I met Lauren Willig a few years ago when I attended the Historical Novel Society Conference in Chicago. I snaffled up her first book, THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE PINK CARNATION, because it was described as a romantic romp in the vein of the Scarlet Pimpernel, only funnier. Well, I've always loved the Scarlet Pimpernel (by Baroness Orczy) and I also love funny historical romances, and so it seemed a match made in heaven. And it was! I've adored all of her books since, and read all 11 of them (here's a link to a list of Lauren Willig's utterly divine Pink Carnation books, in reading order)
This year, Lauren has released a very different book, THE ASHFORD AFFAIR.
The book moves between two narrative threads, one set in contemporary New York and London, and the other set in 1920s England and Africa. It's a historical mystery, a family drama, a romance, a vivid re-enactment of life in Kenya after the war - its all this and more and I absolutely loved it. You can read my review here.
Here Lauren answers all my usual questions:
Are you a daydreamer too?
Perpetually! When I was little, I used to spin stories out of books I’d read or movies I’d seen, weaving myself into the narrative in elaborate ways. (Return of the Jedi came out when I was six, and I worked up a very complicated plot in which I was Princess Leia’s best friend and wound up eventually living happily ever after with Luke Skywalker—in my own defense, I was only in first grade, and therefore didn’t realize that Harrison Ford was the better romantic option.) Walks in the woods behind my parents’ house always involved daydreams about stumbling on castles, a la Evelyn Nesbit novels, or accidentally slipping through a time seam into a battle between Robin Hood and the sheriff’s men. We’ll ignore the fact that this was in New York—as far as I and my imagination were concerned, New York was a semi-detached part of England, and Norman castles in Putnam County made perfect sense.
I have to confess, I haven’t really grown out of it. The nature of the daydreams have changed (no more Luke Skywalker, certainly!), but I still have a habit of drifting off into reverie.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
When I was six, I made the grand announcement that I was going to be a writer when I grew up. Before that, it had been ballerina or princess (I gravitate towards occupations that involve tiaras), but I can’t keep a beat to save my life and no one had come along with a kingdom, so it seemed prudent to try another course.
I finished my first novel, a mystery titled “The Night the Clock Struck Death” when I was nine, and sent it off—all two hundred handwritten pages!—to a New York publisher, cherishing elaborate daydreams of being hailed as “Youngest Bestseller Ever!” and invited to tea with the Queen (see my delusions of growing up in a semi-detached part of England, above). The publisher sent it back. I was crushed and had a little sob with my Barbie dolls before setting to work on the next novel, a Victoria Holt knock-off called 'The Chateau Secret'. I went on that way for some time, producing large piles of paper, first handwritten, then later on an old dot matrix printer, pouring over Writer’s Digest while my friends were reading Seventeen, and attending the sort of pretentious Young Writers’ camps where the poets spoke in rhyme all the time, until one of those large piles of paper got picked up by an agent when I was twenty-six and became the first book in my Pink Carnation series. All in all, my path to publication took twenty years—but I started early!
Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
Like the modern heroine of my book, I grew up in New York City, where I attended one of those all girls’ schools where everyone wears little pinafores and shirts with Peter Pan collars. It was a wonderful place to be in training as a novelist, especially since the lack of real boys meant a lot of time with brooding heroes of the literary variety. I discovered Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart early on and never looked back.
After some time at Yale and Harvard, collecting various degrees, and a stint in London, doing dissertation research, I made my way back to New York, where I juggled a microscopically short career as a lawyer with writing novels about swashbuckling spies during the Napoleonic wars. When it came down to knee breeches versus legal briefs, the knee breeches won hands down. I left my life as a litigator to play with Napoleonic spies and other colorful characters full time. Which was what finally gave me the time to write THE ASHFORD AFFAIR….
How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
THE ASHFORD AFFAIR was one of those story ideas that popped up on me out of the blue. I wasn’t meant to be writing about 1920s Kenya; I was meant to be writing another novel set during the Napoleonic Wars. But, in the fall of 2010, a friend gave me a copy of THE BOLTER, about the life of Idina Sackville Gordon Wallace, etc, who racketed from England to Kenya, acquiring and discarding husbands along the way. It wasn’t just the rackety life of British expats in Kenya that fascinated me; I was deeply intrigued by the author’s comment, in the preface, that she hadn’t known that the Bolter (aka Idina Sackville) was her great-grandmother until she was in her teens. The family had kept the relationship under wraps.
At the time, my own grandmother was very ill, and it struck me, forcibly, how much we assume and how little we know of our own family members and their pasts. What if a modern woman, wrapped up in her own career worries, were to discover that nothing about her family was as it seemed?
Once the idea hit, it wouldn’t go away. I put the next book in my Pink Carnation series on hold, read up on Edwardian England, World War I, and 1920s Kenya, and launched into the story that would eventually become THE ASHFORD AFFAIR.
How extensively do you plan your novels?
Plan? What is this plan of which you speak? I wish I could be a more organized author, but I’ve found that the more I outline in advance, the more I run myself into dead ends. I’m a very character-driven writer, so I’ve learned that I’m best off following my characters and letting them drive the plot. When I try to plan too far ahead, I wind up trying to herd my characters in directions they don’t necessarily want to go, which leads to frustration, writer’s block, and lots of eating peanut butter straight out of the jar.
Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
I generally don’t remember my dreams—isn’t that disappointing? But I’ve found that dreams often make excellent plot devices, especially with characters who are very guarded in their waking lives. Exploring their unconscious thoughts gives me—and the reader—a chance to get to know them better.
While I’ve never been able to mine my dreams for ideas, I’ve found that most of my biggest plot breakthroughs have come while I’ve been in the middle of mundane tasks, like showering or walking to the grocery store. Which is why there will so often be a trail of shampoo suds from the shower to my computer as I rush to get the idea down before I lose it again.
Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
Where to start? As a lapsed historian, one of the things I love about writing historical fiction is getting to explore all the little quirks and anomalies in the historical record, all those places where truth really is stranger than fiction. (As one of my favorite examples of this, when I was working on my dissertation back in the day, one of the events with which I was dealing was an episode where one of Charles I’s attempts to escape from Parliamentary imprisonment was foiled because the King’s shoulders got stuck in the window. And by stuck, I mean wedged. Legs sticking out one end, head out the other, unable to move wedged. You really can’t make this stuff up.)
Kenya in the 1920s certainly wasn’t lacking for quirkiness! You had old Etonians alternating between boozy parties and experimental farming, female aviators, giraffes wandering into telegraph wires, and a post-War generation dealing with a world in flux. It’s that mix of hedonism and desperation, self-indulgence and fear, that makes that world and that crowd so particularly interesting. Well, that and all the gin.
Where do you write, and when?
It’s such a cliché by now, but I tend to write in Starbucks, away from the ringing of my phone, the siren song of the peanut butter jar in my fridge, and the lure of email (as far as I’m concerned, Starbucks has no internet access, and I don’t want to be told otherwise). I’ve had a different signature drink for each novel. For THE ASHFORD AFFAIR, it was a grande skim caramel mocha—with whipped cream. I needed the extra sugar to get me over the rough bits!
What is your favourite part of writing?
Those days when the characters do entirely unexpected things that you know are just RIGHT—or they come out with a bit of dialogue you couldn’t imagine coming out of your own mouth, something that completely and utterly belonging to that character. Those are the golden moments that keep me going through the rest of it.
What do you do when you get blocked?
Pace and mutter and scribble notes to myself longhand on sheets of blank paper. Then I bribe myself with treats and large amounts of caffeine. I know it’s bad when I’ve sunk to the eating cereal out of the box stage, munching and muttering to myself. Once it’s reached that level, I call either my little sister or my college roommate, both of whom are geniuses at unknotting plot tangles and helping me figure out where I went wrong. Sometimes blocks are nothing to do with the book itself—they’re to do with my mood or things going on in my real life outside my head or just pure laziness—but other times it’s a signal to me that the book has taken a wrong turn somewhere and I need to diagnose what the problem is so that I can get it back on track.
How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
I read, constantly. I can’t imagine not reading. Usually, I read three to four novels a week, sometimes beloved re-reads, other times new books. When I got really stuck, I used to go browse through the new books tables at the bookstore and come home with a fresh haul—but, sadly, both the bookstores within easy walking distance of me have now closed, so, these days, I rely a great deal on my readers for book recommendations. I have a feature on my website on Fridays called Weekly Reading Round-Up, in which I list what I’ve been reading and everyone chimes in with their reads. I’ve founds some great new authors that way.
Do you have any rituals that help you to write?
Aside from large amounts of caffeine?
Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Only ten? That’s always hard…. Okay, off the top of my head: L.M. Montgomery, Mary Stewart, Dorothy Sayers, Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels, Nancy Mitford, Diana Gabaldon, Susanna Kearsley, Judith Merkle Riley, Georgette Heyer, and Robin McKinley. Although that still leaves out so many on my keeper shelf….
(oooh, we share lots of favourite writers too!)
What do you consider to be good writing?
It’s like that famous line about pornography: I know it when I see it. Good writing, truly good writing, is a harmonious combination of craft and storytelling. There’s a cadence and rhythm to good writing, a comfort with language that draws the reader along. Clunky writing sits harshly on my ear and makes me wince. But if the characters seem flat or the pacing lags, the prose can be beautiful as beautiful can be and still not redeem it. When those two work in concert—smooth writing and a compelling story—the result is magical. You forget that you’re reading at all and just barrel along with the story, off in another world.
What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Read, read, and read some more! Read broadly, in a variety of genres and styles. Nothing trains the ear to the rhythms and subtleties of language in quite the same way as devouring large quantities of poetry and prose, not to mention the instinctive sense of plot and pacing that comes of having immersed yourself in other peoples’ stories.
Then sit down at your computer, turn off that nasty editor in your head, take a slug of strong coffee (optional), and just keep hammering away at it, even on those days when language feels like lead and all the characters in your head have gone off on vacation together.
What are you working on now?
I’ve just finished writing a second time slip novel: this one goes back and forth between a house in the suburbs of London in 2009 and the same place in 1849, during the early days of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. My modern heroine, who has lost her job in the financial crisis and is feeling a bit lost and at loose ends, inherits her great-aunt’s house in Herne Hill, a house she hasn’t seen since she was six and her father abruptly moved her to New York. While she’s clearing it out, she stumbles upon a Pre-Raphaelite painting, tied up in yellowed paper, hidden in the back of an old wardrobe. Who painted it and how did it come to be there? Her quest for the painting’s provenance leads her deep into her family’s past and a secret buried for over a century….
I don’t have a title or an exact release date yet, but the Pre-Raphalite book should be coming out in spring of 2014.
(I don't know if I should say this, but I've been working on an idea that is spookily similar to this one! Maybe Lauren and I are twins separated at birth ...)
In the meantime, I’m also gearing up for the publication of the latest book in my Pink Carnation series, THE PASSION OF THE PURPLE PLUMERIA, set in Bath in 1805, and filled with swashbuckling Englishwomen, French spies, and, of course, my heroine’s trusty sword parasol.
THE PASSION OF THE PURPLE PLUMERIA comes out on August 6th.
For more about THE ASHFORD AFFAIR, the upcoming Pre-Raphaelite book, or any of the Pink Carnation novels, come visit me on my website, www.laurenwillig.com
, or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/LaurenWillig.