Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Lauren Willig Q & A Part 1

Well, today's the day you've been waiting for! That's right, my Lauren Willig Q & A! Ok, so it's really the release of The Betrayal of the Blood Lily you've all been waiting for... but a girl can hope right? But I'm sure while you're waiting for work to end so that you can run to the bookstore to get your copy, that's if you didn't cleverly phone in sick, you'll need a Lauren Willig fix to hold you over till quitting time. So here's your fix! Lots of lovely questions answered by Lauren that you can read while pretending to do real work, or even while mourning how fast you read the newest book and how there's now many bleak months ahead without another new book... but you can always re-read the series again!

Question: The character of Penelope is so vastly different then past characters... more worldly, less nubile virgin. How was it writing for such a different heroine?

Answer: It was surprisingly fun! Penelope has such a strong voice that she was very easy to write for, right from the start, even though she couldn’t be more different from the heroine of the previous book. Where Charlotte was sweet and idealistic, Penelope is cynical, worldly (at least, she likes to think she is) and unabashedly physical. Since she’s already been both ruined and married by the time the book starts, the usual rules no longer apply to her, which gave me a great deal more latitude than one usually has with one’s heroines.

The other thing I found fascinating about writing for Penelope was getting to delve into the distinction between what’s coming out of her mouth and what’s going on in her head. Unlike the previous characters, she’s a deeply wounded creature. At the same time, she’s absolutely committed to showing no weakness. That made for a great contrast and very interesting writing.

Question: How do you go about conducting your research and how do you decide where to take historical liberties?

Answer: I always start with an immersion period. A couple of months before I begin writing a book, I read everything I can get my hands on about a given time period, a process that includes everything from scholarly studies to contemporary documents. While I’m reading, the details in the documents invariably suggest new plot ideas. For example, the original plan was to set Blood Lily partly in Calcutta, partly in the north-east, where fighting was taking place in the fall of 1804, but reading Dalrymple’s White Mughuls convinced me that the book had to be moved to Hyderabad and the whole plot rejiggered accordingly. Likewise, the idea of using the lost treasure of Berar came from a footnote in Jac Weller’s Wellington in India, while the nautch dance came from the memoirs of Maria Graham, an Englishwoman who traveled through India, keeping meticulous accounts of her experiences, in 1809. Once I’ve started writing, I do what I call “spot research”, tracking down additional details as I find I need them.

Since all the books are—at least in theory—filtered through the imagination of the modern framing heroine, I’ve felt more free to take historical liberties in the Pink series than I would have if these were a different sort of book. Some of the liberties are for humor value, like my hero in the second book having a rather anachronistic “Follow that sedan chair!” moment. Others necessarily occur when you graft fictional characters onto real events. For example, George III really did go mad in the winter of 1804, as he does in The Temptation of the Night Jasmine, but, in real life, French spies had nothing to do with it. Well, at least as far as we know….

Question: Recently you went to Paris to research an upcoming book in the Pink Carnation series, did you get a chance to visit India to see more buildings that are no longer there in preparation for Blood Lily?

Answer: I very much wanted to! But, due to the vagaries of book deadlines and monsoon season, it didn’t happen. Blood Lily is the only book I’ve written so far where I haven’t personally visited the sites involved. I worked mostly from historical pictures and maps, although I did also grill various friends who had lived in India. They were subjected to such hard-hitting queries as “What does a monsoon actually feel like? No, really!” Thanks, guys. Your knowledge and your patience were both appreciated.

Question: Any plans to continue to take the series to far off shores where spies might be lurking? Perhaps Miss Gwen in Egypt setting the parasol trend pre-Amelia Peabody Emerson?

Answer:I love Amelia Peabody! What I wouldn’t give for a meeting between her and Miss Gwen….

Too bad the timeline doesn’t quite work out. Egypt came up a good deal while I was doing my research for Blood Lily, since Napoleon’s invasion in Egypt in 1797 was perceived as a direct threat to British influence in India. Most of the Egypt attention tends to be concentrated slightly earlier than my books, in that 1797-1798 period (and as we know from Pink Carnation, the Purple Gentian was over there at the time, doing his thing!), but I wouldn’t rule out an Egypt book. One of the incredible things about the Napoleonic Wars is how truly international they were. Looking way in the future, I’ve always intended Jane’s ultimate book to take place in Portugal. Other prospective locations for future Pink books include Latin America (yup, there was a Latin American angle to the war!), Constantinople, Venice, and—most exotic of all, right?—New York.

Question: Now that your books have an ever expanding cast of characters that your readers are attached to, what do you say to the people who ask when is Jane going to be back in the forefront, when is Tommy going to get the girl?

Answer: First I hug them. Then I consult my Magic 8 ball. I love that my readers have become as invested in my characters as I am, and that the series has become an ever-expanding world, encompassing whole groups of interwoven people and plots. As far as I’m concerned, all of these stories are continuously going on in tandem—it’s just a question of how and when I’ll have the time to turn the spotlight on any given character or plot-line. Sometimes, characters I meant to write about get dropped as the overall arc of the series continues on in other directions. Other times, they come back in unexpected ways. I wasn’t sure where or how I was going to fit in a Turnip Fitzhugh book, but, voila!, my publisher suggested doing an extra side book, I got to use my Turnip idea, and it’s coming out in October. So one never knows….

Question: The author M.C. Beaton has commented that, due to the popularity of Hamish Macbeth and Agatha Raisin, she has no time, nor are her publishers willing to see her do other work. Seeing as how popular your Pink Carnation series has become do you ever feel that you can only write the next Pink book versus trying something radically different? Because, in the abstract, the books could go on ad infinitum, but there must be a point where you'll call it quits.

Answer: One of the nice things about the Pink series is that its form has allowed me a lot of room for experimentation and variety. I’ve gotten to play with India and Ireland and modern London, with Hellfire clubs and idealistic ingénues and adulterous wives. Not to mention Jane Austen and exploding Christmas puddings. That being said, I’ve always wanted to write in a variety of genres. Much as I adore the Pink books, and as much latitude as they allow me, there will come a time when either the series has to end or I have to start varying it with other writing, just to make sure things stay fresh. My greatest nightmare would be for the books to start sounding stale or repetitive.

Question: You were able to balance going to Harvard with writing and later with being a working lawyer with writing, now you have two books coming out this year and are also teaching at Yale. How are you able to juggle so much? Is this wonderful balancing act possible due to the mystical qualities of caffeine?

Answer: Mmm, coffee. The truth of the matter is that I’m one of those ridiculous people who is only productive if I’m absurdly over-committed. Give me just one thing to do and I’ll dither and whine and procrastinate; give me three things to do, and at least two out of the three will get done (I make no promises as to dithering and whining; there’s always time for dithering and whining).

Question: You'll be teaching at your Alma Mater this year, how did that come about and do you feel that it kind of legitimizes* what you're doing and the genre you write in?

Answer: It started, as so many good things do, with a few glasses of wine. I was at Lady Jane’s Salon with fellow Yalie romance writer Cara Elliott, chatting about the romance scholarship movement, in which I’d gotten very involved the previous year. (If anyone wants to know more about the romance scholarship movement, check out Teach Me Tonight, the romance scholarship mothership). We began discussing how we would frame our own romance novel class, and as the wine level went down in the glass, we moved from “Wouldn’t this be a great idea?” to “Hey, we should do this!”

The class looks specifically at the Regency romance novel, partly because that’s what we’re both most familiar with, but also because it provides a self-contained field through which we can track the development of a genre in a comprehensive way. Our class starts with Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and moves through Heyer, Woodiwiss, McNaught, Lindsey, and so on, looking at changing attitudes towards sexuality and heroism in a variety of authors over a thirty year time span, going right up through Regency paranormals and chick lit.

On the legitimacy question…. To be honest, I never felt illegitimate. I grew up reading romance novels and I’ve always been a little baffled by the idea that they were something to hide, or that their consumption and/or authorship was somehow a negative reflection on one’s abilities or intellect. That being said, old stereotypes of romance novels and romance novel readers do seem to linger on, largely among people who haven’t bothered to read them. If teaching a class at Yale does anything to help dispel those misconceptions, then I’m proud to be able to do my part in doing so.

*Note, not my view, just a misconception by the masses that I hope will one day be dispelled.

Make sure to stop by tomorrow, where we hear a bit about Eloise and Colin, other great books that Lauren recommends and what English Estate she'd choose to set up house in.


Great interview! Looking forward to part 2 :)

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