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At a small table in Eliot Square’s Cafe Paradiso Sunday afternoon, sixth-year doctoral student Lauren J. Willig is sipping a latte and marking up a thick sheaf of papers with red ink. But she’s not poring over the rushed contentions of a new batch of undergraduate midterms, or a draft of her dissertation on British history of the Tudor-Stuart period, or even a judicial opinion for her second year at Harvard Law School.
No, Willig is engrossed in the twists and turns in the latest manuscript of her second historical romance novel—The Masque of the Black Tulip.
“Right now the book time has been sucking up the time I had slated for dissertation writing,” she says with a shrug.
Willig’s debut novel, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, was published in February to strong sales. The light-hearted page-turner flits daringly between the present day and Napoleonic France, where disguised espionage is as common as bodice-ripping passion.
The racing, racy historical narrative is driven by plucky characters with dual lives like 20-year-old Amy Balcourt, a.k.a. The Pink Carnation, who abandons a peaceful life in the British countryside to avenge her guillotined aristocrat father. Witty, rapier-wielding Lord Richard Selwick, a foppish Egyptologist at home in England, ventures into Bonaparte’s sanctum and dons the dashing mask of The Purple Gentian to save fair Brittania—and win Balcourt’s quivering Regency-era heart.
Even the most novice sleuth could identify this plot as the work of an experienced pen—and, sure enough, Willig has been sharpening her quill since she was nine. At that tender age, she wrote her first novel, The Night the Clock Struck Death, a noirishly-titled mystery which was summarily rejected by Simon and Schuster upon submission.
Willig wasn’t discouraged. She persisted to produce countless pages through her teenage years.
Instead of setting off for French dungeons after high school, she went to New Haven. By the time she graduated from Yale, Willig knew she wanted to be a novelist—but her love of the written word wasn’t enough to sell her on a starving artist’s life.
“I knew I wasn’t brave enough to just live in a garret,” Willig explains.
And so, at first glance, Willig may bear a bit more resemblance to Eloise Kelly, who, as Carnation’s prologue opens, has just left a stuffy carrel in modern Widener Library for a year of fortuitously-fruitful historical research in London. But for the last three years, Willig has led her very own many-faceted life, fitting her novelistic pursuits into a bifurcated academic schedule of history and law.
Willig entered Harvard’s history doctoral program in 1999. But before long, the literary strain in her soul began to make itself heard once more.
“I hadn’t realized quite how intense the first few years of grad school would be,” she laments now. “When you’re being assigned 40 books a week…there’s not much room for novels.”
But, she says with a smile, “The long summer vacations are a boon.”
After two grueling years of studying history, then, Willig used just such a break to begin the work which became Carnation.
“I had promised myself I would start a novel after I finished my [general exams], as a kind of present to myself,” she says.
The writing process was made easier by the scores of notes Willig had already taken from primary source diaries of the Napoleonic era—not in Widener, but in high school, when she wrote a historical novella on the emperor’s stepdaughter.
“I cheated,” Willig kids. “A lot of research for this novel was actually done years ago.”
Back at Harvard in the fall of 2001, Willig began working as a teaching fellow. Her stints leading sections of History 10a, “Western Societies, Politics, and Cultures,” and Historical Study B-57, “The Second British Empire,” left Willig with a bittersweet taste.
“I’m not sure that teaching a Core course is necessarily the best introduction to teaching,” Willig says. But she acknowledges that “grading student papers actually was very helpful.…It makes you think a great deal about structure.”
Still, Willig’s mind was racing with the more free-wheeling, swashbuckling exploits of the Carnation and the Gentian, and word began to get out.
“Lauren’s friends certainly knew that she was writing a novel, but she didn’t talk about it overmuch,” writes Willig’s friend Elizabeth W. Mellyn in an e-mail. Mellyn, a fifth-year doctoral student in history—who, as it happens, is working on The Relic Thieves, a young-adult novel set in fifteenth-century Italy—knows something about balancing fiction with graduate-level history.
“Honestly, it’s not always a good idea in an academic department to admit to writing a novel,” Mellyn reflects. “While some view it as an endeavor lacking seriousness and rigor others can see it as a waste of time.”
Willig describes her colleagues’ attitude towards her writing in more positive terms.
“People were very patient about canceling coffee or drinks because the characters just had to move another chapter,” she says.
But Willig’s doctoral dissertation was less patient. She continued to write Carnation through the summer of 2002, but in the fall of that year, she headed to London for a year-long academic research jaunt not unlike that of Eloise Kelly in her novel.
“I didn’t find a cache of secret family papers,” she jokes in reference to the discovery Kelly makes on page 9 of Carnation.
Willig’s next mission took her back to the States on a “totally accidental” turn to Harvard Law School.
“Practically everyone in my family has a J.D. and a Ph.D.,” she says. “It’s like ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ but with a degree not a curse.”
The move had its practical reasons, too: Willig was convinced that a legal degree would bring her back to her beloved hometown.
“If I stay in academia, I might end up going someplace random,” she explains with the impeccable logic of a native Manhattanite.
Besides, Willig says, history is “so much more fun as a hobby.…Compared to reading case law, the dissertation becomes so interesting again!”
Before she knew it, Willig had found a literary agent through a friend, and inked a book deal with Dutton. Now, hard at work on The Masque of the Black Tulip—in which two supporting characters from Carnation engage in a little romantic derring-do of their own—her mind is on the future.
Willig daydreams about her ideal cast for a film Carnation, should one ever come around.
“This wonderful marketing person [at Dutton] came up to me and said, ‘So, for Richard, Orlando Bloom?’” Willig remembers. “We toyed with the idea of Anne Hathaway for Amy….We couldn’t find a role for Colin Firth, which was distressing.”
But one thing Willig knows she won’t be doing: setting a novel in the historical period that she actually studies, a century and a half before Carnation takes place.
“I’m too close to it,” she says. “I would be so hyper-aware of historical inaccuracies that I would go mad…[In Carnation] my academic antennae aren’t working quite so hard.”
Willig learned this lesson the hard way, at a 1998 screening of Elizabeth—in which Cate Blanchett’s turn as the titular queen was briefly supplemented by a cameo appearance by Marie De Guise, the sixteenth-century Scottish monarch who happened to be the subject of her senior thesis.
“I had to leave in the middle,” Willig recalls. “It was just so historically inaccurate.”
—Staff writer Simon W. Vozick-Levinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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