Today’s our stop on The Ashford Affair blog tour and I’m honored to welcome Lauren Willig to Literary, etc! I’m a big fan of her Pink Carnation series and when Eloise Kelly talks about her PhD dissertation title in The Secret History of the Pink Carnation and says, “I doubt “Why I Love Men in Black Masks” would have made it past my dissertation committee,” I was sold on the series right then and there! Anyone who knows me, knows I love my masked men!
The Asford Affair is her current release and it’s already available. If you’re a fan of historical fiction then you’re in for a real treat since Willig does a great job incorporating aspects of the past with a beautiful narrative. I can’t stress enough how much I LOVED this book. I reviewed it here.
Giveaway details are located at the end of the interview along with a synopsis of The Ashford Affair. It’s open international as long as The Book Depository ships to where you live (check here), you’re 18 or older and void where prohibited by law. Good luck!
Q. Your Pink Carnation series takes American grad student Eloise Kelly to England as she attempts to uncover the identity of the Pink Carnation, the leader of a network spies. The Scarlet Pimpernel is mentioned heavily and even takes the Purple Gentian under his wing. Can you talk about your affinity for The Scarlet Pimpernel and how you came to discover him?
I grew up on all the classic swashbucklers: the Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, Robin Hood, Scaramouche, D’Artagnan. My favorite book when I was three years old was a large, illustrated version of The Three Musketeers; my favorite movie the Errol Flynn Robin Hood. The baddies sought them here and they sought them here, but these classic heroes, usually in tights (black mask and cloak optional) evaded their ham-handed pursuers with a quick rapier and a ready wit. Those villains didn’t stand a chance. Obviously, they had not paid enough attention to their fencing lessons. Possibly because they were too busy in mustache twirling class.
Although I’d first discovered The Scarlet Pimpernel when I was in fifth grade, he got an extra bump up in the dashing hero stakes when I was in eighth grade, and our history teacher decided to show the Anthony Andrews version as part of our European history unit. The entire eighth grade class—forty giggly girls in matching kilts and scrunchy hair accessories—were enthralled. A bitter factional debate raged over who was cuter: the Pimpernel or Armand St. Just? No sleepover party was complete without a late night viewing, and a rapturous repetition of “We seek him here, we seek him there…. Oooh! He’s so cute! Hey, that was my pillow! Give it back!”
Flash forward from those pillow fights in 1990 to the spring of 2001. I was a second year grad student in the Harvard history department, recuperating from my General Exams before tackling my dissertation. My advisor had advised taking the summer off, so, after two years of cramming down dry texts littered with footnotes, I settled down with a contented sigh on the couch (actually, futon—this was grad school, after all) to watch an old favorite: the Anthony Andrews Scarlet Pimpernel.
At the time, I had grand designs of writing a sweeping—and very serious—sixteenth century set epic novel, but as I sat there, watching the Sir Percy Blakeney flick Chauvelin’s cravat with the quizzing glass, another idea began to take shape….
I ran for the computer, and The Secret History of the Pink Carnation was born.
It absolutely boggles my mind, twelve years later, that the book begun on that unseasonably warm Cambridge night, in a rickety old house where I was living with three other grad students, was not only published but has turned into a long-running series—now about to enter double digits! The tenth book in the Pink Carnation series, The Passion of the Purple Plumeria, featuring the sword-parasol wielding chaperone from that very first book, comes out on August 6th.
All I can say is: thank you, Baroness Orczy and Anthony Andrews! Just think what might have happened if I’d decided to watch Robin Hood that night instead….
Q. Your novels intertwine the past with the present. We have two stories taking place: one narrative in the past and another in the present. How difficult is it to write two separate narratives? Do you focus exclusively on one narrative then move on or do you work on both consecutively?
It depends on the book. One of the things I love about writing dual timelines is the ability to use the past to reflect new meaning on the present, and vice versa. When I was writing Ashford, I felt that mirroring particularly strongly. With The Ashford Affair, the historical and modern story became so intertwined for me that I had to write them both consecutively; there was no skipping ahead with one timeline and then going back to the other. They only made sense written in tandem, so that the two plotlines could grow and twist around each other.
Q. The Ashford Affair is set in a different time period and place from your Pink Carnation series. What inspired to you delve into the Edwardian period, World War 1, and specifically Kenya?
If you had told me, three years ago, that my next book was going to take place entirely in the twentieth century, I would have choked on my coffee and told you that was crazy talk.
True, I’d finished up the ninth Pink Carnation book early, which gave me a little leeway to play around with other projects, but I’d always known that if I left my Napoleonic spies behind, I was going to go back in time, not forward. My undergrad degree was in Renaissance Studies; my graduate work had all been sixteenth and seventeenth century (with a very narrow focus on the last few years of the English Civil War). Something of a history snob, I was fond of declaring that history had ended in 1815. If I wrote a non-Pink book, it was going to go back to my area of expertise, preferably mid-seventeenth century. I even had an idea all plotted out.
And then my friend Christina gave me a copy of a book called The Bolter.
For those who haven’t read it, it follows the dramatic life of Idina Sackville (fill in multiple other last names here) who racketed about between London and Kenya in the 1920s, acquiring and discarding husbands along the way. But what really caught my attention was the author’s comment, in the Preface, that she hadn’t known that Idina was her great-grandmother until a chance TV program had prompted the revelation. Her great-grandfather had married again and the family had neatly papered over the relationship.
At the time, my own grandmother was very ill, and it hit me, hard, how little we know about our own families and how much we assume. I thought I knew what my grandmother’s life had been like, but what had it been, really? What if a modern woman were suddenly to discover that everything she had assumed about her own family and her own past was wrong?
Once the idea hit, it wouldn’t go away. I had done a modern Britain field back in grad school, as well as TAing a class on Colonial Kenya, so I went back to those sources with fresh eyes, using them as the jumping off point for my story. I immersed myself in the early twentieth century, in biographies and World War I memoirs and scrapbooks of life in Kenya, and must sheepishly admit that I found it all fascinating, especially the impact of World War I on that entire generation, as an old way of life crumbled and a shell-shocked generation did their best to try to find meaning—or, at least, drown out their nightmares with fast cars and aeroplanes and too much booze.
Perhaps history didn’t end in 1815 after all….
Q. One thing that struck me about Clemmie in The Ashford Affair, is that she’s a hybrid of the both women; having Bea’s features and Addie’s drive for success. Was that intentional or something that just evolved?
One of the things that’s always fascinated me is the way our characters are shaped—sometimes intentionally, but far more often not so intentionally—by our families and our upbringings, especially when it comes to mothers and daughters. (Or, in this case, grandmothers and granddaughters.)
In crafting Clemmie, my modern heroine, I was particularly interested in the way she was reacting, consciously and unconsciously, to the generations of women who had come before her and the pressures those women place upon her. In many ways, both Clemmie’s Granny Addie and Clemmie’s mother, Marjorie, try to use Clemmie as a corrective for what they perceive as their own mistakes and their own lack of opportunities— after all, if Addie could achieve so much with no formal education, in an age where women’s roles were very different, what can’t Clemmie achieve? Not to give away too much for those who haven’t read it yet, I’d say both Addie and Marjorie are also very aware of Bea’s legacy and very invested in making sure that Clemmie turns out nothing like Bea, who they both see reflected, in negative ways, in Clemmie’s Aunt Anna.
In the meantime, we have Clemmie caught in the pincer of the previous generations’ ambitions, trying to figure out what it is that she, as an individual, really wants and needs. At thirty-four, she’s achieved all those things she’s been told she’s supposed to achieve—good grades, good degrees, a chance to make partner at a top notch law firm—and is trying to understand why checking all those boxes leaves her so hollow. In the end, she needs to get away from her mother’s and grandmother’s expectations and concerns and learn how to become her own person.
Q. I can’t begin to imagine the type of research conducted for The Ashford Affair or the Pink Carnation series. Do you have any interesting research tidbits that you weren’t able to incorporate into the novels, but hope to use at some future point in time?
There’s always so much that never makes it into the book! In the case of The Ashford Affair, there was another hundred pages set in Kenya in the 1930s that wound up on the cutting room floor. There was all sorts of social, political, and economic upheaval going on in Kenya in the 1930s—and just not enough space to fit it all in. I also spent a lot of time studying up on early aviation. I’m not naturally mechanically minded (I’ve never even learned to drive!), so it was a real effort figuring out just what the various types of planes were and how they worked. There’s a particle of a chapter where a tiny bit of that information shows up.
At one point, I’d intended to bring the historical part of The Ashford Affair straight up through World War II, but, as you can imagine, that would have meant another two hundred pages and the sort of huge, doorstop novel that’s very hard to get published these days. I’m very much hoping that I can use some of that World War II info in a future novel, particularly all the fascinating facts about female flying corps.
If anyone would like to know more about The Ashford Affair, the Pink books, or what’s coming next (hint: the next stand alone involves an old house, a Preraphaelite painting, and a family secret that stretches back a hundred and fifty years) pop on by my website, www.laurenwillig.com, where you can find excerpts, outtakes, bibliographies, contests, and many, many other ways to procrastinate.
Thanks so much for having me to visit here at Literary, etc! (Thank you Lauren!)
ETA: You can view all of the stops on Lauren’s blog tour here, where you’ll find other interviews, guest posts, and even excerpts. Link opens in a new window and please stop by the other blogs!
Lauren Willig is the New York Times bestselling author of eleven works of historical fiction. Her books have been translated into over a dozen languages, awarded the RITA, Booksellers Best and Golden Leaf awards, and chosen for the American Library Association’s annual list of the best genre fiction. After graduating from Yale University, she embarked on a PhD in English History at Harvard before leaving academia to acquire a JD at Harvard Law while authoring her “Pink Carnation” series of Napoleonic-set novels. She lives in New York City, where she now writes full time
Synopsis: As a lawyer in a large Manhattan firm, just shy of making partner, Clementine Evans has finally achieved almost everything she’s been working towards—but now she’s not sure it’s enough. Her long hours have led to a broken engagement and, suddenly single at thirty-four, she feels her messy life crumbling around her. But when the family gathers for her grandmother Addie’s ninety-ninth birthday, a relative lets slip hints about a long-buried family secret, leading Clemmie on a journey into the past that could change everything. . . .
What follows is a potent story that spans generations and continents, bringing an Out of Africa feel to a Downton Abbey cast of unforgettable characters. From the inner circles of WWI-era British society to the skyscrapers of Manhattan and the red-dirt hills of Kenya, the never-told secrets of a woman and a family unfurl.
To enter: Comment with a secret that everyone in your family / friends think you don’t know (don’t worry, it stays between us. ;)) Giveaway ends on July 7th at Midnight EST and winner will be chosen by random.org.
Winner is Eleanor.