“The only things that sell are Jane Austen and vampires,” Michael Thomas Ford complained to his literary agent several years ago. Ford, who had written many award-winning books for gay readers, including Last Summer, had yet to register a hit with the mainstream market. What began as a joke out of frustration turned into Jane Bites Back, a confection of a novel that imagines Austen as a vampire and small-town bookseller in upstate New York, jealous of the royalties she’s lost since everybody thinks she’s dead. “I wrote a pitch, went on vacation,” Ford remembers. “And my agent called to say, ‘You’re not going to believe this. Everybody loves it!’”
And they do. Ballantine signed Ford to write three Jane novels. In the first Ford transports Austen into the present, where she runs the gamut of middle-aged meltdowns—hanging on to dying dreams (it’s been more than 100 years, and she still can’t find a publisher for her manuscript), dating, and coping with the ghosts of the past and present (including the sexy, matter-of-factly bisexual Lord Byron—also one of the undead).
While the Jane books are a departure for Ford, he says they allow him to write about the literary world that has become his home: “I just think of what would make me insane as a writer, and then I do it to her.” Ford reserves his most pointed scenes for the circus of contemporary publishing, throwing Austen onto talk shows with conservative pundits and convention panels with backstabbing fellow writers.
Of course, the Jane books rely on the business Ford lampoons, as they arrive amid the spate of vampire and Austen volumes. But there’s always room for one more, he contends. “Vampires,” he says, reluctant to make the pun, “just won’t die.”