Skip to main content

Interview: June 5, 2014

The award-winning author of the New York Times bestselling Pink Carnation series, Lauren Willig is no stranger to historical fiction. Her latest novel, THAT SUMMER, is set in both present-day England and the 1800s --- the early days of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, as well as a century she never planned on visiting. Lucky for us that she did, because it’s a story that takes readers on a fascinating journey through a mysterious old house, a hidden love affair, and one woman’s search for the truth about her past --- and herself.

In this interview with’s Bronwyn Miller, Willig talks about what drew her to the radical Pre-Raphaelites and their movement (which she feels isn’t taken as seriously as it should be), finally yielding to her longtime obsession with “house books,” and which novels influenced THAT SUMMER. On a more personal note, she opens up about how her then-impending motherhood seeped into the story and how she manages to keep track of her many simultaneous projects and her own name (or not!). THAT SUMMER takes place during two time periods: mid-century 1800s and 2009. How did you decide on which time periods to write about?

Lauren Willig: I never meant to write a story set during the heart of the Victorian era. In fact, I’d happily skipped over the 19th century, going straight from my Napoleonic Pink Carnation series to a novel set during the Roaring Twenties (THE ASHFORD AFFAIR). But when my editor asked me what I was thinking of writing next, the idea popped into my head full-blown, and I babbled out, “What do you think about a book about a Victorian matron who has an affair with a Pre-Raphaelite artist?” Usually, I can tell you what sparked a book idea, what the exact catalyst was. Not this time. It all happened in the blink of a telephone call.

Of course, it wasn’t quite so out of the blue as that. As a preteen, I wallowed in Victoria Holt and her imitators; I yearned for a crinoline and parasol, for gentlemen who bowed over my hand and were rebuffed with a slap and indignant “Sir!” when they presumed to take liberties. As a teenager, I abandoned the yen for a hoopskirt, but I mooned around the Pre-Raphaelites in the Metropolitan Museum and memorized Tennyson’s LADY OF SHALOTT. So, in many ways, THAT SUMMER was a long time coming.

On the modern end, THAT SUMMER fulfilled another longtime love: What I refer to as “house” books, in short, any book in which the heroine inherits, house-sits or otherwise inhabits a draughty old mansion (preferably in England) filled with the miscellany of centuries, family secrets, cobwebs and a brooding male somewhere on the premises. I grew up on those books, on Barbara Michaels and Elsie Lee, and I have always wanted --- if I couldn’t actually inherit an old house filled with mysteries --- to write a book in which someone else does. THAT SUMMER is that book. My modern heroine, Julia, is coming off a bad patch. She’s lost her job in the recession, she’s not sure what she wants to do or be, when she hears that she’s inherited her great-aunt’s house in a suburb of London. Creating that house and its history was an exercise in wish fulfillment. I had such fun exploring it with Julia as she figured out its secrets --- and I hope readers will, too!

BRC: What are the challenges of telling a story in two different eras?

LW: The easy bit was keeping the voices distinct. I find that the time period infuses the tone. When I wrote THE ASHFORD AFFAIR, which goes back and forth between the 1920s and 1999, I found myself channeling Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford the second I was in that historical viewpoint. The same thing happened with THAT SUMMER. The mid-Victorians have such a distinctive sensibility (I say sensibility because it goes deeper than mere word choice or cadence; it’s the way their world view influences their speech), so there was never any danger of mistaking my modern heroine, Julia, for my historical heroine, Imogen. Of course, this meant that I would emerge from a day working on an Imogen chapter sounding like an extra from JANE EYRE, but, mercifully, my husband is accustomed to that sort of thing by now. (He put up with a full nine months of my sounding like a cross between Bertie Wooster and Lord Peter Wimsey while I was working on ASHFORD, so the Victorians must have been a welcome change.)

The hardest bit was keeping the pacing right, making sure the two stories mesh and twine so that each informs the other without stealing the spotlight. You always want to provide enough of each storyline that the reader feels invested without spending so long on it that by the time you get back to the other, the reader is asking, “Who is that person again?” It’s a juggling act, but it’s one I love. Especially since it means that whenever I find myself getting stuck on or frustrated with one storyline, I can go and recharge with the other. 

BRC: Did you know much about the Pre-Raphaelites before embarking on this novel?

LW: Does having their posters on my dorm room wall in college count?

I’ve always had a layman’s love of the Pre-Raphaelites. In Upper School, my two best friends and I plastered the covers of our binders with Millais’s Ophelia and Dicksee’s Belle Dame Sans Merci, recited Rossetti poems to one another, and haunted the Burne-Jones exhibit at the Met. I still have the memorial trivet.

Other than that…I’d been dragged by my grandmother, as an 11-year-old, to an off-off Broadway play about the Ruskin/Millais love triangle. And, like many impressionable teenagers, I found Dante Gabriel Rossetti terribly romantic without knowing anything about him beyond his doomed romance with Lizzy Siddell. And that’s the sum total of it.

When I began researching the Pre-Raphaelites for this book, I was amazed by what I found. Not the romantic legend, but real, flawed people. I’d bought into the myth that they were the artistic equivalent of Byron, puffy shirts open at the neck, wavy locks flowing, mad, bad and dangerous to know, when, in fact, they were both more complicated and more interesting than that. Rossetti had the flowing locks --- and they all had complex love lives --- but those love lives were played out against a background of evangelical religion and stern mid-Victorian mores. They might have painted daring pictures of women in form-hugging gowns, but they were as hung up as anyone else on the “Angel of the Hearth” ideal of the pure and virtuous woman, which made them all deeply conflicted, confused and tormented --- as a good artist ought to be.

Artistically, I’d never realized just how radical they were. When I was in college, it was bad form to pay serious attention to the Pre-Raphs. They were, as my characters discuss in the book, dorm room and postcard art, slick and pretty pictures, not to be taken seriously. But, at the time, in 1849, when my story is set, what they were doing was daring and new, and it created a huge stir, not just in the artistic community, but wherever the engravings of their paintings were sold. There was also a populist angle to it all. The Pre-Raphaelites come together and dream up their manifesto in the same year that the Chartists, a grass roots political movement, are marching on London, the same year that European capitals are trembling with the force of revolution after revolution. The Pre-Raphaelites abandoned the rules laid down by the Academy --- and, in doing so, they created something immensely popular.

Just how popular they were was another shock to me. In a time before the Internet and television, art was big business. When you look at the numbers of people who attended the Royal Academy Show in its first week in 1849, it’s akin to the box office numbers for blockbusters like The Hunger Games or Iron Man. Think the most successful movie week ever, and that was the Royal Academy Show. And it wasn’t just the elite. These were normal people who forked over the price of admission and then, if they could afford it, bought the engravings of the more popular paintings.  Those images made their way all over England, selling in the tens of thousands. 

Pretty amazing, no?

One last thing, and then I promise I’ll stop babbling on about the Pre-Raphaelites. The final thing that really caught my attention --- and informed the plot of THAT SUMMER --- was just how touch and go those first years were for the Pre-Raphs. The original Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood had a rocky time of it. Rossetti nearly threw in painting to become a poet; another one of the founding Pre-Raphs, James Collinson, dropped out in 1850 and entered a Jesuit seminary. (Never heard of him? There’s a reason for that!) Another founder, Thomas Woolner, went broke and emigrated to Australia in 1852. William Holman Hunt, one of the most famous of the Pre-Raphs, gloomily considered throwing it all in for sheep farming. We know that the Pre-Raphaelites took off eventually, shaping mid-Victorian sensibility and enjoying an enduring popularity throughout the rest of the era, but, in 1849, when my story is set, they were all still young, hungry and on the fringes, most of them skirting the edge of insolvency, posing for one another’s paintings because they couldn’t afford to pay models. It was that air of striving and uncertainty, excitement and trepidation that I wanted to catch in THAT SUMMER. 

Little did they know…

BRC: Are you a lover of art history? Did this impact your interest in writing a book that has art history elements at its heart?

LW: I’ve always been fascinated by art for what it can tell us about the time in which it was painted. In college, I was a Renaissance Studies major, a hodge-podge of history, literature, philosophy and art history. One of my favorite bits was “decoding” the paintings of the time, spooling out the meanings behind the hidden symbols in the pictures, the little in-jokes put in by the artist, the balance between the wishes of the patron and the vision of the painter. My experience in those art history classes undoubtedly informed the art historical elements in this book, particularly the creation of the “lost” Pre-Raphaelite oeuvre of my make believe Pre-Raphaelite artist, Gavin Thorne.

I’m very aware, though, that when I look at art, I’m coming to it as an interested outsider, rather than as an art historian. My college roommate, who is one of my closest friends and the first reader for each of my books, is a real life, bona fide, PhD-bearing, tenure-possessing art historian. So I would like to make clear that all art historical errors in this book are entirely my own!

BRC: What led you to include real figures from history, such as John Ruskin and Dante Gabriel Rossetti?

LW: Real characters have a tendency to find their way into my books. Or maybe it’s the other way around: My characters have a way of plonking themselves down into the historical narrative. My first book featured Napoleon and Josephine; later books snuck in characters like George III and Jane Austen, as well as more obscure personages. I’d say it’s a combo of two things. (Doesn’t everything sound more scholarly and official when one numbers one’s points?) First, there are so many fascinating and quirky characters out there. Real people. The sort of people one couldn’t make up, because if one did, people would say they were too preposterous to be true. Both Rossetti and Ruskin fall into that category, of people I couldn’t invent if I tried. How could I resist getting to play with them? Second, they were so very much a part of the scene. I couldn’t possibly write a novel about the early Pre-Raphaelites without having Rossetti and Ruskin make cameos. They situate the story in its place and time, and anchor my imaginary characters into their real-life landscape. 

Also, did I mention that they were just too much fun to leave out?

BRC: Was the character of Gavin Thorne based on a real artist of the time?

LW: Like most of my fictional characters, Gavin Thorne is something of a mish-mash. One of the great scandals of the time was the love affair between the Pre-Raphaelite founder, John Everett Millais, and the neglected wife of their patron and most influential critic, John Ruskin. I won’t deny that I had Millais’s romance with Effie on the brain when Gavin Thorne comes to call at the house on Herne Hill and first meets Imogen Grantham. Arthur Grantham, Imogen’s husband, owes one or two character quirks to the idiosyncratic John Ruskin. (Let’s not get started on John Ruskin’s obsession with much younger women.) 

That being said, of the early Pre-Raphaelites, I was most influenced by William Holman Hunt when writing Gavin Thorne. Unlike Millais and Rossetti, both of whom had considerable familial support, financial (Millais) and otherwise (Rossetti), Hunt came from a lower middle class background and worked as a clerk before entering the Royal Academy, and faced considerable paternal opposition in so doing. He was older than the other two, and far more serious. Both Hunt and my Thorne are more taciturn than the charming Millais and flamboyant Rossetti.

There, however, the resemblance between Hunt and Thorne ends. My Thorne comes from an even rougher background than Hunt, which is where the novels of Elizabeth Gaskell come in. Hunt was raised lower middle class in London; my Thorne is raised on the mean streets of Manchester, in a slimy basement hovel, in a degree of poverty we can’t even begin to imagine. (But which was detailed very effectively by Elizabeth Gaskell in her 1848 novel, MARY BARTON.) I relied heavily on Gaskell’s novels in my depiction of Gavin Thorne. 

While we’re talking about Gaskell, I do have to confess that Thorne may have been inspired just a bit by Richard Armitage’s portrayal of John Thornton in the BBC version of North & South

BRC: One of Julia’s college art history professors had remarked, “The past is a distant country.” Did you intend for this statement to serve as a sort of theme for the novel?

LW: Oh, goodness, this reminds me of those college essay questions where the answer was always, “Yes and no,” and then one would proceed to argue both sides over the space of two hours and three blue books. I’d say that the past being another country is, over the course of the novel, exposed as a fundamental fallacy. Julia has grown up believing that she can distance herself from her past; over the course of her summer in England, she discovers just how much she is molded, not only by her own past, but by her parents and their parents. In fact, I’d say the bottom line for Julia is that ignorance of the past doesn’t stop it affecting the present --- and it’s only when she comes to terms with her past and acknowledges that that she finds herself able to move forward. 

BRC: Even though she’s not present as a character, Julia’s mother looms large over this story. Did you intend for it to be a mother/daughter story?

LW: Oddly enough, I’d intended for this to be a father/daughter story! I’d just finished writing THE ASHFORD AFFAIR, which was very much about mothers and daughters, their struggles, their tensions, their conflicting and overlapping ambitions. Been there, done that, as they say. I’d tackled mothers; the logical next step was fathers. When I sat down to write THAT SUMMER, I really thought that the underlying theme was going to be fathers and daughters: Julia is simultaneously very like her father and very distant from him; Imogen is driven, in many ways, by an attempt to replicate the life she lived with her father. 

As I wrote it, though, I realized that the driving force wasn’t the fathers in the book, but the absent mothers. Both Nick and Julia have been shaped by the loss of their mothers at an early age: In Nick’s case, by divorce; in Julia’s case, by death. My historical heroine, Imogen, also lost her mother at an early age, another strong missing presence in the novel, and she herself fills in, or tries to, for the missing mother of her husband’s motherless daughter. In the end, this became less a father/daughter novel and more a (missing) mother/daughter novel.

I was expecting my own first child ---a daughter --- as I wrote this book, so maybe just a little bit of that preoccupation seeped into the text. 

BRC: How much research do you typically undertake for each book? How long did it take to research and write THAT SUMMER?

LW: I always like to do a few months of heavy-duty research before I start writing so that the historical material can seep in and infuse the story. During that stage, I do nothing but read everything I can get my hands on written during or about the time period. In the case of THAT SUMMER, I had a particularly rich source base. There were monographs about life in Victorian London, social histories, biographies, letter collections (those Pre-Raphaelites certainly knew how to put pen to paper!), poetry and, best of all, novels. JANE EYRE and AGNES GREY were first published in 1847; Anne Bronte’s THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL and Elizabeth Gaskell’s MARY BARTON in 1848. Reading what my heroine would have written provided an excellent touchstone for both the diction and the mores of the time --- and, of course, gave me a good excuse to re-read JANE EYRE. 

All told, I spent about a year on THAT SUMMER, starting with prowling around Herne Hill and mooning over Pre-Raphaelites at the Tate in early July of 2012 and ending with handing in the final revisions in early July of 2013.

BRC: How did writing this book differ from writing the Pink Carnation series or your last novel, THE ASHFORD AFFAIR? Which book proved the most challenging?

LW: Every book has its own challenges, but…I won’t lie to you. This book was tough. Capital T tough. To the point where I nearly called my editor and asked, “Remember that Victorian book? Um, can we just skip over that and move on to the next one?” (But I didn’t. Because I’ve been doing this long enough to recognize that at some point I feel that way about every book. And, also, I’d done my research already and it seemed like a waste just to throw it all out.) 

With THE ASHFORD AFFAIR, I’d had the most trouble with my modern heroine, Clemmie. We’re very, very different sorts of people, so there were times when I found her a little trying, a little hard to understand. With THAT SUMMER, I had a ball with my modern heroine Julia (admittedly, it may not always have been as much fun for Julia, given all the stuff she had to work out, but I had a great time writing her through her emotional trauma), but my historical heroine, Imogen, drove me nuts. I wrote her. And I re-wrote her. And I tore up her chapters and wrote her yet again. I have never spent this long on revisions for any book, or revised quite this extensively. It took the combined efforts of both my editor and my little sister before I was able to unpick what it was that really made Imogen tick --- and then the historical story finally came together for me. 

(I would like to point out that none of this was Gavin Thorne’s fault. He behaved beautifully from the get go. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he looked like Richard Armitage.)

BRC: I understand there’s a Pink Carnation connection to one of the characters in THAT SUMMER. Can you expand on that?

LW: Although THAT SUMMER is a stand-alone, I couldn’t resist sneaking in the descendant of two of my more popular Pink Carnation characters. Nicholas Dorrington, the modern hero of THAT SUMMER, is a direct descendant of Miles and Henrietta Dorrington of THE MASQUE OF THE BLACK TULIP. In writing Nicholas Dorrington, I wanted to create a character who could stand on his own for new readers, but would also contain special meaning for my Pink Carnation readers. Like his ancestor, his hair tends to flop and he has a decided taste for ginger biscuits. Through Nick, we also get a little window into what befell the Dorringtons over the course of the 20th century. 

Nick isn’t my only crossover. I also snuck a Pink descendant, Val Vaughn, into THE ASHFORD AFFAIR. I’ve always loved books that reference other fictional characters. (I was over the moon when Clare and Jamie Fraser earned a mention in Sara Donati’s INTO THE WILDNESS, and ridiculously excited to find Lord Peter Wimsey tucked into a Laurie King novel.) What makes it so magical is the illusion of verisimilitude that it provides, that these characters aren’t just tucked away into their own novels, confined within those two covers, but imbedded in the fabric of their time, as if they were real people. It thrills me that one might run across Sir Percy Blakeney in revolutionary Paris or doff a hat to Miss Anne Elliott in the Pump Room in Bath. That’s the effect I was going for by slipping a Pink descendant into THAT SUMMER: providing a sense of realism by weaving families and characters across stories.

There’s another cross-fictional excursion in THAT SUMMER. My heroine, Julia, gets laid off from her job at an investment bank, Sterling Bates. I couldn’t use a real one, so I borrowed one from my good friend, Beatriz Williams, whose heroine is employed there in her debut novel, OVERSEAS.

BRC: Did you always know where you wanted the story to go, or did it come about organically through the writing process?

LW: THAT SUMMER was an unusual book for me in many ways. I’m generally what’s known in writing circles as a “pantser,” i.e. someone who writes by the seat of her pants. I start out with a central image or idea and then breathlessly chase after my characters as they charge along --- or sometimes amble along, or even stall out entirely, depending on the day and my level of caffeination. 

With THAT SUMMER, I saw the whole thing laid out before me like a painting. Usually, I imagine my writing process as a rollercoaster poised to plunge into a long, dark tunnel, out of which I will eventually emerge in the sunlight. Perhaps it was the Pre-Raphaelite angle informing my writing process, but I pictured this story as one of the Pre-Raph’s story cycles, a series of static images in which the entire plot was laid out piece by piece and gesture by gesture, and it was my job to take those flat images and turn them into speaking, living flesh and blood. Instead of fighting my way to the ending, I knew what the ending was going to be --- but the challenge was figuring out why my characters were doing what they were doing, rounding them out and making them real. 

BRC: What would you like readers to take away from THAT SUMMER?

LW: That’s tough. I’ve always lived by that well-worn Emerson line, the one about there being creative reading as well as creative writing. I hope that every reader will get something a little different out of THAT SUMMER, based on their own experience reading the book. I feel strongly that once the book is out of my hands and on the shelves, the author’s intentions cease to matter, and the relationship between the reader and the characters takes over. Otherwise, I’m doing my job wrong! 

BRC: You graduated from Yale, received a graduate degree in English history from Harvard and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. How has your education informed your writing?

LW: Well, there were all those Pre-Raphaelite posters I bought at the Yale Co-op that first week freshman year! I wrote all my freshman English papers under the half-closed eyes of Waterhouse’s My Sweet Rose and went to bed beneath the frantically waving arms of Dickee’s knight at arms, palely loitering. As a personal note, I’m writing this just as I’m about to head off to Yale for my --- gulp --- 15-year college reunion. So there is very much a feeling of coming full circle when I think of those early days of decorating my room with Waterhouse, Millais and Burne-Jones.

More to the point, I owe a large debt of gratitude to my Modern Britain field advisor in grad school, for putting me through my paces when it came to the 19th century. At the time, I held stubbornly to the view that nothing interesting happened after 1815 (my PhD was to be in Tudor/Stuart England, with a focus on the English Civil War in the mid-17th century) --- but I had to do a Modern Britain field as part of my degree, and no amount of wheedling or foot dragging would convince my field advisor that, really, the 18th century counted as modern enough. Susan Pedersen dragged me through mid-Victorian political movements and social history, monograph by monograph, dusty library book by dusty library book. And I’m so very grateful that she did, because that provided me a base from which to begin researching THAT SUMMER, and a sense of the mid-Victorian mentality and background that I wouldn’t otherwise have had. I feel so very fortunate to have had such conscientious training from such a talented historian.

In the category of “things you never knew would come in handy,” I also participated in a summer-long Mellon forum (basically, a symposium for grad students) along with an art historian who was working on a dissertation about 19th-century collectors of medieval art. Her presentations about these Victorian collectors very much influenced my portrayal of Imogen’s husband, Arthur.

BRC: Apart from the extensive research, what’s your writing routine like?

LW: Mostly, it involves caffeine. THAT SUMMER was a challenge for me, since I was great with child, and, as a consequence of that, caffeine-less. Mercifully, I discovered that Starbucks makes a drink called a steamer, composed of milk and a great deal of very sugary syrup, so I was able to waddle off to my usual Starbucks around 10 in the morning, as I generally do, and sit there with my milky, sugary concoction at my favorite seat in the corner by the electrical outlet as I typed away at Imogen’s and Julia’s stories. The staff there knows me by now (I’ve written four books at this same Starbucks), and they cheer me on, and ask me if I need refills, which is always a warm and fuzzy feeling.     

BRC: This summer, you are launching this new novel and another in the Pink Carnation series in August. Do you find this daunting or exhilarating?

LW: Exhilarating, if, occasionally, a little scatterbrained-making. THAT SUMMER comes out on June 3rd and THE MARK OF THE MIDNIGHT MANZANILLA on August 5th, so there are times when I forget which book I’m meant to be speaking about with whom. Although I realize I have it fairly easy, since all of my books are written under my own name. I have friends who write different books under different names --- and then have to remember who they’re meant to be at any given moment! 

To make matters even more complicated, I am also, in addition to the book launches, working on my next stand-alone novel and conducting some preliminary research for the 12th (and final!) Pink book, as well as collaborating with two other authors on a secret project, which will be revealed very shortly. So I’m essentially zigzagging among five different books, which, at times, can be a bit muddling. But exciting! 

Just don’t ask me to remember my own name from day to day. Or where I left the baby.

BRC: You are currently working on your next novel, your third stand-alone. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

LW: I’ve gone forward a bit in time for this next one! The third stand-alone (still untitled) is set during the heyday of the Bright Young Things in 1927 London. When her mother dies, Rachel Woodley stumbles upon a scrapbook filled with clippings about the Earl of Ardmore --- who looks eerily like the father she believed died when she was a small child. In the space of a moment, Rachel learns that nothing about her past was really what it seemed. Her father has another, official family and, even worse, another daughter. With the help of the inscrutable and infuriating man about town, Simon Montfort, Rachel goes undercover into the world of the Bright Young Things, in an attempt to discover the truth about her family --- and herself.

This is my 14th book, but the very first one I’ve written without a double timeline. I’ll let you know how that goes!