Yuletide Interview with Lauren Willig, Author of The Mischief of the Mistletoe – and A Grand Giveaway

The Mischief of the Mistletoe: A Pink Carnation Christmas, by Lauren Willig (2010)Lauren Willig, one of my favorite historical romance novelists has just released The Mischief of the Mistletoe, her seventh novel in The Pink Carnation series. Set in Regency-era Bath she has elevated Reginald “Turnip” Fitzhugh, one of her very popular comedic characters from the series, and given him his own spy adventure and a romance. One of the supporting characters is our very own Jane Austen and the storyline parallels her unfinished novel The Watsons. It is rollicking great romantic adventure and I recommend The Mischief of the Mistletoe highly.

Please join me in welcoming Lauren Willig today to chat with us about her new novel and its Jane Austen connections.

LAN: Welcome Lauren. Many of your male characters in the Pink Carnation series are iconic romantic heroes, rivaling Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy or Captain Wentworth in honor, bravery and integrity. Only one is a lovable bumbler – Reginald “Turnip” Fitzhugh. He is endearingly flawed, and because I dearly love to laugh, one of my favorite characters. Turnip is a very unusual name. Can you share his back-story and why you decided to spotlight this un-conventional hero in The Mischief of the Mistletoe?

LJW:  I hadn’t intended to write a book about Turnip.  I threw him in there purely for comic relief.  Ever notice how any group of guys seems to contain the one slightly clueless friend who acts as a foil for the rest of them?  (Extra points if that guy is named Bertie, Bunty or Gussy Finknottle.)  Turnip was that guy.  But as the series continued, emails started pouring in, asking when Turnip was going to get some lovin’.  And I began to wonder if there might not be more to my lovable vegetable than I had previously imagined.

There was a school of thought that posited that Turnip was another Percy Blakeney, hiding a cunning intelligence beneath a foppish façade.  I didn’t want to go that route, partly because Baroness Orczy already had, and partly because it seemed too easy.  I wanted to make Turnip heroic despite his lack of endowment in the brainbox.  The more I explored Turnip’s character the clearer it became that he really did have one thing going for him, hidden beneath those gaudy waistcoats: an enormous heart.

Side note: several people have asked me how Turnip came to be called Turnip.  As followers of the series know, his real name is Reginald and his doting (ahem) sister calls him “Reggie”.  At least, she does when she wants something from him.  When I wrote the early books in the series, I was on the tail end of a massive Blackadder obsession.  As anyone who has watched Blackadder knows, just as sheep are inherently amusing animals, turnips are inherently amusing vegetables.  When I wanted a silly name for a character, what better than the sheep of the vegetable kingdom?

LAN: In 1803 Bath, your impoverished heroine Arabella Dempsey has returned to her family and friends after several years as a companion to a wealthy aunt in London. Her neighbor and best friend Jane Austen is a supporting character in your story. What research did you undergo to prepare for her character? Was it a challenge to write about the famous Regency-era authoress?

LJW: Wow, this was really my book of “I never intended….”  But I do mean it when I say I originally didn’t intend to go near Austen with a ten foot pole.  People have very firm idea about Austen and the era of Austen.  My books deal with zany French spies and improbable historical episodes (many of which actually occurred—there’s nothing quite so improbable as the actual, and nothing quite so strange as truth).  This is not the orderly world of Austen’s drawing rooms.

Except that this book was occurring in Austen’s drawing room. Well, almost.  I knew I wanted to set Turnip’s book in Bath in 1803, revolving largely around a faux all girls’ school across the street from the Sydney Gardens.  In winter of 1803, guess who was living at #4 Sydney Place?  Yes, Jane Austen.  I bowed to the inevitable and spent a great deal of time reading Austen’s letters, her juvenilia, the annoying biographies written by her near and dear ones, and more useful biographies written by less near and dear ones in the hopes of getting her tone as right as I could.

Getting the right balance of Austen-time and Austen-tone was tough.  I didn’t want to fall into the trap of making Austen sound too oracular, which, I think, so often happens in these Austen cameos.  I also didn’t want her to take over too much of the story.  This, after all, was Arabella and Turnip’s tale, not hers, and, in 1803, she wasn’t the authoress who would be later admired by Prinny himself, but just an unmarried twenty-seven year old living with her parents in rented rooms, waiting to see if that publisher would ever do anything with “Susan” (he didn’t) and whether she could buy some cheap trim for that old bonnet.  I wanted her to be what she would have been—someone’s slightly snarky friend, on the sidelines of the main action.

LAN: You cleverly incorporated characters and plot elements that parallel Jane Austen’s unfinished novel The Watsons into The Mischief of the Mistletoe. I can see strong similarities and differences. Some might consider your new novel a variation and completion of Austen’s unfinished novel. I view it as a gentle homage. What intrigued you about the often overlooked The Watsons to include resemblances in your novel?

LJW: There was an almost uncanny symbiosis at work.  It all began with timing.  My novel was set in 1803, just when Austen was beginning The Watsons, the one thing she wrote during a long, dry spell in between her early works and her later ones.  What was it that had inspired The Watsons?  And why had she dropped it?  No one seemed to know.  What author can resist a challenge like that?

When I opened The Watsons, one exchange jumped out at me.  Emma Watson declares:

“Poverty is a great evil; but to a woman of education and feeling it ought not, it cannot be the greatest. I would rather be teacher at a school (and I can think of nothing worse) than marry a man I did not like.”

“I would rather do anything than be teacher at a school,” said her sister. “I have been at school, Emma, and know what a life they lead; you never have.”

I already knew that my heroine, Arabella, was seeking a position at a girls’ school.  This hit eerily close to home.  That’s when the “what if” hit.  What if it was my heroine who inspired this exchange?  What if, like Emma Watson, she had been tossed out of the home of a wealthy relation when that relation imprudently remarried?  What if, unlike Emma Watson, she actually took that position at a school—over the advice of her friend, Jane?  Like that, my plot came together, and facts I hadn’t realized I’d known about my heroine became clear.

Of course, with the addition of mysterious messages wrapped around Christmas pudding, Arabella’s story takes a turn Austen could never have anticipated….  And now we know why Austen never finished The Watsons!

LAN: The highly anticipated eighth novel in your Pink Carnation series, The Orchid Affair, will be released on January 20, 2010. As you continue the “Pink” franchise, how did this new story come to you, and can you share with readers one of your favorite new characters?

LJW: Picture it.  Spring 2008.  I’d just finished writing The Temptation of the Night Jasmine and was rewarding myself by indulging in a little domesticity before plunging into the next book in the series, The Betrayal of the Blood Lily.  I’d made a large, complicated quiche that involved a lot of frying and chopping, and I was plopped on the couch, flipping channels as it baked.  I wound up idly watching a World War II drama starring, among others, Michael Douglas, Melanie Griffith, and Liam Neeson.  Griffith’s character goes undercover in Nazi Germany, planted in the household of high-ranking something-or-other Neeson as a governess.

There was one problem.  The Liam Neeson character was meant to be evil (I mean, he was a Nazi, ergo), but he was still Liam Neeson.  As I watched, I kept waiting for that plot twist that would make him not evil, i.e. secretly working for the other side or something like that.  It didn’t happen.  I wandered off to the oven to retrieve slightly burnt quiche in one of those hazes unique to authors and other spaced-out types, thinking, hmm, I can use this….  And I did.

The Orchid Affair features a graduate of the Selwick Spy school, a long-term career governess desperate to get away from governessing, planted in the household of Napoleonic bigwig Andre Jaouen—as a governess.  Jaouen is a card-carrying member of the revolutionary regime.  He’s second in command at the Prefecture of Paris and right hand man to Napoleon’s sinister Minister of Police, Joseph Fouche.

Through Andre Jaouen, I got to explore the failed hopes of the Revolution, to look at the course of events, not through the eyes of an aristocratic Englishman, but through those of a child of the Enlightenment, someone who believed in the early dreams and ideals of the Revolution and is forced to come to terms with the way it all turned out.  And did I mention that he looks oddly like Liam Neeson?

LAN: In addition to your next installment in the “Pink” series, your original short story “A Night at Northanger” will be featured in my anthology Jane Austen Made Me Do It to be released by Ballantine Books in October, 2011. Do share a bit of your storyline and inspiration for your contemporary homage to Austen’s burlesque comedy Northanger Abbey. Was it any easy step from novel to short story? Are there any surprises in store for readers?

LJW: As you may have noticed from this interview, brevity is not one of my strengths.  The last time I’d written short fiction was for a short story class back in college—and even then I’d found it hard to confine my enthusiasm to the proscribed page length.  But I had a fabulous time writing “A Night at Northanger”.

Northanger Abbey, with its broad comedy (and a genuinely sweet hero in Henry Tilton) has always been my favorite Austen.  I’m not quite sure where I came up with the idea of combining Northanger Abbey with a low-budget ghost hunting show.  Too much SyFy channel on an empty stomach?

Here’s the plot in a nutshell:  Things go horribly wrong for Cate Kartowski and the rest of the cast of Ghost Trackers when they elect to spend a night at Northanger.  (No one expects the ghost of Jane Austen!)

LAN: On his deathbed, famous playwright George Bernard Shaw said “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” I could not agree more. You excel at high comedy, sharing a rare sense of the ridiculous with fellow authors Georgette Heyer, P.G. Wodehouse and Oscar Wilde. How did you develop your sense of humor and who inspires you?

LJW: Thank you so much!  That is a high compliment, indeed.  My college roommate, who has an equal facility for the appreciation of the ridiculous, refers to it as having a well-developed sense of the absurd.  I’m not sure how that sort of thing comes about.  Part of it, I’m guessing, comes from having been steeped in eccentricity from an early age.  I grew up watching Wodehouse (back before Hugh Laurie became a grumpy American doctor) and Rumpole of the Bailey, Blackadder and Allo, Allo.   And then there were the real life characters (hopefully none of whom are reading this interview, but best not to be too specific, just to be on the safe side).

From those beginnings, it was an easy step to Elizabeth Peters’ mystery novels, with their wry humor, the social satire of Nancy Mitford and Angela Thirkell, and Judith Merkle Riley’s delightfully batty historical fiction.  Other icons include George MacDonald Fraser (one word: Pyrates), L.M. Montgomery (boy, can she skewer them!), and Stella Gibbons, author of Cold Comfort Farm.

LAN: What is next for Lauren Willig? What are you working on now, and what is your dream project that you have simmering on the back burner? Personally, I think it is time to write that Pink Carnation Compendium that I am craving. Hint, hint!

LJW: Right now, I’m on revisions for Pink IX, still cleverly called Pink IX.  Speaking of the absurd….  Pink IX, which comes out in January 2012, features that melodramatic poet, Augustus Whittlesby, writing a court masque in conjunction with an upstart American friend of Napoleon’s stepdaughter.  Let’s just say it’s an interesting collaboration.  And that their masque isn’t going to be winning any awards for Best Script.

As for dream projects… I’d tell you about them, but that would probably jinx them!

Thanks so much for having me here, Laurel Ann!  It’s been such fun.

Thanks Lauren. It was a pleasure!

A Grand Giveaway

The Mischief of the Mistletoe Ornament  2010Enter a chance to win one of two copies of The Mischief of the Mistletoe: A Pink Carnation Christmas paired with a holiday inspired ornament inscribed “Tis the season for Mischief” and at the bottom “A Pink Carnation Christmas.”  Just leave a comment stating what intrigues you about this new novel or who your favorite couple in Lauren’s Pink Carnation series is and why, by 11:59 pm PT, Friday, December 24, 2010. Winners will be announced on Saturday, December 25, 2010. Shipment to US and Canadian addresses only. Good luck and Merry Christmas to one and all.

© 2010 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose