Lauren Willig is the bestselling author of the popular “Pink Carnation” series, which is drawing to a close. Drawn to the cover of her latest novel, The Ashford Affair, I discovered a new author to love as I inhaled this story of London and Africa in the 20’s and a young Manhattan lawyer in the present day. Ms. Willig will be joining us in September at the Kerrytown BookFest and she graciously agreed to be interviewed. Welcome, Lauren!
Q: This is the first book of yours I’ve read, though of course I’ve sold MANY of them thanks in part to Tasha Alexander, who told me years back you were one of her favorite authors. I think my first question is about the time period – have you always wanted to set a novel in this time frame?
A: First of all, may I say how much I adore Tasha Alexander? She is both a wonderful writer and a lovely person, and there’s no one I would rather be stuck with on slippery back roads in the middle of a freak snowstorm. (And I speak from experience in this. Somehow, we managed a) not to die, b) to acquire Starbucks, and c) to make it to the library at which we were speaking.)
Back to the question… The answer is a resounding no. I never intended to set a book in the 1920s. I had always assumed that if I ever left my Napoleonic-set Pink Carnation series, I’d go back in time, and do something set in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, since that was, once upon a time, my area of academic expertise. I’ve always enjoyed vacationing in the 1920s and 30s—I’ve been a P.G. Wodehouse fan since childhood—but I never intended to set up shop there.
Then a few different things happened all at once: I finished the ninth Pink Carnation book way ahead of schedule, leaving me with time to spare; Nancy Mitford’s Wigs on the Green was finally released after a long ban, which set me on a Mitford/Waugh/Thirkell reading binge; and a friend gave me a copy of Frances Osborne’s The Bolter. And suddenly I found myself thinking a lot more seriously about the 1920s…
Q: The 20’s are such a rich time period, and you even have one of the characters reflect on how “big” the women’s lives were as compared to today’s smaller concerns. Do you think that’s true?
A: I do. To be fair, I know people who live “big” lives now—one of my old classmates is in the Sudan right now, advocating for women— but they’re the ones who have actively sought out those experiences and put themselves in the way of adventure. The generation born around 1900, as Bea and Addie were, found themselves in the center of a series of cataclysmic events whether they wanted it or not. World War I… the Jazz Age revolution in mores… World War II… There was so much happening, so much changing, so many dramas taking place from family to family.
One of the things that fascinated me as I was writing the historical sections of The Ashford Affair was the question of thwarted expectations. My characters, pre-World War I, grow up with sets of expectations about their world and their place in it that are blown sky high by the war and the social changes that follow. They have no choice in the matter. Their world has turned upside down on them. How they adapt—or fail to adapt—to these changes provided the meat of the story for me.
Q: I loved the dovetailing of the present/past storyline. I was equally interested in both stories, which is not always the case for me in a book that utilizes this type of structure. Did you yourself feel more passionately about one storyline over the other?
A: This book really originated with the historical story, with the tale of two cousins in an Edwardian great house, one the spoiled daughter of the house, one the poor cousin, and the ways in which their lives twist and turn and intersect, taking them all the way up through the twentieth century. But when I sat down to write that story it sounded, in the words of one of my old history professors, like “one damn thing after another.” That story, the historical story, needed the modern frame to give it depth and meaning. Once I figured that out, the two went together like peanut butter and chocolate.
I will admit, for the most part, I felt closer to the historical story. But neither worked for me without the other. I wrote them exactly as you’re reading them, in a rhythm of historical/modern/historical/modern. Oddly, though, my two favorite chapters are both in the modern section.
In my upcoming book, That Summer, which goes back and forth between 2009 and 1849, it was exactly the other way around: I felt much closer to the modern plot-line—but the chapters of which I’m proudest are on the historical side.
Q: I know you have a law degree. How do the skills you gathered in law school play out in your life as a novelist? I assume research skills are a big one.
A: For research, I have to give the credit, not to law school, but to my pre-law school years as a grad student in the Harvard History department. There is nothing like cramming for General Exams to teach you your way around the library or to make you master the art of assimilating large amounts of information in record time. I followed that up with a year of dissertation research in England, which taught me how to navigate everything from the intricacies of the Bodleian to a one room regional archive where none of the papers in the box have been sorted because no one on staff can read seventeenth century handwriting. (And greet you with cries of gratitude as they ask you if you can possibly take the time to catalogue the papers for them before you have to run for your train back to London.)
At the end of that research year, I came to the conclusion that academia was not for me and moved down the block from the history department to the law school.
By one of those odd quirks of fate, I signed my first book contract my first month of law school. It was a two book contract. One had already been written while I was avoiding working on my dissertation. The other was only a glint in my eye and a few scribbled notes on scraps of paper. I certainly wasn’t going to say no to the book contract—it was what I’d always wanted—but there I was, right at the beginning of the pressure cooker that is 1L year.
The biggest skill law school taught me? Just how much caffeine you can consume before life-threatening palpitations ensue. The second biggest skill? How to get books written on deadline while juggling other obligations. (Which, come to think of it, is closely related to point one, caffeine.) I did revisions on my first book 1L year; wrote my second book, The Masque of the Black Tulip, 2L year; and scribbled my third book, The Deception of the Emerald Ring, 3L year, in between desperately trying to make up my pro bono requirement, complete my 3L project, and deal with those pesky things called classes.
Currently, I’m putting those juggling skills to the test as I learn how to balance book deadlines with a rather lively eight-month-old who doesn’t seem to understand that Mommy’s laptop is for typing, not eating.
Q: I am interested in taking a long view of mystery fiction – I think historical mysteries kind of came of age with Ellis Peters and then Anne Perry. There were many medieval mystery writers who were popular and successful for years and then many Victorian ones, still a strong trend. Presently there’s a strong romantic element to historical mystery fiction, which I’m enjoying. Do you consider yourself primarily a romance or a mystery writer?
A: Tracking the evolution of genres is one of my favorite pastimes! It’s fascinating watching how they grow and change over time. As the historical romance market has narrowed, I’ve seen many former romance novelists move to historical mystery, bringing with them that romantic element.
As for me, I call myself a historical fiction writer, which is my way of squaring the circle.
When I sold my first book, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, way back in 2003, I thought I’d written a romance, and told my agent so. He politely disagreed. So did my publisher. They decided I’d written something entirely new and different: historical chick lit! (This being in the era where chick lit, the publishing term du jour, was pupping new sub-genres by the second: mommy lit, lad lit, goodness only knows what else lit.)
While the book was in production, chick lit died an abrupt death (picture a Monty Python character grasping his throat, emitting a loud “argh!” and keeling over). On the eve of my first interview, I got a panicked call from my publisher, advising me that, whatever I did, I was not to call my book chick lit. Or romance. Just call it historical fiction, they said.
On my first book tour, my very first stop was at a mystery bookstore, where I was informed that it was, in fact, a mystery, and hadn’t I realized this? I hadn’t, but it didn’t overly surprise me. My favorite tipple of choice was a bit of Elizabeth Peters or Dorothy Cannell, so it was no wonder that mystery had seeped into the bones of my book.
During that first year, my book was called pretty much everything except sci-fi. I was just happy to have it out there, whatever it was. Since The Secret History of the Pink Carnation was shelved in that wonderful catch-all, Fiction & Literature, I was spared the agonizing question of what it really was, or, for that matter, what I really was.
These days, I’ve complicated life for myself yet again. The Pink Carnation books were primarily historical, making it simplest for me to clump them as historical fiction (or historical romance, or historical mystery, depending on who I was talking to). My recent stand-alones, The Ashford Affair and That Summer, have been in the new genre called time slip, a mix of historical fiction and women’s fiction. While they do have a strong historical component, there’s enough women’s fiction in them that it’s no longer an easy out to call them historical fiction. And, of course, there’s that mystery element in both of them, too…
So maybe I should just say that I write a little bit of everything?
Q: I also liked the contrast of Addie and Bea. That must have been fun to write. Did you feel it was difficult to explicate Bea’s character, and make her if not likeable, understandable?
A: I’ve always enjoyed writing about anti-heroines, taking difficult characters and trying to show what makes them tick.
For those who haven’t read the book yet, Ashford is the story of two cousins: Bea, the daughter of an earl, and Addie, the poor cousin, who become fast friends as children, a friendship that is tested by time and events, and, most of all, by their own characters.
The idea that motivated me, writing about Addie and Bea, was what I think of as a “poison friendship,” one of those legacy friendships that you maintain because of a childhood bond, but where the characters of the friends are such that, despite a deep and real affection, they consistently bring out the worst in each other. In the case of Addie and Bea, each has something the other lacks. In Bea, Addie sees the social status, the easy sense of belonging, that she herself will never have; in Addie, Bea sees someone who can navigate this strange, new, post-war world. Each is uncomfortable and defensive with the other, but that resentment is complicated by a very real affection for each other and a nostalgia for their shared childhood. Bea, in particular, is threatened by Addie’s growing independence and attempts to meddle in Addie’s life, “for her own good”—or, at least, so she tells herself.
As you say, it was, indeed, often difficult to present Bea in a sympathetic light. But I felt, strongly, that I wanted to show how much her actions were motivated by insecurity and unhappiness rather than meanness, and how much, at the base of it, she really does love her cousin, even if that love sometimes takes rather warped forms. That’s why I chose to have three narrators for the book: Clemmie, our modern heroine; Addie, the historical heroine—and Bea. It was crucial for me to get Bea’s voice in there, so we could see her on her own terms.
Those Bea chapters were the most fun to write. There’s nothing like a bitter, confused character to make for a very strong narrative voice…
Q: Do you feel like romance and/or historical novels are placed in a type of fiction “ghetto”? In our store it’s a solid, steady selling segment and we feature these books, but I don’t know if that’s the case everywhere.
A: Back in my grad school days, romance and mystery were kept underground, tucked away in the basement of the Harvard Coop. Geography as metaphor? Of course, even that basement section was a small triumph. When I started at the Harvard history department, in 1999, there had been no romance in the Coop at all. For my romance fix, I had to take the train down to the big B&N at Downtown Crossing, carrying away piles of novels to keep me until my next jaunt downtown.
That being said, I do believe that bit by bit, the barriers are being eroded. My own suspicion is that the thin end of the wedge came with chick lit, which, in trade paperback, infiltrated the upper regions of the bookstore. Over the past few years, romance has made inroads into previously hostile territory: Kirkus Reviews and the Washington Post, among others, now have romance blogs.
The real issue, though, is how we as readers treat these sorts of fiction. I’ve heard so many friends qualify their enjoyment of a book with, “Of course, it’s not literature, but…” or “It’s just a romance, but…” No matter where these books are placed in the store, if we belittle our own reading preferences, then we keep genre fiction in a metaphorical ghetto.
Q: I have to ask what your influences were writing this novel – obviously there’s some Out of Africa/Isak Dinesen influence, and I always think of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth when I read a story set in this period. There’s even a bit of a “Downton Abbey” feel.
A: The direct catalyst for this book was Frances Osborne’s The Bolter, about the life of the notorious Idina Sackville, who racketed back and forth between England and Kenya, acquiring and discarding husbands along the way. The entire Happy Valley set, of which Idina was at the center, and their associates, provided rich background reading for this novel—there are excellent biographies of Beryl Markham, Denys Finch-Hatton, and Alice de Janze among others. In terms of the Kenya portion of the book, I also owe a great debt to Elspeth Huxley, whose semi-autobiographical books about life in Kenya (her most famous is The Flame Trees of Thika) provided a great deal of the sensory details of life as a settler.
But that’s just the Kenya bit. On the England side, I wallowed in novels, biographies, and letters. I’ve been a Mitfordian for a long time, so I used this as an excuse to re-read all my Mitford biographies, and the writings of the various Mitfords themselves, from Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels to all of Nancy Mitford’s novels, and any collected correspondence I could get my hands on. Anne de Courcy’s biography of the Curzon girls, which I’d devoured years before, when I was living in England, provided a very real sense of what it was like to be a debutante in those immediate post-war years, as well as life in a great house with aristocratic and distant parents. I also found myself both appalled and fascinated by the many World War I memoirs that illustrated just how much that war shattered the men who came back from it, particularly Rupert Graves’s Goodbye to All That, which is funny and heart-breaking all at once. For the post-War period, I was very much struck by Juliet Nicolson’s monograph, The Great Silence, and—how could I leave it out?—the Testament of Youth.
Working my way back in time, there was also, over all of it, the shadow of the Edwardians. My Addie’s parents were Bloomsbury sorts, so I got to use this as an excuse to re-read Howard’s End and generally wallow in E.M. Forster.
I guess the short answer to your question is that this book was a long-simmering stew of literature and monographs and biographies I’d read for the sheer joy of it over the years. Looking back, it’s hard to pick apart just what influenced what.
I’d say a lifetime watching “Masterpiece Theatre” on Sunday evenings probably also played a large part in it! “Upstairs, Downstairs,” “House of Elliot,” vaguely remembered programs about the Sackvilles that aired when I was in my teens, all of these went into the stew. (Although, ironically, I didn’t start watching “Downton” until I was about three quarters of the way through writing Ashford.)
If anyone is curious about the books I used when researching Ashford, you can find a much longer list on my website.
Q: And what are your influences generally? Favorite writers? I usually forbid the answer “Jane Austen” because it’s so common, but in your case it makes sense!
A: Oddly enough, Austen wasn’t really the first person to pop to mind! Although, of course, it would be disingenuous to deny her influence. It seeps into everything I write, whether I mean it to or not. My primary influences? A hodge podge of L.M. Montgomery, M.M. Kaye, P.G. Wodehouse, Nancy Mitford, Angela Thirkell, Dorothy Sayers, Mary Stewart, Diana Gabaldon, Judith Merkle Riley, and, really, above all, Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels. I stumbled upon Elizabeth Peters when I was twelve, and there was no looking back from there.
Q: And what’s next? What are you working on now?
A: My next book, That Summer, comes out on June 3rd. (Appearing soon on the shelves of Aunt Agatha’s!) A modern woman inherits an old house in a suburb of London, where she discovers a lost Pre-Raphaelite painting hidden in the back of a wardrobe. Her quest to discover the painting’s provenance uncovers secrets deep in the family’s past—and her own childhood. The story goes back and forth between 2009 and the early days of the Pre-Raphaelite movement in 1849. Naturally, I couldn’t resist co-opting Dante Gabriel Rossetti as a side character!
Right now, I’m finishing up another stand alone. This one is set in 1927, about a young woman who discovers that the father she believed long dead is really alive—and an earl, with a whole other legitimate family. Stung by this long betrayal, she enters society under an assumed name. But is revenge really what she wants? The 1927 book—still untitled—will come out in 2015.
In addition to these stand-alone novels, I’m also rounding off my long-running Pink Carnation series. The eleventh book in the series, The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla, comes out this August, to be followed by the twelfth—and last!—book in the series, The Lure of the Moonflower, in August 2015.
It’s hard to say goodbye to the Pink Carnation series after all this time, but I’m having a ball working on the last book, which is set in Portugal in 1807. And it does mean more free time to start working on other projects… possibly even a mystery series!
Thanks so much for having me here to the Aunt Agatha’s blog! (Or newsletter – ed.) If anyone wants to know more about The Ashford Affair or any of my other books, please do come visit me on my website (www.laurenwillig.com) or my Facebook author page (https://www.facebook.com/LaurenWillig). I’m always delighted to have an excuse to procrastinate!