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Interview: April 11, 2013

Lauren Willig, the author of the long-running Pink Carnation series, has written a new page-turner. THE ASHFORD AFFAIR is the story of two women --- Clementine Evans, a Manhattan lawyer, and her grandmother Addie --- who are united through history by a long-buried family secret. When a relative accidentally hints at the secret during Addie’s 99th birthday party, Clemmie will be led on a journey of discovery over three continents. In this interview, conducted by’s Bronwyn Miller, Willig discusses the inspiration for writing a book that spans different eras, the reversal of the gender paradigm, and how she immerses herself in research --- all of which play important roles in this stand-alone novel. You are known for your popular Pink Carnation series. What inspired you to write a book outside the series? Is THE ASHFORD AFFAIR a stand-alone or the first in a new series?

Lauren Willig: THE ASHFORD AFFAIR is a stand-alone, separate and entire unto itself. (Although I did sneak a descendant of one of my Pink Carnation characters into the book, for the amusement of my long-time readers.) After writing nine books in my Pink Carnation series, there was something very freeing about switching time periods and trying my hand at an entirely new era, style, and set of characters. I grew up on the sweeping epics so popular in the 1980s, so tackling a family saga was a natural next step for me --- and it allowed me to indulge my historical curiosity by dabbling in a number of different places and time periods.

BRC: In your author acknowledgements, you thank a good friend for lending you a copy of the book, THE BOLTER. What can you tell us about this book, and how did it inspire you to write THE ASHFORD AFFAIR?

LW: THE BOLTER follows the career of Idina Sackville Gordon Wallace etc., who racketed from England to Kenya in the 1920s, acquiring and discarding husbands along the way. I was struck, not only by the fascinating milieu of post-World War I Kenya, but also by a comment, in the foreword, in which the author mentioned that she hadn’t known Idina was her great-grandmother until her teens, when a chance television program prompted the revelation; the relationship had been effectively brushed under the carpet.

Right around the same time, my own grandmother, who had previously been hale and hearty, had become very ill. The confluence of the two got me thinking about how many stories I had never heard, how many questions I had neglected to ask, how little we really know about our families and how much we assume. 

What would happen, I wondered, if a modern, workaholic heroine were to discover that everything she thought she knew about her family was really a lie? The idea caught my imagination, and THE ASHFORD AFFAIR, with its dual modern and historical plotlines, was born.

BRC: Was there a challenge in writing about such diverse locations as New York City, London and Africa?

LW: I’m a native New Yorker and have spent a fair amount of time living in London, so both cities are familiar to me --- although, as the saying goes, the past is a foreign country, which means that triangulating from my own experiences in those places to the way my characters would have known them sometimes took a bit of hunting about with maps and pictures, trying to remember which London squares were fashionable when, or what the Oak Bar in the Plaza would have looked like, not now, but 12 years ago, when my modern storyline was set. With both London and Kenya in the 1920s, I relied heavily on old pictures and the writings of those who had lived there at the time, mining their memoirs and letters for the sensory experiences I needed to bring those places to life as they would have been then, rather than as they are now.

BRC: Early on in the story, Jon warns Clemmie that “Knowledge can be a double-edged sword. You need to decide whether it’s worth cutting yourself on it.” Very often, Jon acts as a sort of a grounded moral compass or touchstone for Clemmie, often to her chagrin. Was this intentional when you were writing the character of Jon?

LW: I wanted Jon to be a foil for Clemmie. The best way to describe Clemmie is Type A. She’s a go-getter, a doer, an achiever --- but not deeply intuitive or inquisitive when it comes to people or their feelings. That’s just not part of her skill set. In contrast, Jon, as a historian, is deeply fascinated by people and what makes them tick. He’s the one who’s delved into all the family histories, who’s asked the questions that Clemmie has never bothered to ask --- and he can imagine, better than she, the emotional pitfalls that lie ahead.

In writing Clemmie and Jon, I wanted to invert the traditional gender paradigm. So often, we come across the stereotype of the analytical man (who has trouble with his feelings) and the emotive woman. In this case, Clemmie is the one with the hard-hitting job and a case of emotional lockjaw, while Jon is the one pursuing a career in the humanities, with a definite edge when it comes to emotional intelligence.

BRC: I’m sure your own education and experience helped to inform the character of Clemmie (you went to law school and practiced law, as does she). Which character proved the most challenging to bring to life? Did you have a clear idea of what would happen to Bea from the beginning?

LW: For me, the hardest character to write was Bea. With Addie, I felt a deep kinship. And with Clemmie, although we’re very different people, I know enough people like her to understand the type. But Bea, the spoiled darling of a lost era, for whom it all goes horribly wrong, was a conundrum. At the core, she’s one of those people who can be charming, and even generous, when things are going well, but who reverts to raw self-interest and knee-jerk, no-holds-barred survival tactics when she feels herself threatened. The challenge was to convey all this without making Bea entirely unsympathetic --- to show the source of her deep unhappiness as well as its negative effects on those around her --- and to imply that there is within her still the capacity for self-discovery and change.

To be honest, I wasn’t a hundred percent sure what was going to happen to Bea when I started writing the story. It was only as I wrote my way through it that her future revealed itself to me, piece by piece.

BRC: You have said you usually don’t base your characters on people from your own life, with the exception of Henrietta from THE MASQUE OF THE BLACK TULIP, which was inspired by your younger sister, Brooke. Does anyone from your real life creep into this novel?

LW: Not really. For the most part, they’re composite characters, made out of bits and pieces of various people I’ve known over the years, with a dash of literary inspiration thrown in. (Addie’s terrifying Aunt Vera, for example, is a combination of several Chapin mothers I knew in my youth and Nancy Mitford’s Lady Montdore.)  

That being said, I did draw inspiration from my own life for the relationship between Addie and Bea, in thinking of those legacy friendships you form when you’re very young that sometimes turn sour later in life. At the base of Bea and Addie’s relationship, at the heart of the historical story, is what I think of as a “poison friendship”: two people who are drawn together by childhood affection and habit, who genuinely care about one another, but who are so wildly different in character that, with the best of intentions, they inevitably wind up hurting one another.

BRC: What would you like readers to take away from THE ASHFORD AFFAIR?

LW: I’ve always liked the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, “There is creative reading as well as creative writing.” Every reader brings something different to a book, and I’m hoping that there’s enough in THE ASHFORD AFFAIR for every reader to take away his or her own unique message, whether it’s about friendships, mothers and daughters, family secrets, finding your place in the world, or anything else.

BRC: Were you one of the 8.2 million viewers who tuned in to the third season finale of “Downton Abbey”? I think fans of the PBS series will love and devour THE ASHFORD AFFAIR. What do you think is so appealing to readers about the early part of the 20th century in England?

LW: I came a little late to “Downton Abbey.” Having missed it the first time around, when it was on PBS, I’d already started writing THE ASHFORD AFFAIR when I finally sat down with that DVD. And then, of course, I was hooked along with everyone else. I was pretty amused by how closely some elements corresponded, such as the question of aristocratic women nursing during World War I.

I think that there are multiple elements that draw people to early 20th-century England. Part of the fascination is watching the last gasp of an old aristocratic way of life --- the great houses, the servants, the rituals, the hierarchies --- knowing that all of that, which seems so solid and sound at the time, is about to be massively shaken up in the years to come. There’s a bit of a “Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire” element to it all. There are so many changes occurring and about to occur (not least World War I!), and it’s deeply intriguing watching how people adjust and adapt. 

BRC: On your website (which is jam-packed with terrific information about all your novels), you’ve included an extensive list of over 30 books that facilitated your research for this novel. Typically, how long does it take you to research a book? Do you write and research at the same time?

LW: The best advice I ever read about researching historical fiction came from John Jakes, in an article in The Writer magazine, back when I was in my teens: he said that he liked to spend a year just immersing himself in the time period before he started writing, so that the setting could sink in and become second nature, and so become an integral part of the stories. 

I’m on fairly tight deadlines, so I don’t have the luxury of a full year to research, but I take his advice about advance immersion very much to heart. I like to spend at least a month, if possible more, before I start working on a book doing nothing but reading, reading biographies, monographs, memoirs, anything I can get my hands on about the time period (or time periods) in question. Often, information I stumble upon in that early research phase changes the direction or the setting of the book. By the time I start writing, I generally have a very firm sense of the world in which my characters (and I) are living. Of course, you can never think of everything in advance, so while I’m writing, I do what I think of as “spot research,” hunting down specific facts and details that I need at the particular moment.

BRC: Tell us a little bit about your “Writing Wednesdays” column on your website. I’m sure your readers love hearing the inside scoop, but do you find it helpful to reach out and talk to fledging writers? Is there any one thing that people have noted as being the best advice that they have received from you?

LW: What’s that old saw about the teacher learning from the student? I derive a lot of benefit from talking to fledgling writers. I’ve found, sadly, that these days, when I get together with published writers, the talk mostly turns to marketing. I’m as guilty as anyone else when it comes to this, but I find it a bit sad that in the pressure to sell, the focus on the actual writing process gets lost. Speaking to fledgling writers, who are excited about and actively engaged in exploring the craft of the writing, is a joy. It forces me to stop and think about how I do what I do, to look at the craft side of the business --- rather than the business side of the business.

As for the best advice…I’d say it’s being told that there is not only one way to go about writing a book. So often, people are told that they must follow this or that program --- that they must write two hours a day, or outline before they start, or create character collages, or whatever the wisdom of the moment might be. I encourage people to find out what works best for them, taking my advice --- or anyone else’s --- as suggestions rather than immutable laws of nature. 

BRC: The actual day-to-day work of a writer is quite solitary and lonely. Once the book is published, the more “public” process of talking about the book begins. Is this enjoyable for you, or are you happier just writing?

LW: There’s nothing I like better than talking about books with other people who love them. (It sounds like a daytime television show, doesn’t it? “Books and the Authors Who Love Them.”) And I’ve found that book events do tend to draw the sorts of people who love books. I generally come away from doing book events with all sorts of lists of other books I must read, having spent the evening very happily swapping recommendations with readers. 

On top of that, I’ve never met a podium I didn’t like. I spent my high school years doing theater and competitive public speaking, so I adore getting out there and performing. 

Interestingly enough, I had an argument about this with my Yale interviewer, back when I was in high school. We didn’t start off on the best foot. He took one look at my resume and said, “You say you want to be a writer, but there’s all this drama and public speaking on your transcript. Writers are supposed to be introverts. So how can you be a writer?” I told him that I thought the writer as introvert trope was wildly overrated. Wasn’t telling a story, after all, another form of performance? Despite this little disagreement, I did get into Yale --- and become a writer. But I’m always amused by the memory of that interview.

Writing is a very solitary exercise --- so it’s always a huge boost getting out there and meeting people for whom the books have had a real impact. Those book tour events are, for me, one of the highlights of the year. (Although I could do without the early morning flights.)

BRC: Who were your greatest literary influences growing up?

LW: That’s always a tough question. Among them are L.M. Montgomery, for her gently satirical portraits of human nature; Elizabeth Peters, for her perfect comic timing and her wry way with words; and Margaret Mitchell, Karleen Koen and M.M. Kaye, for displaying how deftly and completely an author can recreate a vibrant, living historical world.

BRC: What are you working on now, and when can readers expect to see it?

LW: I’ve just turned in my next stand-alone novel, which, like THE ASHFORD AFFAIR, goes back and forth in time between a modern heroine and her family’s past. In this case, it’s 2009, and my modern heroine has just inherited a house in the London suburb of Herne Hill from an unknown great-aunt. In the old house on Herne Hill, she discovers a lost Pre-Raphaelite painting, leading her to the hidden tale of a forbidden love with reverberations across the generations. The story goes back and forth between 2009 and the early days of the Pre-Raphaelite movement in 1849. (I’ve co-opted Dante Gabriel Rossetti as a side character.) I don’t have a title or an exact release date yet, but I’m guessing it will be out in spring 2014.

In the meantime, the 10th book in my Pink Carnation series, THE PASSION OF THE PURPLE PLUMERIA, comes out this summer, on August 6th: another installment in the adventures of my swashbuckling floral spies as they continue to elude French agents, thwart Napoleon, and fall in love.

You can learn more about all my books --- as well as finding bibliographies, outtakes and other sources of procrastination --- on my website,