Lauren Willig Interview

Willig discusses her newest Pink Carnation novel "The Orchid Affair," her law degree and which of her characters she'd most like to flirt with.

You called this your “Sound of Music” novel because it is about a governess. How aware were you of other governess/nanny tales when you wrote Laura and did it change how you shaped her?

I grew up in the heyday of the gothic novel, when it was impossible to pass a bookstore without bumping into a scantily clad governess cowering at the edge of a cliff, chased by a hero in a top hat. I reveled in Victoria Holt, Phyllis A. Whitney, Barbara Michaels and Mary Stewart. Nine Coaches Waiting is still one of my all time favorite novels. (It was re-read many times in preparation for Orchid Affair!) The governess trope was one that was familiar to me and dear to my heart—and I didn’t want Laura to be anything like them.

In the classic governess model, aka The Sound of Music Rules, the heroine is a child person. She likes children. She particularly likes these children. She goes all warm and fuzzy about them. That’s not Laura. Laura is a governess by necessity. It’s not that she dislikes children, per se, but they’re her job, and not something about which she gets all sentimental. She’s a practical person with a clear view of character and that makes her a rather good governess; she doesn’t coddle or cosset her charges, but she’s very good at ferreting out the most efficient way of getting them to do what she wants them to do.

Likewise, your classic governess (at least, the sort who winds up with the brooding hero) tends to be young and a little bit uncertain. My governess is thirty-two and she’s been governessing for sixteen years. She knows exactly what she’s doing—except when it comes to spying. And Andre Jaouen.

That being said, there were some governess tropes that simply had to be included in the book. Any governess book worth its salt has to have (a) a scene where the heroine takes the hero to task for his housekeeping arrangements, and (b) a scene where the governess attends a party wearing a dowdy dress and feeling awkward. There was no way I was writing a governess book without them…. But, Laura being Laura, she adds her own unique twist to both.

Laura is, as you pointed out, much older than the rest of your heroines. Did you worry that she would be received differently by your readers?

The short answer to that is yes. And by yes, I mean YES. I was worried about this book on a number of levels. Not only is Laura older than most of my heroines, she’s also the first to be a real working girl. She’s not a member of society; she’s not a lady of leisure; she’s entirely separate from the social world and preoccupations of my earlier characters. She’s not even a duke’s daughter fallen on hard times; she’s the half-Italian, half-French child of a Venetian poetess and a French sculptor, stranded in England at the age of sixteen.

In fact, I was so nervous about this book—and how my unusual hero and heroine might be received—that, in a fit of cold feet, I put it off and wrote another book instead, the much more lighthearted Mischief of the Mistletoe, which came out this past Christmas. But Orchid was sitting there waiting for me. I went back to it after I wrote Mistletoe, although still with serious misgivings—and was absolutely flabbergasted by how positive the reaction to both Laura and Andre has been so far.

It’s a valuable lesson in trusting to the stories you want to tell and not letting yourself (okay, myself) be scared off by the perceived conventions of the market. As for older heroines, I have another one I want to write about, even older than Laura: Miss Gwendolyn Meadows! (And her exceedingly pointy parasol.)

You have a very strong sense of what a woman will relate to and find humorous. For instance, when Eloise is unpacking in her Paris hotel, she muses "Fortunately cocktail dresses pack small. So does the aspirational lingerie that one buys in the hopes of things like romantic weekends in Paris, that then generally sits in the back of the drawer, gently yellowing." Nearly all women will read this and chuckles to themselves. How did you develop this voice?

I’d love to pretend I did it deliberately, but—it’s really just the way I think. And talk. I’ve been told that reading my books is a bit like being stuck next to me at a dinner party, only I get to do both sides of the conversation.

I’d say that my particular narrative voice came of a youth spent watching British comedies (oh, Blackadder, I owe you so much!) and reading pretty much everything that crossed my path. The writer who made the deepest impression on me stylistically was Elizabeth Peters. My modern heroine, Eloise, owes a lot to Peters’ Vicky Bliss.

Laura is very aware of her ineptitudes as a spy and laughs at herself as she completes her stealth assignments. How do you approach each character's attitude to her clandestine life?

Part of what draws me to fiction—and what I love about writing this series—is a fascination with character. What is it that makes people tick? Why will one person react one way while the another has the opposite reaction? The secret spy world of the Pink Carnation makes a great touchstone for drawing out character. It’s such a bizarre thing when you think about it, the very idea of abandoning your identity, going undercover, not knowing who you can trust or what you can believe when you yourself are no longer to be believed or trusted.

All of my characters have taken very differently to that, based on their own natures. The heroine of my first book, Amy, leapt at it, not factoring in potential consequences; others are incredulous; some try to game it for their own ends (Mary Alsworthy, I’m looking at you). Laura treats espionage as a job, much as she did governessing. She’s both conscientious and honest, which means that she’s intent on getting it right (no matter what else, she prides herself on her competence), but is very aware of her own inadequacies and the gaps in her training.

It’s an interesting question: how would you react to the offer of a chance at espionage?

You have a secondary degree, a JD from Harvard Law School, yet you write historical fiction. Was law your first interest or was it writing? How often do you find your law degree applicable to your writing?  

By a strange quirk of Fate, I received my first book contract my first month of law school. I was one of those irritating people who knew by the age of six that I wanted to be an author. By the time I hit college, I realized that I wanted to write historical fiction, and, instead of focusing on writing classes, it might make sense to take lots of history and literature so that I would have something to write about. To that end, I toddled off to Harvard for a PhD in English history and couldn’t figure out why people kept laughing when I told them it was for the purpose of writing more accurate historical fiction.

While in grad school, I learned a couple of hard truths. One was that academic history isn’t best suited to writing fiction. The second was that the professorial job market was nearly as difficult as making a living as a novelist. At twenty-six, I decided to do the practical thing. I would switch to law school, the last refuge of the liberal arts major, and always be assured of a roof over my head.

And that’s when I got my book contract, for The Secret History of the Pink Carnation and its sequel, The Masque of the Black Tulip. Since I was already in Harvard Law, it made sense to stick it out, so I wrote three more books, graduated magna cum laude, and then went off to a large New York law firm where I practiced as a litigator for a year and a half before deciding that I could be a novelist or a lawyer but not both at once. Guess which one won?

Since I don’t write legal thrillers, it’s hard to find the ways in which my legal degree is applicable to my novels but I’d argue that it comes through in a larger world view. Law school is less about the learning of particular precepts and more about shaping the way one thinks—and that definitely comes through in my books.

You have such an in-depth and wide reaching knowledge about this era, and the "celebrities" in it. How did you decide to write about this time and where did this love of the it come from?

You can blame it on two very different causes: 80’s TV mini-series and my dissertation. When I was ten, one of those wonderfully over the top mini-series about Napoleon and Josephine came on TV, heavy on the love affair, light on darker realities. I was hooked. I badgered everyone in the vicinity for books about the Bonapartes. I went through other historical obsessions in the years that followed, but the Bonapartes always stayed with me, so much so that I wrote a novel about Napoleon’s stepdaughter, Hortense de Beauharnais, my senior year of high school. (I just got to visit with Hortense again as I was writing Pink IX, since she’s best friends with that heroine. When you’re a writer, nothing ever really gets left behind….)

I abandoned the Bonapartes as I shifted backwards in time, studying the Renaissance in college (doesn’t everyone love Renaissance Scotland?) before moving on to Tudor/Stuart history for my PhD. I started writing the first Pink book at the end of my second year of grad school, just to keep myself from thinking in footnotes. I wanted to remind myself of what it was that I loved about history—and how better to do that than to write a novel of swashbuckling derring do? I couldn’t set it in the English Civil War, since that was my dissertation topic and felt way too much like work, so I fell back on my old friends, the Bonapartes. And thus the Pink series was born… and I learned far more about the early nineteenth century than I ever imagined I would, from Irish rebellions to English society matrons to mad Indian rulers. 1803 and 1804 were very busy years….

You traveled to France in November to research for this piece. How did your experience there weave into Laura's and Eloise's perception of the country?

I had a dual mission in France. I wanted to scout out the modern city, to see what Eloise would have seen and experienced (and eaten; eating what Eloise would eat was a very important part of my mission. When researching a book, no sacrifice is too great, even when it comes to flaky pastries and marzipan pigs). I also needed to research the historical conspiracy she would have been researching, a plot to assassinate (or kidnap—the conspirators and the Ministry of Police had a polite disagreement as to which it was) the First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte, replacing him with a member of the royal family.

Both Eloise and I needed documents currently housed in the Musee de la Prefecture de Police, which I assumed was going to be one of those cute little townhouse museums with mannequins in period costume. Er, no. It turned out that the museum was housed inside the police station. I figured that out the hard way—and because I did, so did Eloise and Colin. You just can’t plan things like that….

You briefly spoke about your next Pink Carnation novel "Pink Nine." What can you tell us about this next installment? When is it expected to be out?

Pink IX, coming out in January 2012, features that ridiculous poet, Augustus Whittlesby. Like Orchid Affair, Pink IX takes place entirely in France. As Napoleon pursues his plans for the invasion of England, English operative Augustus Whittlesby gets wind of a top secret device, to be demonstrated over the course of a house party at Malmaison. The catch? The only way in is to join forces with that annoying American socialite, Emma Morris Delagardie, who has been commissioned to write a masque for the weekend’s entertainment. Even so, it should leave plenty of alone time with Augustus’ colleague (and goddess), Jane Wooliston, who has been tapped to play the heroine. Or so Augustus tells himself. In this complicated masque within a masque, nothing seems to go quite as scripted… especially Emma.

Of all your characters, who is your favorite? Why?

It’s so hard to choose! I like different characters for different reasons.

Character I’d most like to hang out with? Henrietta, the heroine of The Masque of the Black Tulip. Hen is the girl next door, everyone’s best friend, a thoroughly grounded, down to earth sort of person who values who friends and likes her family.

Character I’d most like to flirt with? Lord Vaughn, from The Seduction of the Crimson Rose. An jaded rake who’s seen and done it all, Vaughn is a master of the triple entendre. He exudes innuendo, even when he hasn’t actually said anything yet. You just know he’s thinking it. Vaughn isn’t a make-believe rogue, he’s the real thing, urbane and dangerous.

Character whose books I’d want to borrow? Charlotte, from The Temptation of the Night Jasmine. She’s my sort of bookworm.

And, then, of course, there’s Turnip Fitzhugh, from The Mischief of the Mistletoe. I don’t know about you, but I just want to give Turnip a hug.

Character I’d least want to run into in a dark alley? Er, that would be a toss-up between the Dowager Duchess of Dovedale and Miss Gwen.

What has your experience as a full-time writer been? What advice or recommendations would you have to other writers?

I’ve been a full time writer for—eek!—three full years now and I still feel like I’m just getting the hang of it. It’s a far more varied job than I would ever have imagined. In fact, I’d say calling it full time writer is a bit of a misnomer, since I spend a large chunk of my time in non-writing activities: going to conferences, traveling around on book tour, updating the website, researching, mailing packages, corresponding with readers, even designing Pink Carnation paraphernalia for a Pink shop on CafĂ© Press (all proceeds go to breast cancer research—it seemed appropriate to have Pink for Pink). Back in my youth, when I daydreamed about being a novelist, I never imagined the sheer variety of tasks that would go into it, or that I would find myself learning about publicity, marketing, and graphic design in addition to character, viewpoint, and pacing.
     As for advice….

(1) Read. Read lots. Read in all sorts of styles and genres. We can’t write if we don’t read.

(2) Don’t let yourself be put off by the conventional wisdom, whatever that conventional wisdom might be. People say all sorts of silly things. I was told you couldn’t set a book in France. And that my “voice” was inappropriate for historical fiction. Hmm. Write the story you want to write the way you want to write—these are your characters and you’re going to be living with them for a very long time. And if you don’t love them, who will? Readers can tell when you’re faking it.

(3) There will be rejection. It’s a tough industry. People have different tastes. Believe in yourself and your talent, but also be prepared to be flexible and retool when necessary.

(4) Don’t leave your day job—right away. Having another source of income gives you the freedom to take risks with your writing that you might not otherwise. It also cuts down on the incidence of writer’s block. It’s hard to be blocked when you know every writing moment counts.

(5) Have fun! There’s something magical about telling a story, about watching a world develop before your eyes, spooling out on the computer screen in front of you, taking twists and turns you might never have imagined. Revel in it!

For more information on the Pink Carnation series go to, where news updates occur weekly on Teaser Tuesdays, or her Facebook author page.

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