Lauren’s latest book, The Temptation of the Night Jasmine, has just been released, and continues the series begun in The Secret History of the Pink Carnation. And it’s also just made the New York Times Extended Bestseller List! WTG, Lauren!
Lauren has a lot of degrees, and if she weren’t such a lovely, funny person, you’d hate her because she is so multi-talented and smart. She’s returned to her native New York, and is writing full-time, having (gladly) given up her her career as a lawyer.
Learn more about Lauren at www.laurenwillig.com.
Q. Tell us about how you came up with this series.
In 2001, I was a second year grad student pursuing a PhD in English history. That April, I staggered home from my General Exams, tripped over a pile of library books, and vowed, as the microwave was my witness, that I wasn’t going to so much look at a seventeenth century manuscript until the following fall. I was sick of footnotes, sick of the basement of Widener Library, sick of… well, you get the idea. I settled down with a big pile of Julia Quinn novels and BBC costume dramas and decided it was an excellent time to write a romance novel.
I toyed with the idea of a novel set around Luddite unrest in 1811 (since electronics break down as soon as I enter a room, I’d always felt a sneaking sympathy for the Luddites). But Fate stepped in, in the form of my DVD pile. I was watching the Anthony Andrews Scarlet Pimpernel, an old, old favorite of mine, while eating one of those miracles of haute grad school cuisine—a microwave hot dog adorned with squirty cheese. I watched with a connoisseur’s detachment as Sir Percy dispatched yet another round of gullible French guards. There was something wrong there. Not with Anthony Andrews (how can one not love Anthony Andrews as that demmed elusive Pimpernel?), but with the whole scenario. He had it too easy. His men all followed his commands without question; his wife mostly stayed out of the way; and the evil French spies all did exactly what evil French spies were supposed to do.
Someone, I decided, enthusiastically squirting an extra round of cheese onto my hot dog, needed to mix things up a bit. What if you had a super-dashing English spy bedeviled, not by the French (they’re always so easy to thwart), but by a young lady set on tracking him down—so she can help him? Every spy’s worst nightmare! I bolted for my computer and thus the original Pink Carnation book was born.
Q. Did you imagine, when you were writing your first book, that it would now be in its fifth installment?
It seemed miracle enough that the first one made it into print! I knew how slim the odds were. I had sent off manuscripts before and had them promptly sent back. As I was working on The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, I was also teaching two sections of a class on the Second British Empire. I scribbled down wistful ideas for future books Pink books—including the 1803 rising in Ireland that became the basis of The Deception of the Emerald Ring, and the conflicts in India that provided the plot for the sixth book in the series—but I knew that it was all a pipe dream and the odds of my ever getting to use those notes were slim to nonexistent. I really can’t quite believe that I’m up past five books and, yes, I got to use my Irish rebellion and my India idea and I still get to go on writing more…. Excuse me. I need to go pinch myself again.
Q. How long did it take? Was this an easy or difficult book to write?
I wrote this book in a manic three month haze. I left my job as a lawyer at a large New York law firm in January; my deadline for The Temptation of the Night Jasmine was March 31st. I stocked up on food, permanently staked out my favorite table at my local Starbucks and wrote. All in all, I’d say this was one of the easiest books so far. I love both Charlotte and Robert and their story swept me along with it until I found myself, confused and gasping, back in a rainy New York March, wondering where the past few months had gone. I know I went on a book tour for The Seduction of the Crimson Rose at some point in the middle there. I must have eaten and slept and occasionally spoken to friends and all those other things, but I don’t really remember any of that. Those months galloped past in a blur of gilded palace antechambers and smoky hellfire caves. It was exhausting and wonderful.
Q. Tell us more about your characters. What or who inspired them?
As I was planning it, I jokingly called this book my Judith McNaught tribute book. My previous heroines have been cast along very different molds, but Charlotte, the heroine of Night Jasmine, is a McNaught girl—erudite and innocent all at the same time, perceptive about some things and very naïve about others. There is also a lot of me in her: a lifelong bookworm, Charlotte interprets the world around her through the plots of her favorite books, a practice that doesn’t always correspond to reality.
As for Robert, the hero, he’s an amalgam of a number of literary influences, including Richard Sharpe and Tom Jones. What they all have in common is their uncomfortable place outside the usual societal framework, saddled with a disconnect between their upbringing and position. In Robert’s case, although a series of deaths rendered him a duke, he was raised by a brawling wastrel of a father in low circumstances and then ran off to join the army in India as a teenager. He finds himself at the apex of a society whose rules he doesn’t know and whose members he finds alien and a little intimidating. He admires—and is intimidated—by Charlotte’s easy familiarity with that world just as Charlotte admires and is intimidated by what she perceives as his worldliness.
Q. Did you run across anything new and unusual while researching this book?
This book has been one of my favorites to research. The hero, Robert, is on the trail of a traitor who murdered his mentor by shooting him in the back at the battle of Assaye. He manages to track the malefactor to the Hellfire Club, which meant that I had a fascinating time reading up on the practices of the mid-eighteenth century groups who set the Hellfire trope for generations to come. What surprised me there was how wrapped up in the governmental administrations of their day the early Hellfire groups were—and that they didn’t call themselves the Hellfire Club! The name was a later invention. The most famous of the earlier groups called themselves the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe or the Monks of Medmenham.
Meanwhile, my heroine, Charlotte, is a maid of honor to Queen Charlotte, which gave me an excuse to read up on life in the royal court in 1804, the same year that George III went mad for the third time (the second time had been in 1801). Most of us have some idea, thanks to The Madness of King George, of how his illnesses went, but reading about the sheer agony of some of the remedies employed—bleeding, blistering, cupping, purging—was truly eye-opening. It’s a wonder that the cure didn’t drive him around the bend!
Q. What is it about the period that interests you as a writer?
My books so far have all been set in 1803/1804. The first madness of the French Revolution has died down—it has been a full decade since the Terror—but the French government keeps changing, their armies keep marching, Europe is in upheaval, manners and mores are in flux, and no one knows quite how it’s all going to fall out in the end (not unlike our own current period!). It’s an era that doesn’t quite belong to the eighteenth century, but hasn’t taken on the patterns we think of as belonging to the Regency a decade later. I love all that energy and uncertainty and the idiosyncratic cast of characters that goes with it: George III, who keeps lapsing into madness and recovering, sending the government into fits every time he does (I used that as the basis for Night Jasmine); Napoleon and his band of ridiculous relatives…. I could go on and on.
Q. What do you think is the greatest creative risk you’ve taken in this book? How do you feel about it?
I felt like I was taking a big risk with the structure of this book, which divides into two segments. For the first quarter of the book, my hero and heroine seem to be dancing their way blithely towards happily ever after. It’s a self-contained segment in more ways that one, a Christmas house party at the ducal estate that lasts from Christmas Eve until Twelfth Night. While the darker notes are there, Charlotte and Robert use each other as a means of keeping unpleasant realities at bay for the duration of the Christmas season. Realities being realities, their mutual fantasy land falls apart on Twelfth Night, opening the door to the main body of the book, where they are forced to re-learn each other in a more realistic way. In the end, although I was worried about being able to pull it off, I think it was the only approach that would work for these particular characters. Each had to be forced to re-evaluate their priorities and prior convictions before they could come together in a real way. I like the contrast of the effortless happily ever after—the one that didn’t work out—with the hard won happily ever after that they finally achieve.
Q. Is there anything you wanted to include in the book that you (or your CPs or editor) felt was too controversial and left out?
Funnily enough, there was…. My editor was worried by the fact that the hero and heroine of this book are cousins. Although marriage between cousins wouldn’t have been uncommon at the time, she was concerned that a modern audience might be, well, grossed out by it. In order for the plot to work, the cousin thing couldn’t be taken out entirely—the hero, descended from a black sheep branch of the family, has come to reclaim his inheritance and has lots of guilt feelings about usurping what he doesn’t believe to be rightfully his—but we agreed that I would remove every place the hero and the heroine called each other “cousin” in the first few chapters. I was sad to see that go, since I felt that their transition from thinking of each other as “cousin” to first names signified their changing perceptions of each other, but I did see her point about it being potentially incestuous sounding.
Q. What are you working on next?
The answer to that is easy—another Pink Carnation book! I call this one my India book, since it’s set in Hyderabad in 1804. The heroine of this book, Penelope, managed to disgrace herself during Night Jasmine and was sent off to India, along with her new husband, to give the scandal time to die down. India in autumn of 1804, however, isn’t exactly a peaceful place to be. I had an amazing time reading travelers’ narratives and letters to get a sense of the English experience in India at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It differed markedly from the world of the Raj that developed later on—and it also made a very nice change from writing about Almack’s Assembly Rooms!
Q. Is there anything else you would like readers to know about you or your books?
All of the books have a modern framing character, a Harvard grad student researching her dissertation in London (all too familiar for me!), who comes upon a well-guarded cache of family papers and their handsome owner (sadly, not so familiar for me). I invented Eloise partly because it was fun to have a way to sound off about grad school and the vagaries of contemporary life. But one of the joys of using Eloise as a framing device is that—in theory, at any rate—the historical story is all filtered through her imagination. That meant I get to have my characters shout things like, “Follow that sedan chair!” or flip through The Cosmopolitan Lady’s Book for fan-wielding tips (in Night Jasmine, my hero went to a Hellfire Club event, but didn’t inhale). All complaints about historical inaccuracies should be addressed to Eloise in London, SW2….
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