1918. “Everyone’s life was touched or changed in some way by the war”, says author Lauren Willig. “The long war is over and life can go back to … what? Not normal.”
When asked to contribute to a WW1 anthology, Lauren’s thoughts circled around this idea of “not normal”, and she decided to write about it. Her short story is now part of FALL OF POPPIES, which is published today, March 1st, 2016. What did motivate her to write about a war-related topic, I asked her. And we also talked about her research trips to a city she knows so well — her home town New York City.
Barbara: The entire collection of short stories in FALL OF POPPIES is centered around Armistice Day, when the war officially ended. What fascinates you when you think of that day?
Lauren Willig: Armistice Day perfectly captures that sense of uncertainty. The long war is over and life can go back to … what? Not normal.
Everyone’s life was touched or changed in some way by the war.
During the war itself, one could focus on the prospect of peace, accept the irregular because the world had turned upside down, but once that peace treaty is actually signed, there’s no holding to the illusion that peace is a magic word that can turn the clock back and make everything as it was. All of our stories, in one way or another, touch on that sense of dislocation, that aching question, “What now?”
Barbara: How do you approach conducting research for your novels, and your FALL OF POPPIES story?
Lauren Willig: I always like to start with biographies. I’ve found that biographies provide a very intimate, very human view of the past. You learn not only of the great events of the time, but also where this particular person lived, what he wore, what he ate. In a biography, the material culture is woven into the story—and that, of course, is pure gold for a novelist.
I generally go from biography to memoirs, letters, and diaries, on the one side, and monographs on the other.
As a representative sampling, for “The Record Set Right”, which involves both England during the war and Kenya after, I relied on Frances Osborne’s The Bolter (a biography of her great-grandmother, Idina Sackville, who racketed back and forth between England and Kenya); Sarah Wheeler’s biography of Denys Finch-Hatton, Too Close to the Sun; Robert Graves’s heartbreaking World War I memoir, Goodbye to All That; and Paul Fussell’s monograph, The Great War and Modern Memory, among others.
I’ve found one book will generally lead me to another—and before I know, there’s yet another stack stuck with little bits of paper piled precariously next to my desk.
Barbara: What era or location are you planning to “visit” in your next novel or in person?
Lauren Willig: Oddly enough, I’ve accidentally come home, so to speak.
Most of my books have been set in England, or, if not actually set on English soil, based around English men and women who have gone elsewhere: France, Portugal, India, British East Africa. By training, I’m a Tudor/Stuart historian, with a sub-field in Modern Britain, which means that I can discourse knowledgably about the root causes of the English Civil War, but I’m a bit wobbly on pretty much anything to happen on this side of the Pond after 1776.
Recently, though, I’ve found myself drawn more and more to my own home town of New York. The book I’m working on right now is set largely in 1899 New York.
It’s made me a tourist in my own city (not one of the slow-moving ones, though!), looking at the familiar streets and buildings around me in an entirely new way. So much that I’ve taken for granted for over three decades has taken on new shape and meaning. “Visiting” Gilded Age New York has felt like an incredible gift, and has taken me to parts of my own city I had (oh, the shame!) never thought to explore before. It’s an incredibly humbling feeling, finding such historical riches on my own doorstep.
Barbara: What’s on your desk right now?
Lauren Willig: Right now, I’m hard at work on a novel that my college roommate has been calling Gilded Age Gone Girl: it opens with a murder-suicide in a mansion on a Hudson in 1899 and then goes back in time to 1894 as we work up to what happened on that fateful night, gradually learning that nothing about this couple or this murder was as it initially appeared.
I’m having a ball reading about the excesses of late nineteenth century New York.
Definitely another one of those cases where the truth is more dramatic than anything a novelist can devise! That book—still untitled—is due to hit the shelves in summer 2017.
Lauren Willig is the New York Times bestselling author of eleven works of historical fiction. Her books have been translated into over a dozen languages, awarded the RITA, Booksellers Best and Golden Leaf awards, and chosen for the American Library Association’s annual list of the best genre fiction. She lives in New York City, where she now writes full time.
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