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Monday, April 8, 2013

Q&A with Lauren Willing, author of THE ASHFORD AFFAIR

I'm delighted to welcome Lauren Willig, bestselling author of The Pink Carnation series, whose novel THE ASHFORD AFFAIR debuts today. Set in the 1920s and modern-day Manhattan, this enthralling tale of two women and the family secrets that bind them moves from the inner circles of WWI-era British society to the broad expanses of Kenya. Lauren has been highly praised for her novels and The Ashford Affair is no exception, with Library Journal starring its review, saying: "[A] nuanced story teeming with ambiance and detail that unfolds like African cloth, with its dips and furls and textures, woven by a master storyteller."

Please join me in welcoming Lauren Willig.

Please you tell us about your inspiration for writing THE ASHFORD AFFAIR.

THE ASHFORD AFFAIR was one of those books that popped up out of the blue.  I wasn’t meant to be writing about 1920s Kenya; I was scheduled to write another novel set during the Napoleonic Wars.  But one rainy afternoon in the fall of 2010, a friend sent me a copy of Frances Osbornes’s The Bolter as a gift.  It wasn’t just that I was fascinated by the rackety life of British expats in Kenya; I was deeply struck by the author’s comment, in the preface, that she hadn’t known that the Bolter (aka Idina Sackville) was her great-grandmother until she was in her teens.  The family had kept the relationship under wraps.
At the time, my own grandmother was very ill, and it struck me, forcibly, how much we assume and how little we know of our own family members and their pasts.  What if a modern woman were to discover that nothing about her family was as it seemed? Once the idea struck, it wouldn’t go away.  I put the next Napoleonic book on hold, read up on Edwardian England, World War I, and 1920s Kenya, and launched into the story that would eventually become THE ASHFORD AFFAIR.

What drew you to the particular era that your book depicts? What are some of the challenges and/or delights about writing about this time?
If you had told me two years ago that I was going to write a book set entirely in the twentieth century, I would have made rude noises of incredulity.  After nine novels all set during the Napoleonic Wars, I had always assumed that if I were to jump century, as it were, I would go back in time to the seventeenth century, the era of my abandoned doctoral thesis, or perhaps even earlier than that.  The twentieth century was just so… modern.  In particular, I’ve always avoided World War I, with its gas masks and trenches and mechanized warfare.

I had no idea what I was missing. 

Periods of flux and change make for larger than life characters and great fiction—and the World War I era doesn’t lack for either.  One of the delights of writing about World War I England and 1920s Kenya was that I came to the topic knowing so little (despite a brief stint in grad school TA-ing a class on colonial Kenya—but that’s a whole other story!).  My research was a journey of discovery, fresh and exciting, and I hope that fascination with the time period, with the quirks and characters I was discovering, came across in the book itself.

What process did you use to transport yourself (and readers) to another time period? How do you go about research and incorporating it into fiction?
I’ve always found that the best way to get a sense of the time is to read the firsthand accounts of those who lived it: letters, diaries, novels, memoirs.  (Allowing, of course, for the tendency of memoirs to shift the truth about to exculpate the author!)  Fortunately for me, the denizens of the early twentieth century were not chary with their prose.  I found a wealth of material that I was able to draw on to understand how my characters would have perceived and reacted to various places and events.  Rupert Graves’s World War I memoir, Goodbye to All That, left a deep impression on me (and my characters), as did Beryl Markham’s account of her days as an aviatrix in Kenya.  Many of their experiences, as well as those of others, found their way into the lives of my characters.
For those wanting to read more on the topic, I have a truncated bibliography up on my website.

Does your historical fiction convey a message or theme relevant to our world today? If so, what do you think it is? If not, how do you think readers can find common ground with the characters in your story?
THE ASHFORD AFFAIR zigzags back and forth between a modern woman in 1999 and the life of her grandmother in the 1910s and 20s.  When we meet my modern heroine, Clemmie, she’s running late to her grandmother’s ninety-ninth birthday party, harried and coffee-stained, on track for a partnership at a prestigious law firm—but at the cost of lost friendships and a broken engagement.
I know many women like Clemmie, women who have been told, by teachers and mothers, that they’re meant to go out and grasp with both hands all that the previous generations of women have been denied, who achieve and achieve and achieve, and wake up one day—usually at one a.m. in the office with half-filled coffee cups scattered around them—to ask, “How did I go wrong? Why is this making me so miserable?”  With all of the discussion these days of leaning in, leaning out and work/life balance, I think there are many who will find Clemmie’s experience particularly relevant.

Can you tell us about your next project?
I’ve been hopping time periods.  In August, the tenth book in my madcap Napoleonic-set spy series, THE PASSION OF THE PURPLE PLUMERIA, hits the shelves. Set in Bath in 1805, a chaperone turned spy and a former Colonel in the East India Company’s army join forces to find a pair of missing school girls and a legendary cache of missing jewels—unless someone else finds them first….

I am also very excited about my next major stand- alone novel (still untitled) which will be coming out in the spring of 2014. This new stand-alone goes back and forth between 2009 and 1849, as a modern woman, raised in New York, is drawn back to the suburbs of London when she unexpectedly inherits a house from an unknown great-aunt.  In the old house on Herne Hill, she discovers a lost Preraphaelite painting hidden away in the back of a wardrobe.  As our modern heroine hunts down the provenance of the painting—and the fate of the man who painted it—she discovers a tale of forbidden love and a hushed up family scandal with reverberations through the generations.I had such fun researching the early days of the Preraphaelite movement—and, of course, coopting Dante Gabriel Rossetti as a side character!

Thanks so Lauren and best of luck with The Ashford Affair. To find out more about Lauren and her work, please visit her website,




5 comments:

Ruth said...

This is a wonderful interview! And I am SO excited about my pre-order of The Ashford Affair delivering today! :)

Kate Forsyth said...

Oooh, this sounds so good! I love Lauren's Pink Carnation series and I love novels set during WWI and so I'm really looking forward to this. Thi is a must-have for me!

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