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Birchall, Diana 1945-

BIRCHALL, Diana 1945-

PERSONAL:

Born December 5, 1945, in New York, NY; daughter of Paul Eaton (a poet) and Helen (Finkelstein) Reeve; married Peter Birchall (a poet), 1974; children: Paul. Ethnicity: "Caucasian." Education: City College of the City University of New York, B.A., 1970. Politics: Independent.

ADDRESSES:

Home—225 Montana Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90403. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER:

Ladd Co., Burbank, CA, story editor, 1979-85; Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Culver City, CA, story analyst, 1985-91; Warner Bros. Studios, Burbank, CA, story analyst, 1991—.

WRITINGS:

In Defense of Mrs. Elton, Jane Austen Society of North America (Williamsburg, VA), 1999.

Onoto Watanna: The Story of Winnifred Eaton, University of Illinois Press (Champaign, IL), 2001.

Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma, Egerton House Press, 2004.

Mrs. Elton in America, Egerton House Press, 2004.

WORK IN PROGRESS:

Three Austens, a biography, completion expected in 2006.

SIDELIGHTS:

Diana Birchall told CA: "I grew up in New York City, and after graduating from the City College of New York, I moved to California and began working as a story analyst for movie studios. Currently I am the 'book person' at Warner Bros., reading novels to see if they would make good movies. At the same time I've always worked on book projects of my own. I started out wanting to write historical novels. I wrote a 600-page manuscript about Jack the Ripper and the royal family that took eight years to write and didn't sell. From doing that book I learned everything about how not to write and research, so it was not entirely time wasted! Meanwhile, I was obsessed with Jane Austen's works. I read her books literally thousands of times, and I actually think of her as my writing teacher. It was her style, her language that I loved—her exquisitely measured sentences, laced with wit, every word perfect. Studying her writing line by line was an education in itself, and could not help but improve my own technique and understanding."

"I wrote four more novels: a ballet romance (accepted by a publisher, who then closed down, so the book didn't get publisher); an autobiographical novel about my teenage years in Greenwich Village (nobody has ever seen that one but my husband); a novel about Jane Austen and the eighteenth-century courtesan Harriet Wilson that was a great advance in my writing but didn't quite work structurally; and a sequel to Pride and Prejudice titled Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma. This book found New York agent representation and was the subject of a bidding war, but all fell through when it was decided there were too many other Austen sequels coming out."

"By now I was well into midlife, unpublished and getting depressed about it. That's when a biography of my great-aunt, Edith Eaton, who published under the name Sui Sin Far and was considered 'the godmother of Asian American fiction,' was published. Now, my own grandmother, Winnifred Eaton, was a flamboyant best-selling author who had an infinitely more fantastic and fascinating life than her worthy sister, and it occurred to me that someone was going to publish her biography nextmdash;so why shouldn't it be me? Her papers were all in the University of Calgary library, and I decided to try to write a properly scholarly biography, but at the same time it would be as lively, as colorful as any novel, because Winnifred had a life that read like Gone with the Wind."

"Born in 1875 to a family of fourteen half-caste children in Montreal (English father, Chinese mother), Winnifred assumed a fake identity and ethnicity and pretended to be Japanese, calling herself 'Onoto Watanna' in order to publisher her numerous pseudo-Japanese romances. Her most successful book, A Japanese Nightingale, sold 200,000 copies in 1901. Winnifred was also the author of some westerns and autobiographical fiction, and she was the first Asian-American woman to be a Hollywood screenwriter. She wound up as an oil millionaire's wife in Calgary and died in 1954. So I pitched the idea to the press that had published the Sui Sin Far book, the University of Illinois Press. They accepted it, and I started researching."

"This was a somewhat daunting task for a non-academic, so I networked with scholars, researchers, and people who were getting their doctorates on topics related to my grandmother. We worked together amicably in a network of what we called 'Winnyers,' and from this productive group of friends and colleagues more than half-a-dozen related books about the two Eaton sisters have emerged. For me, with all my bad historical novel and Jane Austen training, the writing was the easy part. Needless to say, bringing the long-forgotten Winnifred Eaton back to life and in the process 'meeting' my grandmother was a complete joy from beginning to end. And, while I was waiting for the actual publication to take place, I had the additional satisfaction of having a Jane Austen pastiche, In Defense of Mrs. Elton, published by the Jane Austen Society of North America. Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma, was finally published in 2004, along with another Austen sequel, Mrs. Elton in America. Now I look forward to writing more biographies—and more historical fiction."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

ANQ, winter, 2003, Lisa Botshon, review of Onoto Watanna: The Story of Winnifred Eaton, p. 61.

Legacy, January, 2004, Dominika Ferens, review of Onoto Watanna, p. 102.

Library Journal, September 1, 2001, Jeris Cassel, review of Onoto Watanna, p. 176.

ONLINE

Diana Birchall Home Page,http://www.dianabirchall.com (December 20, 2004).

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