An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Beatriz Williams
The Summer Wives: A Novel (William Morrow, 10 July 2018)
The Summer Wives has been described as a “ravishing postwar fable of love, class, power, and redemption set among the inhabitants of a rarefied island off the New England coast”. It’s all this and more for those who wish to lose themselves in another world. It was instant New York Times bestseller, debuting at #7 on the hardcover list and named a “Best Book of Summer” by Goodreads, Buzfeed and Kirkus, and many others.
AUTHORLINK: Ms Williams, thank you for joining us today on Authorlink to discuss your latest book, The Summer Wives, which we thoroughly enjoyed! It was spell-bounding from the very first chapter. Your rich, eloquent writing pulls the reader into a beautiful, fictive dream.
Almost all your novels connect to your fictional Schuyler family in some way or form, and The Summer Wives was no exception (even though this book is more of a standalone). You are inspired by what the Marvel people call a, “shared universe,” something that Trollope was already doing 150 years ago (the creation of a fictional universe populated by characters who appear in other books). For instance, in your next collaborative release, The Glass Ocean, (William Morrow, 4 September 2018) there are references to the character, Miranda, who is one of the main protagonists in The Summer Wives, and the movie she made with her director husband, “Night Train to Berlin.”
Why does the idea of writing about one parallel universe that exists alongside your own appeal do you think? Do you feel you will always write about this world and never another? Have you considered writing about another universe?
I have to confess, when I was writing my first novel, I really had no such grand plans in view!
WILLIAMS: I have to confess, when I was writing my first novel, I really had no such grand plans in view! Certainly, I started my second one, A Hundred Summers, as a separate creation from the first. It wasn’t until I started mapping out The Secret Life of Violet Grant that the Schuyler family tree started taking shape; I couldn’t get these characters from A Hundred Summers out of my head, and while I didn’t contemplate a sequel for that book, I wanted to explore its world further, to keep developing these themes and this particular historical moment—the first half of the twentieth century—and show how one cultural revolution slid into another and transformed people’s lives. I could take one character—Aunt Julie, for example—and write about her at different points in her life, or I could take someone’s daughter or niece and write about her, and not only am I giving loyal readers these little epilogues sprinkled throughout the books, I’m adding texture and richness to the characters’ lives and to the setting itself.
When you’re creating fictional characters from scratch, as I do, rather than writing about actual historical figures, you have got to use every tool at your disposal to immerse readers, to get them to care about your characters and their problems, and also entice them to read more! So I’m quite happy to keep writing in this imagined universe as long as I’m writing realistic fiction, whether it’s set in the modern day or mid-century or—who knows—a couple of centuries ago.
AUTHORLINK: That is really compelling, thank you. You once said this about The Summer Wives and the fictional ‘Winthrop island’ located near the Long Island Sound where it is set, “What I really wanted to explore was the particular microculture you find there, the friction and the symbiosis between the wealthy summer residents and the year-rounders, to put that in the historical and ethnic context of New England in the middle of the century.” (The Book Reporter, 10 July 2018).
What is it about the tension of between the year-rounders and the summer elite few that you wished to explore?
WILLIAMS: I think Americans have such an interesting and complicated view of social class. Throughout our history, you find this instinctive anti-elitism running through American culture, a sense that social position (and the money that feeds it) should be earned, not bestowed; that the creation of wealth is intrinsically more worthy than the inheritance of wealth; and that common sense is both morally and practically superior to intellectualism. So the tension between classes takes on a different character to that in, say, Great Britain or Europe, where envy has been the dominant color. But human beings are still human beings, and we’re driven to assert status in all kinds of ways so that even the repudiation of interest in economic status is itself an assertion of status—moral, intellectual, political, physical, whatever method we can devise to establish a pecking order. And once you’ve achieved high status, you have to preserve it against all possible threat.
Now, what makes Winthrop so interesting within the context of the American class system is that it’s an island. When you decide to plant your flag on an island, you’re deliberately excluding the outside world, you’re deliberately making a choice to preserve your culture—and specifically your status within that culture—against change. You’re acknowledging that you’ve reached the apex, and there’s nowhere to go but down.
It’s the sense that they’re living in a separate moral universe, that the divides between them can’t be crossed.
Remember, if you’re not creating new wealth or new ideas—and Winthrop’s summer residents, by and large, are living off the entrepreneurism of their ancestors—you are not, in fact, relevant anymore. The island becomes a kind of self-exile. The friction on Winthrop is not one of perceived exploitation; the year-rounders are, for the most part, quite happy to make a living off the summer residents. Rather, it’s the sense that they’re living in a separate moral universe, that the divides between them can’t be crossed. In the absence of larger cultural relevance, the self-identity of Winthrop’s elite depends on maintaining its status inside this one kingdom it can still control. So codes of conduct are strictly adhered to, and transgressors are punished, and petty acts of rebellion can have devastating consequences.
AUTHORLINK: What interesting observations’ you make. There is beautiful imagery in your writing, reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald, in our opinion. An example, “He finishes the drink and hurls the glass into the boxwoods, where it disappears without a sound. Bianca stares at the tiny, startled leaves, the dark scar where the glass burst through.” How do you imbue your writing with such a full sense of the different eras? Did you ever do any writing courses? How do you feel you’ve evolved creatively since your first book, Overseas (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 10 May 2012)?
…I do pay attention to every single word that goes into my books…
WILLIAMS: Oh gosh, that’s such a lovely thing to say! I’m so grateful to hear that, because I do pay attention to every single word that goes into my books—my editor will tell you how obsessively I pore over each round of revision. Verdi used to say that each individual note in his operas had its own dramatic function, and if you’re writing historical fiction, you have to be especially choosy: your words have to convey not just the human drama occurring on the page, but the historical world that surrounds it. Most importantly, you have to remember that your characters don’t know this is historical fiction—to them, it’s contemporary. You therefore have to be absolutely effortless in depicting the world and events around you; you have to be as fully immersed, as fully convinced of your surroundings as your characters are, to take everything for granted around you (as your characters would) and still convey the necessary details to the reader. You have to understand not just the physical universe of your era but the cultural-philosophical one. You have to understand how your characters think, and how that directs how they talk and act and live, and that means spending hours reading books and magazines written during your characters’ lives, spending hours watching films created during their lives. You cannot simply engage your setting with your modern brain, and that something that can’t be taught—it’s an instinct you have to evolve yourself.
I’ve never taken any writing courses, other than workshops at writer conferences in my earlier years, but I’ve become a deeply observant reader of everything from classic novels to contemporary fiction, mysteries to narrative nonfiction, and I work hard to improve my craft with every book—the words, the sentences, the structure, the characters, the ways I convey ideas with dialogue and action. How to square that circle and create a historical world with a narrative voice that sounds fresh and new. So I do feel as if I’ve come a long way since my first novel, but the end goal is always the same: to immerse readers in a fictional universe they don’t want to leave, to convey a deep understanding of what it meant to be a human being in the first half of the twentieth century.
AUTHORLINK: That’s fantastic, good for you. And you do it so brilliantly! One of the themes in The Summer Wives, and in fact, in all your books is the sexual power play between men and women in history, i.e. manipulation, exploitation, and abuse. Stories of powerful men exploiting younger women with less social and financial standing were common in the past, but unfortunately, as we have been reminded by the #MeToo movement, are also relevant today. Do you feel the ‘negotiations’ between men and women have equalized in the last year or so, and if not, do you think they will?
WILLIAMS: Oh, good Lord, no. I don’t think there’s anything we can do to legislate that, and certainly nothing we can do to fully eradicate dynamics that arise from some pretty basic aspects of human nature. What I hope is that the #MeToo movement will allow a little more respect to those of us who have been writing about sexual politics all along, and whose books are dismissed as being less than serious because they deal with sex and love and relationships, and that’s just sentimental girl stuff.
…human relationships are deeply complicated material, and irreducible to the simplistic terms in which too much of the #MeToo discussion is taking place.
The fact is, human relationships are deeply complicated material, and irreducible to the simplistic terms in which too much of the #MeToo discussion is taking place. The wonderful thing about fiction is that we can explore those complexities in all their infinite variety. We can examine the nuances and the outcomes as they play out with actual human beings—all right, fictional human beings, but still!—and, depending on the skill of the writer, actually get to some kind of honest discussion that leads to greater awareness that leads to people understanding what’s exploitative behavior, how it damages people, how you can deal with exploitative people, what healthy behavior looks like, and so on and so on. That’s what storytelling is for, to give people a roadmap for dealing with conflict in their own lives.
AUTHORLINK: After The Summer Wives, you released The Glass Ocean which is set on the last voyage of the Lusitania, and goes back and forth between the perspective of someone in the present day and two characters on the ship. It is a collaborative effort with authors, Lauren Willig and Karen White, (you can see our AUTHORLINK interview with the lovely Ms. White here:-https://authorlink.com/interview/the-night-the-lights-went-out-an-enthralling-story-2017/It.) You also wrote The Forgotten Room (Berkley, 19 January 2016) with these same authors (which sounds brilliant!) How do you go about collaborating on a book? Do egos ever get in the way? How does each author’s section meld with another’s so that the narrative flows? Can this ever be an issue?
WILLIAMS: Writing with Karen and Lauren is probably the greatest joy in my writing life! I could go on for hours about our process, but the most important part is the respect and love we have for each other. We plot each book in detail together, and it’s like when you were a kid making up stories with your friends, ideas, and laughter flowing freely, except we iron out all the plot holes and write it down into a proper outline, in which every chapter is accounted for. So we own the story and the characters together, even though each of us takes one of the three alternating character narratives for the writing part. By going round robin—writing your next chapter, then passing it on for your partner to write the next—we’re able to read what the others have written before adding our own bits, so the overall storytelling flow is smooth, and the differences in voice and tone only enhance the distinctiveness of each character’s narrative. The result turned out to be even better than we hoped when we first sat down to put together The Forgotten Room. It’s just a really extraordinary example of what can be created when women get together and combine powers.
AUTHORLINK: It would be fascinating to sit in on one of these meetings! We enjoyed the different points of view you had for Bianca’s section and later for Miranda’s. From whose point of view are you narrating Bianca’s story? Is it Bianca? Alternatively, someone who knows her? Whom is she talking to? We really enjoyed the familiarity with which she described her world.
…I like to write from this deep point of view, whether it’s first or third person, because I find it more realistic…
WILLIAMS: With Bianca, I used what’s called a deep third person perspective, in which an unnamed narrator dives right into the point-of-view character’s head and has no access to the thoughts of other people. Miranda’s narrative, of course, is told in the first person, which I did deliberately to separate those two voices. Either way, I like to write from this deep point of view, whether it’s first or third person because I find it more realistic—we obviously don’t go about our world knowing what’s inside the heads of those around us—and also a great way to build suspense. But I also like creating a direct relationship with the reader, in which you feel as if the narrator is sitting down on the sofa and telling you the story because that’s how stories have traditionally been told. (This is me speaking as the anthropology major.) And I think it gives the reader a sense of involvement and engagement, while also serving to subtly convey that the narrator is telling you his or her truth, which might or might not be the absolute truth. It’s the truth as the narrator sees it or the truth that the narrator wants to convey to you, for whatever reason.
AUTHORLINK: That is great. It was refreshing to say the least. We also enjoyed the many instinctive and romantic scenes in your books. Does romance exist between the young anymore do you feel? Which age demographic are your most loyal readers?
In our century-long narcissistic trip inward, we’re forgetting that the essential stuff of life is our relationships with other people, romantic relationships included…
WILLIAMS: I actually return all the time to this theme in my books—the slow overtaking of idealism with cynicism, first in highbrow and then in popular culture over the course of the past century. And I think mainstream writers are a little afraid of writing love scenes, certainly love stories, because you do run the risk of getting sneered at for romanticism or sentimentality, which is just another way of marginalizing what women tend to be interested in, the feminine way of looking at the world, which is joyful and giving. A lot of younger readers get put off by the very word “romance” because—despite the best efforts of some pretty amazing writers in that genre—the masculinized mainstream culture likes to make itself feel smart and sophisticated by rolling its eyes at love stories, certainly love stories that result in any kind of human happiness! But they’re missing everything, really. In our century-long narcissistic trip inward, we’re forgetting that the essential stuff of life is our relationships with other people, romantic relationships included, which so often require the kind of self-sacrifice that modern culture—literary culture, anyway—finds distasteful or silly. Yet that’s where all the joy of life comes from. Only connect, as Forster said.
I probably spend more time getting each word of my sex scenes precisely right than any other part. I hope that younger readers will be attracted to that.
And you know, I absolutely never write a gratuitous sex scene; I write them only if I need to convey something important about a relationship, about one or both of the people involved because sex is the ultimate truth serum—it strips away all the pretense and reveals people at their most basic. Because of that, they are bloody hard to write well. The emotional texture of sex and love, our poverty of language for sex, means it’s so easy to fall into cliché or—God help us—euphemism, and that just kills the scene right there. I probably spend more time getting each word of my sex scenes precisely right than any other part. I hope that younger readers will be attracted to that. I actually believe there’s a longing for good love stories out there among millennials, but the culture’s busy feeding them other narratives about how scary and crappy the world is, especially for women, and you’d be a fool to fall for this girly romantic stuff.
AUTHORLINK: You are remarkably insightful; we cannot agree more. We understand your next solo book takes place in the Bahamas during World War II when the Duke of Windsor was Governor of the islands. Can you tell us a bit more about it? How do you go about planning a new historical fiction book? Do you research first and then draw up a plan of the whole story? What would you say is your interesting writing quirk? Once finished, who is your first reader?
WILLIAMS: Like most of my books, this one came from several ideas clashing together. The first prompt came a while ago, while I was writing Along the Infinite Sea. I had a German character whose mother—who never appears in the book—had lost her first husband, married an Englishman who was the love of her life, and then lost him at the Battle of the Somme, two months before their son was born. And I have been absolutely haunted by this poor woman ever since, and also fascinated by this son of theirs, so I bookmarked them both in my brain for a later novel.
Then my editor and I got to talking about the Bahamas—my husband and I were headed there for a short break—and she reminded me how the Windsors spent the war years there, and it turned out there had also been this famous unsolved murder in Nassau during that time, so I ended up bringing those two stories together for The Golden Hour. It’s one of my bigger books, with a multi-generational, epic feel, and it certainly plunges deeper into actual historical events than I usually go, but I’m absolutely thrilled to pieces by how it turned out. It was an exceptionally long write for me because there was so much really specific research involved, and I found myself deeply frustrated many times along the way, thinking that this book would kill my career, if not my sanity! Happily, I dug myself out and it just gives me chills—the good kind—to read now. My editor is almost always my first reader, although I do often consult my writing buddies—Karen White and Lauren Willig—for moral support and help unpicking knots. As for writing quirks, you’d probably need to ask my readers! That’s the trouble with quirks: we never realize we have them. I’m scared to find out!
AUTHORLINK: That is so interesting, thank you. What is your daily writing schedule like given you also have four children? How do you fit it all in? How many standalone historical fiction books do you write each year, how many historical romances and how many collaborative books?
WILLIAMS: I fit it in like any working mother, really, except I have the good fortune to have a career I can pursue from the comfort of my armchair. Once the school bus leaves, I ignore all the laundry and dishes and clutter piles and set to work. While I’m folding clothes and driving kids to soccer, I do the deep thinking. There’s a lot of juggling, of course, but I’m just lucky beyond words to be able to write books for a living—my passion, the only career I ever really wanted—while still being a hands-on mom. At this point, I’ve relaxed a bit from the frenetic writing schedule of my earlier years. I’m doing one standalone historical fiction and one collaboration per year, more or less, while the historical romance/mystery (my Juliana Gray pen name) is on the back burner for now. I also have another writing project I can’t say much about at the moment, but that’s going to take time as well. It’s pretty much all I can handle and keep my sanity!
AUTHORLINK: That’s amazing. And now for a few lighthearted questions…What is your most treasured possession? (Other than your children, your husband, and your family).
WILLIAMS: You know, I used to get sentimental about possessions, but I’m just not as attached to objects anymore. I adore my husband, but my engagement ring stays at the bottom of the jewelry box. The only things that get me weepy are my kids’ baby clothes. In a fire, I’d run straight to the attic for them.
AUTHORLINK: Lovely. And finally, which actor/actress would you like to see playing the lead character from The Summer Wives?
WILLIAMS: Funny you should ask…. But sadly, I don’t watch much TV at the moment, and it’s hard to go out to the movies with so much going on and so many superhero sequels filling the screens, so I’m always at a bit of a loss when that question gets asked. It’s also tricky because we’re talking about actors who could play both teenagers and those same characters in their thirties, and I’m not current with that age group at all. If I had to pick an actress for Miranda—gun to my head and all—maybe an Emily Blunt? She’s got that wonderful intelligence under her skin, and I think she could pull off that contrast between the innocent Miranda of 1951 and the bitter, wiser Miranda of 1969.
AUTHORLINK: Ms. Williams, thank you so much for your time today. As we said, we really enjoyed The Summer Wives and can’t wait to read your next novel. All the very best to you!
WILLIAMS: Thank you so much for all the thoughtful, interesting questions! I love digging deep like this.
AUTHORLINK: It’s been our pleasure.
About the Author: Beatriz Williams is the New York Times, USA Today, and internationally bestselling author of The Summer Wives, The Secret Life of Violet Grant, A Hundred Summers, A Certain Age, and several other works of historical fiction. A graduate of Stanford University with an MBA in Finance from Columbia University, Beatriz worked as a communications and corporate strategy consultant in New York and London before she turned her attention to writing novels that combine her passion for history with an obsessive devotion to voice and characterization. Beatriz’s books have won numerous awards, have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and appear regularly in bestseller lists around the world.
Born in Seattle, Washington, Beatriz now lives near the Connecticut shore with her husband and four children, where she divides her time between writing and laundry.