By Sheila Pursglove
Lauren Willig started penning romances while a student at Harvard Law School--and left her law career in the dust to spend her days steeped in intrigue, espionage, romance, swordplay, and comedy.
Willig wrote the first of her Pink Carnation series of novels while earning a graduate degree in English History from Harvard that included research in England.
"I was specializing in Tudor and Stuart England, so hanging out in the Napoleonic Wars made a nice vacation," she says. "By a strange quirk of fate, an agent took on the manuscript the month before I started law school--and I got my first book contract during the first month of my 1L year.
"It was a two-book contract. Everyone told me I'd be nuts to take it. Yes, the first book was already written, but how was the second going to happen? I decided I'd figure that out as I went and signed the contract."
A year later, the New York City native signed another contract for two more books. She wrote the second and third Pink Carnation books--as well a satirical novel about law school--during her 2L and 3L years.
"Cambridge is an excellent place to be both a grad student and a law student," she says. "I really enjoyed my time there in both those capacities. I was fortunate to be able to maintain my old ties to the grad school while making new friends in the law school --and, of course, the amazing research collections in Widener Library, which helped provide the background for my first three novels. I call it my 'Theory of Productive Procrastination'--I'd far rather write novels than do my law school homework. There may also have been a certain amount of caffeine involved.
"What I found most fascinating after the release of my first book were the number of people who sidled up to me in the hallways of HLS, confessing that they were working on books, too, and could I provide any help or advice. There turned out to be an entire underground community of budding novelists lurking in the law school."
There are interesting similarities in constructing a brief and constructing a story, she says - both are productions meant to persuade and both rely on the mustering of examples and the creation of a certain type of atmosphere.
Willig wrote her fourth book and part of the fifth book while working as a litigation associate at the large New York law firm of Cravath, where she found abstruse accounting principles for corporations failed to hold her interest.
Although she jokes that law careers are a "family curse," her 18-month law firm experience was not all bad--and she enjoyed fellow associates rushing up to her, saying, "I saw your books in the partner's office!"
"I know everyone makes jokes about lawyers, but my fellow associates at the firm were wonderful people, warm, supportive, funny," she says. "There's a gallows humor that develops when you're all in the office together until the wee hours, working on too little sleep and too much coffee. People helped each other out, taking up the slack when it was needed, giving pep talks, fetching food from the cafeteria, reading each other's work."
Willig, who set her heart on being a novelist after getting hold of her first romance novel at the age of six, says it was never a choice of writing or law.
"I would write no matter what. Being able to write on weekdays, without having to cram it into stolen moments on weekends, without having to worry that the Blackberry is going to go off, is an amazing privilege.
"I know some people get that same buzz from practicing law, but, for me, my heart was always in writing fiction. It's simply a matter of finding one's vocation and being lucky enough to be able to pursue it."
Willig gave a nod to her former career by making the hero of "The Orchid Affair" a lawyer. Set in 1804, just before Napoleon names himself Emperor, the story has Willig's hero, Andre, dealing with the fact that the brave new world for which he fought actually led, not to a constitutional state and enlightenment reforms, but to military dictatorship.
"I made my hero a lawyer because lawyers were at the forefront of the French Revolution, embracing Enlightenment philosophy, pushing for reforms to the existing systems, fighting the inequalities of the Ancien Regime," she says. "Fortunately for me, there are some excellent monographs out there on the role of the French legal population in the lead-up to the Revolution."
"It's a commonplace that there are far more dukes in Regency romance novels than there ever were in the peerage. Since I write novels set during the Napoleonic Wars, I wanted to invert the accepted paradigm--English aristocrats engaged in acts of amateur espionage--and write about the other side, about a middle-class Frenchman, with a trade, who believed in the principles of the Revolution, and then had to deal with the consequences when it all went wrong."
The best-selling novelist will discuss her new novel, "The Garden Intrigue," at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 21, at Nicola's Books, 2513 Jackson Rd. in Ann Arbor. In this ninth book of her "Pink Carnation" historical romance series, a secret agent posing as an atrocious poet teams up with an American widow to prevent Napoleon from invading England.
Willig has signed up to write two more Pink Carnation novels for Penguin, and is currently working on a "non-Pink" book, due out from St. Martin's Press later this year or early 2013. She describes the book, set in England and Africa in the early part of the 20th century, as "a little 'Downton Abbey' and a little 'Out of Africa.'"
"Writing romance novels requires skill and talent," she says. "The modern romance novel emerges from of a rich, literary tradition that only now is beginning to receive the kind of scholarly attention it deserves.
"I was fortunate enough to have the chance to teach a class at Yale a couple of years ago on the origins and development of the Regency romance genre. It's a complex and fascinating sub-genre--and I'm very proud to be a part of that tradition.”