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Former executive's new work a novel direction

SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JAKE BARTMAN - Author Collins Hemingway is perhaps best known for having co-authored a book with Bill Gates. He read from his novel 'The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen' at the Wilsonville Public Library Dec. 6.It may come as some surprise that after several decades co-authoring nonfiction works on science and business with the likes of Bill Gates, Eugene-based writer Collins Hemingway — who is unrelated to Ernest Hemingway — should direct his efforts to a literary trilogy that reimagines the life of Jane Austen.

But to hear Hemingway tell it, the shift in emphasis is not as much of a stretch as one might think.

“The early 1800s were as radical in their uptake of technology as the 21st century in our uptake of technology,” Hemingway said, prior to giving a reading from his newest work, “The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen,” at the Wilsonville Public Library Dec. 6. “There is a parallel, and there’s an excitement in that period and a transformative kind of energy in that period that’s very similar to what we’re going through now.”

If anyone should have a sense of the atmosphere of the late 20th and early 21st century, it would be Hemingway. Originally from Little Rock, Ark., Hemingway began to work in the newspaper industry as a high school student. He was responsible for the Friday night sports desk, collating reports of high school football results called in from across the state.

In 1968, he graduated from high school. His plans were to become an engineer.

“I was about as good in math and science as I was in English. Then I realized that I wasn’t that good — I was OK, but there were a whole lot of guys who were a whole lot smarter than I was,” Hemingway said.

After exploring his different academic interests for a time, Hemingway majored in English literature, although he had taken enough science and mathematics courses to earn a minor in science as well. He stayed in journalism after graduating, but saw his interests converge when the newspaper where he worked began to experiment with digital technology.

“All the innovation was happening at small newspapers,” Hemingway said, explaining that larger publications were often prevented by labor contracts from delving quickly into new technologies. Hemingway had a course in binary math to his credit, and said that sort of experience made him more comfortable with new technologies than many of his coworkers were.

“It was all new. We were figuring it out as we went,” Hemingway said. “It was a lot of fun.”

Hemingway eventually took a job as a reporter with the Eugene Register-Guard, which had recently begun to use computer technology of the sort he’d used in Arkansas. He earned a master’s degree in English literature at the University of Oregon during his time there.

Hemingway’s familiarity with technology earned him a reputation, eventually leading to an offer for a job as a technical writer with a Portland-based software firm.

That launched Hemingway’s career in business. From technical writing, he moved to technical marketing, which involved selling operating systems, email and other technology to laymen — a relatively new concept in an age where computers were still the domain of businesses and universities.

In 1992, he was hired to do marketing work for Microsoft. The company was still relatively small at the time, employing around 9,600 people — that number would grow to around 100,000 by the early 2000s — and Bill Gates asked Hemingway’s help when it came time to write Gates’ second book. The book, “Business @ the Speed of Thought,” explored how the Internet could be best used by businesses.

Hemingway left Microsoft in 1999 to work as a business consultant and co-authored several more nonfiction books. But the goal was always to write fiction full-time, rather than as a hobby.

“I’ve used the paying books — where a client pays me to develop a book with them — to fund my fiction writing,” Hemingway said. “But those were other peoples’ books. I don’t have the kind of passion that would say to me, ‘I want to write a book about the brain, or about the Internet.’ My passion is in telling a story about people.”

Hemingway had been a fan of Jane Austen since college, although he had always found the status of her works as “courtship” novels to be limiting. SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JAKE BARTMAN - Collins Hemingway says that he is already well into the second of three novels he plans to write about the life of Jane Austen.

“I thought that by definition, that’s not ‘serious,’ because it ends with a marriage, which is where life starts. Whatever may happen in a courtship is not going to be nearly as intense as when you’re dealing with a day-to-day relationship between two partners with children, financial problems, all the things that come with real life.

“I’d always wanted to see what would happen if we went the next step,” Hemingway said.

He was also interested in exploring the world of a strong female protagonist who could carry on when the world was against her. Jane Austen’s world, with its restrictive social roles, seemed just the setting to test a woman’s mettle.

“In the early 1800s, a woman had no property rights, no legal rights, no voting rights,” Hemingway said. “I wanted to kind of put a woman through that, and see what she’s made of. And see how a woman — a very smart, sensitive woman — would respond.”

Hemingway also saw the opportunity to explore areas that would have been taboo for women writers of Austen’s generation, including issues like war and slavery that are in the background of many of Austen’s works, but rarely in the foreground, Hemingway said.

His background proved helpful in making sense of Austen’s world, where scientific achievement propelled England into the industrial age.

“It’s the science that leads to the changes in technology, that leads to the changes in business, and life and social situations,” Hemingway said.

Having seen the interrelationship of environments like those enabled him to construct a world that extends beyond the country village where Austen spent much of her life. Hemingway’s novel uses that world to imagine what might have happened in Austen’s life between 1802 and 1809, a period about which scholars know very little.

That’s the beginning of the period when Austen wrote the novels for which she is most famous — among them “Sense and Sensibility,” “Mansfield Park” and “Pride and Prejudice.” Hemingway says that he is working on a draft of a novel to cover that period of her life, and plans to write a third novel as well.

“No writer’s ever completely satisfied. That’s the only reason you put it in physical form — so you have to quit,” he said with a laugh.

Contact Jake Bartman at 503-636-1281 ext. 113 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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