Kristin Cashore’s first novel in five years is a fantasy—and a science fiction story, and a thriller, and a mystery, and a horror story. Jane, Unlimited tells the story of a highly eventful weekend at an island mansion, in five different genres. The heroine, Jane, is a guest at a swanky party where everyone has secrets, even the dog, a sentient Basset Hound. What the new novel is not is a story set in the Graceling Realm, which the author knows will surprise some of her most ardent fans. PW spoke with Cashore about stepping away from the world of the books that made her a bestselling author.
This book is quite a departure—did you feel the need to do something radically different than the Graceling novels?
People keep saying that so it must be true, but it doesn’t feel like a departure to me. Fantasies are what I’m known for so in that sense, yes, this is a bit different. But my agent, Faye Bender, told me she thought it was very much a book by me, and I agree with that.
Did you have any concerns about being pigeonholed as a writer of high fantasy?
It wasn’t really that. I’ve never really been worried about how I’m perceived based on what I write. I just got this really unusual idea and coming off Bitterblue, which had its own unique challenges, I think I needed a book that challenged me in a different way.
Do you remember where this idea originated?
Sort of. I was with my sister, Dorothy, driving to a Christmas party in Cambridge, and we started talking about the Choose Your Own Adventure books, which I had loved as a kid. I said, “What if I did something like that,” except—there’s not a lot in the way of character development in most of those books—it would be Choose Your Own Adventure, but with very developed characters. That was the first kernel.
At what point did you decide that each separate iteration of Jane’s adventure would be written in a different literary genre?
That’s a really good question. I wish I had been paying more attention to how it was happening, but the truth is this novel underwent a lot of changes before I settled on what it was. At first, it was written in the second person and my hero was ungendered. I never specified whether the main character was male or female. It’s actually a really interesting exercise. I didn’t realize how many nouns and adjectives have such gendered power. But [editor] Kathy [Dawson] finally talked me out of the second person. And she was right.
This novel also contains a lot of allusions to many classic novels, most notably Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.
Well, if the main character was going to have all these different kinds of adventures, I realized the setting was going to be really important because it would be the backdrop against which all these adventures would be set—almost like how the setting of a video game lays a foundation for what the game will be like. So once I decided that Jane was an orphan and that most of the story would take place inside a house, it had to be a strange, isolated house where a lot of odd things could be going on. And once I settled on that I couldn’t help but think of Rebecca. And then how could I have a house of mystery without some Jane Eyre references? And then something else prompted me to include Winnie-the-Pooh, and Dr. Who, and Vermeer. What was I thinking? It sounds ridiculous.
There’s something for everyone!
Exactly! I’m stealing that.
Jane is floundering a bit when she arrives at the mansion, but she brings with her a collection of umbrellas, all of which she has made herself and which are deemed by the other guests to be high art. Why umbrellas?
I love umbrellas. I bought one in New York, maybe in 2000, which was iridescent blue on the outside and pink on the inside and I just loved it and it ignited an umbrella collection. I think I have about 14, all really special, umbrellas. So giving this to Jane was an excuse for me to imagine umbrella construction and all the possibilities.
Did your editor send you an umbrella when you turned in your final manuscript?
She’s known for a while that I have this umbrella obsession but, no, she bought me a beautiful broach in the shape of an umbrella and she sent me a necklace with a blown glass jellyfish, which is another one of the iconic things in my book. I don’t want to give the impression that she showers me with gifts. I think it’s just very easy to wander around and see something I would like.
Do you worry that once this interview is published, fans will overwhelm you with umbrella-related gifts?
I can think of worse things.
Do you have a Basset Hound or do you just love the breed?
I have never actually owned a dog. We were a cat family. But I think Bassett Hounds are the cutest things ever. I love the way that every part of them sags. Again, I don’t remember where the Bassett Hound idea came from. It may have gotten lodged in my head from The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks [by E. Lockhart], which is one of my favorite books [and features a secret society called The Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds].
Are you anticipating any backlash from fans about this book not being set in the Graceling world?
I’m sure that’s going to happen and it’s perfectly legitimate for people to be disappointed, but it just doesn’t really work that way for me. It takes such passion to write a book. I can’t write a certain kind of book just because that’s what people want. That said, I could certainly write more in the Graceling realm. But I hope my readers will be open to new things. Some of my favorite writers write in all different sorts of genres. Kate Atkinson started with mysteries but she’s written many different types of novels and no matter what she writes, it’s beautiful. So I’m excited to try different types of books and hope my readers will be excited to read them.
Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore. Penguin/Dawson, $18.99 Sept. 19 ISBN 978-0-8037-4149-2