A Conversation with Author Elizabeth Gilliland

IR- What does it mean to you to be called an author? 

EG- Writing has always been something that I’ve done, sometimes as a passion, sometimes just to alleviate my own boredom, sometimes to entertain friends, sometimes to preserve my sanity. I’ve always considered myself a writer, but it feels very different and weighty to be called an author. One of the major distinctions between those two words for me is that writing is a solitary pursuit; I can choose to share that work, but it’s something I really do for myself. Becoming an author suggests a new relationship where I’m turning the story over to readers and inviting them to participate in the process of bringing the characters and story to life. It’s an exciting, but very daunting, new step.

IR- Can you tell us a bit about the story and its main characters?  

EG- What Happened on Box Hill tells the story of Caty Morland, whose obsession with true crime comes in handy when her (sort of) best friend Isabella Thorpe dies at a sorority party. The police have ruled the death an accident, but Caty feels positive that something more sinister is afoot. A seasoned scholar of all things Agatha Christie, Caty gathers together all of the most likely suspects for a murder mystery dinner party and, with the help of Pi Kappa Sigma President Emma Woodhouse, tries to figure out who the murderer might be.

If some of the above names sound familiar, it’s because these are all characters from Jane Austen’s novels, combined together into one novel set in a modern-day Southern university.

IR- What inspired the idea for your book?

 EG- I am a longtime fan of both mysteries and Jane Austen novels. I wrote my dissertation on Jane Austen adaptations, which naturally led me to think about what would be my ideal Jane Austen adaptation. There have been so many fantastic straightforward retellings that I decided if I were to ever write one, it would have to be a little more bonkers. So, not only would I change the time period and the setting, but I’d combine all the characters together and see how they interacted. And lo and behold, someone ended up dead almost immediately.

IR- What was the most surprising thing you learned in writing this book?

EG- I always thought it was strange when authors said that one of their characters made them laugh, because it felt like a roundabout way of saying you find yourself funny. Writing this book, however, taught me that experience could be very true–I have some (in my opinion) very funny characters that say things that truly don’t come from any part of my brain that I recognize. They came alive on the page, feeling fully formed, and their mouths took off in directions I did not anticipate!

IR- Tell us about a favorite character from the book.

EG- In relation to the above statement, probably Tilney, though Marianne Dashwood, John Thorpe, and Rushworth are all close behind.

IR- Do you have any “side stories” about any of the characters? 

EG- Oh, yes. This book has gone through so many drafts and I had to keep paring things down that didn’t contribute to the main storyline. Anyone who signs up for my newsletter can expect lots of deleted scenes, and I’ve already put out a novella that delves into Jane Fairfax’s backstory. (Had to do the self-promo, haha!)

IR-  Where did you come up with the names in the story? 

EG- Those all belong to Ms. Austen, although I did tweak a few of the names to reflect modernization and some more diversity in the characters’ backgrounds. (Anne Elliot becomes Anne Elias, for example.)

IR- How do you define success as an author? 

EG- Obviously it would be nice to quit my day job and make buckets of money, but truly after so many years of the writing grind, what will make me feel successful is knowing that people have read my book and hearing that people are connecting with it. (I’ve already gotten a small taste of this, and it’s amazing!)

IR- Can you share a day in the life of an author? 

EG- My answer is not very glamorous, I’m afraid. Re: above day job + a very rambunctious toddler means my day usually has hardly any writing in it. I am super lucky that my husband is also a writer and understands how much that means, so we try to take turns taking on a bit extra so the other can have that precious creative time.

IR- What was the defining moment that made you say to yourself, “Today, I am going to write a book that I will publish.”? 

EG- Publishing has always been my hope, but I think what motivated me to finally go the small press/self-publishing route was when my agent left the business. We had a great working relationship and many close calls with submissions, but nothing had ever materialized. I half-heartedly went back into the slush pile but finally decided to bet on myself and stop waiting for the approval of others. (It also helps, again, that I have a husband who gives great editing notes.)

IR- What advice would you give to a writer working on their first book? 

EG- You must love your book more than anyone else ever will because you are going to be its biggest advocate. If you don’t believe it’s worth reading, then no one else will.

IR- What are you working on in the near future? 

EG- The sequel/ book 2 in the Austen University Mysteries, The Portraits of Pemberley

IR- What is your all time favorite book or author? Do you think this has influenced your writing?

EG- Based on this book series I’m writing, it will probably come to no surprise that my favorite book is Pride and Prejudice. Aside from the obvious elements I’m borrowing from Austen for this series, I love how much she is able to do with so little, and that’s always something I try to emulate in my own writing. Character descriptions are great, but Austen uses almost none, and I know her characters so intimately from the way they speak, the little glimpses we get into their minds, and the choices they make.

IR- What do you look for in a story as a reader? 

EG- Characters I can fall in love with, and/or really juicy plots where I must know what happens next.

IR- What is an underrated author that you think everyone should read at least once? 

EG- Ooh, great question. There are so many answers I could give to this, but the author who springs immediately to mind is Mhairi McFarlane. I LOVE her characters and will read anything she chooses to write.

IR- What is the first book that you remember reading?

EG-  I read a ton as a child, but the first book I remember making a big impact on me was Little Women, which I read when I was ten. I wanted (and still want) to be Jo, and I’d never identified with a character so strongly

IR- What would your dream library look like? 

EG-  I am a child of the ‘90s, so the Beauty and the Beast library, naturally.

IR- Aside from writing or reading, what are your hobbies or interests? 

EG- I love a good cross stitch, puzzles, long walks, swimming

IR-  If you could have lunch with 3 authors (past or present) who would they be and what do you think you would all talk about during lunch?

EG-  Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier. I have no idea, but I would be furiously scribbling notes the whole time.

IR- How do you avoid or defeat writer’s block? 

EG- For me, it helps to have shortcuts that get me in the mood. If I’m feeling stuck, I try to find music that fits my story, or maybe a short YouTube fanvid with actors that I could see playing my characters, or watch a scene from a similar film, etc., to get me in the spirit of my book. Also, chocolate

IR-  If you had your own talk show, what would the topic be and who would be your first guest(s)? 

EG- I would love to have a talk show where I talked to famous people about their nerdy pastimes. As in, truly nerdy pastimes–I want to know who’s written fanfiction, who has dressed up as their favorite characters on a day that wasn’t Halloween, that kind of thing.

IR- If your book were made into a movie, which actors would play your characters?

EG-  There are too many characters to list them all, but Lana Condor would be my dream Caty.

IR- If you had a secret room that opened by pulling a book on a shelf, what book would you choose? 

EG- Ooh, good question. Maybe the Secret Garden? I had fantasies as a child about finding my own hidden key, so that would be fitting. 

IR- If you knew you could not fail, what would you do? 

EG- Restore an old castle in Scotland or Ireland and open up a bed and breakfast/ bookstore.

About The Book

What Happened on Box Hill: Austen University Mysteries

What would happen if you combined all of Jane Austen’s characters into one modern-day novel?

Murder, of course.

When Caty Morland’s roommate, Isabella, falls to her death on Initiation night, Austen University is quick to cover up the scandal and call it a tragic accident. But avid true-crime lover Caty remains convinced that Isabella didn’t fall; she was murdered. With the help of Pi Kappa Sigma President Emma Woodhouse, Caty organizes a dinner party with the most likely suspects, including familiar faces such as Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet, Knightley, and Marianne Dashwood. The theme of the night is murder, and Caty has three courses to find out what happened to Isabella–and to try to keep the killer from striking again.

Purchase Link Amazon 

About the Author

Elizabeth Gilliland teaches English at the university level, putting as much Austen into her syllabi as she can get away with. In 2018, she completed her Ph.D. from Louisiana State University, where she wrote her dissertation on Jane Austen adaptations and fever-dreamed this series in a caffeine-induced haze. She is a proud member of the Jane Austen Society of North America, and excerpts of the Austen University series have won awards through JASNA and Jane Austen & Co/The Jane Austen Summer Program. She lives in Alabama with her husband and son.

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