Meet award-winning historical fiction author Lauren Willig


betrayalStories set in the British Raj seem to have fallen out of favour in recent times. Though novels such as A Passage to India by E.M. Forster, The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye, Raj Quartet by Paul Scott have been made into films and television serials, among the current crop of authors who who write in the historical fiction genre few seem to be setting their stories in British India. So when I came across Lauren Willig’s novel, The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, I was intrigued and promptly bought a Kindle edition of the book which is book #6 in the Pink Carnation Series.

Betrayal… is set in 1804 India and has all the ingredients of an intrigue-filled adventure-romance. Lauren provides authentic insights into the politics of the times, sweeps us right into the durbar of the Nizam of Hyderabad and gives us a feel of Begum Johnson’s lavish parties in Calcutta.

There is a contemporary angle to the story as well. The protagonist of the modern times is an American researcher, Eloise, whose history project takes her to England where she meets Colin even as she delves into the life and times of Lady Penelope Staines and her troubled relationship with her husband Lord Frederick Staines. The story flits between Penelope and Eloise’s lives.

Penelope is by far the most interesting character who clearly has a mind of her own and an acerbic tongue to match. Her impulsive nature, which causes her much grief in upper crust English society, also lands her in trouble when she accompanies her husband to India. Soon she finds herself matching wits with the Nizam’s wily prime minister, chasing a French spy who goes by the name of Marigold, besides falling in love with the straight as an arrow Captain Reid.

The Pink Carnation Series is a much acclaimed series and the author is right now penning the 12th and final book in the series.

Here’s my interview with author Lauren Willig who kindly agreed to answer my questions about her books, research methods, her fascination for all things history and more… Read on…

Could you tell me a bit about the Pink Carnation series and what sparked the idea for the series.

The Pink Carnation series began, as so many good things do, as an exercise in procrastination. I was meant to be writing a dissertation. So I wrote a novel instead. In 2001, I was a second year grad student pursuing a PhD in Tudor-Stuart history. That April, I staggered home from my General Exams, tripped over a pile of library books, and vowed, as the microwave was my witness, that I wasn’t going to so much look at a seventeenth century manuscript until the following fall. I was sick of footnotes, sick of the basement of Widener Library, sick of… well, you get the idea. I settled down with a big pile of BBC costume dramas to relax—and that’s when it happened.

Willig_Lauren_00198_final _ creditI was watching the Anthony Andrews Scarlet Pimpernel, an old, old favorite of mine, while eating one of those miracles of haut grad school cuisine—a microwave hot dog adorned with squirty cheese. I watched as Sir Percy dispatched yet another round of gullible French guards. There was something wrong there. Not with Anthony Andrews (how can one not love Anthony Andrews as that demmed elusive Pimpernel?), but with the whole scenario. He had it too easy. His men all followed his commands without question; his wife mostly stayed out of the way; and the evil French spies all did exactly what evil French spies were supposed to do.

Someone, I decided, enthusiastically squirting an extra round of cheese onto my hot dog, needed to mix things up a bit. What if you had a super-dashing English spy bedeviled, not by the French (they’re always so easy to thwart), but by a young lady set on tracking him down—so she can help him? Every spy’s worst nightmare! I bolted for my computer and thus the original Pink Carnation book was born.

Thirteen years later, I have successfully procrastinated my way into eleven Pink Carnation novels and two stand alone novels—and that dissertation still isn’t done!

In Betrayal… there are references to Begum Johnson, the Nizam of Hyderabad and other historical figures. You seem to be fascinated by British Indian history.

As with all of my favourite historical periods, I came to Indian history via fiction. When I was ten or eleven, I stumbled onto M.M. Kaye’s Shadow of the Moon —the old paperback edition that was thick as a brick, with a woman in what looks like a crinoline crossed with an 80s prom dress on the cover. From Shadow of the Moon, I went rapidly to The Far Pavilions, then Katherine Gordon’s Peacock Quartet, Valerie Fitzgerald’s Zemindar, and a host of other novels whose names now elude me.

That was long, long ago, in my teens. As I mentioned above, in my twenties, I toddled off to grad school for a degree in History. My field was Tudor-Stuart, but TAs are always in short supply, so one tends to teach in areas far beyond the ranges of one’s field. In my third year of grad school, I had the great good fortune of being a teaching fellow for a class called The Second British Empire, which focused on India, Ireland, and Kenya from the eighteenth century through the twentieth. At that point, I’d had very little formal training in that time period (I tended to hang out in the seventeenth century)—but I had to keep a few steps ahead of my students. So I had a crash course in the history of India from the 1780s through the 1950s! One of the instructors, Robert Travers, specialized in eighteenth century India. I owe a great deal of the background of The Betrayal of the Blood Lily to his enthusiasm for his subject.

After the course ended, I went on to read more on my own, particularly about the early nineteenth century and the Maratha Wars. I knew that I wanted to set one of the Pink Carnation books in India—what better excuse to learn more?—but it wasn’t until I stumbled upon William Dalrymple’s White Mughuls, about the chequered career of the late eighteenth century Resident of Hyderabad, and the fascinating court and culture in which he resided, that the book really took shape for me.

These days one rarely comes across historical fiction (in the romance genre) set in India, despite the British colonial legacy. Your thoughts?

This may sound cynical, but I think it has less to do with the setting per se than with sales cycles. If there were to be another Far Pavilions, another sweeping epic set in India that sold like wildfire, I’d be willing to bet we’d see a host of novels follow suit, the same way that Philippa Gregory’s Other Boleyn Girl launched a fleet of The Other Other Boleyn Girl’s Third Cousin Twice Removed.

It’s a commonplace in the historical fiction world—and even more so in the world of historical romance— that editors like to stick with the tried and true, the tried and true generally meaning books set in England, in certain popular time periods (Regency, anyone?). I was fortunate in that The Betrayal of the Blood Lily was one of a series, with an established readership, so my publisher was willing to take the chance that my readers would follow me from England to India.

secretDid you travel to India to familiarize yourself with the places that you have written about in your book? If you haven’t, was it a problem visualizing the setting?

Unfortunately, I was on a short deadline, so wasn’t able to find time to make the trip. Instead, I relied heavily on travellers’ narratives from the time period. It is amazing how many of these journals and letters have survived, and, fortunately for me, been reprinted or digitized.

In many ways, dealing entirely with documents, images, and maps from the period makes visualizing the setting easier. Many of my books have been set in Paris, a city which I visit with some frequency. The problem? Paris was extensively redesigned in the mid-nineteenth century. (Blast you, Baron Hausmann!) It bears very little resemblance to the world my characters would have inhabited. When I sit down to write a book set there—or, for that matter, in London, where I lived for a while—I have to deliberately take a deep breath, close my eyes, and blot out everything I know about the modern city, because the modern city is of no use to me or my characters. Even weather patterns have changed over the centuries, making our current experience of the nature of light, or the experience of the seasons, unreliable when writing about the past.

Back to India, I was very fortunate in finding a treasure trove of documents and images that helped me reconstruct the Calcutta and Hyderabad of 1804, without the overlay of the modern cities.

But I do still very much want to visit some day!

You have also mentioned in the appendix of your novel that one of the characters in the book is based on Capt. James Skinner. Do you have any plans of doing a book on this character?

Yes, I do! Jack Reid—my Skinner character—is going to be the hero of the twelfth book in the Pink Carnation series (still untitled), which will make its appearance in stores in the summer of 2015. I frequently use real people as models for my historical characters. It helps me to ground them in their historical period. For example, I based Colonel William Reid (who is both the father of the hero of The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, and himself the hero of The Passion of the Purple Plumeria) on Colonel James Kirkpatrick, commonly called “the Handsome Colonel”, a Scots-American adventurer who fathered a brood of legitimate and illegitimate children in India.

For those who haven’t come across Skinner before, he was the product of a liaison between an East India Company army officer and a Rajput lady of high quality, who committed suicide when Skinner was a young boy. Since rules put in place in the 1790s, by the Governor-General, Lord Cornwallis, barred any child without two European parents from serving in the army, the diplomatic corps, or a host of other professions, Skinner’s father attempted to apprentice him to a printer. But Skinner had a taste for the sword—indeed, a talent for it—and Lord Lake was eventually able to persuade the powers that be to make an exception for him, placing him in charge of a troupe of irregular cavalry.

Skinner’s predicament was a common one, and the solution, in his case, a rarity. Like Skinner, Jack Reid is a half-caste, and thus barred from following his father into the East India Company’s army. His half-brother, Alex, enters the Company’s diplomatic service—but that, too, is barred to Jack. So Jack, as so many did, hires himself out as a mercenary to the Maratha chieftan, Scindia. And from there… well, you’ll have to read his book to find out.

But what I really asked, when thinking about Jack, is what would have happened to Skinner if Lord Lake hadn’t made that exception for him? The laws put in place by Cornwallis placed the half-caste children of English officers in an impossible position: forbidden by law to serve with their fathers, one of the few solutions left to them was to hire themselves out as mercenaries to fight against their father’s people, a situation that was intensified by the Napoleonic Wars, as the French intrigued with local rulers in an attempt to shake the British foothold in India.

Penelope’s character is quite different from those that one comes across in a historical romance. Was it a problem exploring the theme of adultery in a mainstream romance novel?

Oh, yes! Again, I benefited by the fact that I was writing a series with a loyal readership, which enabled me to take some risks and tackle some tough topics. The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, was, in many ways, my attempt to invert the classic marriage of convenience plot. In so many romance novels, you have a couple who are thrown together by circumstance or, as in this case, by an indiscretion and are married off. Invariably, they discover that they were just the right people for each other after all. What are the odds?

But what happened to all those couples who discovered they weren’t the right people for each other at all? In the nineteenth century, marriage was a rather final sort of affair. Divorce, except in very rare cases, was not an option.

The Betrayal of the Blood Lily is a marriage of convenience plot gone wrong. Having canoodled with Freddy on a balcony and been caught, the only option for Penelope is to marry him—only to discover that he’s a man of limited intelligence and interests, a man to whom she might be physically attracted, but whom she neither likes nor respects. This is only intensified when the couple journeys to India to allow time for the hullaballoo surrounding their hasty marriage to die down.

Writing this novel, I felt as though I were walking a tightrope. I didn’t want to vilify Freddy and turn him into a monster as an easy way of justifying Penelope’s actions, but I also needed to make clear that Penelope did have reason to be unhappy in and dissatisfied with her marriage—and that there is no recourse available to her.

Although I was terrified of tackling an adultery plot, it did raise the stakes and make the writing very intense. The tension between Penelope’s unhappy marriage, her attraction to Alex (the hero), and Alex’s own reluctance to be party to adultery provided a great deal of emotional power as I was writing the book.

AshfordYou have used a very unusual technique of telling the story – the first person POV of Eloise reads like a chick-lit—while Penelope’s in third person. It almost felt like Eloise’s romance was an add-on and didn’t quite fit into the book. Your thoughts?

Most things in my life happen by accident. So did Eloise. When I first began writing The Secret History of the Pink Carnation back in 2001, I was a second year grad student, in that grumpy grad student stage where you realize that no matter how hard you try to faithfully recreate an era, it’s impossible to do so without distorting it through the lens of our modern preconceptions and preoccupations. I’d always wanted to write heavy, serious historical fiction—but how could I, if we couldn’t know anything about the past for certain?

So I decided to assuage my feelings by writing a light-hearted romp, filtered through the consciousness of a modern day grad student named Eloise, who stumbled upon the story as part of her dissertation research. We see the historical story through Eloise’s eyes, which opens the door for some fun, tongue in cheek anachronisms. (Not to mention that it also gave me a prime opportunity to satire some of the more ridiculous bits of grad school, a project which my grad school friends whole-heartedly endorsed.)

Originally, I’d planned to have Eloise only in the opening chapter, but I had such fun writing that first chapter that I could resist going on with her story threaded at intervals throughout the book—especially once she meets Colin, the handsome Englishman who does not want Eloise going through his family archives.

You’re absolutely right when you say that Eloise sounds like a chick lit heroine. Back in 2003, when the book sold to my publisher, chick lit was the big thing. I had no idea, however, when I wrote that first book that there would be another and another and another. Since Eloise’s story moves only a few chapters per book, while we’ve moved forward to 2014 in real life, Eloise is still stuck in 2004, a pre-recession heroine in a post-recession world. When I started writing Eloise, she was contemporary; by now, enough time has passed that writing Eloise also feels like a form of historical fiction. I’ll be wrapping up Eloise’s story, as well as the series, in Book XII, which comes out in summer 2015.

What would be one piece of advice that you would give to aspiring writers of historical fiction?

Write what you love. I know it’s a commonplace, but you’re going to be living with these characters and this setting for a very long time. (Sometimes longer than you know! When I started writing the first Pink book back in 2001, I had no idea I’d still be hanging out in the Napoleonic Wars thirteen years later.) Books take a long time. Don’t write to the market. Don’t write to what’s selling right now. Just write the story that makes you lie awake at night, feverishly wondering what’s going to happen next.

Okay, I know you said one piece, but can I give another as well? Don’t get bogged down in the research. Especially for us history nerds, it’s very easy to get so immersed in the research—all those fascinating facts and people!—that you never start writing at all. At some point, you have to cut yourself off, forcibly close that research book, hide your library card, and sit down with that blank screen and just start writing. Until the next book, when you get to start researching all over again….

Which is your favourite book in the Pink Carnation series and which one would you recommend to readers who are not familiar with this series?

It’s always hard to pick favourites—but in terms of introducing the series to new readers, I would recommend The Mischief of the Mistletoe, a light-hearted Christmas romp set in Bath in 1803. It was the winner of the 2011 RITA award for Best Regency Romance, and it’s also the only one of the Pink Carnation books that doesn’t have the modern framing story we discussed above.
The series does tend to vary in tone and setting. Some books are light-hearted Regency romps, others are darker and more serious. The Mischief of the Mistletoe and the first book in the series, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, fall on the lighter end of the spectrum. For those who prefer darker books, I would recommend The Orchid Affair or The Betrayal of the Blood Lily. You can find little summaries of the books on my website, giving a rough sketch of the plot, and the date and location (just in case you have a yen for a book set in Ireland in 1803!).

What are you working on currently and what is it about?

Right now, I’m working on a stand alone novel set in London in 1927. In addition to the Pink Carnation series, I’ve also written two stand alone novels: The Ashford Affair, which just came out in paperback, goes back and forth between 1999 New York, Edwardian England, World War I London, and 1920s Kenya, as a young woman tracks down a family secret with reverberations through the generations. (I call it my Downton Abbey meets Out of Africa novel.)

In That Summer, which comes out this summer, our modern heroine, Julia, inherits a house from an unknown great-aunt and discovers a lost Preraphaelite painting hidden behind the false back of an old wardrobe. The story goes back and forth between 2009 and 1849 as Julia struggles to track down the history of the painting—and learns something about herself in the process.
I’m currently working on my third stand alone, about a young woman in 1927 who learns, upon her mother’s death, that the father she thought died when she was a child is, in fact, very much alive—and an earl.

As soon as the 1927 book is all done, I’ll be starting work on the twelfth and final book in the Pink Carnation series: Jack Reid’s story.

Thanks, Lauren, for the wonderful insights into your books and writing. Look forward to reading more of your work!

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One Response to Meet award-winning historical fiction author Lauren Willig

  1. Pingback: Pick Your Pimpernel! « Lauren Willig – News and Events

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