Brooklyn writer looks to literary classics for lessons in love

Maura Kelly
Photo courtesy of the author

Only a century ago, there were very limited opportunities to meet anyone outside one’s small circle of acquaintances.  Painstaking composition of hand-written letters that required days or weeks for a meaningful exchange of ideas was the prime mode of communication with anyone outside walking distance.  Yet despite the expanding array of communication options that exist today – including, of course, the recent proliferation of dating websites — finding true love can seem difficult as ever.

Modern-day technology and dating conventions have certainly increased options and opportunities for meeting people; still, sometimes the sheer number of options, not to mention the abundance of dating advice offered in self-help books and magazines, makes us crave simplicity. Brooklyn author  Maura Kelly and Manhattan-based writer Jack Murnighan, frustrated by the contemporary dialogue surrounding romance, decided to look in an unusual direction — backwards — in an effort to clarify their love lives.

The two sifted through classic novels, finding the literary characters they studied to be surprisingly inspirational. Kelly and Murnighan were so compelled by their findings that they co-authored a book, “Much Ado About Loving: What Our Favorite Novels Can Teach You About Date Expectations, Not-So-Great Gatsbys, and Love in the Time of Internet Personals.” With lighthearted humor, the writers convincingly contend that while classic authors like Jane Austen and Herman Melville knew nothing about OkCupid or post-date texting etiquette, the characters they created were certainly (and perhaps more purely) entangled in messy and confusing romantic situations that reflect the same dramas many of us face today.

In celebration of the book’s Jan. 8 paperback release, Brooklyn Eagle spoke to Kelly about the inception of her and Murnighan’s ideas for the book. We discovered how Brooklyn inspires her writing and found out which literary character she’d most like to be.

How did you decide to work with Jack on this project, and what prompted you to compile your ideas into a full-length book?

Whenever Jack and I got together, we seemed to discuss two of our favorite topics: literature and love. One night, after a very disappointing cocktail party, I stopped by his place to moan and groan about how no one there seemed terribly interested in giving me the time of day, and told Jack I wished I had that magical quality that some women seem to have–the one that causes everyone in a room to gravitate towards them.


Jack Murnigham
Photo by Alisa Volkman, used by permission

He pulled “War and Peace” down from his bookshelf and told me to read it, saying that one of the main characters, Natasha, could teach me everything I needed to know. As it turns out, I did have plenty to learn from her. But who wants to go through an entire thousand-page novel to learn some love lessons? (Who but Jack and I, that is?) So we decided it might be fun, and helpful, to write down some of our thoughts.

I hear you’re a South Brooklyn resident. How did you wind up settling there?

When I initially moved to Brooklyn a few years ago, after grad school, it was–to be honest–because I wanted to live in New York but couldn’t afford Manhattan, and Brooklyn seemed like the prettiest borough. Plus, most of my friends in the area were living here.


But now, I’d choose Brooklyn if I had all the money in the world; I love walking down the brownstone streets, visiting the parks, and jogging along the water. I love my neighbors–especially the older guy, with his broom moustache, who owns the car lot not far from where I live. He stops me during my run whenever he can to give me a hug, and sometimes he’ll give me a ride wherever I’m going in his big gold Cadillac.


I also have a favorite coffee shop, of course, but I’ll never tell what it is. One of the best things about the place is how quiet it is.

As I’m sure you’re well aware, Brooklyn has such a rich literary history. How has living in Brooklyn affected your writing — whether the content of your work or your daily routines?

It’s something of a commonplace that a writer needs to live as much as to write. Brooklyn helps to make both of those things a little easier than they would be otherwise. Here, we have access to some of the best cultural experiences the world has to offer–like the Ann Hamilton show that was recently at the Park Avenue Armory, or “Tabu,” this kooky little love story that was at the Film Forum for a couple of weeks, or a Little Dragon concert at the bandshell in Prospect Park–and to some of the most interesting people, too. But we also have enough peace and quiet that we can retreat from the world for a while, and mull it all over.

Truthfully…how often do you find yourself taking your own advice?

I’ve been somewhat better about that in recent years–at, for instance, realizing that showing a little verbal restraint on a first date is a good idea (something I talk about in my chapter on Brothers Karamazov), and also recognizing (as I discuss in my chapter on Sense and Sensibility) that sometimes wild passion isn’t always the best predictor of a good relationship. But of course, it’s always easier to dispense advice, and harder to follow it!

If you could be one of the characters discussed in your book, whom would you be?

I’m going to go with Natasha from “War and Peace,” who is attractive for all the right reasons. (I’d love for you to read our book to find out why!) But the character in literature whom I may BE most like? Sometimes I think it’s Captain Ahab. Not that I have a cool scar splitting my forehead in half, making me look like I’ve just been struck by lightning. Or a peg-leg, for that matter. I can just be a little single-minded sometimes, in a dangerous way. Although hopefully not so much anymore.

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