I was already excited to read Lauren Willig’s next book, The Summer Country, and after this interview, I’m even more excited! Lauren has a wealth of knowledge on history (“Back then, I was a professional historian. Now I think of myself as a practical historian”), wonderful insights on why the historical record can be unkind to women, and a great sense of humor — you won’t want to miss her comparison of a certain British monarch to Winnie the Pooh. Let’s dive in!
Greer: What’s your next book about and when will we see it?
Lauren: For nearly a decade now, I’ve been obsessing over a story I heard on a plantation tour in the Caribbean, about a fire, and a lost child (the “Portuguese ward” of the owner, who, of course, was really neither Portuguese nor his ward, but his child by an enslaved woman), and a mother who’s never mentioned in the story but really ought to be at the heart of it. I talked about it so much that my agent finally said, “Just shut up and write it already.” So I did.
Coming to you in June 2019, The Summer Country is a big, sweeping historical epic set in colonial Barbados, spanning from a rising of enslaved people in 1816 to a cholera epidemic in 1854. I call it my M.M. Kaye meets The Thorn Birds book. (Extra points to anyone who can guess which M.M. Kaye book.)
Greer: Do you consider yourself a historian?
Lauren: I was just re-reading Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night—one of my favorite books of all time—and there’s a line that always goes straight to my heart: “Once I was a scholar.”
There was a time, many a year ago, when I had my own little carrel in Widener Library; when I wrote conference papers with titles that were at least two lines long and always had a colon in the middle; and I could tell you with some certainty exactly where Charles I had been on any given day. (And whether he’d been stuck in a window, and if so, for how long. No, seriously. The misfortunate monarch went full on Winnie the Pooh, only it was a castle window, he was trying to escape Parliamentarian custody, and there were no honey pots involved.)
Back then, I was a professional historian. Now I think of myself as a practical historian. I used to worry about things like the causes of the English Civil Wars. And whether one should properly refer to the conflict as the English Civil War or the English Civil Wars. Now? I worry about what it felt like to live through it. What was it like in London when there was no coal coming in from Newcastle because confused armies were marauding back and forth? (Sometimes accidentally fighting their own side, but that’s a whole other story.) I worry about the details of daily life, about the materials of the clothes people wore—and whether those clothes itched. I worry about the books they read, the songs they sang, the foods they ate, the words they used. The meta questions still interest me, of course. But what I really aim to do now is recreate the experience of someone living through a given time, not debating about it after with all the value of hindsight and an index.
I’ve also broadened my scope dramatically. Back then, one of my favorite scholarly catchphrases was “That’s not my field.” Now I get to roam where I’d like. I’ve written books set in Portugal during the Napoleonic Wars, in Jazz Age Kenya, in Victorian London, and, most recently, in the colonial Caribbean.
Although I’ve been thinking a lot about my scholarly roots recently, and I think it may be time for me to finally tackle the English Civil War once again…. Except this time, with dialogue! (And far fewer footnotes.)
Greer: What do you find most challenging or most exciting about researching historical women?
Lauren: Have you noticed that when people talk about women, they tend to put them into certain very basic buckets? It’s the old maiden-mother-crone problem—or the Madonna/whore problem, if you prefer. Women in history tend to be portrayed as either vamps or doormats. Gossip gets repeated as fact. If you’re an author researching a historical woman, it can be maddening slogging through the misinformation to get to the core of the character.
For a case in point (otherwise known as the opportunity to rant about something that’s been annoying me this week), I’ve just been reading up on Lucy Percy Hay, Countess of Carlisle. If you believe that old gossip the Duc de Rouchefoucauld, she’s the woman who stole the diamond tags Anne of Austria gave to the Duke of Buckingham—and if you think that sounds like a familiar story, it’s because Dumas used it, replacing the Countess of Carlisle with Milady de Winter. Her historical reputation is dodgy, to say the least. She’s portrayed as sexually rapacious, as vain, and venal, and scheming, a spy who spies for the sake of making trouble, a woman who uses men for her own gain. Hmmm. Have we heard that sort of story about an ambitious woman before? Recent attempts to rehabilitate her, though, are just as problematic. One version I read claimed that her husband pimped her out to the Duke of Buckingham (disclaimer: slightly different phrasing may have been used). There are a couple of problems with that. One is that the affair began while her husband was out of the country. The other is that, in trying to clear her of the taint of sexual vixen, it turns her into a victim, a woman acted upon rather than acting. (And, really, let’s be honest, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, was a bit of something back then. You can’t blame Lucy for going there. She was a teenager. Which of us didn’t fall for a handsome face as a teenager?)
For the women whose lives are well-documented, we have to fight through prejudice, misinformation, or mind-numbing hagiography, in which the woman’s life is so white-washed and limned in virtue that you might as well have little birds tweeting on her shoulders like a Disney heroine. And then you get the other end of the spectrum. The women whose lives haven’t been recorded at all. You go to the archives and come away with… nothing. An emptiness where they ought to have been. My most recent book, The Summer Country, is set in colonial Barbados. One of my two heroines is an enslaved woman on a sugar plantation in the early nineteenth century. (She’s that missing mother I was talking about above.) In her book, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive, Marisa J. Fuentes writes feelingly about how you put reconstruct a life from the gaps in the archive. Because we have so painfully little. A woman called Nanny Grigg, one of the (real) instigators of the 1816 rising of enslaved people, is one of the side characters in The Summer Country. Here’s what we know about Nanny Grigg: she worked at Harrow Plantation. She was valued at £130. And that’s it. We have some testimony from her own mouth (to be taken with a grain of salt, of course, given the circumstances), but otherwise that’s the sum total of our information. On the plus side, of the two per cent of the enslaved population on Barbados that was literate, the majority of that two per cent were female. So we do have some primary sources directly penned by women in my heroine’s situation, letters where the voices ring through after all this time.
And that is what’s so exciting about researching and writing historical women. When you manage to dig beneath the verbiage surrounding someone too well known and get a glimpse of the real woman beneath, or when you manage to put the scrap here and scrap here together to reconstruct the world of someone whose life wasn’t recorded (or was only recorded as a financial entry in a ledger book). When you can find the real women despite it all—and bring them back to life on the page—that’s the best.
And now that I’ve babbled on, it’s back over to you, Greer! What’s the first historical fiction novel you remember reading? And did you know then that this was what you wanted to do?
Greer: It’s funny how our paths to historical fiction can be so different, even though we’ve ended up in the same place! In my early teens I roared through my local library’s complete collection of the Wagons West series by Dana Fuller Ross, completely transported to a world where 1830s pioneers braved the numerous dangers of America’s Western frontier, racing to Oregon to start new lives there — or die trying. Considering how much I loved that series, it’s kind of surprising how long it took me to come around to historical fiction as my genre! I actually ended up writing my first historical novel somewhat by accident. Most of my book ideas had been contemporary, but when I got the idea for The Magician’s Lie—we always hear about male stage magicians cutting women in half, but why not a woman cutting a man in half?—I realized I wanted to set it in the golden age of magic. So first I had to figure out when that was, and then find enough details to build out that world. It was a struggle to re-learn writing in that genre — all that research! — but now I love it. And with every book I get deeper into finding those details and using them to build worlds of the past for readers to enter. Historical fiction has such power. If I’m doing my job right, the reader can climb all the way into the world and get lost inside.