Lauren Willig

"My goal in writing the books is to induce socially unacceptable snorting sounds in my readers, preferably in public places like buses and subways."

(February 9, 2009)

In 2005, Lauren Willig's first book, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, hit the bookstores. I didn't discover her until about a year later, but I was immediately captivated by her unique two-stories-in-one approach - the modern chick-lit story of an American PhD student in London, and the historical romance of the people she's researching. Now five books in, the series is still going strong and gaining popularity. I quite excitedly attacked a girl I was traveling with when I saw her reading Pink Carnation at the airport; a long discussion about spies, our favorite characters, and the future of the series, ensued. The books are funny and smart, just, as I discovered in this interview, like their author.

--Jane Granville

I picked up the The Secret History of the Pink Carnation about three years ago, I think, mostly because of the pretty pink cover and the quote from Meg Cabot on the back. It actually wasn't at all what I expected, but I fell in love with it almost immediately — even more so as I read the subsequent books. Did you always intend for it to be a series?

Like so many things in my life, the series happened by accident. When I began writing The Secret History of the Pink Carnation (working title: A Rogue of One’s Own), I intended it as a stand-alone. By the time I was done with the second chapter, it was quite clear that Henrietta and Miles were going to need a book of their own; by the time I hit the midway mark, Geoff was there as well, clamoring for his own story.

At that point, getting to write three books seemed like an impossible pipe dream. Having one book published seemed like miracle enough. I took down notes for Geoff’s story convinced I would never have a chance to use them. It still boggles my mind that there are five books out there and people are letting me write more! After all these years, it still feels like Christmas and birthdays and all that rolled into one.

One good thing about this haphazard approach to series building is that it has given me a good deal more freedom than if I had sat down and plotted it all out from the beginning. For example, The Seduction of the Crimson Rose, Mary’s book, was never part of any plan. I had intended to write Charlotte’s book after Geoff’s, and had already begun that process when the Mary idea started haunting me. Because the series had always been loose-ended, my editor was willing to let me take a chance on writing that book (on very short notice). And I’m so glad I did — it’s one of my favorites in the series so far.

How many books do you have planned so far?

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As you can tell from the above, “plan” might be too strong a word. I have ideas for at least four more Pink books after the six I’ve already written. I’m wary of saying too much, since those ideas will probably change as I’m working on them. They always do... Sigh.

I just finished reading The Temptation of the Night Jasmine which, as in all of your books, is filled with historical background, events, and people. That really is a trademark of your books, I think — no one could accuse them of having "wallpaper history." How much of your writing process is research? Do you enjoy that part of writing?

Getting to read up on a new set of historical events and characters every time I start a new book is one of the great perks of being a writer. (I still miss college, where you got to immerse yourself in five new subjects every term). I divide my research into two stages: immersion and spot research. Way before I start a book, I read anything I can find about the current topic: monographs, biographies, memoirs, contemporary literature. The idea is simply to immerse myself in the era, so that when I start thinking about the characters and their needs, the historical background can naturally and organically interweave itself into the plot. Later, once I’ve started working on the book, I do short bouts of targeted research, hunting down specific facts as questions present themselves.

The trickiest element of research is knowing when to call it a day. Fundamentally, the book needs to be about the characters, not that really cool fact I came across the other day. And it’s far too easy to get so caught up in the research that you never get around to writing the book!

Your latest book (and the first Pink Carnation book, too) featured real historical figures playing fairly major parts in the plot; they really go beyond a cameo role, and into minor character territory. Is it difficult to create scenes or dialogue with, say, King George, or Napoleon? How much of their characterization is based on historical fact, and how much is your own imagination?

Historical fact is always a slippery beast. One man’s impression of an individual might be very different from another’s. One biographer of Josephine Bonaparte complained that it was impossible even to be sure of the color of her eyes, since one passport listed them as orange, contemporaries refer to them as blue or gray, and paintings show them as brown. No matter how diligent one tries to be, there is always guesswork and imagination involved in resurrecting the past. (This was one of the most disillusioning things I learned in grad school).

I do try to be as responsible with my guesswork as possible. When dealing with real historical figures, whenever I can, I incorporate dialogue attributed to them by contemporary sources (although, of course, some contemporary sources are more reliable than others). For example, in The Temptation of the Night Jasmine, my heroine runs across a disordered George III, who conducts a bizarre, lopsided conversation with her. I based a large part of that conversation almost verbatim on a dialogue recorded in her journal by Fanny Burney, who had been in close contact with the King during his first madness. Likewise, in Night Jasmine, when the Princess Sophia complains about her brother, the Prince of Wales, I lifted the princess’ words from a letter she had written to a friend that same year.

All that being said, since the Pink Carnation books are a sort of alternative history, written for fun, rather than purporting to be serious historical fiction, I do take deliberate liberties with the historical record from time to time. Well, quite frequently, really. (Having George III kidnapped by French spies definitely falls into category). When I do, though, I try to sift out the fact from the fiction in the historical note in the back.

Along with the history, the detailed locations are another feature of your books. Do you travel to the places where you set the books? The characters have gone beyond London, to Paris, and to Dublin, and you mention in passing the Pink Carnation's involvement in Portugal — will we be heading there, or any other locale, with Jane in an upcoming installment?

So far, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in each of the cities where my books have been set. Sometimes, that can be a mixed bag. I spent a year living in London and found that living in the modern city sometimes made it harder rather than easier to picture the historical one, since so much has changed over the years. I hated passing the little blue plaque that was all that now marks the presence of Tyburn on my way home every day. The same was true with Paris, which was extensively remodeled under Napoleon III and doesn’t look much like the city as it would have been in 1803. Even so, I love having the excuse of research to visit all these places!

The Portugal book won’t be happening for a bit yet, but there is an exotic locale coming up. Book VI is set in India! It was great fun getting to read travelers’ narratives from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century to get a feel for what Penelope, my heroine, would have been experiencing as she embarked in Calcutta and set off on a several week journey to the state of Hyderabad...

Jane was somewhat conspicuously absent from The Temptation of the Night Jasmine, and while there is a French spy involved, he plays a much smaller role in the plot than the assorted Black Tulips; is it getting harder to keep characters and storylines together now that you have more and more facets to the story?

Absolutely! I’ve begun to compile the components of A Pink Carnation Companion on my website — character sketches, plot outlines, family trees, and (coming soon) timelines, all designed to help keep the plots and characters straight as the stories grow increasingly complex.

Your question comes at a particularly apt time, as I hit a crossroads in the series after Crimson Rose. I decided to follow both roads, which means that the series splits off into two tracks covering the same chronological period. On the one side of the road, we have the French spies operating in England in early 1804 who wreak such havoc with George III in The Temptation of the Night Jasmine. This story led logically to Book VI, which takes us off to India in the autumn of 1804. In the meantime, on the other fork of the road, Books VII and VIII follow Jane back to Paris in January of 1804, chronicling her activities and those of her League during that same 1804 period.

The two tracks aren’t unrelated. Some of the characters introduced in Night Jasmine and Book VI are extremely important for the Jane - focused books later on, so the two story lines will eventually come back together again.

I've been reading (and enjoying) your Christmas novella on your Web site, and I find it really interesting that it takes place during part of Night Jasmine (and is even referenced, albeit briefly, in the novel). Will you do something like this again in the future — let the readers know what is happening with other characters during the time that another book is taking place?

I like to check in on my old characters, and it’s not always feasible to do that in the novels without interrupting the proper flow of the story. (Of course, sometimes it is — Henrietta and Miles take over a huge chunk of Night Jasmine. But they’re special). I’m so happy that I stumbled onto the short story idea, since it gives me a chance to revisit my old characters without interfering with the trajectory of the series.

I read somewhere that, when you did your own dissertation research, you focused on a different era in English history than the one you chose to set your books. Why did you choose to write about the early 1800s? Would you ever write a book set in that time period?

Ah, yes, the dissertation. That still unfinished dissertation. Back in my academic life, I was a Tudor/Stuart historian. I began as a Renaissance Studies major back at Yale, where I wrote my senior thesis on political machinations in Scotland in the 1540’s. I then moved on to Harvard and the seventeenth century, where my own tiny bailiwick was Royalist Conspiracies during the English Civil Wars: 1646-1649. Yep, seven years of grad school to write about three years of conspiracies.

When I began The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, I had just finished my general exams and never wanted to see another footnote again. I knew I was going to be buried among seventeenth century documents for the next five years of my life, so why start the entombment early? I wanted a vacation. The early nineteenth century provided that vacation. It had the comfort of being familiar (I had done what we call “a field” on it in grad school, so I knew the players and the source base, and I also had a pile of research left over from a novel I had written about Napoleon’s stepdaughter back in high school), but it was far enough removed from my real time period to still feel like I was getting to take a break.

One of these days, I do plan to use some of that dissertation research to write a rollicking novel of Royalist plots and counterplots set during the late 1640’s. But not quite yet.

Eloise appears, at least on the surface, to have some things in common with you — most notably, the dissertation research in England. How autobiographical of a character is she?

It was put best by an old college roommate, who read the manuscript of the first book and exclaimed indignantly, “But Eloise isn’t anything like you!” Character-wise, Eloise and I are very different people.

In terms of everything else, though, the minutiae of my life did furnish Eloise’s world. Her basement flat in Bayswater is, not to put too fine a point upon it, my basement flat in Bayswater. Her daily research routine at the British Library was my daily research routine. I couldn’t get the water cooler in the Public Records Office lunch room to work either, and some of Eloise’s frustrations about researching an unresearchable topic were very much on point for me as well.

Sadly, though, I never came upon a cache of secret family papers...

Did you always plan to alternate between Eloise's present-day story, and that of the people she was researching? Or did one flow out of the other?

I would love to pretend that I meant it all along. Eloise developed by accident after I had already finished writing the historical section of the novel that became The Secret History of the Pink Carnation. At the time, I was quite adamant that what I had written was a good old-fashioned Regency romance (even if it was technically several years pre-Regency). “Actually,” said my brilliant agent, “this is more...historical chick lit. Have you ever thought about adding a modern chick lit intro to it?” No, I hadn’t. The very idea was absurd.

But as I hung up the phone, I had a sudden image of a woman, a woman with chin length red hair and mottled brown boots, clinging to a Tube rail. I plopped myself down in front of my computer and wrote out the very first Eloise chapter of Pink Carnation right there. In that moment, I knew exactly who Eloise was, what she was doing, and what was going to happen with that pile of documents — and the man whose picture was on the mantel. Rather sheepishly, I called my agent, and asked what he thought of not just a modern intro, but a recurring modern character. Fortunately, my editor was on board with it, and out of that moment the checkerboard pattern of the Pink books was born.

There’s a nice sort of symmetry to the arrival of Eloise, since Baroness Orczy, writer of the Scarlet Pimpernel books, always claimed that she first met the Scarlet Pimpernel on a Tube station platform. Therefore, it seemed terribly appropriate that Eloise should pop full-blown into my head clinging to a Tube rail.

From my understanding, you recently began writing full-time. How have things changed since then?

Let’s see. I shower now. Occasionally I sleep. I have rediscovered this amazing thing called “television”. Honestly, I can’t say what a huge difference it makes to be writing full time. When I left the law firm, I continued to write as though every moment were a stolen one, which meant that I finished The Temptation of the Night Jasmine in four months flat. Then I took a deep breath, blinked my bleary eyes, and set about trying to reorder my life into a more normal schedule. At least, I told myself I would. Right after I finished Pink VI... Once a workaholic, always a workaholic.

I haven’t quite managed to get that balance worked out yet, but there have been all sorts of unexpected joys to being a full time writer, above and beyond the whole sleeping thing. Over the past year, I’ve gotten to go to conferences and book events, like Fresh Fiction’s Readers ‘n Ritas this past fall, which was an absolute joy. I’ve finally had the time to start playing with my Web site and really interacting with readers online, which has been a delight beyond measure. I’ve also had the luxury to pursue side projects, like the Still Untitled Selwick Christmas Novella, which I was able to make available for free on my website, something that would never have happened in the days when I was fighting to meet my deadlines. And I vacuumed my apartment. Who knew there were that many dust bunnies lurking under those piles of books?

Did your classmates at Harvard Law School and your colleagues at the firm you worked at, know about your writing? What did they think about it?

Picture it: Corporations class, my 2L year of law school. A large auditorium in Pound Hall, one of the more hideous modern buildings at Harvard Law. The Secret History of the Pink Carnation had just come out the previous month. There had been an article titled something like "Bodice Ripper from Harvard!" in The New York Times the day before. There I was, in the back row, idly jotting down dialogue for Eloise and Colin when I noticed something very odd: all of the hypotheticals (the questions used to test our knowledge) on the board involved, well, romance writers. Romance writer and SEC regulations. Not exactly a natural combination. Hmm. This went on for about an hour, much to the confusion of the poor boy who was on tap to be questioned that day.

Halfway through the class, the professor, the former dean of the law school, a man of great stature and consequence, decided to cut to the chase. Abandoning obscure financial regulations mid-discussion, he called my name.

He wasn’t supposed to be calling on me. I had been on deck, as we called it, yesterday. Drat! Had I been drooling? Muttering dialogue aloud?

“Are you the one who wrote the romance novel?” he asked.

Not exactly in last night’s reading, but I knew the answer to that.

“Yes!” I said brightly. I wondered exactly where all this was going. It didn’t seem like it could end well.

“Why didn’t you tell us about this yesterday?” he demanded indignantly.

“Um… I didn’t think it went with Sarbanes-Oxley?”

And then we spent a very happy fifteen minutes (especially happy for the boy on deck, who had a fifteen minute reprieve to look up answers) discussing my novel in front of the entire hundred and fifty person class.

I’ve found this exchange to be pretty illustrative of the attitude of my colleagues both in law school and the firm. (The one exception to this was the guy who reeled up to me at a 2L party and breathed, “Wow! Did you really write a sex book?” “Romance novel,” I corrected him, “Romance novel.” He blinked at me with beery confusion. “Yeah, a sex book. Go, you!” I decided it was a case of ignorance rather than malice, and let it go.) Other than Beer Boy, they’ve been lovely about it. Bemused, but lovely. More than once during my time as a summer associate, another summer would come up and hiss to me, “I saw your book in Such-and-Such-a-Partner’s office!”

Even more surprising were the number of lawyers who turned out to have written a book, intended to write a book, or knew “someone” who was writing a book. After the first few people shyly approached me in the corridors of the law school to ask for advice on publishing/writing/et cetera, I realized that there was a wide secret fraternity of us all — one that has since been brought out into the open by the development of the Harvard Law and Arts Initiative, which was founded by another Cravath lawyer turned author, the wonderful Amy Gutmann.

Your writing style is one of my favorite parts of the books; I often find myself bursting into laughter, just because of how you phrase something or your word choice. Do you have any influences, any writers that have shaped your style? Did you ever take formal writing classes, or did your style just develop naturally?

Oh, thank you! That’s the nicest compliment anyone could possibly have paid me. My goal in writing the books is to induce socially unacceptable snorting sounds in my readers, preferably in public places like buses and subways.

I did do the whole aspiring writer thing as a teenager — UVa Young Writers’ Workshop, Middlebury Writers Workshop, and so on — but I always felt that those classes were just a strutting ground for the full grown chicken rather than an incubator for the egg; that all the real lessons about writing had been taught me far earlier on by the simple expedient of reading and reading and reading.

The single biggest influence on my writing style was Elizabeth Peters, who does snort-out-loud comedy better than nearly any writer I know. I discovered her books in Middle School, and they became my training manual going forward. I studied the techniques she used to achieve her humorous effects, her use of tone and pacing, and tried to apply them to my own writing. I had many other teachers as well. L.M. Montgomery is a genius at human comedy (all the uncles and aunts and cousins in her books provide such fodder for mockery, especially in the Emily books and The Blue Castle!). In Upper School, I stumbled upon Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, Judith Merkle Riley’s Vision of Light, and Georgette Heyer’s Regencies, all of which provided excellent models for marrying comedy to historical fiction. I’m also a huge fan of the early nineteenth century British satirists, in particular Nancy Mitford and Angela Thirkell, who both excel, in their own different ways, at chronicling absurdities.

With every book I read, I’m still learning.

I know some authors refuse to answer this — but I thought I'd give it a shot anyway. Do you have a favorite among your books or characters?

That’s always tough. Each book is my absolute favorite right before I start working on it and my least favorite while I’m in the middle of it.

Right now, I’d say that my favorite characters are Henrietta and Miles from The Masque of the Black Tulip. They’re like the old college friends you know through and through, comfortable and always entertaining.

My favorite book may be The Seduction of the Crimson Rose. I certainly wouldn’t want to hang out with Vaughn and Mary the way I do with Miles and Henrietta, but I’m very proud of the way their relationship came together and I enjoy the astringent tone of their dialogue.

The Temptation of the Night Jasmine may eventually give Crimson Rose a run for its money in my favorite book stakes (Charlotte is my alter ego in a way none of the other characters have been, and I’m so happy with the way her story came together), but I’m still too close to it to give a fair assessment. Ask me again next year... : )

And finally, I think the question all of your readers are wondering, and have been wondering since the beginning, is if Jane, the Pink Carnation herself, will get her own story any time soon. So...will she?

Hee hee. I have my plans….. (Insert evil laughter here). Jane is off-stage for Night Jasmine and Book VI, but she comes back in a big way in Books VII and VIII as the spotlight shifts back to Paris and the machinations of the League of the Pink Carnation. This isn’t set in stone yet, but my ideal plan is for Jane to have more than one book of her own. I have a book I’ve been planning for her for a long while, but it will be the last book in the series (the Portugal book!). But since that won’t take place until much later, I’d like Jane to have an interim book of her own before then. I believe her character is rich enough — and her life eventful enough — to support not one but two novels, but I’m very curious to hear how other people feel about that.

 




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