Q&A With Lauren Willig
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Q&A With Lauren Willig
This afternoon’s Q&A is with Lauren Willig the New York Times Bestselling author of many historical fiction novels. Some of which are, Band of Sisters, All The Ways We Said Goodbye, The Glass Ocean, & The Lost Summers of Newport. The Lost Summers of Newport is a novel Lauren co-wrote with Beatriz Williams and Karen White.
Q: What fascinates you about reading historical fiction? When in your life did you realize that being an author was what you wanted to do for the rest of your life?
A: When I was six years old, someone gave me a copy of E.L. Konigsburg’s A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver, a humorous look at the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine. I fell in love with both Eleanor and historical fiction—and promptly announced to my first grade class that I was going to write books when I grew up. (This superseded my previous career goals of ballerina or princess.)
I’ve always loved the way historical fiction transports you to another time and place, whether it’s riding bare-breasted on Crusade with Eleanor of Aquitaine or maneuvering to be the power behind the crown in 18th century London (I may have been a little bit obsessed with Jean Plaidy’s Queen in Waiting as a teenager) or sailing to 19th century Zanzibar in the middle of a cholera epidemic (M.M. Kaye’s Trade Wind).
I trained as a professional historian, and although I wound up leaving academia to write historical fiction (and for a brief stint as a lawyer, although that’s a whole other story) what fascinated me in my PhD years is what continues to fascinate me as a writer of historical fiction: both the forgotten stories of incredible women that continue to come to light, and the ways in which people have always been the same—and yet are so strongly shaped by the mores of their times. It’s that interplay between the commonalities of human nature and the specific constraints of different time periods that I love to play with in my books.
Q: What is your advice to anyone wanting to write great historical fiction? How do you deal with writers block and what’s your advice to anyone dealing with the same?
A: I think the idea of going into it to write great historical fiction is enough to terrify anyone into not writing at all! Don’t try to write great historical fiction; just write the best thing you can, which may be better than you think.
My best advice, on the historical end, is to immerse yourself as much as you can in the period before you start plotting or writing. I always like to take a few months—however much time I can spare depending on what kind of deadline crunch I’m in—to do nothing but read anything I can get my hands on about the time period I’ll be writing about: biographies, monographs, diaries, letters, whatever I can find. Sometimes, that early research entirely changes the course of the book. Doing that lets the historical setting truly infuse your characters and your plot, so that it becomes an integral part of the story and not just a wallpaper background.
As for writer’s block…. Over the years, I’ve learned to divide my block into two types. The first type is what I call “I just don’t wanna”, and if I can make myself stay at the computer, after a few (okay, a LOT) of false starts, I can get past it and write my way into the story. But if that doesn’t work, I know I’m dealing with the second type of writer’s block, an indication that I can’t move forward because there’s something fundamentally wrong with the direction the book is taking and I need to figure out what it is and fix it before I can keep going. So my advice is, figure out what you’re dealing with. Are you just in one of those moods where you’d rather do anything other than write? Or is your subconscious trying to tell you something about the story?
Q: What is your advice to new authors dealing with negative feedback whether its negative reviews, online trolls and family and friends who don’t support their writing goals?
A: There’s a wonderful blog post by Laura Kinsale called “Writing Is Not A Service Industry” in which she talks about the negative impact of the internet on authors, how there are “a million voices roaring whispering screaming over your shoulder into the quiet place where the stories come from.” Every now and then, I go dig up that blog post and reread it to remind myself of why it’s so important to close that door and tune out those million voices. As much as it’s tempting to try, you can’t write something that will please everyone; you’ll wind up with a creature pieced together out of scraps of other peoples’ opinions that has no heart or soul of its own.
No one is going to love everything. There have been days when I’ve had back to back emails in my inbox, one complaining a book has too much romance, another complaining a book doesn’t have enough romance (I’m tempted to send them one another’s emails and suggest they discuss!), or one upset that a book was too short while another felt that the same book was too long. Even the kindest and best-meaning people can unwittingly set you back, because their vision may not be your vision. (This is one reason why I don’t belong to critique groups.)
All of which is a very long way of saying, when you’re writing, you need to shut all of that out and just live in the world in your head that you’re trying to translate onto paper. Learn who gives you helpful advice and who doesn’t—but don’t let any of it get in the way of actually writing the book. In the immortal words of Nora Roberts, you can fix a bad page but you can’t fix a blank one.
Q: Out of all the historical fiction novels you wrote so far, which era or eras were your favorites to write about?
A: One of the reasons I left academia was that I love being able to range broadly and learn about all sorts of different times and places—basically, I’m just a historical dilettante!
So of the books I’ve written so far, my favorites have tended to be the ones I knew least about going into them. I loved getting to delve into the history of Barbados when I was researching The Summer Country, which takes place in Barbados from 1812 to 1854, spanning a rising of enslaved people, emancipation, and a cholera epidemic.
My upcoming book, Two Wars and a Wedding, which is partly based on the real life founder of the Smith College Relief Unit, Harriet Boyd Hawes, a Smith College alumna who went to train as an archaeologist but found herself diverted into war nursing, took me from the Greece in 1896 to Florida and Cuba during the Spanish-American War of 1898.
I love all the quirky details that pop up as I’m researching—and the way truth is always stranger than fiction.
Q: Does Hollywood have the rights to any of your novels?
A: The short answer to that is: yes! Fourteen of my books are currently under option.
The longer answer is: I make it a policy not to announce those option deals, because I’ve learned the hard way that the path from book to screen is a rocky road. It’s like that old Oregon Trail game: most of the participants die of dysentery along the way. Or, in this case, options expire, studios acquire new heads, streamers pick things up but then decide not to go ahead with them—there are all sorts of ways a film or tv project can whimper away into nothingness, and I’ve experienced many of them.
I’ll believe it once the cameras start rolling! (And possibly not then.)
Q: If you were to write in a different genre completely which genre would it be and why?
A: I feel like I’m an unreliable narrator when it comes to answering that question! I’ve always read in a wide variety of genres: I grew up reading romance, mystery, fantasy, historical fiction, contemporary fiction, memoir… you name it, I read it. In an old green leather trunk I took from my grandparents back in my teens are half-finished manuscripts all sorts of genres and styles, including a Barbara Taylor Bradford-esque contemporary, an Elizabeth Peters-style contemporary mystery, and a fantasy novel, as well as historical and romance and historical romance. Over the years, I’ve toyed with writing in other genres, from mystery to fantasy to rom com, but every time I’ve said I’m going to write one of them, I tend to go and write something else entirely (case in point, the unfinished contemporary romance novel I started writing ten years ago, and then wound up writing a historical epic instead)—so don’t believe me when I say I’m writing in a new genre until you see the book on the shelves!
Q: If you’re writing a new novel now, are you allowed to reveal any details?
A: Yes to both of those! I’m currently working on a novel based on America’s first fully recorded murder trial. It’s January 1800 in New York City. A woman’s body is found in the Manhattan Well. A young man who lodged at her family’s boarding house is taken up for the crime—and the man’s older brother, an influential contractor, immediately hires three of the most powerful lawyers in the city as counsel for the defense. Those lawyers? Brockholst Livingston, Aaron Burr, and Alexander Hamilton.
That trial was like Law and Order 1800. Drama! Twists! Revelations! It’s the most amazing case and the best part about it? It’s all true.
After a lot of close reading of the trial and digging in the archives, I have my own theory of the crime, and I’m so excited to share it.
This book is a little different from my others in that all the people and events in it are real. I’ve had to made educated guesses in some cases, where information is scanty, but nothing is pure invention: it’s all drawn from the historical record and based on fact. And what crazy fact it is!
That book doesn’t have a title yet (it lives in my files as “The Manhattan Well Murder Book”) but it should be out at some point in 2024.
Q: What was it like writing a novel with Beatriz Williams and Karen White? What is your advice to anyone wanting to write a novel with a friend or family member? Would you ever co-write more novels in the future with those two?
A: Let’s just say it involves lots of prosecco!
The truth is that Karen and Beatriz and I, one boozy evening, came up with the brilliant idea that if we wrote a book together our publisher would have to pay for our girls’ trip (er, book tour). None of us had ever written with anyone else and we had no idea if we could, but we wanted an excuse to spend more time together. It wound up being one of the best drunken inspirations ever. Both our writing and our friendship has grown so much stronger through working together.
Karen likes to say that the secret of writing together is checking your ego at the door. We all share ownership of our projects; it’s never “this is MY idea” or “that was YOUR idea”—by the time we’ve brainstormed, with each of us building on what the others have said, it’s all OUR ideas, and we can never remember who came up with what. It’s wonderful having two other brains working on plot problems with you.
We had so much fun writing the first Team W book that we started planning our second while we were still on book together for that first one! Right now, we’re finishing up our fifth collaboration and already bandying back and forth ideas for the one after that.
Thanks so much for having me here today! If anyone has any questions I didn’t answer, please stop by my website at www.laurenwillig.com or visit me on my author Facebook page (www.facebook.com/laurenwillig) or on Instagram (@laurenwillig). I technically have a Twitter account, but I check it once in a blue moon….