Beatriz Williams on Finding Her Heroine’s Voice

Beatriz Williams on Finding Her Heroine’s Voice

Beatriz Williams

Beatriz Williams’ novel The Golden Hour is one of the season’s must-reads, and we’d highly recommend tucking this historical novel into your beach bag. Williams transports readers to the Bahamas during World War II and introduces them to Lulu Randolph, a whip-smart journalist with a fascinating assignment: covering the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Here, Williams chats with Bookish about writing multiple storylines, finding Lulu’s voice, and the love story at the heart of this book.

Bookish: Lulu’s voice is so vivid in this novel––her personality shines through the prose from the first page. How did you decide what Lulu would sound like?

Beatriz Williams: Voice is everything to me! It’s the starting point for every character—how I access her inner world, how I navigate and describe the historical world around her, how I develop prose and theme, and how each book takes a unique shape. In the case of The Golden Hour, though, I already had my setting—Nassau during the Second World War—and the general outline of a plot that revolved around the Windsor shenanigans and the notorious real-life murder of Sir Harry Oakes. Then I had to invent a character through whose eyes and ears readers would experience this world, and I just couldn’t get it right! I created various protagonists, but none of them had a vivid enough personality to hold her own against such a dynamic historical tableau. At last I started thinking about all those smart, ballsy female journalists who stormed through the 1930s and 1940s, and it was like a curtain lifted before me. Lulu Randolph took immediate shape. She marched right into the story and fit the mood perfectly, and her voice poured out with total conviction. All the plot elements fell into place, and the whole book transformed from career-killing albatross to a story that made sense. 

Bookish: This book has a storyline set in the 1900s, and another set around World War II. How did you research each era? Was one easier or more fun to write about than the other?

BW: Well, while I write each of my novels to stand alone, they’re also meant to form sections of arc along the larger trajectory of social and cultural transformation that took place in Western civilization during the first half of the twentieth century. You can’t fully understand Edward’s abdication, for example, without also understanding what was roiling under the surface at the turn of the century. That being said, the Bahamas narrative definitely required a lot more specific research—about the Windsors, about the Bahamas, about the Harry Oakes murder, for which I mostly turned to first-person accounts and then sorted through them all to arrive at my own conclusions. I discovered a terrific little memoir written by the woman who was personal secretary to the duke and duchess in the Bahamas, and of course Alfred de Marigny (the man wrongly accused of the murder) wrote a fascinating account of the case and the entire Nassau social scene at the time. In some ways, though, my heart was really in the 1900s, because it was a period of such intense and crushing ambivalence underneath all that apparent cultural confidence. I was lucky to discover the English translation of Florian Illies’s marvelous 1913: The Year Before the Storm, which was my gateway into that world. I finished it and immediately started work on Elfriede’s narrative.

Bookish: Did you travel at all (to London, the Bahamas, etc.) as you researched this novel?

BW: I have four kids, so my ability to travel for research is somewhat limited! I lived in London for five years, though, and my father is British, so I’ve developed a solid knowledge base as well as an instinctive feel for that side of the story. While I didn’t travel to the Bahamas during the writing of the book, it was a visit to Nassau that first stirred inspiration for The Golden Hour—from my editor, actually! Of course, it’s always problematic to do on-site research in a place that’s changed so much since the historical period in which you’re describing it. Nassau was considered a colonial backwater in those days, which was why the Windsors were sent there, and Wallis absolutely hated it! She thought it was slow, small, provincial, and shabby, and she described it frequently as a “dump.”

Bookish: Elfriede deals with postpartum depression at a time when the illness was poorly understood, and the treatment methods were sometimes cruel. What drew you to this topic, and how did you decide how you would write about it?

BW: I was personally fortunate not to experience more than the usual “baby blues” with my own children, yet that by itself was difficult to navigate. I’m deeply aware of how challenging motherhood can be, how life-changing, especially when we’ve created a culture of idealized maternity in which nothing short of perfection will do, and those perceived to fall short are heaped with shame and guilt. So I’ve wanted to explore these themes for some time, and when I first began to develop Elfriede and her story, I felt that I’d found the right character and historical period. At the time, interest in psychological illness was burgeoning, and Freud and his contemporaries were busy creating innovative ways of understanding it. I thought it would be especially illuminating to explore the experience of depressive illness as a female of the 1900s, when this field of study was right at the cusp of scientific discovery, and so much emotional trauma lay in the immediate future.

Bookish: This book’s chapters don’t always proceed chronologically. Did you write the chapters in the order they appear, or did you write one timeline and then the other?

BW: I always write each narrative to completion—or at least close to completion—and then layer the next one around it, because I need to fully understand what happened in the past before I can wrap my head around the repercussions. I also find that this helps me immerse myself more passionately in each story, because I don’t have to alternative between voices and historical worlds.

Bookish: Your eye for detail (like when a lime keeps almost getting squashed in Lulu’s drink) makes the scenes in this novel feel very real––almost like the reader is there. How do you decide which details to highlight when you’re writing?

BW: As a child, I was incredibly fortunate to have parents who dragged me along to a lot of live performances—operas, plays, musicals—although I admit I didn’t quite appreciate my good luck at the time! So I instinctively approach storytelling from a visual, visceral, scene-based perspective. I like to say that I slip myself inside the skin of the character as I write, and when you do that, the right details just appear when you need them. This is really what I love most about the process—how writing gives me permission take on a completely different personality, see different things, regard people differently, speak and react and think otherwise than as myself. It just never gets old. It brings me to a new level of understanding and tolerance of this marvelous variety of humanity around me, and I hope it does the same for my readers. 

Bookish: The love story between Elfriede and Wilfred is, in some ways, at the heart of this whole novel. Did you know what path their romance would take when you started writing?

BW: I did, but only because Elfriede first appeared as an offstage character in an earlier book, Along the Infinite Sea, in which her son Johann von Kleist was a primary character. We never actually meet Elfriede in that novel, but Johann sketches out her biography in a couple of sentences. I’d been longing to explore her further ever since I wrote that paragraph, and when The Golden Hour came along, I felt I’d finally found the right setting. Her story was the first thing I wrote in the novel, and it just poured from my fingertips. It’s so rare and wonderful when you love every word of something you’ve written, and the funny thing was that the copy editor had so few notes for those parts of the book! So I guess I must have gotten it right. I adored them both, Elfriede and Wilfred.

Bookish: For readers who love The Golden Hour, what else would you recommend that they check out?

BW: For those fascinated by the Windsors and their Bahamas years, I listed several nonfiction books in the author’s note for further reading, in addition to the works I’ve mentioned above. Andrew Morton’s 17 Carnations and Anne Sebba’s That Woman are both fascinating accounts of Wallis Simpson. If you love reading about the brave, rule-breaking women of the era, Lynne Olson’s Madame Fourcade’s Secret War is simply brilliant. On the fiction side, there are so many terrific Second World War novels out at the moment, I couldn’t possibly list them all—Kate Quinn is fantastic, and Pam Jenoff has had tremendous success. For brilliant historical fiction set in the tropics, try Lauren Willig’s The Summer Country. Of course, you can always read Along the Infinite Sea to find out what happens to Elfriede’s firstborn, Johann von Kleist! 

 

 

Beatriz Williams is the New York Times, USA Today, and internationally bestselling author of The Golden Hour, The Summer Wives, The Secret Life of Violet Grant, A Hundred Summers, and several other works of historical fiction, as well as the screenwriter for the television adaptation of The Summer Wives, currently in development with John Wells Productions. A graduate of Stanford University with an MBA in Finance from Columbia University, Beatriz worked as a communications and corporate strategy consultant in New York and London before she turned her attention to writing novels that combine her passion for history with an obsessive devotion to voice and characterization. Beatriz’s books have won numerous awards, have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and appear regularly in bestseller lists around the world. Born in Seattle, Washington, Beatriz now lives near the Connecticut shore with her husband and four children, where she divides her time between writing and laundry.

Elizabeth Rowe
Elizabeth is Bookish's Senior Editor and a graduate of Columbia University's MFA program in Nonfiction Writing. She is based in San Francisco and can frequently be found at Philz with her nose in a book. Her current obsession is the My Struggle series by Karl Ove Knausgaard, and she thoroughly embarrassed herself when she met him shortly after the release of volume four (and she has the photos to prove it).

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