Tasha Alexander

Behind the Book by

We all have preconceived notions. It’s unavoidable. One of the most exciting things about doing book research is discovering all the ways in which our assumptions about people, places, and history are wrong. In the course of writing five novels (almost six; I’m just about done!), I’ve been forced again and again to revise my opinions about our Victorian counterparts.

 But of all the books I’ve written, none has surprised me as much as Tears of Pearl. I’d decided to send Emily and Colin to Constantinople for their honeymoon—partly because I loved the exotic nature of the city and partly because I liked the idea of Emily, who struggles with the limits English society placed on women in the 19th century, in a society where the so-called weaker sex were even more repressed.

Sounds great, right? I thought so. But after I’d read letters and memoirs from women of the period, I realized the Ottoman ladies had a great deal more freedom and upward mobility than the average Englishwoman of the time. Their veils, which I’d ignorantly viewed as repressive, actually gave them quite a bit of freedom—they enabled them to move about the city freely without anyone knowing who they were. Meeting a lover in a café? No problem. The veil keeps you anonymous.

Last year, while working on the book, I visited Istanbul (because, as we all know, you can’t go back to Constantinople…).  And for all that we like to think of our contemporary selves as modern and enlightened, many people did not react well to the idea of my trip. They didn’t think it was safe for a woman to travel alone to Turkey—surely it would be too dangerous. Now, of course it’s essential to be careful any time you’re traveling. But I can honestly say that I’ve never felt safer in a city than Istanbul. If anything, men were more respectful of a solitary woman than they are in New York or Chicago.

My first morning in the city, I met three wonderful American women at breakfast in my hotel. (You won’t find a more glorious breakfast spread anywhere than that set out at the Hotel Empress Zoe every morning.) They were going the hamam—the Turkish baths—that evening and invited me to join them. The hamam was high on my list for must-sees in the city. I’d read all kinds of fabulous descriptions of them in letters written by Victorian English women travelers. As a junkie of all things spa-related, I loved the idea of being massaged and scrubbed. But I must confess to having felt a little nervous about the whole thing.

 

 

First, because I wasn’t exactly sure what the process would be like. Second was the whole issue of sitting around naked in a room full of total strangers.

Going with my new found friends alleviated the first problem. Because if we all did everything wrong, at least we would all be wrong together, which is somehow less daunting than being wrong alone.

As for the second point, there was simply no avoiding it. And it struck me, as  I walked into the more than 300-year-old Ca?alo?lu Hamam, that countless Victorian women travelers (Florence Nightingale included) had preceded me. And surely if they—whom we all assume to have been much more modest than the Modern American Girl—could do it, I could.

Which sounds fabulous until you’ve emerged from your beautiful wooden dressing room stark naked only to have your bath attendant hand you a tiny piece of cotton to use as a towel. This and a pair of wooden clogs are all you can take into the haratet, or hot room. We did our best to cover ourselves up and shuffled over marble floors into an enormous domed room lined with washbasins. Here you’re instructed to sit and handed a silver bowel. This you dip into the nearest basin, fill with hot water, and dump over your head. Repeat over and over and over.

Obviously at this point, you have to abandon the towel. Somewhat terrifying at first. But all the women in the hamam do it—and you find that it’s actually not so bad. And before you know it, you’re relaxed, your muscles loose as you lean against the marble bench dousing yourself with water and falling into easy conversation with the people around you. By the time your attendant comes back to lead you to the marble platform in the center of the room, where she’ll massage and scrub you, you could care less what you’re wearing. The entire ritual was amazing, and by the time I emerged, my skin softer than a baby’s, I knew that if I could, I’d hamam every single day.

It was an ethereal experience in an exquisite building. Those Victorian women travelers knew a good thing when they saw it. As much as I loved Istanbul—cruising the Bosphorus to the Black Sea, combing through the treasures of Topkap? Palace, haggling in the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar—the hamam will always be high on the list of my favorite experiences. I loved it so much I went back two more times during my trip. Research, you see, needs to be well and thoroughly done…

 

Tasha Alexander is finishing up her fifth novel starring Lady Emily, who heads to Turkey in Alexander's new release Tears of Pearl.

 

We all have preconceived notions. It’s unavoidable. One of the most exciting things about doing book research is discovering all the ways in which our assumptions about people, places, and history are wrong. In the course of writing five novels (almost six; I’m just about done!), I’ve been forced again and again to revise my […]
Feature by

Two new books, one fiction and one nonfiction, offer insight into Britain’s Queen Victoria, who reigned during a time of radical change. 

British writer Daisy Goodwin’s novel Victoria is a delicious introduction to the young monarch’s world. Meant as a companion to the PBS series of the same name, which will air in the U.S. in January, it tells the story of Victoria’s personal and political struggles after her ascension to the throne. Goodwin’s engaging style is immediately captivating, and she deftly brings fresh life to a story familiar to many. 

All historical fiction takes liberties, but Goodwin stays true to the basic facts while imaginatively filling in gaps in the record. Her queen is strong-willed and impetuous: a classic teenager, but one with a great deal more power than her counterparts. She frees herself from the control of her mother and Sir John Conroy, bonds with her first Prime Minister and navigates the difficult world between adolescence and adulthood. Goodwin makes us care about Victoria the girl, even when she behaves badly, because she breathes humanity into her. 

One notable aspect of Goodwin’s account is her depiction of Victoria falling in love with Prime Minister Lord Melbourne. Readers who wonder if Goodwin is taking liberties here can turn to Julia Baird’s impressive biography Victoria: The Queen for answers—Baird confirms that the Queen had quite a crush on her Prime Minister. While many biographies can be a slog to read, Baird’s is a delight. She uses her sources well while employing a narrative style that is a joy to read; all history should be this well-written.  

Victoria was a complex woman, and Baird presents the queen in all her contradictions. We cringe at her notorious tantrums and cheer when she manages to outmaneuver more experienced ministers. Baird reminds us that some commonly accepted truths about Victoria don’t hold up under scrutiny. For example, Baird argues against the idea that after Albert’s death, Victoria all but abandoned her responsibilities. While her devotion to mourning and excessive displays of grief are well-known, Victoria did not completely remove herself from the business of running the Empire.

Much of the difficulty in painting a full picture of the Queen comes from the destruction of many of her letters and diaries, done on Victoria’s orders. Later, the male editors of her correspondence excluded much they deemed unfeminine or inappropriate. Baird does a thorough job of synthesizing the primary sources that do exist, and even manages to dig up new information on the queen’s controversial relationship with her Highland servant, John Brown. A woman of her time, Victoria did not fight for women’s rights and was opposed to women’s suffrage. She was often more interested in intervening in individual situations than pushing for sweeping reforms, yet Baird skillfully avoids judging Victoria by modern standards.

Goodwin and Baird have given us two books that complement each other beautifully, offering readers the chance to learn more about one of Britain’s most famous queens. 

Novelist Tasha Alexander is the author of the bestselling Lady Emily series, set in the Victorian era.

 

This article was originally published in the December 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Two new books, one fiction and one nonfiction, offer insight into Britain’s Queen Victoria, who reigned during a time of radical change.
Review by

Vikas Swarup’s Six Suspects is not an ordinary murder mystery. Vicky Rai is as awful a reprobate as an author could create—“the poster boy for sleaze in this country.” Insider trading, defrauding investors, bribery and tax evasion are just the beginning. He lacks any remorse for having run down six people while drunkenly driving the swanky BMW his father gave him for a birthday present. As a follow-up, he kills two bucks on a wildlife sanctuary. Finally, in a crowded bar, he shoots a beautiful bartender named Ruby Gill point-blank in the face, angry that she wouldn’t serve him another drink after closing time.

If there’s anything Vicky excels at, it’s escaping punishment. After a five-year trial, he’s found not guilty of this grotesque crime. But while celebrating his acquittal at a blowout bash, he is shot to death. The police seal the scene and search all the guests, identifying six suspects, each of whom is carrying a different gun.

And it’s here that Swarup’s story takes off. Not only does he reject the standard structure for a crime novel, there is also no traditional detective or brave hero to be found. Rather than planting clues and flashing red herrings, he tells the tale of each of the suspects—a career bureaucrat suffering from split personality disorder (half the time he believes he’s Mahatma Gandhi), a scary-naïve American tourist who’s come to India thinking he’s getting a mail-order bride, a cell phone thief, a tribesman from the Andaman Islands, a sexy Bollywood actress, and Vicky’s own father.

Swarup has taken an ambitious step with this book, and it’s a fascinating and complex read, as well as a journey through diverse views of modern India. Rich with culture, this novel should not be left out of any holidaymaker’s suitcase.

Tasha Alexander is the author of And Only to Deceive

In Six Suspects, the author of Slumdog Millionaire rejects the standard structure for a crime novel, instead focusing on character and setting.
Review by

Amelia Peabody is back, but this time she’s not returning to Egypt, her usual stomping ground. The 19th installment in this immensely popular series finds Elizabeth Peters’ iconoclast detective in Palestine, where she’s gone with her husband, the famous (and devastatingly handsome) Egyptologist, Radcliffe Emerson, to stop a careless adventurer from wrecking archaeological havoc while searching for the Ark of the Covenant. That would be enough to motivate Amelia to save the day—but there’s concern within the British government that Morley is not just archaeologically inept, but also a German spy.

Amelia’s son, Ramses, is already in Palestine, working on a dig. Before his family can reach him, he’s taken prisoner, caught in the middle of a nefarious scheme involving forgery and international intrigue.

What follows is all those things readers love about Peters’ novels: perfectly paced suspense, biting wit and fascinating tidbits about ancient cultures. It’s a pleasure to dip back into the Emersons’ lives. Instead of continuing their story after World War I, Peters has chosen to cover some more of their “lost years,” this time taking us back to 1910, and it’s a delight to once again see Amelia and Emerson at the peak of their physical prowess (yes, Amelia has prowess), and to see Ramses and his friend (more like a brother), David, honing the skills that will serve them so well in the future.

Peters is well established as a master when it comes to character development, and she takes full opportunity to further flesh out our old friends in this book. Emerson has always viewed religion with more than casual skepticism, and putting him in the Holy Land is a treat for readers. He and Amelia spar about theology in the way only they can—acerbic and humorous all at once. The dialogue between the two is a consistent highlight throughout the series.

Best of all, Peters, with a PhD in Egyptology from the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, can always be relied on to present readers with an accurate, well-researched view of the historical periods in which she sets her books. She gets every detail right, from archaeological techniques to cultural mores. A River in the Sky is a charming, entertaining read, full of all the good things we expect from Amelia Peabody. Including her infamous steel-tipped parasol.

Tasha Alexander is the author of the Lady Emily Ashton series. She lives in Chicago, unfortunately without a parasol of any sort.

Amelia Peabody is back, but this time she’s not returning to Egypt, her usual stomping ground. The 19th installment in this immensely popular series finds Elizabeth Peters’ iconoclast detective in Palestine, where she’s gone with her husband, the famous (and devastatingly handsome) Egyptologist, Radcliffe Emerson, to stop a careless adventurer from wrecking archaeological havoc while […]
Review by

Crime fiction fans everywhere were delighted last year when Tom Rob Smith’s first thriller, Child 44, made the long-list for the Man Booker Prize. His follow-up, The Secret Speech, is a sequel to his acclaimed debut, continuing the adventures of Leo Demidov. Khrushchev has come to power, and he makes a speech—in theory, a secret speech—that reveals the corruption and horror of Stalin’s brutal reign and leads to the release of scores of prisoners from the country’s gulags.

Demidov had worked as a State Security agent and does not have a spotless past, but he’s moved on, taking a post running a homicide unit and trying to be a decent man. He loves his wife, is devoted to the daughters he adopted (after sending their parents to their deaths) and wants an ordinary life. But escaping from what he’s done isn’t so easy, especially once he’s in the sights of people whose families suffered under Stalin.

Fraera, the leader of a vicious gang, has demanded the release of her husband, a priest who was put in prison by Demidov, but it’s clear her mission is also to cause Demidov deep psychological suffering. She’s fixated on revenge. When she kidnaps one of Demidov’s daughters, the desperate father sets off on a breathtaking race to save the girl, moving from Moscow to Siberia to Budapest, facing the demons of his past at every turn.

Smith writes action relentlessly and fills The Secret Speech with vibrant descriptions of the post-Stalin Soviet Union without once letting his breakneck pace slip. The brutal violence and drab mood paint a realistic picture of a bleak era. Smith also continues to develop his wonderfully complex protagonist and torments him like few other authors could, making the reader worry about him on every page. Demidov has to face his past guilt head-on, a particularly difficult task when he goes into the prisons where those he’s arrested have spent years in agony.

Meticulously plotted and deliciously complicated, Smith’s sophomore effort doesn’t disappoint.

Tasha Alexander is the author of A Fatal Waltz. She lives in Chicago.

 

Crime fiction fans everywhere were delighted last year when Tom Rob Smith’s first thriller, Child 44, made the long-list for the Man Booker Prize. His follow-up, The Secret Speech, is a sequel to his acclaimed debut, continuing the adventures of Leo Demidov. Khrushchev has come to power, and he makes a speech—in theory, a secret […]
Review by

To say that Arthur Phillips is a versatile novelist is understatement at its worst. Equally capable of penning contemporary and historical novels, gracefully moving from subject to subject, he’s the sort of author in whom readers can fearlessly place their faith. After dazzling us with last year’s Victorian Angelica, he’s back in modern times with his fourth book, The Song Is You.

Set in New York, the story follows Julian Donahue as he navigates the shadowy, grief-filled world of a parent who has lost a child. A director—not of films, but television commercials—Julian did not take well to the role of husband until he became a father. Following the death of his two-year-old son, he manages to hack out a bleak existence, burying himself in music, while his estranged wife, Rachel, spirals through mourning. She longs to save the marriage; Julian wants to move on—a goal made easier after dropping into a Brooklyn club to use the restroom and staying to hear a raw performance from Irish singer Cait O’Dwyer. He’s consumed by her, but rather than introducing himself as another disposable fan, he becomes a faraway mentor and muse, setting himself on a course that will lead him from New York to Europe as Cait’s career begins to skyrocket. The relationship itself is fascinating, as Julian and Cait circle each other, gradually coming closer together.

In The Song Is You, Phillips has crafted some of the most memorable and affecting secondary characters in fiction, from Julian’s one-legged father who was obsessed with Billie Holiday, to the protagonist’s brother, Aidan, a trivia genius whose eccentric existence has been irrevocably damaged by an offensively wrong answer that he gave during a “Jeopardy!” appearance.

Here, Phillips has achieved what only the best novelists can—he’s written a book where the beauty of the prose is matched by the depth of characterization and the fluid movement of the plot. The Song Is You is complex and rhapsodic, heart-wrenching and satisfying, an absolute pleasure to read.

Tasha Alexander is the author of A Fatal Waltz.

To say that Arthur Phillips is a versatile novelist is understatement at its worst. Equally capable of penning contemporary and historical novels, gracefully moving from subject to subject, he’s the sort of author in whom readers can fearlessly place their faith. After dazzling us with last year’s Victorian Angelica, he’s back in modern times with […]
Review by

Few writers can match Cathleen Schine's skill at deftly drawing characters with perfect wit: George, now 28 years old, had been a child prodigy. No one knew it. Except George. He hadn't been sure in exactly what field he was a child prodigy, but the elusive nature of his gift had neither eased his burden nor dampened his determination.

In her seventh novel, The New Yorkers, Schine gives readers an enchanting ensemble cast that lives on a single block in Manhattan. There's George's sister, Polly, who rents an apartment whose previous tenant committed suicide only a few days earlier. She's less concerned about possible ghosts than the small puppy left in a closet. Jody, a self-described spinster who's in love with her elderly pit bull, is quickly taken with divorced Everett. But what will she make of Simon, who goes out of his way to ensure that their paths cross when she's walking her beloved Beatrice? Thrown into the midst of these dog lovers and those who tolerate them is Doris, who's appalled at the waste left behind by neighborhood canines. This is not Paris! becomes her rallying cry as she tries to organize like-minded people against the evils of excrement, hoping to convince a city councilman to support her cause.

The dogs bring neighbors together in unexpected ways as their owners search for love and companionship. Readers not fond of the canines among us have nothing to fear: Although there's plenty of sentiment gushing toward the pets, loving them is certainly not a requirement for enjoying this book.

As always, Schine's prose is elegant and sophisticated, full of droll humor. She's at her best here, bringing intimacy to an enormous city, populating it with characters that will resonate beyond Manhattan. The New Yorkers is wonderfully readable and thoroughly engaging: the perfect book to take to the park on a bright spring day, whether you have a dog at your heels or not.

Tasha Alexander is the author of A Poisoned Season. She lives in a neighborhood full of well-behaved dogs.

 

Few writers can match Cathleen Schine's skill at deftly drawing characters with perfect wit: George, now 28 years old, had been a child prodigy. No one knew it. Except George. He hadn't been sure in exactly what field he was a child prodigy, but the elusive nature of his gift had neither eased his burden […]
Review by

John Marks' third novel, Fangland, is no ordinary vampire tale. Evangeline Harker embarks on what might be the worst business trip ever. She's a producer for The Hour, a television news show, and is sent to Romania to investigate a story. She finds Ion Torgu, purported crime boss, but instead of giving her an interview, he takes her to his crumbling and creepy hotel in Transylvania, where she soon learns that he's a vampire. No fangs here, though. Torgu's teeth, though hideously stained, are rounded, not sharp. He relies on two henchmen to murder his victims and pour the blood in a bucket for him to drink.

The vampires in this novel don't merely skulk about looking for blood. They are instead haunted by an eerie chant of place names: Treblinka, Olindo, Kosovo, Mycenae, Nanking. All places where terrible massacres have occurred. It's no accident that the offices of The Hour look down over Ground Zero in New York.

Evangeline disappears for months, and most of her family, friends and co-workers think she's dead except the ones who are receiving strange e-mails from her account. After mysterious shipments begin arriving from Romania, the show's sound system seems infected with a virus, and a strange chant permeates every recording the crew makes. Staff members begin wasting away, and then Evangeline is found in Romania, convalescing in a convent, in terrible shape. When she returns to New York, it becomes clear that Torgu has dark plans for everyone at The Hour. Marks tells his story through the e-mails, therapy journals and diary entries of characters. His experience working as a producer at 60 Minutes makes you feel like he knows just what to satirize at The Hour. He's not simply retelling Dracula; his vampires are more like guardians of the dead than horror movie villains. But don't think they're not scary. Fangland is a novel that will keep you up late: It's sad and terrifying and darkly funny.

Tasha Alexander is the author of And Only to Deceive.

John Marks' third novel, Fangland, is no ordinary vampire tale. Evangeline Harker embarks on what might be the worst business trip ever. She's a producer for The Hour, a television news show, and is sent to Romania to investigate a story. She finds Ion Torgu, purported crime boss, but instead of giving her an interview, […]
Review by

Marisha Pessl's ambitious debut is many things: the story of a complicated father/daughter relationship, a tale of adolescent friendship, a coming-of-age novel and a murder mystery. Told in the skillfully rendered voice of Blue van Meer, it focuses on her senior year at an exclusive high school in Stockton, North Carolina, where she finds herself after a childhood spent following her professor father through a series of short-term academic jobs. At St. Gallway School, an unusual teacher, Hannah Schneider, pulls Blue into a group of friends known as the Bluebloods. When Hannah dies under shocking circumstances, Blue is thrown into the midst of a series of mysteries that will unravel nearly everything she's come to believe about her life.

The novel is peppered with dark humor and frequent references to other books, both real and invented: "She threw her head back and laughed" (see Shark Death Cry, Birds and Beasts, Barde, 1973, p. 244). Pessl has chosen to structure her book around the syllabus of a great works of literature course instead of a table of contents, the reader will find Core Curriculum (Required Reading) in the front, with each chapter named for a literary work. Shakespeare's Othello, Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Achebe's Things Fall Apart are a few examples, and I imagine it would be great fun to read each of these in tandem with Pessl's work. Also included are visual aids, drawn by the author, which nicely complement the text.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics has been the recipient of much well-deserved buzz in the book community. There can be little doubt of Pessl's talent, and her very clever debut undoubtedly marks the beginning of what is sure to be a long and successful career.

Tasha Alexander is the author of And Only to Deceive (Morrow). She hopes that Ms. Pessl feels no angst at having her book sent out to reviewers (see Black Swan Green, Mitchell, 2006, p. 145).

Marisha Pessl's ambitious debut is many things: the story of a complicated father/daughter relationship, a tale of adolescent friendship, a coming-of-age novel and a murder mystery. Told in the skillfully rendered voice of Blue van Meer, it focuses on her senior year at an exclusive high school in Stockton, North Carolina, where she finds herself […]
Interview by

Lauren Willig’s romantic mysteries charm readers There are few authors capable of matching Lauren Willig’s ability to merge historical accuracy, heart-pounding romance and biting wit. The Seduction of the Crimson Rose, the latest in her popular Pink Carnation series, continues Willig’s trend of making each installment even better than its spectacular predecessor. This accomplishment is all the more amazing given that Willig, in addition to being a novelist, has a demanding full-time job as an associate in a New York law firm. By working late in the office during the week, she frees her weekends, locking herself away to write from seven in the morning until midnight. It’s a system not without its drawbacks.

"I did manage to get The Seduction of the Crimson Rose written that way, only three months behind deadline!" she says. "But it’s not necessarily something I’d recommend as a lifestyle choice. The plus side of the experience—aside from having a salary—is that you learn to write very quickly and efficiently, since there’s no spare time to indulge in writer’s block. The downside is all your friends e-mailing to ask if you’re dead." A New York native, Willig grew up in Manhattan, and doesn’t live far from her early stomping grounds, a situation that’s wonderfully convenient when she feels the need for a home-cooked meal: She can easily drop in on her parents. "I have a whole group of childhood friends in a five-block radius of me who also came back to the Upper East Side like homing pigeons. We all went to the same tiny all girls’ school for 13 years, which meant there was a lot of trading of romance novels back and forth, since none of us actually knew any real boys, except for a handful of boys from the local all boys’ schools who didn’t really seem to count, at least not when compared to Judith McNaught heroes."

Willig’s writing process "involves a lot of strong tea and personal bribery, along the lines of ‘If you write a chapter, I’ll buy you a Starbucks,’ or ‘If you finish 10 pages by seven o’clock, you can watch a BBC costume drama.’ I find it very hard to write in bits and pieces, so I generally try to block out a whole day at a time for writing. It takes me an hour or two of whining and foot-dragging to get myself to the computer, but once I’m there, I’ll usually wake up several hours later to find that pages have magically appeared on the scene, all my tea is gone, and my knees hurt from sitting cross-legged on my desk chair for four hours at a stretch."

The Seduction of the Crimson Rose is the fourth novel in the Pink Carnation series, in which each volume follows both a contemporary storyline and an historical one. In early 19th-century England, Mary Alsworthy is living with the aftermath of her sister having married her would-be fiancé. Unhappy and thoroughly aggravated by the sympathies of her family, she allows the dashing Lord Vaughn to persuade her to work as a double agent against the Black Tulip, the dastardly and dangerous French operative, and assist England’s favorite spy, the Pink Carnation. While she has a general idea as to where the series is going as a whole, Willig says her plot ideas invariably play second fiddle to the needs of the current book. "There have been times when I’ve tried to plant information for the purposes of future books—and I usually find myself going back and deleting those scenes. It works best when I let the series grow at least semi-organically, following the lead of my characters. For example, The Seduction of the Crimson Rose was supposed to be about a separate set of characters entirely, but as I was finishing the previous book, Deception of the Emerald Ring, I realized that the story in Crimson Rose followed much more logically out of preceding events than the other plot line that I had been planning for two years."

Switching between different voices and time periods gives Willig a wonderful freedom. "I’ve found that whenever I get stuck on the historical sections that form the bulk of the books, working on a modern chapter is like taking a brief, breezy vacation. Of the two, if I had to pick just one, I would go with the historical, since I’ve always wanted to live in another century, preferably one with men in knee breeches. But popping back to the modern always makes me appreciate the historical even more," she says. "I always emerge from a modern chapter energized and ready to tackle my historical plot problems."

"Both the historical world and the modern world seem sharper and clearer to me after hopping from one to the other," Willig says. "When I’ve been in Almack’s [the famous Regency assembly rooms, site of weekly balls during the London Season], admiring the gentlemen’s knee breeches and sipping ratafia, things like buying Starbucks while rushing to the Tube suddenly seem exotic and interesting." Willig names L.M. Montgomery and Louisa May Alcott as early influences, citing their skills at taking seemingly everyday events and making them compelling and memorable. She still re-reads the Anne of Green Gables books at every opportunity. Margaret Mitchell and M.M. Kaye have been her models for weaving history into a fictional narrative since she was in fifth grade, and she’s gone through at least five copies of Gone With the Wind because her old ones keep crumbling at the seams. So where did her love affair with English history begin? "[It was] fed by Jean Plaidy’s Queens of England series, which made everyone from Margaret of Anjou to Queen Victoria feel like close personal friends, and Karleen Koen’s Through a Glass Darkly, which still makes me want to go live in the 18th century. When it comes to writing style, though, the hands-down biggest influence was Elizabeth Peters. Anything I know about comic timing in fiction, I learned from Peters’ brilliant mystery novels."

It is the humor in Willig’s work that sets it apart from other historicals. The banter between Lord Vaughn and Mary Alsworthy in The Seduction of the Crimson Rose is more than worthy of Peters at her best, and the continuing romantic and academic adventures of Eloise Kelly, heroine of the contemporary storyline, is deliciously satisfying. Readers will be delighted to know there are more volumes to come in the series. And Willig, at last, will have a bit more freedom when writing them, since she’s quitting her job and joining the ranks of full-time writers. "There are certainly things I’ll miss about the practice of law, like my wonderful colleagues at the office," she says, "but I’m very much looking forward to having the time to return e-mails, write more books, and, of course, indulge in massive fits of writer’s block."

Tasha Alexander is the author of And Only to Deceive and A Poisoned Season.

Lauren Willig’s romantic mysteries charm readers There are few authors capable of matching Lauren Willig’s ability to merge historical accuracy, heart-pounding romance and biting wit. The Seduction of the Crimson Rose, the latest in her popular Pink Carnation series, continues Willig’s trend of making each installment even better than its spectacular predecessor. This accomplishment is […]
Interview by

Since the publication of his first novel, Prague, Arthur Phillips has firmly established himself as one of contemporary America’s most original writers, dazzling readers with wit, a keen sense of humanity and an exuberant style that is simply a delight to read. Part pseudo-memoir, part Elizabethan drama, The Tragedy of Arthur tells the story of “Arthur Phillips,” a novelist whose con artist father has discovered a lost work of Shakespeare. The book is divided into two sections: first, the fictional Phillips’ introduction to the play, then the play itself, replete with scholarly (and not) footnotes. In the end, it’s for the reader to decide what’s truth and what’s fiction in this smart and insightful novel.  

What brought you to this story? Did something in particular spark when you were contemplating what to write next?
This book has been bubbling up demanding attention for quite a while. The most disciplined thing I ever did was to keep putting this one off without losing that rush of ideas until it was the right time. The first seed was just the fun thought of the challenge: "I wonder if I could write a halfway convincing one of those plays.” Then—you know how this goes, Tasha—once you have that first magnetic idea, stuff starts to stick to it. Someone says something—oh, I could use that. You read something apparently unrelated—oh, I could use that. You start to daydream about the project—oh, I could use that . . . and with Shakespeare, things happen all the time. Notes started flurrying all the time.

What did you write first: the intro or the play?
Do I have to admit I wrote the play? Oh well, there goes that fun. Okay. . . . They were almost simultaneous, in that I wrote a rough draft of the play and then wrote a rough draft of what became the introduction, and back and forth in that order, always starting with the play on each revision. That said, the note-taking and planning for the introduction had gone on for quite a while before writing the play, and THAT said, the research for the play went on for quite a while before I started sifting through ideas of how the introduction might work. This is very convoluted. Isn't it all just easier if I claim I didn't write the play?

This is an ambitious project, but executed with a mastery that makes reading it a breeze. Ambitious often equals inaccessible. Did it pour out à la Mozart (minus the debauched lifestyle funded through the sale of snuff boxes) after you'd worked it out in your head? Did you meticulously outline and plan every detail? Something in between or different altogether?
This was very different than previous work. It was much more planned. Much more research ahead of time, in an organized and scheduled sort of fashion. The play was very much outlined, as it had to be, because the nature of the project was to try to imagine HIM. To imagine Shakespeare’s methods, his sources, his moments of allowing imagination to displace research, and then to try to follow those steps (all imagined, I admit). So the outline of the play came out of the sources for the story Shakespeare would have had available to him, and also the general formatting of acts and scenes that he tended to fall into. Not a formula (much too strong and loaded a word) but patterns of storytelling, moments of revelation, action and so forth. All of which varied over his career, of course.

Tell me about the play. How the hell did you pull that off? In college we used to speak in faux (and extremely bad) Shakespearean dialogue, but I don't think I could keep it up for an entire day, let alone an entire play. (Love the footnotes, by the way.)
The footnotes were so fun. The one about hemorrhoid paste in Elizabethan England made me happy for days. The process of the play research was only enjoyable. First off, I read the canon, in one of the suggested possible chronological orders, and I read it out loud. This looked a little odd at my local cafe, but that was all right. That was the first step, it took a few months, and it was a sheer joy.

The experience of reading Shakespeare is worlds away from seeing his plays staged. Would you like to see this "new discovery" produced?
A few companies around the country are planning readings and I'm very closely involved with one we're doing here in New York in May at the Public Theater. But yes, I would like to see a full production, of the play alone or of some sort of mix of Introduction and Play as a theatrical event. I'd like to see it not only for what I know of what I wrote, but of what new revelations and surprises a great director and great actors can bring to something you think you know.

Did you find yourself growing sympathetic to the anti-Stratfordians [a group that believes Shakespeare is not the author of the works attributed to him] when you were writing the play?
Oh, dear. You really don't want to get me started about this. The short answer is no: the more work I did writing a Shakespeare play, the less sympathy I had for those who said someone other than Shakespeare wrote them.

I have spent a lot of time looking at anti-Stratfordian thinking and writing and arguments and theories, and I have spent much too much time discussing it with them. While I feel a great deal of sympathy for people who passionately believe in something that most people disagree with, I very strongly disagree with them. I think it requires a view of history, people and most of all creative writing that I find unrealistic and a little silly. And—as a writer who prides himself on making things up and knows how to do it—a little offensive. I may have identified with Shakespeare a hair too much here, but there it is. And, please, anti-Strats, don't bother writing in about why I'm wrong. I've heard it all by now, I'd say.

Talk to me about truth and fiction and memoirs. Memoirs are so frequently fictionalized, it would seem more honest to call many of them novels. Or to go with Hollywood, "Based on a True Story." The Tragedy of Arthur is a novel, but do you think some readers will take the memoir at face value despite the fact that it's fiction with bits of reality?
I hope that a careful reader will think about what happens in this book and ask themselves, "What do I really know about any author that puts text in front of me, now or from four centuries ago?" [Just] let the author go and love the texts, draw whatever truth or lessons or "mere" entertainment they can, and really know and believe that that is enough.

Do you have a favorite line from Shakespeare? A favorite play?
King Johnis such a good and underperformed play, but every time you see a good production of any of his (or any good playwright's) work, it's a revelation. I just saw such a brilliant Taming of the Shrew put on here in NYC by the Guerrilla Shakespeare Project, and I went back the next weekend to see it again. And that's a play I don't like (or didn't think I liked) when I read it.

 

Tasha Alexander is the author of the Lady Emily series, set in Victorian England. She lives in Chicago with her husband, the thriller writer Andrew Grant.

Since the publication of his first novel, Prague, Arthur Phillips has firmly established himself as one of contemporary America’s most original writers, dazzling readers with wit, a keen sense of humanity and an exuberant style that is simply a delight to read. Part pseudo-memoir, part Elizabethan drama, The Tragedy of Arthur tells the story of […]

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Trending Features

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!