Martha Waters’ delightful debut romance, To Have and to Hoax, takes the death-by-consumption trope and flips it on its head. Lady Violet fakes a very serious illness in an attempt to get back at her estranged husband, James. But when James finds out that Violet’s been lying to him, it kicks off a hilarious war of lies and pranks between the pair.
We talked to Waters about which episode of “Friends” inspired the buoyant, clever tone of her debut romance, why her cat doesn’t deserve any credit for helping her work and what comes next.
Where did the idea for James and Violet’s war of escalating illnesses and lies come from?
I have to be honest: The fake consumption came before anything else in the entire book. I’ve had a longtime running joke with my friends about consumption being the most romantic way to die (I blame Ruby Gillis’ oh-so-romantic/tragic death of galloping consumption in Anne of the Island for this belief on my part), and several years ago I was joking about it with a friend and said it would make a great premise for a romance novel, but the consumption would have to be fake, since no one wants to read a romance about someone actually dying. And I quickly realized that James needed to see through Violet’s ruse pretty quickly, so readers wouldn’t feel too bad for him, so it logically evolved into this game of one-upsmanship. I was also definitely inspired by the “they don’t know we know” episode of “Friends,” which is overall the vibe I was going for with this book.
If Violet and James were each a cocktail, what would they be?
I don’t think James would be a cocktail at all, but a glass of good red wine—something classic and high-quality, in an understated kind of way. Violet would be some weird combination of ingredients of her own invention that sound totally insane mixed together but that all come together nicely in the end.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of To Have and to Hoax.
I stalked you on Instagram (as is necessary when conducting a Q&A) and was delighted to see that you have a very adorable cat! What role does your cat play, if any, in your writing process?
I was just joking with a friend the other day that if I could write an anti-acknowledgements page for my book, noting the people that I succeeded in spite of, rather than because of, my cat Puffin would be at the top of this list. Fortunately, I hadn’t gotten her yet when I was initially drafting To Have and to Hoax, but she was extremely distracting when I was trying to do revisions on a tight deadline. She’s the best cat ever, but a horrible, playful nuisance when I’m actually trying to get writing done.
“Any man who can write a love letter that good has my undying affection.”
There are so many fun side characters in this book, from Violet’s hilarious friends to James’ very sweet and honestly heartbreaking older brother. Did any of them really pop off the page for you while writing?
All of the side characters ended up playing much more crucial roles than I intended. They kind of took over all the scenes they were in. One character a lot of people have told me they love is Sophie, who is James’ brother’s former almost-fiancée and who plays a role in James and Violet’s hijinks. She actually didn’t exist in the first draft of the book! I had a different character filling the sort of plot role that Sophie plays, and I didn’t like her, so I rewrote her completely in the second draft, and Sophie came into existence instead. I ended up really loving her, despite the fact that I originally created her solely in service of the plot.
Many of the problems in James and Violet’s marriage stem from issues with family. Which backstory came first, and did you shape the other half of the couple’s backstory to complement it?
I actually think the backstories evolved organically in tandem with each other, rather than one leading the way. I realized early on that for a couple to be this bad at communicating, there needed to be some valid issues holding them back. From that point, it was just a matter of figuring out what those issues looked like for each of them. Writing James’ relationship with his father as one that caused a lot of trust issues in his adulthood played really nicely into his character arc. I had known since literally the first few pages of the book that Violet’s relationship with her mother was complicated—that she wasn’t the prim and proper lady her mother wanted her to be—so I then developed this a bit deeper in terms of how these issues affected her relationship with James and the tensions they might cause.
What was the hardest single scene to get right in To Have and to Hoax?
I really struggled, as the book went on and the war between Violet and James escalated, with keeping everyone’s motivations clear. There are a couple of chapters at a ball late in the book that were particularly difficult in this regard. When you have two characters lying to each other and also in total denial about their real feelings for each other and what they actually want the outcome of these shenanigans to be, it’s important to make sure the reader is right there with them for every shift of the emotional winds, so to speak. It was really tricky! I’m super grateful for both my wonderful agent and my brilliant editor for helping me with this in different rounds of revisions.
Is there another era of history that you’d love to explore as a writer?
I really love the 1920s and have a couple of ideas for books set then. I struggle with these ideas a bit, since I find the ’20s to be a fairly depressing decade, and I like to write very lighthearted romps, but I’m confident I could make it work.
Who is your favorite Jane Austen heroine and why? Who is your favorite hero?
It’s obviously hard to choose, as I love so many of them, but Emma is my favorite heroine, and that’s also my favorite Austen book. She’s so complicated and at times unlikable and selfish and deliciously human. For heroes, I think I’ll have to choose Captain Wentworth from Persuasion; any man who can write a love letter that good has my undying affection.
What’s next for you?
Coming out in spring 2021 is To Love and to Loathe, which takes place immediately after the action of To Have and to Hoax. It’s not so much a sequel as a linked standalone—meaning, you can read and enjoy it even if you haven’t read the first book, but readers who loved To Have and to Hoax will get a particular kick out of it. It’s set at a country house party at the estate of Jeremy, James’ best friend, and it’s about a deal he makes with Violet’s best friend, Diana, wherein they become lovers solely for the duration of the house party . . . but of course it doesn’t end up being that simple! It’s a fun, banter-y rivals-to-lovers book, and I can’t wait to share it!
Author photo © Ryan Chamberlain