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Interview: July 10, 2018

Beatriz Williams explores a new branch of the Schuyler family tree in her latest novel, THE SUMMER WIVES, which follows the triumphs and misfortunes of the inhabitants of a small island off the coast of New England --- including an actress returning after several years with her own secrets in tow, her ebullient stepsister and a local fisherman loved by both. In this interview, conducted by’s Bronwyn Miller, Williams talks about her inspiration for choosing a fictionalized version of Fishers Island as the book’s setting, how her collaborations with fellow bestselling authors Lauren Willig and Karen White came about (their next joint effort, THE GLASS OCEAN, releases on September 4th), and why she enjoys book tours so much. THE SUMMER WIVES is a follow-up to your Schuyler Sisters trilogy. Why did you decide to extend the series and revisit this family?

Beatriz Williams: While the Schuyler Sisters books do form a loose trilogy, almost all of my novels connect to my fictional Schuyler family in some way --- it’s what the Marvel people call a “shared universe,” and Trollope was already doing it 150 years ago! I think having characters who spill over from book to book helps create a sense of tactility in a fictional world, a feeling that there’s this alternative dimension in which these characters and places really do exist.

In THE SUMMER WIVES, I’m exploring a branch of the family tree that’s existed in my head ever since I gave Violet Grant a couple of older brothers, but these are Schuylers we’ve never met before and I’ve enjoyed starting from scratch with some minor cousins who don’t (at least initially) breathe the rarefied social air that the main branch of the family does. Of course, this also opens up possibilities for future books as well. I’m especially intrigued by the offstage character of Miranda’s uncle, who delivers her the news about her father’s death and then goes off to fight in Italy.

BRC: When you first sat down to write THE SECRET LIFE OF VIOLET GRANT, did you have any idea it would be part of an ongoing series?

BW: Certainly not when I first sat down to write, but as soon as Vivian started describing her sister Tiny, I had the feeling I’d just discovered the material for my next book. And I couldn’t leave out the third sister, so I combined Pepper’s story with a long-simmering idea about a vintage Mercedes rediscovered in somebody’s old shed, and ALONG THE INFINITE SEA was born.

BRC: What inspired you to choose a fictionalized version of Fishers Island as the setting for THE SUMMER WIVES? I understand your in-laws informed your research. What insight did they give you?

BW: My husband (a native New Englander) first pointed out the island to me several years ago, as we stood on the shore in southeastern Connecticut, and as an anthropology major, I found myself intrigued by its complex, discreet --- some would say secretive --- and intensely island-like culture. My husband’s cousins descend from one of the Episcopal ministers who tended the island in the summer, and they’ve kept a house there ever since, so I was able to knit together many of their stories and descriptions, which gave me a richer understanding of the island’s rhythms.

From the outset, however, I didn’t want Winthrop Island to be an exact copy of Fishers. I had my own story to tell, my own ideas to communicate, and as a writer, I don’t enjoy the idea of creating characters who are only thinly disguised representations of real people. 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.

BRC: Isobel opines on the small-minded islanders: “You’d think they couldn’t stand all this shallow hypocrisy, after what they’d been through. And yet they embrace it. They want it to stretch on into infinity, never changing, never deviating one square inch from the old, dull, habitual ways. Marrying suitable boys you don’t really love, having children you don’t really want. I tell you, I can’t stand it any longer.” A number of your characters find themselves bristling under the yoke of social norms, or returning home to face the music on transgressions past. What makes these themes so interesting to write about?

BW: Well, as I said before, I majored in anthropology, which is really the study of human beings and all the rules we construct in order to live together and perpetuate. Rules are vital, obviously, if your community of varied individuals is going to cooperate and thrive, but on the other hand, if we hold rules as unbreakable and unchanging, we start to ossify. Innovation is vital to survival, especially as times and conditions change around us. So I’m forever interested in both rules and transgressions, on that constant friction between preservation and renewal, and in the people who make and keep rules and the people who break them. It’s who we are.

BRC: Your historical novels are so keenly observed. How much research do you do for a book? Please tell us you got to spend time on a small, fancy, New England island as part of it.

BW: I’m afraid my ability to research in situ is somewhat limited by the fact that I have four kids and a husband who are already cross at being left behind when I go on book tour! But I do happen to live in a New England shore community --- not an island --- with a significant population of summer and weekend residents, so I’ve developed an instinctive understanding for how that works. THE SUMMER WIVES actually required less research than my books that are more tied to historical events, such as THE WICKED CITY (set in Prohibition New York) or ALONG THE INFINITE SEA (set in 1930s Europe), which is lovely because it gives me extra time to concentrate on the story and characters and prose.

BRC: If you had to pick your favorite period in history, what would it be?

BW: Oh, impossible! I would have to say the entire first half of the 20th century, because it’s just so tumultuous. The world of 1910 was, by 1960, utterly transformed by two world wars, by depression, by revolutions small and large. It’s just an endless fount of inspiration.

BRC: In addition to your historical novels and collections, you have co-written two books with authors Lauren Willig and Karen White (THE FORGOTTEN ROOM and THE GLASS OCEAN, the latter of which is scheduled to be published on September 4th). How did this collaboration come about?

BW: It started out with a period of mutual stalking at writer conventions and author panels. We’d come across each other’s work and felt this kinship, even though Lauren tends to focus on Great Britain and Karen evokes her Southern settings so perfectly, because each of us writes about the tension between past and present, about events and actions echoing down generations. Our admiration soon developed into friendship, and we thought it would be a terrific idea to combine our efforts into a novel with three narratives, braided together. And as a side benefit, we get to go on tour together, which is about as much fun as author girlfriends can possibly have!

BRC: Before becoming a bestselling author, you worked as a communications and corporate strategy consultant in New York and London. At what point did you decide to make the leap from the corporate world to being a full-time author?

BW: It’s really the other way around --- I had always wanted to write books, and my business career was something I did to pay the bills and justify an expensive university education! Of course, along the way I had the opportunity to meet a range of fascinating people, and everything’s fodder for a writer. Once I was home with the kids, though, I knew it was now or never if I wanted to develop the career I really wanted. And even if I crashed and burned, my kids would always need me, so the natural terror of failure receded just enough to allow me through...along with some very hard work.

BRC: Who are some authors who have inspired you? What was the first book that made you think you could be (or had to be) a writer?

BW: That goes back to my childhood. ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, Little House, the Oz Chronicles, the Black Stallion series --- I read them all over and over, and when I wasn’t reading, I was scribbling my own stories. So I can’t pinpoint the moment when I knew I had to write. It’s just always been there, and as I grew up and moved along in the canon of Romantic fiction in high school --- Austen, Burney, Trollope, Orczy, Dumas père and fils --- along with all the Shakespeare and opera to which my parents dragged us, willingly and not, I developed a deep instinct for storytelling, that this was where I had to be. In college, among many other influences, I read Vera Brittain’s First World War memoir, TESTAMENT OF YOUTH, which turned me from 19th-century fiction to the world of the early 20th century, and I’ve been mining that territory ever since.

BRC: In the early stages of your career, did you have someone who was championing your efforts? If you could offer any aspiring writers one piece of valuable advice, what would it be?

BW: I was deeply fortunate that a colleague of my husband was married to an editor at Tor, who kindly sent some of my early efforts to her team for feedback. She gave me encouragement to keep writing and advice about seeking out writers’ groups, and that sent me straight to a conference that empowered me with both invaluable storytelling tools and the idea for my first published novel, OVERSEAS. (Thank you, Kathleen Doherty!) So my advice for aspiring writers, number one, is to read constantly and critically, both within your genre and outside it. Number two, find a way to learn your craft from someone who does it exceptionally well. I take the position that you should never stop learning, you should never feel as if your writing is as good as you can possibly make it.

BRC: Can you tell us a little about your writing process? How much time is spent doing research? Do you storyboard or outline?

BW: It really differs from book to book, depending on subject matter and theme. When I’m writing in collaboration with Karen and Lauren, we outline extensively together, chapter to chapter, so that the finished product makes a cohesive whole that comes from all three of our brains. On my own, I tend to outline in my head, in broad strokes, and then refine as I go along. The amount of research depends on how closely the book is built around actual historical events and persons, because at this point I’m well steeped in the cultural broth of the 20th century.

BRC: You get to reach a lot of avid readers and book clubs through readings, speaking engagements and appearances. Is this a welcome part of the job, a challenge, or both?

BW: I adore the speaking part of the job! As writers, we spend so much time holed up in our caves, and I find it invigorating to go out on the road and meet readers and other authors. I’m so passionate about what I do, and about the historical period in which I’m writing, that I can’t wait to tell people about all the cultural context and the development of the story and characters.

BRC: Can you tell us what you’re working on at the moment?

BW: I’ve just finished up next summer’s book --- as yet untitled --- which is largely set in The Bahamas during the Second World War, when the Duke of Windsor was Governor of the islands. Naturally there were all kinds of shenanigans going on, and the research I did on the Windsors, The Bahamas and the Second World War was voluminous and absolutely absorbing. In fact, my brain is still a little bit stuck in that world, because I found the period and the characters so fascinating.