Saturday, June 29, 2013

Exclusive Interview with Lauren Willig

I didn’t used to have a thing for masked men in knee breeches.  And then one day my best friend Meredith told me to read The Secret History of the Pink Carnation series by Lauren Willig. I was hooked.  The series follows a modern girl while she does research on an elusive British spy during the Napoleonic wars.  I could rave about the series for ages, but today I’m focusing on something else: Lauren’s newest novel The Ashford Affair.  Spanning over decades and continents, this novel leads a woman into her family’s past and delves into secrets that could change her life forever.

I’m lucky enough to be a fan of Lauren’s, and plucky enough to put myself out there...and I’ve been rewarded with an interview with Lauren!  One of my favorite authors answering my questions on my blog...pinch me, I must be dreaming!

Q.  Thanks so much, Lauren, for agreeing to be interviewed on my blog!  The Ashford Affair crosses continents and decades, would you say that being able to jump from places and times makes the story flow more easily or allows for needed breaks in the plot?

A.  Back in grad school, one of my professors burst out that too many people regarded history simply as “one damn thing after another”.  At the time, I remember rebelliously thinking that I rather liked one damn thing after another.  Isn’t that, after all, the stuff out of which stories—and lives—are made? 
Writing THE ASHFORD AFFAIR, I finally understood what that professor meant, all those years ago.  I knew the historical story I wanted to tell, a tale of two cousins and the twists and turns their lives take as they blunder through the effects of a World War and the upheavals that follow—but, when I sat down to write it, starting at the beginning in 1906 and moving linearly forward towards the 1990s, I felt like something was missing.  The narrative needed something more to give it real resonance and meaning, something to make it feel like something more than “one damn thing after another”. 

It wasn’t until I’d struggled with several versions of the first few chapters that I realized that what the story really needed to snap into focus was that interweaving of the historical and the modern.  I already knew that my main historical character’s granddaughter was going to play a large role in the plot, but by introducing her in the beginning and interweaving her story with her grandmother’s, I felt that I had finally found a way to give force and meaning to that historical story.

On a more practical level, THE ASHFORD AFFAIR, as you point out above, ranges across a lot of territory: three continents and nine decades.  In the past, the action in my books has always occurred in fairly tight periods of time.  (My long-running Pink Carnation series has taken ten books to get from 1803 to 1805!)  Having the modern chapters in between gave me a mechanism for pushing the historical plot forward so that I was able to cover that kind of space.

Q.  The novel focuses time in modern Manhattan, Edwardian England, and Colonial Kenya, what drew you to writing about these specific moments in time?  And of these three, which was the most interesting to research?

A.  I’ve always vacationed in the 1920s—I’m a huge fan of Dorothy Sayers, Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh, Angela Thirkell, and P.G. Wodehouse, among others—but I’d never thought I’d write a book set in that time period.  It was so… modern.  And I’d always avoided World War I as the least glamorous of all possible wars.  No swashbuckling, no cavalry charges, no plumed hats.  If I was going to leave the Napoleonic era, I’d assumed I would go back in time, to the English Civil War, which was the subject of my long ago dissertation.

And then my friend Christina gave me a copy of a book called The Bolter.  For those who haven’t come across The Bolter, it traces the chequered life of Idina Sackville, etc., etc, who racketed back and forth between England and Kenya in the 1920s, acquiring and discarding husbands along the way.  She was the lynchpin of the hard partying group of British expats who settled in Kenya’s “Happy Valley”, engaging in experimental farming and even more experimental drug use and the odd bit of spouse-swapping.  There were many things that grabbed me about this book: it got me thinking about what happened to the people left behind in the Bolter’s wake, her collateral damage, as it were, as well as, on a much larger scale, the damage left behind by World War I, an entire generation of people trying to come to terms and rediscover meaning—or at least drown out their nightmares with enough jazz and booze.

While I spent a great deal of time reading up on Edwardian England (who doesn’t love those last, decadent days of the aristocracy?) and the expat life in Kenya, what really fascinated me as I was researching was, of all things, the Great War itself, because without understanding the war, one can’t understand why these people became what they became, why they reacted the way they did.  All three of my main characters find their lives indelibly changed by the war and the social upheavals that follow.

For those who are curious about Edwardian England, World War I, or 1920s Kenya, you can find a bibliography on my website, with some of the sources I used:  They all make fascinating reading!

As for 1999 New York… having lived through it, there was less research involved.  Though I did find myself sending out desperate emails to friends, trying to figure out whether anyone remembered if there had been snow or not on New Year’s Eve in 1999.

Q.  What are your favorite and least favorite parts of your new character Clemmie? 

A.  I will share a little secret: my modern heroine, Clemmie, is not someone with whom I would be besties.

That’s a horrible thing to say about my own character, isn’t it?  But, in order for Clemmie’s journey to have meaning, she had to be someone with a very steep learning curve in front of her.  Clemmie reminds me of a lot of people I knew in law school.  (Which makes sense, given that she’s a lawyer!)  She’s driven, she’s ambitious, she’s hard-working, but she’s not terribly intuitive or curious when it comes to the people around her, or, for that matter, herself.  Which is why, when she finds herself at a personal crossroads, she’s at such a loss.  As a Type A character, she’s used to just bulldozing through; she doesn’t have the emotional vocabulary to deal with her feelings.  As she learns about her grandmother’s past, Clemmie gradually breaks down some of those barriers and becomes more aware of her own emotions and those of the people around her.  She stops hiding behind her desk and starts taking some emotional risks.

Where I do really feel for Clemmie is in the catch twenty-two in which she finds herself in trying to satisfy the expectations of her family.  She’s gone out there and succeeded, in all the ways she’s been told she was supposed to succeed, but she still feels like she’s missing something and doesn’t know how to fix it.  I know many women like Clemmie, women who have been told, by teachers and mothers, that they’re meant to go out and grasp with both hands all that the previous generations of women have been denied, who achieve and achieve and achieve, and wake up one day—usually at one a.m. in the office with half-filled coffee cups scattered around them—to ask, “How did I go wrong?  Why is this making me so miserable?”

Q.  I mentioned earlier how much of a fan I am for the Pink Carnation series, and I cannot wait to see what is planned for Miss Gwen and her dangerous parasol! Of the love stories in the Pink Carnation series, which was your favorite to write?

A.  That’s a tough one!  Each of the Pink books has its own special place in my heart, and, in many ways, the books that were the most difficult for me were often the most rewarding.  But, when it comes down to it, the book I had the most fun writing was probably the second in the series, The Masque of the Black Tulip.  The heroine, Henrietta, is your classic girl next door.  She’s everyone’s best friend, with a wry and slightly self-deprecating sense of humor.  In short, she’s just plain nice.  And so is her hero, Miles (despite his issues with that one floppy lock of hair).  I genuinely enjoyed spending time with both of them—which may be why they keep popping up in cameo roles in so many of the subsequent books.

Q.  My friend Meredith wanted to know, if the Pink Carnation finds love, will that be the end of the series?  Could the series continue after the Pink Carnation got betrothed or married? Or would that be the end of the spy’s career?

A.  Hi, Meredith!  The answer to that falls into the “yes” and “no” category.  I can tell you with great confidence that the Pink Carnation’s marriage isn’t the end of her career.  If anything, when she teams up with her hero, it’s going to be the start of a whole new set of adventures for both of them. 

But will the Pink Carnation’s “happily ever after” mark the official end of the Pink Carnation series?  Yes.

Partly, it’s because all good things must come to an end—because it’s always rather sad and depressing when they don’t.  I think of this as the Dark Shadows problem.  When I was in ninth grade, I was absolutely obsessed with the 90s remake of Dark Shadows.  Which ended abruptly mid-plot line.  In the middle of an extended historical flashback.  It was maddening.  There I was, doomed never to know how it was going to all turn out.  I would never want to leave my Pink Carnation readers hanging in the same way, so I’ve decided that it’s better to have a planned end to the series than to run the risk of the series petering out, a la Dark Shadows, midplot line.

The other reason has to do with Eloise and Colin.  When I finished writing the first Pink book, back in 2003, I had just returned from my own research year in London.  I was Eloise’s age, walking the streets Eloise was walking, visiting the archives Eloise was visiting.  That was ten years ago.  In the interim, I’ve left the history department, moved cities, changed careers.  And the world has changed.  Eloise was born (metaphorically) in that Bridget Jones era of books with candy-colored covers.  She’s a pre-recession character.  She doesn’t know that the market is going to crash in 2008 or that the national mood will change.  And she’s still wearing those unattractive calf-length skirts with the hip bump that were so in vogue circa 2003.  As much as I love Eloise, I’m finding it harder and harder to transport myself mentally into her world.

That having been the long-winded version, the short version is that there are three more Pink books in the works: Pink X, THE PASSION OF THE PURPLE PLUMERIA, which comes out on August 6;  Pink XI (tentatively titled The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla), which I’m working on right now, and should hit shelves in August of 2014; and Pink XII, which will be Jane’s book, and will wrap up Eloise’s story.

Twelve is a good number for a series, don’t you think?

Although the official series will wrap up with Pink XII, I’m not ruling out the option of Pink offshoots.  There are still characters’ stories I want to tell, so there might be more all-historical Pink world books, like THE MISCHIEF OF THE MISTLETOE.  There’s also a contemporary mystery novel, featuring (an older) Eloise and Colin that I’ve been itching to write….  So we’ll see what happens!

Q.  As a fellow writer, I often find myself procrastinating and need motivation to get started on a story.  What would you say is your best motivation?  And do you have a particular writing process to keep yourself on track?

A.  Deadline panic.  Deadline panic and large quantities of caffeine.  There’s nothing like the threat of breach of contract to concentrate the mind. 

The truth of the matter is that I usually want to work on anything but the project I’m supposed to be working on.  The next book is always all glittery and shiny while the one currently on the computer screen is leaden and flat and a horrible chore that has to be got through.  (Of course, that next glittery and shiny one will then become leaden and flat, while the one after that will start singing its siren song.) 

I think it’s fear of failure that causes most of us to procrastinate, specifically fear that once you try to wrestle that perfect story in your head into prose, it will be dull and flat.  Pinning a story onto the page is hard and often frustrating, whether it’s your first book or your thirteenth.  (Not like I’m talking from current experience here with that thirteenth book….)  The advice I’d give to aspiring writers is to remember that everyone feels this way, and just because it isn’t easy doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.  Sometimes, the passages that have felt most like a monkey was bouncing on my keyboard when I was writing them are the bits that I’m the most proud of later.  And I cannot tell you how many manuscripts—including my RITA-winner—have been rescued from the wastebasket by my college roommate or my little sister, who help provide perspective for me when I’m deep in the book thicket and have lost my own.

I’ve learned that the only way to do it is to just keep chugging.  Creating routines helps.  When I’m in hard core book mode, I tend to go to Starbucks at a specific time each day and drink the exact same drink.  (Each book has wound up having its own theme drink—for THE ASHFORD AFFAIR, it was a grande decaf caramel mocha with whip.)  Often, I listen to the same music, over and over and over again.  When I got particularly stuck on ASHFORD, I played the same Toad the Wet Sprocket song on infinite repeat. 

There’s no magic recipe.  Just whatever it takes for you, at any given time, to stay in that chair and keep on typing.  Threats, bribery, excessive quantities of Starbucks.  Because something is always better than nothing… even on those days when it doesn’t feel that way!

Q.  Are there any genres you would like to break into with your writing? 

A.  I hop across genres all the time—often in the same book.  So far, the Pink books have been labeled pretty much everything except Sci Fi.  (For copyright reasons, that Pink Carnation meets Doctor Who episode will have to wait.)  I’ve had the same experience with THE ASHFORD AFFAIR, which has been called historical fiction, women’s fiction, romance, and mystery.  I seem to have a propensity for creating cross-genre stew.

As for moving into other genres….  There’s very little I would rule out, other than mechanically minded sci fi, or anything to do with a post-apocalyptic universe.  (My leanings are historical rather than futuristic, partly because technology confuses me.)  I can see writing heavy historical tomes, madcap mystery novels, YA pseudo-medieval fantasy novels, contemporary romance….  There are plot ideas along each of these lines in my omnipresent plot notebook.  It all depends on what catches my imagination at any given moment—and finding time to write it.

Q.  Lastly, what are some of your favorite novels and what would you recommend for some summer reading?

A.  You can find a list of some of my long-time favorite books (in a range of genres) on my website: 

For summer reading, some of the books I’ve been most excited about this summer are:
  • Beatriz Williams’s A Hundred Summers, set in a wealthy beach community in the 1930s (side note: there must have been something in the water, because she and I have marveled over how similar some of the themes and relationships are in A Hundred Summers and The Ashford Affair);
  • Susanna Kearsley’s The Firebird, which goes back and forth between the present day and eighteenth century Scotland, Belgium, and Russia;
  • C.S. Harris’s clever, Napoleonic-set St. Cyr mystery series, since I have somehow foolishly put off reading it until now;
  • Simone St. James’s An Inquiry into Love and Death, a haunting 1920s-set ghost story;
  • and Wendy Webb’s Fate of Mercy Alban, since I am a sucker for an old-fashioned gothic.
Other fun beach reads include contemporary romances by Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Kristan Higgins; the Regency romances of Julia Quinn, Eloisa James, and Sarah MacLean; and the historical/modern hybrid novels (I believe the official term is “time slip”) of Kate Morton, Rachel Hore, and Lucinda Riley.

For more summer reading suggestions, visit the News page of my website (, where I have a weekly reading feature.  And if you have any suggestions for me, please send them my way!  I’m always looking for more books to read.

Q.  I can’t thank you enough for stopping by and letting me pester you with questions.  Best of luck with the new novel and know that at least one fan is waiting with baited breath for the newest installation of the Pink Carnation series!

A. Thanks so much for having me here, Alex!  And if anyone would like to know more about the books or anything else, please do stop by and visit me on either my website ( or my Facebook author page ( 

Happy summer and happy reading!

This interview has given me so much joy for a few reasons.  First, Lauren's favorite couple in the Pink Carnation series is MY favorite couple.  I like to think I'm a fairly good representation of Henrietta's characteristics (just sayin').  Second, a crossover episode of the Pink Carnation and Doctor Who would be the most fabulous thing ever. In fact, I may start writing the screenplay myself. Third, I love getting advice from other writers, especially when it comes to sticking with it.  I have the tendency to wander and not get it done, so it is nice to know other writers (especially successful ones) experience the same feelings.  

Head over to Lauren's page for lots of amazing information and updates on the rest of her blog tour promoting the Ashford Affair.  As for me, I will now delve myself into fantasies of masks and knee breeches.  Ahh, knee breeches.

1 comment:

Meredith said...

As much as it saddens me to know that Jane's romance will mean the end of the Pink Carnation series, I totally understand the 'Dark Shadows' feeling and am glad the series will get a true ending without risking a dead drop or overextending itself (Lost comes to mind). I am terribly excited to pick up a copy of The Ashford Affair and am kicking myself for not getting my hands on it yet. Being quite the fan of the 20s myself (even had a teacher insist I was a flapper in another life), I'm excited to see Lauren explore the decade in this novel.

I also wanted to thank Lauren for being as lovely in person as she is in print. Thank you for helping me get Ms Wit Factory herself the best Christmas present by signing a copy of The Mischief of the Mistletoe as well as signing my copy of The Pink Carnation. You gave two fans a very merry Christmas indeed.