By Wendy Carlson
Kathleen Flynn '84 first discovered Jane Austen at age 12, when she happened upon a dog-eared paperback of Pride and Prejudice at her grandmother's house in Falls Village, CT. She immediately became enthralled with the book.
"It was an old copy from the 1940s, and I just started reading it and became fascinated," says Flynn, whose debut novel, The Jane Austen Project, was published by HarperCollins last spring.
"I remember thinking it was just really funny. I still have that copy with lots of the pages marked with exclamation points and underscored sentences."
That was about the same time that Flynn decided she wanted to be a writer. "I knew I either wanted to be an illustrator or a writer. These days you could do both as a graphic novelist, but back then I thought I needed to choose one path," she says.
The daughter of a kindergarten teacher and an electrician, Flynn grew up in Falls Village, a stone's throw from Hotchkiss. She attended the same school through eighth grade, graduating with a class of about 20 students. Throughout her elementary school years, she had visited
Hotchkiss on class trips, admiring the beauty of the campus and imagining its academic challenges. When it was time for high school, she persuaded her parents to let her apply to Hotchkiss. A recipient of both the Richard Hellman Scholarship and the George Van Santvoord '08 Scholarship, Flynn says her time at Hotchkiss was transformative and helped cultivate her love of writing. In her senior year, she was one of a few students who took creative writing, and she was co-winner of the coveted Teagle Prize for her short novella, an honor that astonishes Flynn to this day.
"It was probably terrible," she quips. "In the intervening 33 years, I have managed to forget what it was I wrote about — I never went back and looked at it again. Now I understand that the secret of writing is rewriting, but at 18, you just want to keep writing new things and not look at the old ones."
Looking back, the most valuable trait she gained from her Hotchkiss education was perseverance. "I think the through-line between novel-writing and Hotchkiss is the amazing amount of hard work and persistence required — that it takes all you have and then some more you didn't know you had," she says. "This is certainly the thing I took away from Hotchkiss that has proven the most useful in writing a novel."
Her instructors and coaches were also a source of inspiration and encouragement, particularly History Instructor Tom Drake and instructors Walter Crain and Geoff Marchant. After Hotchkiss, Flynn earned a B.A. in English from Barnard College and a master's in journalism from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. But her career trajectory zigzagged from washing dishes at an ice cream parlor on Nantucket Island and folding towels in a hotel laundry ("I was not trusted to fold sheets," she explains) to teaching English in Hong Kong, all the while trying to write fiction.
After Chapel Hill, she landed a job as a copyeditor at The Raleigh News and Observer. In 2005, she joined the copy desk at The New York Times, where she now edits The Upshot, a digital news section. Over the years, Flynn continued writing fiction pieces, but was never satisfied with them. It wasn't until 2007, after she had settled in Brooklyn with her husband, Jarek Karwowski, that she felt she could fully commit her time to The Jane Austen Project.
While Flynn had long admired Austen's subtle wit and understated genius, she found herself wondering what it must have been like to be Austen — so immensely talented, yet so constrained by her circumstances, hiding her struggles behind a mask of brilliant irony.
"I thought, if I only I had a time machine, I could find out," she says. "Which I didn't. But, what if I could write a story in which some people do?"
Fittingly, the novel is about two time travelers posing as researchers whose mission is to meet Jane Austen in England in the year 1815 and recover a manuscript that she wrote before she passed away.
Flynn admits that at first, she had no idea how to structure a novel. "I only began to see the shape of it in the process of writing," she says.
She did have a few clear objectives, including revealing what Jane Austen was really like and investigating how she died at the early age of 41. She immersed herself in all things Austen, becoming a member of the The Jane Austen Society, visiting England, and spending long hours reading and researching. She learned everything she could about the speech, clothing, and mannerisms of 19th-century England to accurately depict the time period.
Holding a day job as journalist while trying to recreate the world of 1815 was, at times, daunting. "But, she says, "fiction has functioned for me as a respite from fact, from the daily tide of information and news, often tragic, that washes over me at work," she says. "A place where I can control the narrative."
This story appeared in the fall 2017 issue of Hotchkiss Magazine.