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by Yona Zeldis McDonough

One Book, Three Protagonists…and Three Authors!

Book cover for "All The Ways We Said Goodbye"

 

A book with three main protagonists and three different time periods is not so uncommon.  But when that book is written by three different authors collaborating on a single whole, that’s pretty unusual. And that’s the case with the newly released All the Ways We Said Goodbye (William Morrow) written by the team of Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig and Karen White. It feels so feminist to write a novel collaboratively, we had to know more. Willig chatted with Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about how the story arcs of Aurelie, Daisy and Babs all converge at the Hotel Ritz in Paris, and about the benefits of three authors, one Unibrain.

Yona Zeldis McDonough: Where did the co-writing idea come from and how does it work? 

Lauren Willig: Three authors walked into a bar…. But, really!  It was the summer of 2012, and the three of us were indulging in a little liquid comfort at a writers’ conference. We’d all just come back from book tour and were moaning about how lonely it was to tour on our own and what fun it would be if we could just be together like this always, when one of us came up with a brilliant idea: all we had to do was write a book together! And then our publisher would pay for our girls’ trip and our bar bill.  Simple as that.

We all had splitting heads the next morning, and some of the ideas we’d been throwing around seemed a little less brilliant in the hard light of day, but we couldn’t quite shake the idea of working together. We all wrote books with interweaving historical narratives, the sort of books that are sometimes called time-slip and sometimes dual narrative, in which you go back and forth between different characters in different eras to explore the ways in which the past impacts the present. Karen had been playing with an idea for a book set around building, three women, in three different eras, tied by one central location, and one secret. Beatriz said she had just the building in mind, a Gilded Age townhouse in New York, so the three of us convened on Alice’s Teacup on 64th Street, ordered three pots of tea and more scones than we like to admit—and that’s when the magic started. 

None of us ever collaborated on a book before. We had no idea if we could collaborate on a book. But as the tea flowed and the clotted cream piled on scone after scone, we realized that our minds just worked together. Someone would throw out an idea and someone else would start bouncing in excitement and exclaim, “And then if we added this other thing to that….”  Before we knew it, it had been four hours, roughly sixteen pots of tea, the waiters hated us, and we had plotted out the whole book, chapter by chapter.  The characters were so solid, it felt as if they were sitting there at the table with us.

We’ve now written three books together, but that first book set the pattern for how we do it. We get together in person to plot the book (after one memorable plotting session in New Hampshire in November, Karen, who does not like the cold, instituted a rule that all plotting sessions be held south of the Mason-Dixon line), then, once we’ve plotted the whole thing out, we each “claim” a character and retreat to our own separate parts of the world, where we write round robin. The first person writes her chapter, sends it to the next, who reads the previous chapter and then writes her own, and so on. So you’re always reading the most recent chapters by the other authors before you write your own, which means voices and themes and metaphors naturally mesh and meld. After that, we get together for another three days to edit—and then, a year later, go on our publisher-paid girls’ trip! Er, book tour.

 

YZM: Can you tell us which of three women—Aurelie, Daisy and Babs—you wrote? 

LW: My lips are sealed! We didn’t originally intend to keep who wrote which bit a secret.  We’ve all written a number of books on our own, so when we sent that first book, THE FORGOTTEN ROOM, off to our editor, we thought it would be blindingly obvious from the first line of the first paragraph of each chapter who had written which character. And then our editor sent back the wrong edits to the wrong authors. We assumed she must have been having an off day, but then the book went out into the world and all of our long time readers started playing the guessing game, too—and getting it wrong. All the reviews commented on how “seamless” the book was, that it didn’t read as though it had been written by three authors at all. 

That’s when we realized we’d done something wonderful and strange. We’d created a new voice, a voice that wasn’t any of our own voices, a Team W voice. We love that readers can read the book as one book, a seamless book, instead of hearing our individual voices.

After that, we made the decision to keep who wrote what a secret. And, because we’re tricky like that, we started planting red herrings in our chapters….  We’re terribly proud that so far, no editor we’ve worked with has managed to send the right edits to the right author.  Three times and counting.

YZM: Daisy is surprised to find out that she’s Jewish. How does that influence her decision to risk her life working for the Resistance? 

LW: There are some characters who are born civic-minded, who are born feeling the injuries of others. Daisy is not one of those characters. Having lost her father before she was born and her mother by the time she was two, then led a rather unsettled childhood with her loving but larger than life grandmother, all Daisy wants from life is stability. She married young, to the most boring man she could find, having made the mistake of equating dullness with safety. By now, she’s realized Pierre is kind of a boor—as well as a bore—and she’s disgusted by his collaboration with the new regime, but she’s not about to rock the boat. Having had no parents herself, she is fiercely protective of her children.  The one thing in the world that matters to her are her two young children and she’s not going to do anything that will endanger them, not even if the world is exploding around them. So we knew that it would take a direct threat to her children—not so much to her as to them—to move Daisy to action. Daisy’s Jewish heritage is that catalyst. It puts the three people she loves most in the world, her children and her grandmother, in danger, and moves her to do something more than quiet headshaking in the privacy of her own bedroom. Suddenly, she has a real and burning reason to get out there and risk it all for the Resistance.

 YZM: Let’s talk about her mother, the Jewish American heiress Minnie Gold; who was the inspiration for her character? 

LW: Minnie was inspired by the real life “dollar princess” Anna Gould, daughter of financier Jay Gould. Like so many new money Americans who were closed out of Knickerbocker New York society, Anna set her sights on Europe, on a French nobleman who needed cash and wasn’t too picky about whom he married to get it. The very young Anna married the much older Boniface de Castellane, a French playboy who wasn’t about to change his lifestyle just because he’d married a rich and plain American nobody. After a very unhappy marriage, Anna astounded her husband by turning chic and fashionable—and running off with his cousin, the Duc de Sagan. 

As for Minnie’s Jewish heritage, that was inspired by… Downton Abbey. Years and years ago, Beatriz and I were at a Downton viewing party at our agent’s apartment when the episode where Cora’s mother came to visit aired. And I’ll never forget the moment when we all realized that Cora’s family was Jewish. So when we started playing around with the idea of an American heiress in the mold of Anna Gould, it seemed very natural to make our heiress a Gold rather than a Gould, because it was certainly easier, during the Belle Epoque, for a Jewish-American heiress to marry into European nobility than the Protestant elite of New York or Boston. 

YZM: It seems like a lot of research went into this novel; how did you go about doing it? 

LW: We’re all huge history nerds. We need very little encouragement to bury ourselves in the past—and, with this book in particular, we were lucky that there has been an explosion of new research on at least two of our key topics: occupied France in World War I and the role of women in Resistance activity during World War II.  

Before meeting to plot the book, we all read up, broadly, on all three time periods, lapping up accounts of life at the Ritz and the fascinating people who lived there over the years.  We went wild wallowing in monographs and memoirs about World War I, World War II, and Paris in the 60s. Then, once we had plotted the book and each chosen our characters, each of us went more deeply into our own chosen time period, hunting down extra information as the plot required. 

The wonderful thing about all researching everything first is that it means the plot is shaped by the history—and then, later, if you get stuck on a detail, you have two other minds to call on when you hit that inevitable “so I know I read this important thing somewhere, but what was it again?”  That’s one of the many reasons we call ourselves the Unibrain: it’s like having two back-up brains!

YZM: These are three very strong, proactive female characters; none of them are victims or passive in any way. 

LW: First: thank you! We all take pride in writing strong women, both in our own work and in our collaborations. Mostly, we love writing women who grow over the course of the novel, and who discover strengths they didn’t realize they had.  

Aurelie, in 1914, starts as a rebellious teenager, convinced she’s got all the answers, but, over the course of struggling to help her people and stay alive during the German occupation of France, has to learn that right and wrong is never that simple and that sometimes strength takes different forms. Daisy, in World War II, has defined herself entirely by her domestic relationships, as a wife and mother, but when her children are threatened, she discovers all sorts of talents and inner resources she never knew she had.  Babs, in 1964, is the consummate doer: she was a Land Girl during the war, runs the Women’s Institute, makes her own jam, and always holds the gymkhana on the grounds of Langford Hall, but it takes getting of her routine to define herself not just by what she can do for other people, and to see herself as a person, not an administrative service. They’re all at very different points in their lives and very much women of their own times, shaped by the eras in which they lived—and we loved seeing how we could challenge them and make them grow into themselves. 

© 2011 Lilith Magazine