Eight years ago, novelist Shannon Hale read an interview with a writer who was on the verge of publishing her first book.
“Ohhh,” Hale sighed sympathetically. “It doesn’t sound like she has writer friends.”
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
The author of the well-received young adult novels “The Goose Girl” and “Enna Burning” remembered how lonely she’d been when she was starting out, so she sent the new writer on the scene a friendly email, and they hit it off. Nothing too unusual about that — Hale, a self-described extrovert in a solitary profession, has reached out to fellow writers repeatedly — but in this case, her new pal was “Twilight” author Stephenie Meyer.
Hale, 39, went on to pen the comic novel "Austenland," about a modern woman battling a debilitating obsession with the BBC "Pride and Prejudice" television miniseries starring Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, and Meyer went on to — among other things — become a strong supporter of that novel.
"We were talking on the phone when she was working on the first 'Twilight' film, and she said, You know what would make a great film? 'Austenland,'" Hale says.
Hale's first adult novel might seem an unlikely candidate for the big screen: a charming but decidedly understated romance that takes place at a Jane Austen theme park, where actors and customers court in period dress. But the independent film version starring Keri Russell is opening this month in several major cities, including Chicago, thanks in part to two powerful Hollywood forces that aligned with the book's unassuming author.
Hale, who lives near Salt Lake City with her husband and four young children, credits Meyer, a producer of "Austenland," and "Napoleon Dynamite" co-writer Jerusha Hess, who directed "Austenland," with helping her book beat the big-screen odds.
"It was really just the three of us, having a lot of passion and wanting to make a movie together," Hale says.
The film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was bought by Sony Pictures, reportedly for about $4 million. Printers Row Journal spoke with Hale recently by phone; following is an edited transcript.
Q: How did you connect with Jerusha Hess?
A: I heard her say later that she'd actually contacted me because she wanted to make a movie out of one of my young adult books, but she didn't tell me that at the time. I had no idea she was even considering that. I thought we were just getting together as people who have something in common.
Q: So someone called you and said, do you want to get together with this person?
A: Yes, it was really funny. Actually his name is Duff and he works in the Utah film industry and he had known my older sister in college, so I'd met him a couple of times, but I hadn't seen him in years. He actually called my mom and said, 'I'd like to get a hold of Shannon, I have someone who would like to meet her.' So my mom gave me the information. And then a couple of days later my sister called me and said, 'Hey, do you remember Duff from 15 years ago, we went bowling one time?' He really wants you to meet this person who's in film.' I occasionally get contacted by people who want to be in film, but aren't really, so I've just learned not to respond. It can cause problems. My mom called me again a few days later and then my sister called me again.
Q: So you finally called the poor guy?
A: I called him and he called me back immediately (and) he told me what films [Jerusha had] done. And I was like, "Oh my gosh!" I was so embarrassed. As a writer I should learn the names of screenwriters of films I'd enjoyed. I was like, "Of course I know her work! I would be honored to meet with her. I'd be delighted."
We had a lovely lunch, [and] as we were leaving the restaurant, I went to my car and I had a copy of "Austenland" in my car. And I don't even remember why, but I never carry my books around with me. But she had paid for lunch and I just felt I wanted to give her something, so I just said, "Here." She didn't even know I had written books for adults. So she took it home, and she contacted me 24 hours later and said, 'I want to make this into a movie.'
Q: How did you get to be writing friends with Stephenie Meyer?
A: It started really early when she still had a public email address. I just sent her a friendly email saying, "Hey, I know you went to school in my state." I just barely had two books out myself. I said, "Hey, if you ever have questions or want to complain to a fellow writer," let me know.
Q: What happened?