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Life is hectic for novelist

Utah author of 'Austenland' juggles career, family life

SOUTH JORDAN — "For the woman with everything except a Mr. Darcy of her own, an invitation to Austenland, Pembrook Park, Kent, England."

So reads the jacket of Shannon Hale's newest book, "Austenland," her first adult novel and a delightful look at the Jane Austin legend for modern times.

During last month's release party for the book, a friend presented Hale with a giant cardboard cutout image of Colin Firth — the British actor who portrayed Mr. Darcy in the 1995 BBC-TV adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice."

The expression on Firth's face was memorable enough that the approximately 100 women who assembled to celebrate Hale's book knew the exact scene in which it appeared.

Hale chuckled as she retold the story during an interview in her South Jordan home. At the same time she was feeding her 6-month-old daughter, Maggie, and telling Max, her 3 1/2-year-old son, to let a ringing phone go to voice mail.

Over the past four years, the life of this unpretentious, multitasking novelist, now 33, has gotten both more interesting and more chaotic.

Relaxing at home is barely possible these days even when her husband, Dean, is home to help with the kids. Shannon and Dean are clearly devoted to each other, and she calls him a "hands-on papa."

Dean is not a professional writer; he works in the computer world. But he also finds time to read and critique at least three drafts of each of Shannon's books before they are published — and he loves the books, too. "He's a real gem," Shannon said.

And together they have written a graphic novel, to be titled "Rapunzel's Revenge," which has been illustrated by local artist Nathan Hale (no relation).

Few people who are not writers realize that rarely do even their best friends read their novels. Shannon Hale realizes that a book-signing party for her might be equated with "an employee-of-the-month celebration" for someone else.

"And your family is always there to remind you that you're really not that special," said Hale. "This is just my job. I started writing when I was 10. I still have all the rejection letters for my short stories laminated into a long roll I show during high school visits."

Although she is a New York Times best-selling author and winner of the prestigious Newbery Honor award for the young-adult novel "Princess Academy," most of the people with whom she associates are unimpressed. "People often have never heard of the Newbery — it's very much a niche honor."

Hale scoffs at the suggestion that she has achieved literary fame. "There are only probably 20 to 25 writers who could be called famous — and I'm not one of them. But I'm incredibly lucky. There are not a lot of big-headed people in the book world. But who would want to be famous like J.K. Rowling and get mobbed everywhere?"

Her other books are "The Goose Girl," "Enna Burning" and "River of Secrets" — all written in an elevated, sophisticated fairy-tale style. Her next one, "Book of a Thousand Days," will round out her fantasy books for young people.

Hale's clever writing style works equally well whether she is writing for young people or the older audience that is enjoying "Austenland." Her characters ring with authenticity, and her word choice is superb. But her output is bound to slow down some while she takes care of her little kids. "I'm sort of on maternity leave right now. When I just had a toddler, I would write when he napped. I would try to reach 1,000 words a day. But now I write twice a week when Max is in preschool — and, of course, Maggie's still here.

"I want to be with them, but for my own sanity and theirs, I need to keep writing. I may have to hire someone to come in and play with the kids for 10 hours a week so I can write."

She has had to stop answering her e-mail because it has become overwhelming — but she keeps a blog up to date on her Web site (www.oinks.squeetus.

com), so her readers can follow her travels and experiences.

"Austenland" is a book Hale took seven years to complete. As a teenager, she considered Jane Austen her favorite author.

Hale has also always been interested in how books get made into films. "You lose the narrator, which for Austen's work is the intelligent, witty, sardonic voice. I thought, 'How would it be if there was a place you could visit where you were immersed in that time period and wore the Regency gowns?' It was just a story I wanted to tell — and it worked out best with adult characters."

Her mind is highly retentive. She often carries more than one story around in her head for as long as a year before writing it down. She uses the time when waiting in traffic jams or washing dishes for deep thinking.

Although she expects her writing will change as she grows older, Hale said she will never stop. "I have to keep doing it. I'm so addicted to the satisfaction I feel when I finish something.

"It's probably a really good drug to be addicted to — but it feels more like a mental illness than a gift."