Molly Greeley Continues Jane Austen's Story

Author interview: Debut novelist discusses her book, reading as a kid, and more

Molly Greeley is a debut novelist starting today. Her book, The Clergyman’s Wife (paid link), is now available. The story follows Charlotte Lucas Collins, a major character in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

In The Clergyman’s Wife, Collins lives the socially accepted life of a married woman of her status. But then she meets Mr. Travis. Publishers Weekly said The Clergyman’s Wife is, “Ideal for fans of Austen’s work, Greeley’s strong debut also stands on its own."

Greeley talks in the interview below about how she came up with the idea that became The Clergyman’s Wife. She also discusses being a mom to three kids, writing the book, and “reading and milk” time she enjoyed as a child.

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Q&A with Molly Greeley

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Can you tell us about yourself?

I grew up in Ann Arbor, MI and lived there until I was nine-years-old. I was a fairly solitary child; I didn't get siblings until I was older than most kids, and I spent a lot of time either in my own head, playing elaborate games of make-believe, or immersed in storybooks. 

When my mother remarried, she and I moved to Maryland to live with my step-dad, but I returned to Ann Arbor often to visit my father during holidays and in the summer. I went to Michigan State University, and I met my now-husband on a study abroad trip to London; he and I were the first two people at the gate in Detroit, and we were both reading Bill Bryson's Notes From a Small Island. We got married the year after graduation, and after some moving around (we initially lived in Maryland after college because of job opportunities), we finally settled in Traverse City, MI to be closer to his family, who live about two hours south of us. Both my husband's mom and older sister were going through some big medical problems at the time. 

We have three kids, a seven-year-old daughter and two sons, ages four and nearly-two.  

As for hobbies--do reading novels and writing still count now that I have a book being published, myself? That's pretty much all I do when I have spare time! I play the piano (badly), but almost any time I sit down to practice my kids come running and want to bang on the keys with me. I'm fascinated by animals, and love reading books about their interior lives - Frans de Waal's books are some of my favorites. In warmer weather, I love taking walks in the woods, but in winter I tend to hibernate.

Your website refers to floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the home where you grew up. What kind of literary influence were your parents on you?

Both my parents had a huge influence on me when it comes to reading. My mother read to me every single night when I was a kid--we had a tradition she called "reading and milk," where she made me a big glass of chocolate milk and read me a chapter or two from whatever book we were into at the time. 

The floor-to-ceiling bookshelves were really my father's; he's as much of a book addict as I am, myself, and his main indulgence is a weekly trip to his local indie bookshop (Nicola's in Ann Arbor!), where he buys himself one or two hardcover mysteries. He reads constantly and has for as long as I can remember. He bought me gorgeous illustrated children's books when I was a kid, for my birthday and for Christmas. My husband makes fun of me sometimes, because I have a tendency to pick up whatever book I'm reading every time I have a spare second, even if it's just while I'm reheating soup in the microwave.

Were there any particular books or writers you enjoyed most growing up?

When I was a little kid, my favorite books were the classics my mother read to me: The Secret Garden, Little Women, the Little House series. I devoured all of the original Nancy Drew series when I was in first or second grade; those and the American Girl books were my first forays into reading chapter books for myself. And then there wasn't much that I didn't read; I would go to the library and come home with armfuls of books, which I'd read in a few days.

In later elementary school I adored the Redwall series and Mary Downing Hahn's books, and as I got older, my favorites were the novels of Robin McKinley, Donna Jo Napoli, and Tamora Pierce, along with other fantasy writers like Patricia C. Wrede and Garth Nix (I went through a big fantasy phase in middle school, which has never entirely ended). But I also loved contemporary novels and historical fiction, and started getting into adult classic lit when I was in fifth or sixth grade--I loved Jane Eyre so much that the paperback copy my mother bought me when I was twelve, which I still have, is creased and battered and in danger of falling apart from so many readings.

The Clergyman’s Wife is inspired by Pride and Prejudice. Does this mean you’re a Jane Austen fan?

I am very much a Jane Austen fan, though I still love reading many, many other things besides her books. Like so many other people, my first introduction to her was (embarrassingly enough) through the BBC miniseries, which aired in the US when I was about ten. My mother turned it on, and I still remember how it caught my attention and completely hooked me--I actually had a friend over that day, and she was really irritated that I just sat enthralled by the first episode when she couldn't have been less interested. After that, I immediately read Pride and Prejudice, and then started making my way through all the rest of Austen's completed novels.

It wasn't until I was a teenager that I started to truly 'get' how hilarious Austen is, though, and how sly some of her commentary. Reading her first when I was a child, and then again as I grew up, was, I think, a great way to experience her work; each re-reading uncovered layers that I hadn't realized were there previously. Charlotte, in particular, I came to respect more and more as I grew older.

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When and how did you decide to write the story that became The Clergyman’s Wife?

I've always loved retellings and story continuations, and Charlotte Lucas from Pride and Prejudice is a character who has captured my imagination for years. Austen has a gift for writing really compelling peripheral characters, and Charlotte's marriage to Mr. Collins has, over the years, by turns horrified and fascinated me. As I got older, I think I started to really feel for her situation, which was the situation many women must have found themselves in during Austen's time. Women were really just so dependent on men; if they didn't marry, they had to rely on male relatives for financial support, unless they became governesses or paid companions--but those were precarious jobs, without much societal respect.

Charlotte seemed particularly interesting to me because she deliberately sets out to seduce Mr. Collins--not physically, but by offering him sympathy and a listening ear. This was the only opportunity she had to determine her own future at all, and she took it, despite not finding Mr. Collins himself appealing. I admired her for her self-advocacy even as I chafed against the thought that this was her only "good" option. The thought of writing a story that explored these themes had been in my head for years before I actually started work on it. 

The other thing about Charlotte that caught my interest is the line Austen writes about her thinking well neither "of men or of matrimony." This can be interpreted so many ways, but one that stood out for me was that we don't get many examples of intelligent, kind, capable men living in Meryton in Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Bennet is intelligent--and knows it--and uses his wit against others, often cruelly. He publicly shames his wife and daughters. Sir William Lucas, Charlotte's father, is almost as silly as Mr. Collins. I started to wonder what sort of man Charlotte would think well of--and what might happen if he were not a "sensible" choice of mate?

What was the writing process like for you?

Once I finally started--again, years after the idea began cautiously circling around in my head--it took about a year to write. At the time, I was writing almost exclusively on Sundays. During the week, my husband worked full-time while I stayed home with our middle son (our youngest having not yet been born) and did part-time social media work from home for a local farm and bakery. Saturdays were family days, and Sundays were mine for writing; I waved good-bye in the morning, took myself and my laptop to the only local coffee shop here that opens at 7:00 on a Sunday morning, and wrote for most of the day.

The easiest, most fun part of any writing project for me is usually character. I love getting into my characters' heads and figuring out all the complicated ins-and-outs of their thoughts and feelings and motivations. It was particularly fun for me to make Mr. Collins a little more human than he was allowed to be in Pride and Prejudice--without, I hope, losing his essential Mr. Collins-ness in the process. Making my characters actually move through the messy middle portion of the story is always more challenging for me than figuring out who they are.

And how about finding a publisher, what was that like?

The prospect of finding an agent and publisher was daunting to me--doubly so, once I really started to understand the amount of research and work required! I'd just had my third child when I started querying--actually, the morning I sent my first query letter I remember I was able to do so because my other kids were in school and my baby son was, for once, napping in his bouncy seat. Once I found my agent, several months after I began querying, it was a few weeks before I started having phone calls with publishers. That was an exciting time, and what was interesting was I finally realized that I was interviewing them as well. Everyone had a very different vision for how the book would be marketed and what editorial changes needed to be made; some lined up with what I imagined, and others really did not.

What do you think Jane Austen would say if she could read The Clergyman’s Wife?

This is a great question and one I truly asked myself in the process of writing this book--without ever coming to a definite conclusion. Of course, I'd love to think that Jane Austen would approve of The Clergyman's Wife, particularly as I tried to stay true to her original in my characterizations. Really, I wonder whether she would at first be baffled by the slew of Austen-inspired fiction and movies that have appeared, particularly over the last couple of decades; but I also like to think she'd be amused and--hopefully--flattered by all the hubbub surrounding her legacy and her work. And if not, I've no doubt she'd take up her pen and write something scathing and witty in response to it all!

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Who are some writers you admire?

Anne Tyler, Susan Vreeland, Dodie Smith, Virginia Woolf, Brian Morton, Elizabeth McCracken, Elizabeth Strout, Neil Gaiman, Robin McKinley... and many, many more.

Have you read any good books lately?

I read Courting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard several months ago, and I still find myself thinking about it frequently. And my daughter has been loving Raina Telgemeier's graphic novels recently; she and I read Guts together, and it does such a good job of explaining and normalizing anxiety for kids.


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