My biggest piece of advice is this: The minute you can afford to take such risks, don’t hesitate even for a second, because you never know what may be around the corner. I am, in retrospect, so glad I opened the bookshop when I did—at first, I couldn’t emotionally understand why my husband had to get diagnosed four months after opening what was a real unpaid and costly labor of love. But now I am so glad that I did have the shop for even just a year, because I learned so much about the book business and about what customers crave to read, and I know that all that informed knowledge seeped into the writing of the one book that finally got me published. And how on earth could I ever regret any of that!
What advice do you have for those interested in writing their first book?
Write the one story that you absolutely have to tell, fictional or otherwise, because that is the one story that you alone can tell—and that will help you stand out in a very crowded and gatekeeping market.
My other advice is to really understand why you want to tell that particular story: For yourself? For your family or friends or work colleagues? To get published in any shape or form? In my case, with The Jane Austen Society, I wrote it for myself and was having so much fun that trying to get published never once entered my mind. I think that kept the story organic, authentic, and whole—and it kept it uniquely mine.
What resources do you recommend to would-be writers?
I am largely self-taught as a writer but over the years I have consumed many different books on the art of writing. I highly recommend the following:
Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field – this is the book that breaks down the mechanics of a riveting plot, on film or on page. Indispensable for understanding pacing.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King – this is such a wonderfully calm and pragmatic book. So smart, but no wonder.
Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose – you won’t find a better text anywhere on how and why the best paragraphs in literature work as well as they do.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott – this is the book to inspire all writers of any stripe. Motivational, vulnerable and kind, this is writing offered up by a truly special soul.
What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?
Let’s see—so far, I have been a corporate lawyer, a legal head-hunter and recruiter, an HR manager, an independent consultant, a stay-at-home mum, a bookshop owner, and now an author. I think I may have exhausted the “five careers in fifty years” maxim! I next look forward to writing more books, spending as much time as possible with my husband, and perhaps one day taking up my coaching again, as it is truly a privilege to work with people in career transition and watch them pursue their own next act.
Connect with Natalie Jenner:
Contact form: https://nataliejenner.com/contact
Book: The Jane Austen Society