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Tuesday, October 20, 2020

You Do You: Author Interview with Lauren Willig

My interview today is with a
 New York Times best selling author who has written over two-dozen intriguing historical novels. She has won awards from RWA, Booksellers Best and Golden Leaf awards, and chosen for the American Library Association's annual list of the best genre fiction. Read on to learn how she makes her writing work and get more and more readers!

You’ve now published 12 books in your Pink Carnation series. What made you choose to write 19th century stories set in Europe? 
Like all the best things in my life, the Pink Carnation series happened by accident. I’d toddled off to grad school at Harvard to get a PhD in early modern England, with daydreams of writing a big, doorstop novel about 16th century court intrigue: ruffs and farthingales and spymasters and people seeing Shakespeare plays on their opening nights.

But that’s the thing about academic history. It involves lots of footnotes. And lots of “what were the social and economic causes of blah blah blah?” None of that makes good fiction. So, for a break, to remind me of what I love about history, the summer after my general exams I put my dissertation research on hold and wrote a rollicking romp about Napoleonic era spies just for fun. 

I picked the Napoleonic Wars because they were near enough that I knew something about them (I’d done a 19th century Britain field along the way) but they were far enough away from my 17th century dissertation topic that they were still FUN.

It was never meant to be The Book. It was never meant to be published. It was purely for my own sanity and the entertainment of a few close friends. But one of those close friends handed the manuscript to a friend of hers who happened to be an agent… and the next thing I knew I had a phone call from a man claiming to be an agent and wanting to represent me. (I spilled coffee all over myself in shock.) Two months later, I had a two book deal… and suddenly I was in the business of writing about Napoleonic era spies. 

Wow! That is far from the norm for getting a book deal. Why did you call it the Pink Carnation series?
As to why it was called the Pink Carnation series, that first book was, to put it baldly, a Scarlet Pimpernel spoof. So when I was trying to think of the most ridiculous floral moniker I could for my own spymaster, I seized on the Pink Carnation as an inherently silly-sounding name for a spy. Little did I know that the Pink Carnation would not only prevail, but extend her activities over a twelve book series!

Which just goes to show, you never know quite what will stick…. And that anything you say in jest could wind up being used seriously!

You’ve also written historical novels coming into the 20th century. Why the century switch?
Talk about things happening by accident! I’d never intended to write about the twentieth century. I was a Renaissance Studies major in college and a 16th and 17th century specialist in grad school. I always assumed that if I did write something other than the Pink books, I would go back to my own area of expertise and finally write that big 17th century blockbuster about the English Civil War. 

But around the time I was finishing the ninth Pink Carnation book, a friend sent me a book she’d loved, The Bolter, a biography of Idina Sackville-West, an early twentieth century British aristocrat who racketed back and forth between New York and Kenya, picking up and discarding husbands along the way. I was fascinated less by the actual bolting and more by what happened to the people she left behind, the family she abandoned along the way. What about the people around a Bolter, the ones whose lives were disrupted and changed forever?

A story began forming in my head about two cousins, the glamorous but discontented daughter of an earl and her reliable poor relation—and several strong pots of tea later, my agent was sending out sample chapters and a synopsis, there was a multi-publishing house auction, and I was in the business of writing about the early twentieth century. 

What era is most intriguing to you and why? 

In terms of my own personal tastes, the era I find most fascinating is the 17th century, the era to which I feel most personally connected (and would most like to live in!) is the mid-18th century, but the eras I find myself writing about most seem to be the period from the Napoleonic Wars through the 1920s. I’ve written about Victorian London, colonial Barbados, the Gilded Age, World War I, and the roaring Twenties—and I’m currently working on the Spanish-American War in 1898.

I keep saying I’m going to go back and write that seventeenth century epic—but given the way things go when I plan to write in my own period, I’ll probably find myself writing about the Cold War instead!

What did the research entail in writing these novels? Did you have any “aha” moments in your research that surprised you?
With every book, I try to start with what I think of as the “immersion” period. I don’t take notes, I just read. I read everything I can get my hands on. Monographs, biographies, articles, memoirs, journals, letters, novels written during the time period, anything, anything at all that gives me a sense of the time and place and what my people might have been doing and living through.

I have a secret weapon, a wonderful librarian friend, who sends me sources I would never have had a hope of finding on my own. When I was writing my colonial Barbados book,
The Summer Country, one of my main characters is an Englishwoman who comes to Barbados from Bristol in 1854. I wanted to get a sense not just of what she would have seen and eaten and so on, but also what her reactions would have been to all of it. What would Bridgetown look like through the eyes of an Englishwoman? My amazing friend found me letters written home by… and Englishwoman visiting Barbados in 1854. It’s finds like that that really make the books, that give them their texture and feel.

Every book has its aha moments when I’m researching—that’s one of the best parts. With the sixth Pink Carnation book, which was set in early 19th century India, it was reading a book about the court of Hyderabad and realizing the entire story needed to be relocated from where I’d thought I was going to set it to the court of Hyderabad, which entirely changed the plot. 

In the book I’m currently working on, which is set during the Spanish American War, it was stumbling on the forgotten story of a female war reporter who volunteered with the Red Cross and, despite lack of formal nursing training, kept a whole boatload of people alive on an overcrowded, understaffed, and understocked hospital ship.

I so love being surprised by history—that may be one of the reasons I tend to write my novels in time periods that aren’t my own scholarly era. The history is fresh and exciting for me and that makes it fresh and exciting in the books.

What is the hardest part of writing for you? 
Starting! Starting is always the hardest part. My husband, when we were dating, made a chart showing my progress on a book, which basically amounted to dithering over the first three chapters for roughly six months then writing the whole thing in six weeks. He wasn’t wrong. 

I’m a very character-driven writer which means I spend a ridiculous amount of time writing and re-writing the first few chapters as I get to know my characters and their voices. Once I hit chapter ten or so, everything starts rolling along. But that initial phase, where I don’t know quite who they are yet, is like pulling teeth.

What’s the best encouragement you’ve had in your writing?
Way back when, when I was a grad student doing dissertation research in London, trudging off to the British Library every day, eating Sainsbury’s frozen dinners, and spilling coffee all over my tweed skirt (I had a vast collection of tweed skirts—it seemed like the thing to wear as a grad student in London), I was invited to tea by a charming and kindly graduate of my little New York all girls’ school. The headmistress had called her up and told her I was on my own in London and might need some ex-pat company. 

So this lovely and wonderful woman, “the oldest living Chapin girl in London”, as she described herself to me, had me to tea in her flat. I staggered into her beautiful sitting room, bedraggled and coffee-stained, and saw row upon row of hardcover Georgette Heyer novels lining the walls. (For those who might not know, Georgette Heyer was the mother of the Regency romance, the inventor of the genre, and a brilliant writer of comic prose.) 

I went utterly incoherent when she explained to me that her husband had been Georgette Heyer’s publisher and that she’d known, actually known, Heyer. After I finished fangirling, I babbled out something about the book I was working on in fits and starts (the first Pink book, in fact!) and how much I wanted to be a writer. And she said something I will never, ever forget: “My dear, if you’re writing, you’re a writer.” 

It’s amazing what a difference a few little words can make. I returned to my basement flat and went back to work on that book full of new energy (and tea). And here we are!

We have all experienced rejection. How have you learned to write past it?
I started sending out manuscripts when I was in third grade (seriously! I was rejected by Simon and Schuster before I had turned ten), so I had accumulated my fair share of form rejection letters before I hit adulthood.

I spent the summer after my sophomore year of college interning at Tor Books, doing everything from reading the slush pile (and being on the other end of those form rejection letters!) to finding “pull quotes” for the backs of books, so when I got lucky with that first Pink Carnation book, I believed I was going into the publishing world experienced and clear-eyed, with a firm understanding that rejection wasn’t personal and some people like some books and other people don’t.

That all sounds very high-minded, doesn’t it? None of it prepared me for the internet. When the first Pink book came out, in early 2005, the internet was only just starting to be a thing for authors. Amazon reviews, book blogs, chat rooms—all of these were just gaining steam. Suddenly, readers could communicate their opinions directly without sending a letter through the publisher. (To give you an idea of how long ago this was, for my first three books, I still got packets of letters forwarded from the publisher.)

When The Secret History of the Pink Carnation came out, it elicited strong emotions. Some people loved it. Some people hated it. And when I say hated it, I mean HATED it. Hated it like I hate cucumbers. Hated it on a level that made them indignant that it existed—indignant I existed. One person emailed me that I should have been strangled at birth. Another said she thought my Ivy League degrees ought to be revoked, that clearly no one who wrote such drivel should be allowed to graduate from Yale or Harvard, let alone both. 

You get the idea. There was a lot of very personal vitriol. What shook me the most were the lengths to which people went to seek me out to make sure that I knew they’d hated the book. This was before the days of a handy website contact form on my website (I had a proto-website, set up by the publisher, that had only the publisher’s address on it). People had to track down my student email to contact me to tell me how much they hated the book—and they did.

I was lucky. By the time Pink came out and the hate mail began, I’d already written the bulk of the sequel. I was also a 2L in law school with my summer associate job already lined up. And I was still in grad school, theoretically finishing my dissertation, with a side job at the history department library a few days a week. Writing wasn’t my day job—yet. So I finished the second book and turned it in and just went on doing all the things I had to do: reading caselaw and writing papers and doing revisions on the new book. And I figured that was probably that. Until my agent called telling me that my publisher wanted two more books. I was staggered. I’d thought no one was going to want anything I’d written ever again (other than briefs for the law firm). But apparently for all those people who hated that first book, there were others that loved it. And the book kept on selling. It’s still selling, fifteen years later.

I think about that sometimes. I think about how incredibly lucky I was that I’d written most of the sequel before Pink Carnation came out. Because if I hadn’t… I’m not sure I would have. We all have voices in our heads that tell us what we’re writing isn’t good enough, that it’s drivel, that monkeys jumping on a keyboard could do better. It’s very easy to take a rejection letter—or hate mail—and decide that those voices were right. But I got lucky. The second book was close enough to done that I would have been silly not to finish it. So I did. And then another and another and another. And I realized that angry emails can’t kill a career—unless you let them. They can’t kill your confidence—unless you let them.

So that’s my advice to anyone out there grappling with rejection, whichever phase of the writing process you’re in: for everyone who loves your book, there’ll be someone who hates it, and for all the haters, there’ll be someone who loves it. Be true to your own voice and keep on writing, knowing that nothing is perfect, that this is an ongoing journey for all of us, and the only thing you can do is keep on putting words on the page. Rejection is a part of this business, at every stage. (It doesn’t matter how established you are; there’s always something. Give me a few drinks and I can tell you more stories.) All you can do is write through it. And write some more.

What has surprised or frustrated you the most in writing/publishing? 
What surprised me the most about publishing is how very often practicalities interfere. Growing up as a reader, I had no idea why my favorite authors would continue with series that felt stale, or suddenly drop series I adored, or switch genres, or use different names, or stop writing altogether. I assumed, if anything, that it had to do with the author, that the author had made these choices. 

One of the first things I learned on the other side of the fence is that these decisions tend to be dictated, not by the author’s whimsy, but by marketing departments. That, in fact, should the author wish to stay published, she often has very little say in what she writes. That’s not a complaint. Publishing is a business and needs to move books to stay in business. But once I was having those sorts of discussions myself with my various publishers, it put all the questions of “why does so-and-so no longer write xyz?” in a whole new light.

Are there any other points about writing you would like to add?
There’s no one size fits all when it comes to process. Often, at conferences, you’ll hear people preaching that if you’ll only follow their particular plotting method or start every day walking widdershins around the computer chanting ancient runes words will flow off the pen and manuscripts magically appear. Okay, maybe not quite that. 

But there’s a whole industry devoted to telling people how they should go about writing. My advice? You do you. My process looks nothing like any of the ones I’ve heard touted. It’s an accretion of decades of trial and error, figuring out my own writing quirks, and truly prodigious quantities of caffeine. 

Some people work better early in the morning, others late at night; some people write in fits and starts, others need large chunks of time. Some people outline; other people take it as it comes; some do a bit of one and a bit of the other. There’s no magic bullet, no surefire method. What there is is sitting down at that computer keyboard (or looseleaf paper or clay tablet) day after day and struggling with the words until you figure out what works for you.

What is the next book coming out? Can you give me a short synopsis?
My next book comes out March 2, 2021! It’s set during World War I, about a group of truly amazing women doing incredible things.

Band of Sisters
is based on the remarkable true story of the Smith College Relief Unit, eighteen determined Smith College alumnae who charged off to France at the height of World War I to bring humanitarian aid to French villagers right behind the front lines. Battling German shells, French bureaucracy, recalcitrant livestock, and British army officers who didn’t understand why they should have to have American women cluttering up their war zone, they persevered, bringing help and hope to thousands of French villagers—even in the face of a German invasion.

Band of Sisters is my love song to female friendships, to women working together, and to finding hope in adversity.

Sounds intriguing! If you'd like to learn more about Lauren and her books, here are some way to get started. 
Facebook author page:
Instagram at @laurenwillig. Twitter account: @laurenwillig


  1. Great interview! I enjoyed reading about how Lauren got her agent and how a book she didn't necessarily write for publication was the one that opened the door. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Yes. Everyone's road to publication has its own twists and turns.