Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series is already much-beloved among readers and when news broke that she planned to release a standalone work of historical fiction set in another time period, readers really started buzzing. Ranging from Edwardian England to 1920s Kenya to modern-day (or at least 1999/2000) New York, The Ashford Affair tells an engrossing story of romance and family secrets that spans generations. The novel got a DIK review here and when we got a chance to interview the author, we jumped right on it.
And we also have three(3) copies to give away! If you would like to be entered to win a copy of The Ashford Affair, please comment below by 11:59 pm on Monday, April 22, 2013. And without further ado, here is Lauren!
The Ashford Affair is a bit of a departure from the Pink Carnation series. What gave you the idea for this story?
Lauren Willig: THE ASHFORD AFFAIR was one of those stories that ambushed me out of the blue. I was just finishing up the ninth book in the Pink Carnation series (and thinking, in a rather lackadaisical way, about getting started on the tenth book) when a friend sent me her copy of a book called The Bolter. “The Bolter” chronicles the tumultuous life of Idina Sackville Gordon Wallace Hay etc. etc. etc. who racketed about between London and Kenya in the 1920s, acquiring and discarding husbands along the way. I was fascinated, not just by her notorious Happy Valley crowd of high born hedonists, but also by a comment in the foreword, in which the author mentioned, in passing, that she hadn’t known until her teens that Idina had been her great-grandmother. The relationship had been effectively brushed under the carpet.
At the time, my own ninety-year old grandmother, previously hale and hearty, had hit a rocky patch and was in and out of the hospital. It hit me, hard, how many questions I’d never asked her, how many stories I’d never been told. The combination of Osborne’s foreword and my grandmother’s illness brought home to me just how many assumptions we make about our families and our relations and how little we know. Sure, I thought I knew what my grandmother’s life had been like, but what had it been, really?
And then, of course, because everything is fodder for fiction, I wondered what would happen if you took a self-absorbed thirty-something workaholic modern woman and dropped that kind of family bombshell on her. What would it do to her sense of who she was and who she was meant to be? I couldn’t get those two sets of characters—the grandmother, her life unfurling in the early twentieth century, with all the upheaval caused by World War I; the modern granddaughter looking for answers—out of my head. I put the tenth Pink Carnation book on hold and began writing the manuscript that became THE ASHFORD AFFAIR.
We were intrigued both with the time period (early 20th century) and the place in which the book was partially set (Kenya). What were some of your favorite resources that you used while researching this novel?
Lauren Willig: There are a wealth of wonderful memoirs about life in Kenya in the early twentieth century, from Elspeth Huxley’s fictionalized account of her childhood in Kenya, “The Flame Trees of Thika” (think “Little House on the Prairie” meets Evelyn Waugh) to Beryl Markham’s memoir of her life as an aviatrix and aerial safari scout, “West with the Night”. The resources I loved the best, though, were the vanity publications that were essentially glorified scrapbooks: compilations by settlers and descendants of settlers of their personal photographs and recollections of the various areas of Kenya as they had been back in the day. These compendia tended to jump about a bit in time, so it took some sifting through to find the segments that were appropriate to the years in which my book took place, but the photographs and memories provided vivid visual and sensory images of the vanished world I was striving to recreate.
Are there any books that you would recommend to readers wanting to learn more about the setting of The Ashford Affair?
Lauren Willig: THE ASHFORD AFFAIR jumps around between Edwardian England, post World War I London, 1920s Kenya, and 1999 New York (with a little bit of 1970s Arizona also thrown in there), so there was a lot of ground to cover. For those who are interested, I have a list of some of my favorite background books on Edwardian England, World War I, Jazz Age London, and 1920s Kenya on my website: http://www.laurenwillig.com/diversions/hf/bibliography_ashford.php
When it comes to 1999, you’re on your own….
If I had to pick just a select few, I’d strongly recommend Juliet Nicolson’s The Perfect Summer and The Great Silence, in depth portraits of English life immediately before and just after the Great War. In terms of trying to understand World War I, and how it impacted those caught up in it, I owe a great debt to Robert Graves’s World War I memoir, Goodbye to All That. (Extra bonus that it was written by the guy who wrote I, Claudius!) It is a moving, horrifying, and occasionally mordantly amusing account of the madness of war. Finally, on the Kenya side, try both Frances Osborne’s The Bolter for Happy Valley hijinks, and, for another perspective, Sarah Wheeler’s beautifully written biography of Denys Finch-Hatton, Too Close to the Sun(you get a very different Denys from the one portrayed in Out of Africa!).
The idea that we may not know our relatives as well as we think we do really stuck with me as I read this novel. Did you find it challenging to create the complicated family dynamic that runs through the story? What was your favorite part about it?
Lauren Willig: Honestly, it was like being in a candy store. I relish playing with character the way mad scientists relish playing with explosive chemicals (at least, I assume they do, based on my ninth grade physics teacher, who was about as close to mad scientist as you can get—and managed to blow his own eyebrows off when I was in seventh grade. But I digress). I’m fascinated by the ways people react to and interact with each other, especially in the pressure cooker setting of family relationships: sisters, cousins, step-cousins, mothers and daughters.
With THE ASHFORD AFFAIR, I had myriad sets of relationships to experiment with, from my historical heroine and her cousin, raised almost as sisters, who love each other and madden each other at the same time, to my modern heroine’s mother and aunt– who baffle my poor modern heroine, who can’t understand how Mother and Aunt Anna can bicker and snipe at each other, always at odds, and yet make sure to check in with each other on the phone at least once a week. People are complex, especially when it comes to their relationships to their family.
My favorite part? Probably all the mother/daughter relationships that run through the narrative. Which proved to be oddly prescient, since I’m now expecting my first child—a daughter—this summer….
We get to see Addie through the eyes of many characters. Parts of the story are set in her youth, we see her through Clemmie’s eyes as well as through the eyes of her children. Each perspective shows us something different about her life. How do you see Addie?
Lauren Willig: For those who haven’t read the book yet, Addie is my historical heroine. She starts off as a poor cousin, sent to live with her aunt and uncle, the Earl and Countess of Ashford, when her own, rather bohemian, parents die in an omnibus accident. It isn’t an easy transition for her, especially since her overbearing Aunt Vera deliberately sets out to squish all the Bloomsbury out of her.
Much of the story is really Addie’s coming of age, her attempt to figure out who she is and what she wants to be, triangulating between, on the one hand, her Aunt Vera’s strictures, and, on the other hand, her memory of her own mother. Originally awkward and shy, as we follow her story, she gradually comes into her own—even though it takes a World War and a change of continents before she really finds her place.
Her granddaughter, Clemmie, on the other hand, knows Addie only as the powerful matriarch she’s since become. I wanted to play up that discrepancy between the way Clemmie viewed her, knowing only the outcome, and Addie’s own struggles and insecurities. In the end, I see her as a fighter, as someone who learns how to adapt to survive—but the vestiges of the insecure girl she once was are still there, too, shaping her and driving her on.
Toward the end of the novel, Clemmie says of Addie and her cousin, “They really lived, didn’t they?” Clemmie is certainly no slouch when it comes to being a high achiever. What do you think she saw in her grandmother’s life story?
Lauren Willig: There’s achievement and there’s achievement. In Clemmie’s case, she takes the well-trodden path. She works hard; she gets good grades; she moves from a top school to a top law school to a top law firm. There’s no risk in it, no chance, and she’s very much aware of that. While she’s successful by the metrics by which our society judges success, it is, as she realizes, a very narrow sort of achievement, bounded by the walls of the office she never ever leaves. Clemmie has always taken her grandmother as her measure of success—but it’s the final product by which she judges herself, the poised, successful businesswoman her grandmother had become. The more Clemmie learns about her grandmother’s life and its ups and downs, the more she realizes that it’s as much about the personal journey as it is about the result, that it’s about stretching yourself and taking chances, not just bullet points on a resume.
At least, I hope that’s what Clemmie realizes. Otherwise, that’s four hundred pages or so all gone for nothing….
I know you have a new installment coming up in the Pink Carnation series. Will there also be more stand-alone books?
Lauren Willig: The tenth book in the Pink Carnation series, THE PASSION OF THE PURPLE PLUMERIA, hits the shelves on August 6th. The heroine, Miss Gwen, was a little annoyed at being pushed back for ASHFORD AFFAIR, but I did let her wreak havoc with her sword parasol throughout 1805 Bath, so she really couldn’t complain too much.
Right now, I’m working on revisions for my second stand-alone novel, another back and forth in time, historical fiction/women’s fiction hybrid. In 2009, my modern heroine, who has lost her job in the financial downturn, inherits a house in the suburbs of London from an unknown great-aunt. In the old house on Herne Hill, she discovers a lost Preraphaelite painting wrapped in crumbling linen, hidden in the back of a wardrobe. How did it get there? And what happened to the promising Preraphaelite artist who painted it? The story goes back and forth between my modern heroine in 2009, as she tries to put the pieces together, and the early days of the Preraphaelite movement in 1849.
Best part? I got to conscript Dante Gabriel Rossetti as a side character.
Thanks so much for having me here on AAR! If anyone would like to know more about THE ASHFORD AFFAIR or these other upcoming books, come visit me on my website (www.laurenwillig.com) or Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/LaurenWillig).
Thank you so much for joining us!
– Lynn Spencer and LinnieGayl Kimmel