09/01/2010 01:00 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

From Jane Austen To Henry James: A Writer's Journey

Long before I began writing fiction, I was writing about literature. This may be one of the reasons why it took me so long to write fiction. The saying goes that writing a dissertation is the surest obstacle to writing anything that anyone would read, and writing about great literature (as I did in my dissertation) is bound to make writing even mediocre fiction all the harder. I suffered under this curse for many years, writing plenty of books of the academic sort -- which is to say, books that no one read.

I owe my breakthrough to Jane Austen. I had written about Austen in that dissertation and had taken great pleasure teaching her to undergraduates. This was in the 1990s, at the beginning of the great tidal wave of Austen-mania, when the first of a spate of adaptations of her novels had begun to appear on screen. It was as though her novels had been waiting for the cinematic medium to jump-start her popularity with a mass audience. Austen's simple romantic plot lines, her opulent settings and clever, highly interactive dialogue were ideally suited to movies and television. Mr. Darcy and Mr. Knightley, in their cutaways, their brusquely proper manners, and their moral high-mindedness, were ideal cinematic heroes; Elizabeth and Emma with their arch good humor and empire dresses (presented without the period's modest lace coverage to reveal ample decolletage) were perfect cinematic heroines. Moreover, Austen's plots were good in any sort of setting and time period, as evidenced by the enormous success of the 1995 Clueless (Emma set in a Beverly Hills high school).

When I wrote Jane Austen in Boca (Pride and Prejudice set in a Jewish retirement community in Florida, as the ad copy succinctly put it), I was riding the wave that these movies had set in motion. I would continue to ride it with a subsequent novel, Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs (Persuasion set in a Westchester, New York high school guidance office).

My editor encouraged me to continue my Jane Austen series, because, as she put it, "Jane Austen is a bestselling brand." No doubt I will, but, in the meantime, I have taken a detour into new territory.

If Jane Austen, with her elegant novelistic structure and unerring wit, was my first teacher, my greatest influence in the realm of ideas was Henry James. I always loved his fiction but I also reveled in his nonfiction: his prefaces, his essays and reviews, his journal entries and letters. I was intrigued by the complex dynamics of the James family, and saw points of correspondence to my own family. And so, when I decided to make Henry James central to my next novel, it was not by imitating his plots but by co-opting his character as I had come to understood it. Hence, my latest book-- my first thriller and my first foray into historical fiction -- What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper. Not only, as the title makes clear, does Henry James figure in this tale as a character, but so does his brother William, the eminent philosopher and father of modern American psychology, as well as their brilliant invalid sister, Alice. Placing these characters in London as Jack the Ripper terrorizes the city allowed me to make use of my knowledge of Victorian culture and of the dynamics of the James family while writing a sometimes-funny, sometimes-macabre story of murder and mayhem.

Just as my first novel, Jane Austen in Boca, stood near the beginning of a wave of Austen-mania, I believe that What Alice Knew stands at the beginning of a Jamesian tsunami. Over the years, we have seen a few of James's novels adapted to the screen or made into multi-part television series -- with dubious results. But the possibilities for adapting James seem to me unrealized. Any number of his books could be imaginatively adapted to fiction or film, and so much of his life and his character are rich in fictional potential. (Colm Toibin's The Master is one example of what a gifted writer can do in this respect). Admittedly, James does not have the crisp externality that we associate with Jane Austen. But the elements that define James -- thwarted desire, delayed gratification, and stubborn ambiguity -- are, perhaps, more suited to our present state of being than those that make up Austen's simpler, more circumscribed world. I predict that we will see more of Henry James in the coming decade. Meanwhile, I hope that readers will enjoy my contribution to what I hope to be a new literary fad.

Paula Marantz Cohen's book, "What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale Of Henry James And Jack The Ripper" can be ordered here.