My review of Knife Skills
This book is a take on the old "Mansfield park" only it is centered around a chef student in modern days. If you know the Mansfield park story you may see correlations. I do not know that take but I greatly enjoyed the book anyway. The writing is eloquent and top of the line. The plot entertaining no matter where it originated. I hope the author has more in the works. I like entertainment in it's highest form and that's what this is!
The cooking elements of the book were interesting. I am no chef, that's for sure! But I found those parts very well written, even for those who don't really understand the cooking world all that much. The characters were vivid and fun to read and the author wrote in a manner that made things easy to picture.
I have high hopes that Ms. Lahain will write more because it's sure fun to read what she has come up with!
Why were you inspired to rewrite Mansfield park?
Being a passionate reader, I have ongoing conversations with books and with their (sometimes long-dead) authors. I laugh and cry with them. Shout at them. A re-telling can be a natural outgrowth of this dialog. Especially when it’s a book I’ve re-read multiple times. I find myself writing my way through the book to understand why it fascinates me.
Mansfield Park isn’t the first book to inspire me to write my own novel. My WW I novel--The Ways of Mud and Bone—was based in a large measure on Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. In the case of Mansfield Park, it was my dissatisfaction with the ending of the original that drove me to re-imagine it. Jane Austen’s heroines usually get a well-earned happily ever after. And while that’s not the only thing her books have to offer, it sure is attractive. Mansfield Park is a little different. Fanny Price isn’t her true love’s first choice. She gets him only after the woman he’s infatuated with through most of the book is caught up in a scandal that wounds his family. He’s a highly moral man and must give her up. But every time I’ve read the book—five times, by now—I get the sense that the memory of this woman will always cloud his life with Fanny. Sorry, but second best isn’t good enough for a girl like Fanny Price. She deserves better, and I decided to give it to her.
How did you get ideas to make the changes you did?
Even a re-telling of an old favorite needs to stand on its own. It also needs to reflect its own era. 21st-century America is a universe away from Regency England. Unlike modern England, we don’t even have the remnants—the stately homes and the class structure—of the world that produced Jane Austen and, in turn, her novels. Instead of a grand estate, I set the novel on Long Island. At a family-owned vineyard undergoing a pivotal change, the opening of a restaurant. I grew up on Long Island and know it well. And it offers the economic range I needed—from the glittering Hamptons to struggling working-class towns. Also, I went to cooking school and kept detailed journals. So it was easy to create the Huntington Culinary Academy and Café Bedford. The vineyard details were harder. Lots of research. I know more about the growing of wine grapes and wine production than I ever expected.
One thing that I didn’t have to change was the emotion at the heart of Mansfield Park. A young woman struggling to with her identity, with her place in the world. Her desire to belong. To feel wanted. Of course, my Molly Price has it a lot easier than Jane Austen’s Fanny. Molly has the advantages of public education and the ability to earn her own living. She can survive a lousy marriage and try again without all of society falling down on her.
How were you able to keep it coinciding with the original?
In terms of conflict, that was easy. A child from a troubled home is separated from her parents and siblings and taken to live with well-off relatives. They’re kind to her (in Molly’s case, not so for poor Fanny), but she never feels quite at home. Yet, over time, her new life changes her to such a degree that she doesn’t fit back in her old one, either. So where does she belong? More to the point, to whom does she belong? Her birth family? The family who raised her? Can she build a bridge between the two?
As for details carried over from the original, some of the names survived. Molly’s siblings—William, Susan, and Betsy—come straight from Jane Austen. And her cousin Julia. Ned, her love interest, is a nickname for Edmund, the original Austen hero. Ned isn’t Molly’s cousin, of course. That’s not allowed these days. He’s a relation by marriage (cousin to her cousins) but not blood. So, growing up together, there can be that same “hands-off” feeling, but ultimately they are free to come together. Also, paralleling the original, there’s a family scandal involving Molly’s ex and someone close to her. The revelation of this secret is a major turning point in Molly’s journey.
What struggles did you run into?
It took a conscious effort not to allow Mansfield Park to dictate my own characters and plot. I wanted to model the original, explore it, not rehash it. For example, Austen’s Fanny has two aunts. One is a little ditzy, but okay. The other (the infamous Mrs. Norris) is a horror. She never lets Fanny forget her humble origins and uses the idea of “gratitude” as a weapon and means of control. I could have replicated that in Knife Skills. But it wouldn’t be true to my Molly, whose biggest enemies are all internal. That said, internal struggles don’t necessarily show up in external action, so to keep the plot moving in a way that would interest modern readers I had to come up with more obvious conflicts as well. Mainly, there’s a no-good ex who’s gotten himself in trouble with the wrong people and put Molly in danger. She’s trying to build a life for herself and she just can’t seem to escape this ne’er-do-well and his drama. I call him Mr. Bad Penny. Every time you think you’ve gotten rid of them…there he is!
Were there things you wanted to do but couldn't because of the original and your desire to use it's patterns?
No. In fact, when I tried to follow the original scene for scene, it didn’t work. The narrative sagged under the weight like a ten-year-old girl in her granny’s wedding dress. The prose clunked along. And all the charm of the original was lost. I had a spineless but ever-so-good heroine that didn’t even interest me, and I wrote her! The struggle for me was to dig deeper. Past Jane Austen’s plot to the emotions underneath. In this way, I hoped to echo the original rather than replicate it with modern clothes and a cell phone.
What's on the horizon for you? Any works in progress?
I’m hoping to release my next novel in November. Morgrim’s Wood is a modern fairy tale. A women grieving the suicide of her teenage daughter takes her surviving children on a weekend trip to a cabin in the Catskill mountains and is drawn into a fairytale world hidden in the surrounding forest. It’s a meditation on grief and how, even when we can’t make sense of a loss, we need to move forward or we risk even greater suffering.
What are your writing goals in genre land your goals for this book?
As you may be able to tell, I genre hop. At heart, I consider myself a writer of literary fiction. Whatever genre a book may fall into superficially, it’s the characters I’m interested in. How they cope with the anguish-joy-hilarity that is human life on earth. My goal for any of my books is that people come to know my characters and sympathize with them as fellow travelers. I like to imagine my readers running into my characters at Starbucks and recognizing them.
Tell us a few quirky facts about you that don't usually come up in interviews.
I taught myself to play piano from a mail order course. No lessons. Just lots of trial and error and listening to recordings of famous pianists. I’m not very good—and years living in a condo stalled my training a bit. But I’m back in a single-family home and plan to resume regular practice. I used to love taking a new piece of music and puzzling it out note by note, phrase by phrase.
Also, I don’t drive. I mean, I can operate a car, but I don’t if I can possibly avoid it. There’s just too much going on at one time—other drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists, street signs, detours, dogs… Talk about sensory overload! I got my license in my early twenties, then I went straight through to my mid-forties without ever driving. It wasn’t easy. Most of that time I lived in the suburbs. Not a lot of public transportation. I recently took refresher lessons. My husband got sick, and I figured I needed to be prepared to get us both around. I was surprised at how easy it was to pick up the skill again. But I don’t do it unless I absolutely have to. That’s one great thing about being a writer. I get to spend lots of time home in my pajamas!