Thursday, February 3, 2011

Books of a Lifetime by Lauren Willig

The book that set me on the road to perdition—I mean, on the road to writing historical fiction—was a flimsy paperback with a smug lady and a worried knight on the cover. It was E.L. Koenigsburg’s inventive reconstruction of the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver, recounted by that formidable lady’s friends and associates as they sit around on a cloud, waiting to see if Henry II has finally collected enough lawyers to argue his way up into heaven. It was a zany, lively look at history, packed with historical in-jokes. By the time I finished it, I felt like they were all old friends: Eleanor, Henry, William the Marshall, Abbot Suger. I wanted more. I wanted to go on living in Eleanor’s world, this bright world of crusades and jousts, of love and treachery and struggles for the throne—and, as I learned the hard way, there was only so many times I could re-read A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver. The cover fell off. I stapled it back on and went to nag the adults in my life for more historical fiction, Eleanor appearances a plus. I was six years old. My fate was set.

By the time I was ten, I had gotten over my Eleanor of Aquitaine fixation (there may have been a little Nancy Drew obsession along the way, followed by a Three Musketeers phase, in which I wrote that wimpy Mme Bonacieux out of the story and wrote myself in instead) and found a new historical period to obsess about. My local television station had aired one of those wonderfully cheesy 80’s mini-series about Napoleon and Josephine, playing up the romance and playing down the more negative bits. My ex-historian father gave me Theo Aronson’s The Golden Bees. My school librarian gave me Desiree, by Anne-Marie Selinko. Told in diary form, Desiree is the story of Napoleon’s first love, whom he jilted for Josephine, and who went on to marry another revolutionary general who became, in an odd twist of fate, King of Sweden. This was history brought to life in the best of all possible of ways. In addition to being a fascinating example of the ways in which historical narrative can be twisted to make a better story, Desiree inspired me to research and write novel about Hortense de Beauharnais, Josephine’s daughter, while I was still in high school. That novel is still unpublished—for good reason!—but it deeply influenced the choice of setting of my Pink Carnation books, several of which intersect with the Bonapartes and their colorful, tangled lives.

I was fortunate to have parents who were both avid readers and who set no bans on the books I read (they did make faces when I clamored for Sweet Valley High, but they bought it for me anyway). I browsed freely among their shelves. I found Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’ A Rose in Winter that way, Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear, Joan Wolf’s Road to Avalon, and Karleen Koen’s Through A Glass Darkly, but my biggest find, one sunny summer day when I was hiding in the shade of the house, was M.M. Kaye’s Shadow of the Moon. It boasted one of those covers with a woman in a large hooped skirt, swooning back against a man who seemed to have lost half his uniform and his shirt buttons. Excellent! I was going through a Victorian phase (thank you, Victoria Holt), and the heavier on the hoops and the swooning, the better. Shadow of the Moon introduced me to the whole fascinating world of colonial India—which proved a huge help when I found myself unexpectedly TA-ing a class on the topic in grad school!

There’s far too little space to talk about all the books that have made my eternal keeper shelf (Judith Merkle Riley, Robin McKinley, and Diana Gabaldon, I’m looking at you), but I do want to give a shout out to just one more: The Blue Castle, by L.M. Montgomery (and The Ladies of Missalonghi, by Colleen McCullough, which is a lot like it). No one tells a Cinderella story like L.M. Montgomery, with pith and heart and all those other good things. It’s not historical fiction per se, except in the sense that it’s historical to us, but, boy, does it pack a punch.

Lauren Willig's new Pink Carnation book, The Orchid Affair was released January 20. You can read an excerpt of this exciting new adventure and learn all about Lauren at her website


  1. The Blue Castle (as well as L.M. Montgomery) really is an awesome Cinderella story.

    As for Desiree, I saw Lauren recommend it somewhere else (the website maybe?) and found a copy at a library sale and happily bought it...but now I'm really jealous because the cover pictured up there is gorgeous! My copy is sans dust jacket.

    Having parents that also love to read - or at least understand the obsession - is a real blessing. I would beg for Baby-Sitters Club and Victoria Holt in the same breath and my mom wouldn't bat an eye. Awesome.

    Great post!

  2. I have heard so many wonderful things about Deriree; I must move it to the top of my TBR list!

    It is always nice to learn what books inspired a persons love for reading and writing. Thanks for this lovely post!

  3. Fascinating post! I love finding out what books have inspired favorite authors and will add Desiree to my list of to-read. Looking forward to continuing the adventures in The Orchid Affair.
    (And as a mom, I also support my kids' choices in reading...they devour everything from comics to the classics. It's all good!)

  4. I just picked up Desiree at barnes & noble a couple of weeks ago.

    How great to have bookworm parents! My dad was always telling me to "put down the da** book and come watch Jeopardy!" As a result I used to stay up late reading under the covers with a flashlight AND I'm awesome at Jeopardy :)

  5. It is always nice to learn what books inspired a persons love for reading and writing. Thanks for this lovely post.

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  6. Great post subject. My parents owned a bookstore, which I always thought was strange since my dad didn't like to read, and my brother and I could read any book as long as it was returned to the shelf in the same condition in which it was removed. This not only supported and increased my love of reading but gave me a respect for books that still continues with every book I own.

  7. I read 8 books in January, 2 so far in February with a few more in the to-be-read pile.