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Interview with Beatriz Williams

July, 2018
Beatriz Williams
A fascination with islands and Shakespeare's The Tempest were among the inspirations for Beatriz Williams' ninth historical novel, The Summer Wives, a story of love, class, murder, and secrets set on an elite resort island in Long Island Sound in the summers of 1951 and 1969.

Miranda Schuyler (a name fans might recognize from Williams' bestselling Schuyler Sister novels—she's a distant relative) is a naive 18-year-old the first time she sets foot on the fictional Winthrop island to see her widowed mother marry the wealthy Hugh Fisher. A rarefied, remote idyll, the island is home to both the families who have summered there for generations and a year-round population of Portuguese fishermen and domestic workers. Baffled by the secret, arcane customs of Winthrop society, Miranda is drawn to Joseph, a young lobsterman and the son of the island's lighthouse keeper, only to find an even more powerful, ultimately deadly, secret binding him to the Fisher family.

Williams, who in her previous career worked on Wall Street, has mined many of the 20th century's historical treasures for her books, which include A Hundred Summers, Along the Infinite Sea, and A Certain Age, the first of her Jazz Age series. Here she talks to Goodreads interviewer Catherine Elsworth about islands, why she's drawn to the periods she writes about, and how the past is relevant to life today.




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Goodreads: Tell us about your starting point for The Summer Wives. How did it come into being?

Beatriz Williams: Like a lot of my books, it started out with the experience of the older families of the East Coast. Way back when I was first dating my husband, his parents would go to this very old beach club every summer. They'd sit on the boardwalk, drinking their rum southsides and chitchat with people, and afterward my mother-in-law would turn to me and say something like, "I never liked him." And I'd sit there thinking, "That's strange. I would have thought you were good friends." So I was always fascinated by these micro-cultures and also by the idea of a place where people are essentially thrown together and have to find a way to get along, so they develop all these layers.

Then I heard about this island off the Connecticut coast called Fishers Island. The same families return to it year after year and summer there, and they all know each other, and they intermarry, and it's very hard to go there because it's like an exclusive club, a closed society. And I thought this was a really interesting culture to explore, the whole meaning of an island where you close yourself off and you're basically trying to maintain this culture in amber like it's been since the 1920s.

When I set out to write this book, I knew I wasn't actually going to write about Fishers. I like to write my own stories. So I took the idea of Fishers and the micro-culture of Fishers and a little bit of the geography of Fishers, and I changed stuff around. Then when I pitched this idea to my agent and my editor, they both gasped and said, "Oh yes, you have to do this because it is such a particular culture and everyone wants to know more about it."

GR: The tension between the rich families who summer on the island and the people who live there year-round and work for them is central to the book. Can you talk about that?

BW: One of the ideas that I took from Fishers that I thought was really interesting was this symbiotic relationship, this tension, between the year-round population, basically the working class of the island, and the families who come in every summer. They need each other and they're loyal to each other, but there's also this tension because there's an unbridgeable gulf between them.

I also wanted to talk about that postwar moment when you have the WASP upper class thrashing around a bit, unsure of what to do next. At that point in history, if you're the WASP upper class, you're supposed to be the leaders. But as American society opens up, and different classes and races and religions are allowed into the leadership ranks, you're no longer so important. And is that because you've ossified, you haven't innovated but stayed exactly the way you are? Your parents were these pirates and pioneers who made all this money, and now what do you do, what's your role?

It's also interesting how in so many cases, in opera and Shakespeare and older storytelling, there's a love affair that takes these tensions in society and makes them matter. Because a love affair raises the stakes. You have a loyalty to a person, but then you have a loyalty to your kin group. So having two people on opposite sides fall in love was a great way for me to explore the friction between those two classes, the year-rounders on the island and the summer families.

GR: Miranda is very much a fish out of water in her new home on Winthrop island. Do you relate to that?

BW: I grew up near Seattle—my father is actually British and my mother is Californian, although not what you'd call a typical Californian. So when I moved to New York after college and met my husband, who is from an old East Coast family, it was a big culture shock for me.

Luckily, I was an anthropology major, so as I was absorbing these weird rituals and customs and this whole new culture, I was almost like an anthropologist. And that, in many ways, has fit into all my books. I was talking with a writer friend of mine who said, "Your books are very often about some outsider entering a world and trying to figure out how to navigate this strange culture." And I was like, "Oh gosh, that's right." So maybe I am writing about myself. I feel like in some ways my characters are actually myself; maybe they are a stand-in for that experience of being a stranger in a strange land.

GR: How did Shakespeare's The Tempest, which is performed at the end of the book, influence The Summer Wives?

BW: Very early on we find out that Miranda's father used to read Shakespeare to her as a child. I was thinking of father-daughter relationships on islands, and I was like, "Oh, I need to name her Miranda." And it was when I realized I had this great island theme from The Tempest that I decided where I wanted to end [the book]. And then it developed from there, the whole notion of this society, this culture as an island.

GR: Women are exploited by men in The Summer Wives—both in a storyline set in the 1930s and in Miranda's relationship with her abusive director husband. Can you talk about this?


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BW: Sexual power is something I deal with in every single book because it's so fascinating and essential to the process of becoming an adult and the power negotiation between men and women.

I had to tell the story of Bianca [in 1930] in an immediate way, because it was just so essential, the fact that you have this original sin of a powerful man exploiting a young girl who has a lot less social and financial power, and how that plays out through the generations.

And then we have Miranda undergoing this process of negotiation, and the fact that there's this director essentially exploiting the actresses he works with.

I wrote this before the #MeToo movement and Harvey Weinstein and everything came out. And I was like, "Oh wow, how did that timing work out?"

My goal is always to show how the way things happened in the past has relevance to the way we are doing things today, because you think that this is something that we've left behind, but it is still relevant today. So I was watching all this stuff unfolding late last year and thinking, "Have we changed at all? How much have we really evolved?"

GR: When did your fascination with 20th-century history begin?

BW: In college I took a course on turn-of-the-century Europe, and one of the texts we read was Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth. It just devastated me. I could not believe the tragedy and the loss [of the First World War], the emptiness left behind. I don't think people realize what a cultural effect it had. You couldn't have had the '20s without World War I, and that sense of emptiness that overcame us.

So that was when I started really thinking about the 20th century, and where we stood in 1905 compared to where we stood in 2000. And this journey that we took is probably the most extraordinary journey we've taken in the course of human history. The amount of change that went on and how it transformed our lives. There's the spiritual side of it, which is the tragedy of the war and what it does to us psychologically, but then also this unbelievably rapid change in science and technology. And you have the automobile, and you have women voting, and you have Prohibition—all these things taking place in society.

Obviously, novels thrive on conflict, and it seems to me every particular decade has its own particular character. There's also this tension between old and new. If there is one constant theme going through all my books, it's that tension between the romanticism of the 19th century that speaks to human emotion, and then modernism, and they're rubbing up against each other. Throughout the course of the 20th century it's just this struggle, isn't it? And to me that's endlessly fascinating and endlessly fertile in terms of storytelling.

GR: Many of your books are connected, and you've talked about them occupying a "shared universe." How do you keep track of that universe? Do you have a big diagram on your wall, or is it in your head?

BW: I have a big diagram in my head! My father is an engineer, and his father was an engineer, so I am able to, I guess, carry that sort of thing in my head. Where I need help is remembering when everybody was born, when they died, got married, and when their kids were born. In my previous life I got a finance MBA, so I created a massive spreadsheet that has when anyone was born.

This book is a bit more standalone. We don't really meet any major characters who have arisen in any other books, although they're linked to the Schuyler family, around which I've built this universe. But in other books where, say, a character reappears 20 years later and I'm like, "Oh God, how old would that character be?" It's very easy to just go to my master schedule, look down one column and one row, and figure out what age any particular character would have been in any particular year.

GR: So how does Miranda relate to the Schuyler family?

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BW: Miranda is somebody who comes from a minor branch of the family. She's essentially like a third cousin to the Schuylers in some of my previous books. And some of the linkages will become clearer in later books. I did want to start a little bit fresh with The Summer Wives because I didn't want to have the ghost of Schuylers past floating around in there too much. I do have a character, a Schuyler, in there: Miranda's uncle. And I know that he has a brother, too, a character I've already used. So I think he's going to reappear at some point because even though he never appeared in person in The Summer Wives, I was intrigued by him, so he's one of my Schuylers that I've filed away for later use.

GR: Do you think we'll see Miranda or Joseph again?

BW: I think we will. I would really like to. I found it really fascinating to deal with these people, and there were so many elements that I couldn't pack everything into one book. I had a great idea for a follow-up book, not a sequel exactly but something that would follow up, so I think we will see these characters again.

GR: Given that your background was in finance and corporate strategy, how did you become a novelist?

BW: In some ways, it's more the other way around: As someone who's been writing all my life, how the heck did I end up on Wall Street instead of writing books?

There was always a sense that I couldn't just sit around and try to make money writing. I had to choose to make a living, and I had my student debt and so on. And I ended up with the MBA because I didn't want to be a financial burden on anybody. Obviously, I was reading the entire time—I think I was the only person in my Columbia Business School class who was going through all of Trollope's novels while getting my MBA. And I constantly had some story on my laptop that I was hiding from everyone. It wasn't until I was on maternity leave with my first child that I started. And it was really when my third child was about a year old and the older ones were in preschool that I really went after it. I started going to conferences, and I was like a sponge learning storytelling technique, and then I eventually managed to write something that was published.

Having that experience in the financial world, in the working world, which is very fast-paced, very ambitious, has, I hope, given me a certain strength of character to attack writing in a way that combines my creative side with that sense of hard work and discipline, and trying—always, always, always trying—to make the next book better than the last.

GR: Yes, because I was going to ask how you manage to write so much. You're incredibly prolific!

BW: Probably out of necessity because my husband left Wall Street and started consulting. And with four kids and us moving to the East Coast, there was definitely a lot of financial incentive to write as much as I could without giving up my own standard of quality. It also helps as well that since that I've just got to put my kids through college. So it's just, let's take that idea, let's focus on it, let's hammer it out, let's work on it and just keep writing, writing, writing every day.



GR: But how do you find the time? What does your average writing day look like?

BW: The pace has backed off, thank goodness, because I was writing two to three books a year and it was killing me. It's much easier now. My writing day is very disciplined. I get up, get the kids off to school. Once they're on the school bus, I try and write until noon or 1 p.m., then I usually have errands to run and the kids come home. And then I pick up again and write in the evening. So yeah, it's busy, but it's what I love to do. I feel so incredibly lucky to have this opportunity, so I try not to waste a moment. Obviously, every career has its ups and downs and moments of frustration. And particularly I think in an industry like this, where you're constantly being judged, much more than you would in a regular job in a cubicle somewhere. So it's a job where you really have to have a lot of discipline and a real sense of always moving on to the next book and the next idea and not looking back.



GR: What's the feedback from readers you enjoy the most?

BW: The wonderful ones where somebody's going though a very difficult time in their lives, and my books have provided an alternate world into which they can—I don't want to use the word escape, but in which they can immerse themselves and, I hope, relate to those characters and experiences. I love that. And I love when I hear from readers that they're getting the subtext underneath, finding all the little nuggets that I buried there. That always makes me really excited.



GR: Who would you say your favorite authors are?

BW: It's hard to say a favorite author because I dip into so much. I went through a huge Curtis Sittenfeld binge over the summer. And I just felt this sort of kinship because so many of her characters are outsiders negotiating this complex social environment. I love Patrick O'Brian. I read his novels when I was in college and continue to reread them. He writes historical fiction set during the Napoleonic wars, and it's wonderfully literary, full of plot and insight, and the characters are beautifully realized.

A great new book that I got to read an advanced copy of is Sally Koslow's Another Side of Paradise, which is about F. Scott Fitzgerald's final love affair with a woman who was a Hollywood gossip columnist. It's a fantastic book.

I tend not to read a lot of historical fiction. I tend to stick with either contemporary fiction or historical nonfiction because I don't ever want to find myself being derivative of anything.

In nonfiction right now I love Lynne Olson. She's just written a fascinating narrative nonfiction of various aspects of the Second World War. So I read Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War over the summer, and it was just fantastic. And it gave me 20 different book ideas!

Comments (showing 1-10 of 10) (10 new)

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message 1: by Tracy (new)

Tracy I absolutely love Beatriz Williams! I've read everything she's written and I'm eager for this latest novel, The Summer Wives. I appreciate the article. It's always nice to hear what the author is thinking about when writing their books. I will also check out the Sally Koslow book!


message 2: by Jackie (new)

Jackie Van Cleve Great interview, love her books.


message 3: by Jill (new)

Jill Crist Love Beatriz Williams and her fabulous novels. These are my summer delights!! I read A Hundred Summers in one day at the beach 5 years ago and have been hooked ever since. I’m always recommending her to my friends. This was such an interesting interview. Thank you for taking the time!


message 4: by Kimmy (new)

Kimmy Awesome interview! Such a big Beatriz fan so it’s great hearing her thoughts!


message 5: by Debra (new)

Debra Wagenecht Thank you Beatriz for this great interview! I loved reading The Summer Wives and I’m definitely a fan! Can’t wat to read more of your work


message 6: by Kimberly (new)

Kimberly Mussell I have read every one of your creations! The Summer Wives is on its way and I can’t wait!
Love reading your interviews and getting to learn more about you!


message 7: by Jackie (new)

Jackie Rogers I count it a privilege to have read Summer Wives. The in depth writing was superb and the characters part of ones family. Will be reading all of Ms. Williams books. Thanks for this interview.


message 8: by Eileen (new)

Eileen Iciek Great interview. I'll definitely be picking up more of her books.


message 9: by Amy (new)

Amy Robertson Beatrize Williams never lets us down! I love the time periods she chooses and how we get to relive it through her books. A Certain Age was just 1 of 2 five-star reads for me last year. I recommend it to everyone.
Thank you for the interview and a peek into The Summer Wives. Im very exvited for the big release!


message 10: by Dawn (new)

Dawn I also love Beatriz’s books. I am reading Along the Infinite Sea now and was excited to see Summer Wives coming out soon. My problem is I hate to have read everything she has written and not have something still out there waiting for me so I will probably wait a few weeks or months before diving in. More time to savor it when I finally do read it. Loved learning more about the author- thank you so much!


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