During quarantine, I have turned to books that make me feel warm and cozy inside, and Jane Austen is always on top of that list. I’m pretty basic, so Pride and Prejudice was my go-to, but this spring, I fell in love with Emma. I relate to Emma, both in her meddling and her struggle to relate to people correctly, and Mr. Knightley made me swoon. Also, it’s hilarious. I gobbled up all Emma content: the 2020 movie, the 90s movie, Clueless, and the fantastic web series, Emma Approved. When I heard a YA retelling was coming out, I knew I had to get my hands on it. As a prospective writer who’s interested in writing my own retellings of classic literature, I was also interested in the process of turning classics we love into YA novels. I had the pleasure of interviewing Jillian Cantor, the author of this fabulous book, The Code to Love and Heartbreak.
Keep reading to learn more about why Jillian writes YA, the process of writing a retelling, and her favorite classic lit ships!
The Young Folks (TYF): You started out writing YA contemporary, but in the past few years, you’ve primarily written Adult historical fiction. What inspired you to return to YA?
Jillian Cantor (JC): My kids are in middle school and high school and both big YA readers. For the past few years they’ve both been telling me I should write another YA book. The last time I wrote YA they were very young, and I drew a lot from my own high school experience, but now I also am seeing and thinking about teen experiences again through their eyes.
TYF: Which character in The Code to Love and Heartbreak reminds you most of your high school self?
JC: This is hard—I was not (am not) great at math, so in that regard none of these characters are anything like I was in high school. But I do identify with Emma in terms of struggling to relate to other people around her at school. I often felt like I didn’t fit in in my high school, and I was a very serious student always stressing about my grades. But I also have a little bit in common with Izzy—I dated my high school boyfriend all through college (we’ve been married 20 years now!) and I loved books and majored in English in college. But Izzy is definitely more outgoing than I ever was in high school.
TYF: What inspired you to write a retelling of Emma by Jane Austen? Is it one of your favorite novels?
JC: I’ve always loved Emma, yes! And I’ve long wanted to write an Austen retelling but wasn’t exactly sure how or even in what genre. My kids are both on robotics teams and so I get to see them and their friends working and competing in STEM a lot. I’m so impressed by how much they know and the things they can do and how invested they get in competitions. The idea to write a novel about a girl who is amazing at math and not so great with people, who develops an app to matchmake her classmates came to me first. Then it clicked for me how this idea could actually be a really fun Emma retelling, and I went from there.
TYF: Recasting Emma as an introverted math nerd, creating a matchmaking app, instead of her being a social butterfly, was such an interesting twist! What gave you this idea?
JC: Well, as I mentioned the inspiration to make my main character a math nerd came first, before I realized I was going to make the book an Emma retelling. But I do think the original Emma really has a lot of misunderstandings about people and their feelings too, and of course, ultimately, her own feelings. She’s definitely more outgoing than my Emma, but when it comes to love, she actually understands a lot less than she thinks. I thought the matchmaking app gave the original matchmaking idea of Emma a 21st century tech update!
TYF: What is the process of writing a retelling like? How much did you study the original source material?
JC: I reread the original Emma and sketched out all the major characters and plot points for myself as a reference. Then I sketched out my own characters and plot, considering what was essential to take from the original and what I needed or wanted to update as well. I also re-watched all the movie and miniseries adaptations I could find while doing this, as well as re-watching Clueless. I came back to the book many times as I was writing too for reference. There’s a line near the end of the book where George Knightley says to Emma, “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.” No spoilers, but I put that quote up on my wall and used it to chart the ending scenes of my novel.
TYF: I feel like it’s always a risky choice, having an unlikable main character. Emma Woodhouse, in the original, is very unlikable. However, I found myself really identifying with your Emma. How did you balance characteristics to keep Emma sympathetic?
JC: I think my Emma has some of the same characteristics as the original, but also, she has a hard time relating to other people at her high school on a personal level and feels pretty lonely after her sister leaves for college. I think that’s relatable and makes her more sympathetic. My Emma, like the original, also, I think, has good intentions, even if her actions have somewhat disastrous consequences at times.
TYF: Who is your favorite couple from classic literature? :)
JC: Is it cheating to say Emma and George? Ha! It’s true though, I do love them! But also, Gatsby and Daisy. I currently have an adult novel in the works that’s a Gatsby retelling and really delves into their relationship.
About the Author: Jillian Cantor is the bestselling author of 10 novels, including Margot, The Lost Letter, and The Hours Count. She lives in Arizona with her husband and two sons.
The Code for Love and Heartbreak goes on sale October 6, 2020.