'Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters' author melds Jane Austen with Jules Verne

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 26, 2009 

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Ben H. Winters is the author of "Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters" (Quirk Books, $12.95) which combines Jane Austen with horrific sea monsters.

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Ben H. Winters never expected to end up writing collaboration with Jane Austen.

In "Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters," Winters take Jane Austen's 1811 classic novel and infuses it with horror-movie seasoning. Instead of being set in the placid English countryside, the Dashwood family has taken up residence on an isolated island after the father is killed by a hammerhead shark. Add pirates, mysterious chanting and numerous vindictive denizens of the deep, and you have quite a bouillabaisse.

"One of the real joys was getting to figure out ways for Austen's work to intermingle with all these other writers that I loved," Winters explains. "It's a literary game and a really fun one to imagine, what if (H.P.) Lovecraft and Austen sat down and wrote a book together — it's just preposterous, but what would happen? And to think about how the vocabulary would interact and the themes could interact is really what's so fun about writing the book. I really hope it's fun to read also,"

Winters is highly respectful of his co-author because "there is so much to admire in her writing, it's so sophisticated and very sly. How she lets you know so much saying so little — the societal restrictions on what can or can't be said, and the way you can say it. Much as (the character) Elinor says in the book, there are certain things that can't really be said, and certain things that shouldn't be said — and the way Austen gets around it and let's her reader know what's underneath what's being said; it's just fascinating. She's a masterful writer. The book wouldn't be any fun if Austen was a bad writer."

"Sea Monsters" mixes Austen to other classic writers: Robert Louis Stevenson for pirates, Jules Verne for undersea fantasy and Lovecraft for otherworldly horror.

He tried to combine the flavor of Jules Verne's scientific "specific vocabulary" with Austen's intimate descriptions of her beloved countryside. "When we're in the undersea portions, we're getting an eyeful of this — the glowing plants and the fungi and the coral, lots of coral reefs, — (I tried) to give the reader the same sense of depth."

A graduate of the Washington University in St. Louis, Winters actually preferred Charles Dickens to Jane Austen. He was an English major, history minor, student who worked various jobs, finally ending up in New York in 2001. His love of old English literature added flavor to "Sea Monsters."

"I'm a big believer in actually picking up a thesaurus rather than using Thesaurus.com or online reference sources. I find the experience, as a writer, of digging up words in the old books is so satisfying."

"For example, what word would Austen have used to describe the layer of gooey flesh on the underside of a man-eating snail?" After digging around, he found 'mucocutaneous,' and "Then you go, 'That's great!"

He adds, "And in a book like this where you're both trying to write in a Regency style and describing the hideous monsters, you're bound to come up with some fun new words — fun old words, I should say."

Winters hopes that his "audience can range from 14-year-old boys who are just really, really into monsters and adventure all the way to literate college educated professor types — or just Austen fans who loved the original work and will enjoy re-experience it in a new way."

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