Although she may not have realized it at the time, Lauren Willig had her life pretty clearly mapped out when she was a mere nine-year-old. That's when she completed her first "novel" -- 300 handwritten pages of a Nancy Drew-inspired mystery titled The Night the Clock Struck Death featuring not one, but two teenage sleuths. (Twin detectives, if you please!) She sent it off to Simon & Schuster -- who promptly sent it back. "I was utterly crushed for at least a week," the young author admits.
Crushed, perhaps, but apparently the pull of becoming a writer was considerably stronger than the sting of rejection. Several years later, while she was in grad school, Willig began work on another novel -- although she wasn't sure which novel it would be. "There were three contenders: one, the Pink Carnation; another, a mystery novel set at Yale; and the third, a historical novel set around a group of Luddites in 1812. The Yalie mystery novel nearly won out... but the image of a masked spy on a rope tipped the balance the other way, and The Pink Carnation was born."
A witty melding of espionage thriller, swashbuckler, and the kind of classic "bodice-ripping" romance novels she first discovered at the tender age of six, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation was published in 2005. The premise is irresistible: A modern grad student researching her dissertation in London stumbles on the identity of a mysterious English spy from the Napoleonic Wars. With its clever book-within-a-book format, Willig's novel was an instant sensation. Almost immediately, she penned the sequel, The Masque of the Black Tulip. Willig was off and running with a hot and sexy – not to mention bestselling -- series.
Although the Pink Carnation books build on one another, each story focuses on a different pair of lovers and can be read as a stand-alone. Willig tries to weave in any information from previous installments that might be key to understanding the characters or plot. All her books have become Romantic Times Top Picks. In 2006 Lauren was nominated for a Quill Award.
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Even before she committed her stories to paper, Willig was amusing herself with her very own fiction in the privacy of her head. "I remember lying in bed, staring up at the underside of my canopy, composing complicated narratives complete with dialogue, generally based on whatever movie I had just seen," she told The Readers Place.com. "Star Wars spawned weeks' worth of bedtime dramas in which I starred as Princess Lea's best friend. Who would, of course, wind up with Luke Skywalker as co-ruler of the Universe -- you know what they say, if you're going to dream, dream big."
According to Willig's official biography, she is a Native New Yorker. However, she admits that this isn't entirely true being that she was actually born in Philadelphia -- a fact that her "real" Native New Yorker siblings aren't quick to let Lauren forget.
Some fun and fascinating outtakes from our interview with Willig:
"Like my modern heroine, Eloise, I spent a year in England doing research for my dissertation (mine is about Royalist conspiracies during the English Civil Wars in the 1640s), and living in a little basement flat in Bayswater. Unlike Eloise, on my very first week in London, I ate a bad kebab, and got so sick that I wound up briefly back in the States, on the same medicine they give people who have anthrax poisoning. Not exactly an auspicious beginning...."
"I still don't have a driver's license. Having grown up in Manhattan, there was never any need of it -- other than as a means of getting into bars, and learning to drive seemed a bit extreme just to get a drink. Of course, that was before I moved to Cambridge for grad school and realized that in other parts of the world, you can't just walk into the middle of the street, stick your arm up into the air, and, lo!, immediate transportation appears. Since I really don't want to have to learn how to drive, I've decided the only remedy is just to live in Manhattan for the rest of my life."
"Many years ago, at my Yale college interview, the interviewer took one look at my resume, and announced, ‘You can't be a writer.'
Getting a little panicky -- since no one takes kindly to having their life's dream flung in their face -- I blurted out, ‘Why not?'
‘Writers,' he said firmly, ‘are introverts. You,' he indicated the long list of clubs on my resume, Drama Club, Choral Club, Forensics, interschool plays and public speaking competitions, ‘are not.'"
"It is true; I've never been able to resist a stage. There are embarassing videos (which may have to be confiscated and burnt at some point) from various family weddings, where I, as a wee child, coopted the microphone to serenade the wedding guests with off-key renderings of "Memory" (from Cats). It's a wonder I lived past the age of ten without being murdered by a bride wielding a sharpened cake knife. Point me to a podium, and I can talk indefinitely (and usually do, as anyone who was with me in the Yale Political Union can verify). I simpered through Gilbert & Sullivan Society productions, taught drama to small tots through Yale Drama Hands-On Theatre Workshop, and was chairman of a debating society in college. And those were only the official performances. Recently, I appeared in a toga and bare feet (well, really a chiton, but why be picky?) in front of a hundred-odd people at the law school to argue a mock Athenian trial. And, yes, those pictures will also be confiscated and burnt -- as soon as I find out where my camera-happy friends hid them."
"I've always had trouble with the ‘writer as introvert' trope. I argued then, and still believe now, that the performative arts and creative writing have a great deal in common. After all, music, drama, public speaking, writing... all involve words! My interviewer wasn't too impressed by that argument, but there is a bit more to it than that. Singing and public speaking create an enhanced awareness for the rhythm of language. As for drama, how better to get inside one's characters' heads than to walk in their footsteps? Frequently, while writing, I'll tumble out of my chair (literally -- my chair isn't all that sturdy) and act out bits of a scene for a more concrete grasp of a character's movements. Most of all, acting, singing, and writing all involve the desire to get out there and share a story, a desire that can't be balked by the threat of rotton tomatoes, or even bad reviews."
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In the winter of 2005, Lauren Willig took some time out to talk with us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
It would have to be E.L. Koenigsburg's A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver in which various historical characters, perched on a particularly fluffy cloud, entertain themselves by recalling the tumultuous life of Eleanor of Aquitaine. My father gave it to me when I was six, and I remember starting it with no great enthusiasm -- medieval characters sitting on clouds? How could that possibly compete with Nancy Drew?
By the time I was halfway through the first chapter, I was well and truly hooked. Kings, crusaders, troublesome clerics.... I re-read it so devotedly that half the pages fell out, and innocent passers-by were assaulted with detailed accounts of the familial relationships of the Plantagenets. I wanted desperately to go back in time, but if I couldn't, the next best thing was to write about it myself. I promptly set about writing a sequel -- from the point of view of Eleanor's horse, Beau Noir.
Although I've abandoned the equine viewpoint as a literary device, all of the elements that are most central to my own books can be traced back to that first excursion into historical fiction. A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver had it all: a vibrant historical setting, humor (I still remember laughing myself silly over the characters complaining that television antennae interfered with their ability to view human affairs), a strong heroine, and, come to think of it, even a quasi-modern framing device....
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
Only ten? When I was little, I used to keep ranked lists of favorite books, but these days, I have more of a revolving pantheon of much beloved books and favorite authors. For example, I'm currently a bit obsessed with Kasey Michaels' Maggie books (although the thought of one of my own characters showing up unannounced in my living room caused me a momentary panic), last month was all Jo Beverly all the time, and the month before that was an early-20th-century England kick: Brideshead Revisited, Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm, Angela Carter's Wise Children, excessive quantities of Jeeves and Wooster, and lots of Nancy Mitford. But if I had to narrow it down, here are a handful of books that have been keepers for a long, long time....
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell -- I spent most of seventh grade in the grips of a passionate Gone With the Wind obsession that involved searching through Grandma's attic for hoopskirts and complicated daydreams about being Melanie's best friend from New York, who took up with Rhett's apocryphal but equally dashing blockader brother, Charles. Fortunately, the hoopskirt has been relegated to the rag bin, but I'm still endlessly impressed by Mitchell's ability to interweave small-scale human dramas with large-scale historical events. Even her side characters are brilliantly fleshed out (my current favorite scene is the bit where the otherwise always prim and proper Mrs. Meade pesters Dr. Meade to tell her what the inside of a bawdy house looks like).
The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery -- I grew up on the Anne and Emily books, but only discovered The Blue Castle when my ever-perceptive best friend (source of most of my favorite books) gave it to me as a birthday present one year in Upper School. Since then, it's traveled with me everywhere: to college, to grad school, to England. Whenever I need a boost, I go back and revel in Valency's triumphal transformation from frumpy spinster to accidental heroine.
Almost Heaven by Judith McNaught -- I came upon Almost Heaven when I was thirteen, and it instantly became my romantic paradigm (which caused me a great deal of trouble in college, where my best friend and I used Elizabeth and Ian's story as the touchstone by which we evaluated all of our own romantic peccadilloes). After all, what's not to love in a book where the heroine catches the hero's attention by talking about Galileo's difficulties with the Inquisition? At last, a heroine who spoke my language! And she had blonde hair and green eyes, just like me....
Tam Lin by Pamela Dean -- A retelling of the old Scottish ballad, set at a small, liberal arts college, Tam Lin always reminds me of all that was best about the college experience, the effortless interweaving of the personal and the intellectual, where classes, friendships, and romantic dramas all exist in constant counterpoise, and the perfect literary reference to explain away one's current problems is always just there on the bookshelf.
Through a Glass Darkly by Karleen Koen -- I've always wanted to live in the eighteenth century, and Through a Glass Darkly is a large part of the reason why. It brilliantly captures all the contrasts of the period: elegance and brutality, high ideals and low behavior, dashing Jacobite pretenders and a stodgy Hanoverian monarchy. At twelve, I couldn't stand the way the book ended (since everyone knew, endings were supposed to be happy, and heroines were always supposed to marry their first loves), but I adored it too much to abandon -- so I would always scrupulously stop reading just when the plot went dark, and make up my own, happier, ending. These days, I recognize that original equivocal ending as one of the great strengths of the book.
Evelina by Fanny Burney -- Did I mention that I wanted to live in the 18th century? I came upon this book via a tenth grade play, called A Voice of One's Own, about women authors (I played a very dumpy Harriet Beecher Stowe, and, no, no one is allowed to see the video of that performance. Ever.). At an all-girls' school, my poor drama teacher had quite a time finding plays with an all-female cast. One of the authors represented in the play was Fanny Burney, so, curious, I toddled over to the library and took out Evelina -- an epistolary novel about a young girl's entrance into society, beset by rakes, rogues, and assorted comic side characters. It was like Richardson's Clarissa (with which I was obsessed at the time), only better -- because the heroine didn't die in the end! In college, I contemplated writing my own epistolary novel, an updated version of Evelina all in emails, about my own trials with rakes, rogues and comic side characters, but decided it lost some of its punch when the evil seducers were wearing jeans rather than knee breeches.
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen -- "Catherine was in training to be a heroine...." Only Jane Austen could so perfectly blend grubby social reality and melodrama. My first year of grad school, I dressed as Catherine Morland for Halloween, which seemed like a great idea until the first "Catherine who?" and "Northanger what?"
The Night Train to Memphis by Elizabeth Peter -- It's nearly impossible for me to pick a single favorite Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels novel. I've been reading and re-reading them since I was ten, captivated by her fluid prose and wry sense of humor. For a while my favorite was Wings of the Falcon -- one of her early gothics, featuring a naïve heroine and masked hero (hmm, sense a trend?), then Die for Love, her hilarious send-up of the romance novel industry, and... well, it would take too long to go through them all. Currently, Night Train to Memphis is in the ascendant, partly because I love the wise-cracking Vicky Bliss, partly because of Peters' virtuosic ability to keep the same characters fresh and interesting in the fifth book of a series -- but it really all comes down to Schmidt singing country music in a thick German accent.
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith -- Another gift from my best friend, I Capture the Castle is always a source of solace and optimism, a reminder that Fate is quirky, what you wish for is seldom what you really want, and, as the book's heroine advises, "Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cures for depression."
Arcadia by Tom Stoppard -- Okay, so it's a play, not a book. But it lives on my bookshelf, so it counts. Aside from the acknowledged charms of Lord Byron and Plautus-the-tortoise, I've had a special affection for Arcadia ever since a grad school production where I played Lady Croom -- which meant that I got to spend three hours every night speaking in an exaggerated English accent, and whapping people with a fan. Not to mention that torrid affair with Septimus Hodge.... Too much happiness!
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
I have an insatiable appetite for BBC costume dramas. Dress the actors up, give them witty dialogue, and put them in a ballroom, and I will watch for hours, like a cat in front of a washing machine. Add a few duels, and I may never leave the couch again. Whenever I hit a major snag in the writing, I go back to Persuasion and the Anthony Andrews Scarlet Pimpernel. The former does a brilliant job of conveying those tiny gestures crucial to any good love story: the hand on the small of the back, the hastily averted glance, all the almost unnoticed communications that build up to the explosion of emotion in Captain Wentworth's hastily penned letter. As for the latter... duels. Need I say more?
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
My tastes in music run the gamut, from Elizabethan madrigals to Cole Porter to whatever that song was on Z100 last week. I'm particularly fond of the baroque composers and happy, bouncy 80's music. While working, I switch back and forth depending on mood. If I'm deeply immersed in the story, and don't want the background to intrude, I'll put on Bach or Handel; if my coffee hasn't kicked in and I need a boost, I'll crank up the Legally Blonde soundtrack or No Doubt's greatest hits.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Although fiction is my first love, and I read it in massive piles, there's something very personal about the fiction selection process, involving a great deal of wandering through bookstores, picking things up, flipping through at random, tripping over people sitting in the aisles, and apologizing profusely. So I prefer to give -- and get --nonfiction, preferably the sorts of glossy hardcovers that people might want, but consider too self-indulgent to buy for themselves, like the complete book of New Yorker cartoons, or the latest biography of Ruskin. Delving into a pile of new books after a holiday, books that I would never have chosen for myself, always calls to mind Keats' "Much have I traveled in the realms of gold." They bring with them the thrill of undiscovered kingdoms waiting to be explored.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
My rituals are relatively mundane. As a tea addict, on days when I'm going to be staying in and working all day, I generally brew a big pot, cover it with my tea cosy, and wander over at intervals to refill (since I live in a studio, the wandering doesn't involve much movement). I generally know the writing is going well when I come to myself to realize that the tea is entirely gone and I have no recollection of having drunk any of it. I also always sit cross-legged on my desk chair while I write, a habit that dates back as long as I've been writing fiction. Since my desk chair is on the rickety side -- and wheels -- this poses a real danger of concussion, but the habit is too ingrained to break.
When I get stuck, occasionally my laptop and I go on pilgrimages to local purveyors of caffeine (I only recently made the exciting discovery that the point of a laptop is that it doesn't have to live on my desk all the time), where I get very picky about my favorite tables, drink too much coffee, and generally terrify the people around me by making strange faces at my computer screen while trying to figure out exactly how my character would have sneered while delivering that last scathing insult.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
What literary career would be complete without a rejection slip story? Mine has a bit of a twist to it. It happened when I was nine. I had just finished my first complete novel, a Nancy Drew imitation entitled The Night the Clock Struck Death. I was convinced it was the best thing since... well, Nancy Drew, so I bundled up all three hundred hand-written pages, and sent them off to Simon & Schuster, visions of "Youngest Author Ever!" dancing through my head. They sent it back. I was crushed, convinced my literary career was Over Forever. It took me another three years before I was ready to tackle another book length work of fiction. By then, I had moved onto Victoria Holt, so it was a gothic called The Chateau Secret, complete with naïve young governess and family skeletons (some of the literal variety) tumbling out of every available closet.
By the time I wrote The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, I was slightly more savvy. After years of reading Writers Digest, and a summer interning at Tor Books, slogging through their slush pile, I knew that one didn't just ship off one's complete manuscript to a publisher and expect bells and whistles to start going off. I had just bought an Agent's Market and begun diligently listing names and crafting query letters -- when a very old friend of mine quietly handed off a copy of the manuscript to a friend of hers, who happened to be an agent.
And the rest is history....
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
My advice would be: don't listen to advice! I've seen so many people tie themselves into knots, trying to follow the "rules" of their genre or contort their work to conform to a perceived trend. Write the story you want to tell, in a way that pleases you -- you, after all, are the one living with this plot and these characters for months on end, as you delve into their heads and the messier bits of their lives. Reading -- reading broadly, in a variety of genres and styles -- is the best education for any author, and the only real training is to write, write, and write some more.
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