Thursday, June 7, 2012


I've said before on this blog that I've carefully cultivated a reputation for absent-mindedness in order to excuse my frequent logistical slip-ups. Brilliant strategy, and I recommend it for readers and writers of all ages.

Guess what? I've done it again.

My dear friend, the lovely Karen White, just released her latest book Sea Change, and in my eagerness to get my desperate paws on the pages, I somehow managed to pre-order TWO copies. And as much as I adore Karen's writing, I really only need one.

But my loss is your gain, my friends! Comment below, and I'll have my youngest daughter pick one of your names from her favorite Hello Kitty bowl on Sunday morning, June 10th. Good luck and happy reading! (And in the meantime, here's a video trailer of Sea Change to whet your appetite.)

Sunday, May 6, 2012


“I adore war. It is like a picnic without the objectlessness of a picnic. I’ve never been so well or so happy. No one grumbles at one for being dirty. I’ve only had my boots off once in the last ten days, and only washed twice.”
       Captain the Hon. Julian Grenfell, writing to his mother, 27 October 1914

Of all the legendary soldier-poets of the First World War, Julian Grenfell is perhaps the most challenging for our postmodern minds to comprehend. He was not a schoolboy fresh out of Eton when he wrote those careless lines; he was twenty-five, an Oxford graduate who had spent the past five years commanding a Royal Dragoons cavalry troop in India and South Africa. Where’s the cynicism, the disillusion, the revulsion? Who in his right mind could compare war to a picnic?

That’s the trouble with history: it’s so easy to project our own modernity into our subjects. We forget that in an era unredeemed by antibiotics and widespread vaccination, death ran rampant through the pattern of one’s ordinary life, accepted and acceptable; we can’t quite grasp that, to men like Julian Grenfell, the onset of war represented a breaking-free from the conventions and hypocrisies of civilized Edwardian society, into the animal purity of battle. Before the muddy stalemate of trench warfare, before the pitiless slaughter of the Somme, war meant escape.

Not that Grenfell was particularly conventional. His true nature lurked behind a thicket of contradictions: he was born the eldest son of a blue-blooded family, but his father’s title was newly-made and the family could scarcely make ends meet. He was tall, good-looking, vigorous; yet he often fell dangerously ill with some inscrutable malady or another, and experienced a profound nervous breakdown near the end of his Oxford career. He swaggered with his parents through the highest social circles, but remained essentially a loner, and a rebellious one at that.

He was funny. Having left home for boarding school at the usual age of ten, he had mastered the art of entertainment-by-letter, and the surviving examples are stuffed with droll little gems. Describing a 1912 regimental visit by the feckless Crown Prince of Germany, Grenfell observes, “We are all quite weary with bowing and scraping… my democratic feelings arouse themselves at 11pm; by 12 I am a socialist and by 1am an anarchist.” Later, narrating a trip to the cinema with a boneheaded companion: “Booth could not understand, the words being by the nature of the performance left for the intelligence of the audience to supply. So I kept up a running commentary: Booth – What are they doing now, eh? Self – Well you see, they are trying to kill him; the cowboys are not sitting on him to try to keep him warm. Booth – Why have they put that rope around his neck, eh what? Self – They are going to hang him with the rope. That is why they have put it round his neck.”

Though he pursued his fair share of girls, aristocratic and otherwise, he had only one full-blown affair, with a ravishing married countess who seems to have seduced him in classic style the year before his departure for India. He doubtless made a frustrating lover in any case, with his restlessness and private sensitivities and his passion for brutal outdoor sports that necessarily excluded women: stalking deer and shooting birds and pigsticking (don’t ask). The modern aversion to killing things would have been incomprehensible to Grenfell. Death was an inescapable part of nature; he loved nature, and never felt closer to it than when he was engaged in its primeval cycle of destruction and rebirth. His most famous poem, Into Battle, captures this sensibility with exquisite precision:

“…And Life is Colour and Warmth and Light
And a striving evermore for these;
And he is dead who will not fight;
And who dies fighting has increase.

The fighting man shall from the sun
Take warmth, and life from the glowing earth;
Speed with the light-foot winds to run,
And with the trees a newer birth;
And when his fighting shall be done,
Great rest, and fullness after dearth…

The kestrel hovering by day,
And the little owls that call by night,
Bid him be swift and keen as they –
As keen of sound, as swift of sight.

The blackbird sings to him ‘Brother, brother,
If this be the last song you shall sing,
Sing well, for you will not sing another;
Brother, sing!’…”

Grenfell wrote those lines on Tuesday, 29 April 1915; on 13 May, near Ypres, he took a shell splinter in the skull while prowling the battlefield for signs of enemy movement. He died two weeks later in a field hospital in Boulogne, surrounded by his family, and was buried in the damp earth overlooking the town. The Times ran his death announcement the next day, along with Into Battle, which duly found itself a quiet corner of the Western literary canon in which to slumber the decades away.

There are no more Julian Grenfells alive today; for good or ill, they have been squashed into extinction under the ironic weight of the twentieth century. It’s now impossible, or nearly so, to be both a man of thought and sentiment and a man of action: a first-rate poet and a first-rate cavalry officer. Grenfell had his faults, but he had keen perception, and thoughtless courage, and the brash humility to revel in the notion of dying for an obscure and ephemeral ideal – the more ephemeral, one suspects, the better. He died a hero, as men of his age were raised to do.

Note: I am particularly indebted to Nicholas Mosley’s classic 1976 biography Julian Grenfell: His Life and the Times of His Death for its insight into Grenfell’s elusive character.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


If you’ve taken the Eurostar between London and Paris, you’ve seen them: quadrangles of orderly white headstones, dropped apparently at random across the empty fields of Northern France.

They’re not random at all, of course. For much of its length between Paris and Calais, the main high-speed railway line runs along the old Western Front, that network of sodden trenches called home by millions of soldiers for most of the First World War. Nearly a century later, the cemeteries still waypost the front's once-inexorable path southward, from Belgium to the border of Switzerland.

Obsessions do not ask permission before taking over your brain, and the first two decades of the twentieth century – that churning crucible of the modern era – are mine. I can trace the origins of my fascination to a single book: Vera Brittain’s classic war memoir Testament of Youth, which chronicles her journey from the golden sunset of the Edwardian age to the politics and domestic compromise of the threadbare Thirties, when the book was published. Not that I made it that far, at least at first. For me, the book ended with the death of Vera’s fiancé, Roland Leighton, at the end of 1915.

The Great War was famous for that. Military tactics did not catch up with the destructive power of modern weapons until the war’s end, and while millions of ordinary soldiers were slaughtered under the spray of rapid-fire machine guns, the junior officers leading the sacrificial waves faced particularly bleak odds. Memorial tablets at Oxford and Cambridge overflow with their names: gifted scions of England’s finest families, mowed down in their idealistic thousands. (The war’s other belligerent nations, it should be said, fared just as tragically.) Vera was hardly alone in watching her brother, Edward, and nearly all of his schoolfriends meet this fate, one by one; her gift was to bring alive their particular humanity among the millions killed, and no one more vividly than the first.

Roland Leighton was something of a nonpareil, winning six of seven prizes awarded by Uppingham School to its graduating class (Greek Iambics the only miss) and leading the other boys as color-sergeant of the school’s Officers’ Training Corps, a near-mandatory service at the time. As if that weren’t enough, he wooed Vera as much with his feminist principles as his knack for Latin hexameter. He fully supported her efforts to land a place at Oxford’s all-women Somerville College, “if,” as he wrote, “I may be allowed to see something of you on the other side.”

But by then it was August of 1914, and the bell had already tolled for their generation. Roland obtained a lieutenant’s commission in the Worcester Regiment, and Vera enlisted as a nurse at the 1st London General Hospital. Their courtship was carried on mostly by letter: “Good night and much love. I have just been kissing your photograph,” Roland wrote from the trenches in April 1915, to which Vera replied rather pointedly that she “env[ies] the photograph; it is more fortunate than its original.” Roland, ever-gallant, assured her that “[w]hen it is all finished and I am with her again the original shall not envy the photograph… But may it not perhaps be better that such sweet sacrilege should be an anticipation rather than a memory?”

By the autumn of 1915, the tone had changed. Roland wrote that he “feel[s] a barbarian, a wild man of the woods, stiff, narrowed, practical, an incipient martinet perhaps – not at all the kind of person who would be associated with prizes on Speech Day, or poetry, or dilettante classicism. I wonder… if I could ever waste my time on Demosthenes again.”

He would not, in fact. Vera was thrilled to learn that Roland had secured Christmas leave, and went about her duties – decorating the ward, making presents for the convalescents – with heady enthusiasm. The morning after Christmas, she received word that she was wanted on the telephone, and if you ever want to know how to break a reader’s heart in a few matter-of-fact sentences, here’s your primer:

Believing that I was at last to hear the voice for which I had waited for twenty-four hours, I dashed joyously into the corridor. But the message was not from Roland but from [his younger sister] Clare; it was not to say that he had arrived home that morning, but to tell me that he had died of wounds at a Casualty Clearing Station on December 23rd.

So ends Part I, and it was fully years before I was able to pick up the book again and read on.

Vera recovered, eventually. After the armistice in 1918, she went back up to Oxford and finished her degree, going on to become a prominent peace campaigner and woman of letters, with several published novels to her credit. Testament of Youth, however, remains her best-known work; for that alone, we can perhaps understand her implacable opposition to Britain’s role in the Second World War.

I have twice visited Roland Leighton’s grave, which inhabits a crossroads cemetery in the tiny village of Louvencourt in the Somme river valley, overlooked serenely by the Lutyens-designed Stone of Remembrance inscribed Their Name Liveth For Evermore. The place invites contemplation. It’s become proverbial, and a little too pat, to observe that the First World War ushered in the modern age; that a naïve and idealistic generation sacrificed itself for a world in which the word “intercourse” could no longer be said with a straight face. In fact, the years before the war teemed with social upheaval and hellbent scientific advancement, with the clash of traditional and modern: a rich setting for fiction, as any fan of Downton Abbey knows.

And for romance. Tenderness, yearning, conflict, suppressed passion: all these things leap from the pages of Vera’s memoir, and even more boldly in the diary and letters published after her death. (Romantics will be relieved to know that the longed-for snogging did, in fact, take place during Roland’s final leave – and on a moonlit sea-cliff, no less.) This is courtship firmly in the historical tradition, and if my fictional world represents a subconscious attempt to give Roland and Vera the consummation denied them in life, I guess I can live with that.


*an image from Roland Leighton’s poem Hédauville, written in the month before his death

Monday, March 12, 2012


As any debut author will tell you, the moment you see your first cover is like the moment you glimpse your firstborn child.

So imagine if your newborn were whisked away from the hospital nursery in the dead of night, and you were told, Not to worry! We've got an even BETTER baby in store for you, and a few months later a completely different infant appeared in a basket (or, as the case might be, a FedEx delivery envelope) on your doorstep.

And then it happened again.

Now, it's not unheard-of for a book jacket to undergo changes before publication, as it passes through various hands on its way to the bookseller's New Release table. And to be fair, Overseas defies easy categorization: a sweeping, old-fashioned love story rooted in the First World War, narrated by an utterly modern young woman in twenty-first century Manhattan. Is it historical fiction? Is it contemporary? Is it romance, or simply romantic? In designing a cover, do we focus on the historical aspects of the book, or its modern heroine? Do we market to devotees of historical fiction, or do we throw out our net for a broader readership?

When the first Overseas jacket art came in, I fell in love. The art department had imagined a dreamlike cityscape at sunset (or was it sunrise?), golden clouds merging with aquamarine sky, and then those beautiful words: OVERSEAS, a novel, Beatriz Williams.

It was lovely. It was perfect.

"Can I share it?" I begged my publisher. The answer came back in firm yet gentle tones: not until after the fall sales conference, when the online retailers pick it up. That way, people have something to click and (one hopes) pre-order.

So I waited and waited, and in mid-November Overseas popped up on Amazon with its dreamy cover, and I let loose a torrent of rapturous tweets, Facebook updates, and blog posts. Oh! Ah! sighed my peeps and tweeps, and I basked in that happy delivery-room glow, gestation and labor complete, my baby's precious picture plastered all over the internet for the world to see.

Until the next day, when it disappeared.

I sent an email to my editor, who was on the other side of the world at a book conference. "So, like, the Overseas jacket art seems to have been kidnapped from Amazon. And also from the publisher website. Anything, um, you know, wrong?"

A deathly thirty-six hour silence followed. I waited. I envisioned messages crossing the globe, time zones jostling. At last an email appeared in my inbox.

Good news and bad news, my editor said. The good news is, the sales force loved Overseas. The bad news, they want a new cover.

A new cover? Like what kind of new cover?

Bigger. More...bestseller-y. Special effects.

I had no idea what that meant. Special effects? Does the book blow up in a controlled fireball? Does a holographic image of the my dashing First World War hero reach out from the pages to embrace the reader? But I did like the sound of the word bestseller, so I hunkered down to wait.

And wait.

I tried not to look at pictures of my old cover. I tried not to wonder what the new one would look like. ("The special effects will be...special," my editor assured me, which you know what? Didn't help much.)

Fall turned to winter, the holidays came and went, January stretched out cold and lonely before me. And at last, the FedEx guy parked outside my house and tossed an envelope on the porch with, really, a little too much casual disregard.

I snatched it up, ripped it open, and beheld:

I loved it. The gorgeous sapphire color, the piano die-cut to reveal a bookcase stamped with a glittering nighttime cityscape: it spoke to the novel's contemporary elements, to the music that united the separate worlds of Kate and Julian. It was perfect.

Again I let loose with the social media, again the world sighed with me. Publishers Weekly gave Overseas a starred review and interviewed me for an author Q&A. My baby was beautiful, healthy, happy. I was gurgling with joy.

Until my agent sent me an email with a PS (always beware the PS!): By the way, we have a few tweaks to the jacket art.

A few tweaks?

It's a pretty cover, she said, but I don't think it really captures the book. The new one will arrive tomorrow.

By now, you may have perceived that I'm like any new parent: I love my baby so much, I don't care what it looks like. Whatever the eye color, the nose shape, the degree of ear protrusion, I will just adore the pants off the little mite, because it's mine. So I locked the die-cut piano away in a corner of my heart and prepared to greet the new arrival with joy. After all, how lucky was I to have an agent and a publisher so committed to the book, they'd burn through three designs to get its cover just right?

But when Cover Number Three thumped on my doorstep the next day, inside a box of galleys conveniently printed with Cover Number Two, I gasped.

This was it, I realized. This was Overseas. The glittering city, the mysterious twilit sky, the luminosity. Romantic, enigmatic, depthless. They've nailed it.

I love it. It's perfect.

But, as I said, I'm too partial to judge my own baby. You tell me. Which cover do you like best? Which book would you pick up?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


There are many milestones on the road to publishing your first novel: first completed manuscript, contest win, finding an agent, selling your book to your dream publisher. But few thrills compare to seeing the jacket art for the first time.

I've had to keep a lid on this beauty for nearly two months now, but now that Overseas is officially available for pre-order on Amazon, it's time to set my cover free! Behold! (And let me know what you think!)

Monday, November 7, 2011


I don't know how the PTA works in your neighborhood, but in the affluent Connecticut suburb in which I live, the PTA could pretty much crush the Mafia with one well-manicured hand tied behind its back.

Okay, so I had it coming. I'd been lying low for years, while my first three children passed through kindergarten and into the upper grades, hoping I could fly under the radar by volunteering as a room parent and donating stuff when stuff was called for. But last spring, the phone rang in the early afternoon, well before school release, and like an idiot I answered the call.

It was the outgoing PTA president. For reasons still unclear, I'd been nominated for a position on the Nominating Committee. What's the Nominating Committee, you ask? (I did.) The Nominating Committee, my friends, is the committee that nominates people to serve on committees. It's the smoke-filled room of PTA politics, except the smoke has been replaced by the scent of baking cookies in well-appointed kitchens, and the single-malt Scotch by a Dunkin Donuts Box o'Joe (because we are all about keeping things real around here, oh yeah).

So there we are, zapping unsuspecting mommies to chair the thirty-odd PTA committees, like some kind of elite suburban sniper unit, when we came to the Fall Book Fair committee. I'm wiping cookie crumbs from my mouth, wondering if anyone will notice if I snatch a third, when I realize everyone is looking at me. She writes BOOKS, they're thinking. SHE can help organize the book fair. It's PERFECT.

Never mind that I have trouble organizing my own refrigerator. Never mind that, by the same logic, I should organize the Election Day Bake Sale because I happen to make the best goddamned chocolate cupcakes you've ever tasted. It was a done deal. I couldn't even protest.

So I showed up obediently at the school media center (what, you're still calling it a library?) at seven-twenty on a crisp October morning, donned my red Scholastic apron, and started selling books.

One thing became clear right away, as I cruised through the rolling metal shelves and stacked tables: letting a book lover run the book fair is like letting an alcoholic man the liquor store. With a few innocent swipes of my credit card, I became the fair's best customer. In the morning before school, my kids and I would start our stack, and by the time I rang myself out in the afternoon, I could practically hear the entire publishing industry give a distant cheer up the East River and across Long Island Sound.

Another truth: kids love books. Every time another class came in, a high-pitched squealing would fill the air, as if the students expected Justin Bieber himself to be hanging around among the stacks, and not just his autobiography (which he totally wrote himself, haterz!). Sure, many of the girls would head straight for the Pink Table, where we sequestered most of the Barbie and Disney Princess books, and many of the boys bolted for the Pokemon guides. But they were books, real live books with paper pages, and the kids were nuts for them. So, hey.

Third (and this is a big one): if you write books, you should go RIGHT NOW to your nearest bookseller and give him or her a big smacking kiss on the buttocks. I personally sold us out of War Horse and Library Mouse, just because I love the pants off those guys and made sure everyone knew it. It's a big old complicated bookshelf out there, and people want a recommendation. I don't know if it was the red apron or what, but they pretty much bought whatever I told them to buy.

So the week wasn't a loss after all, except for the ten thousand or so words I could have written instead, and it turns out we increased sales 8% over last year, both volume and dollar. (Take that, end-of-the-printed-book chest-beaters!)

The bad news? It looks like I'll be re-nominated to the Fall Book Fair committee next year.

Oh, and I'll see you at at the Election Day Bake Sale table, bright and early.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


When the shock of selling my first novel finally wore off into acceptance, I was intrigued to learn I had a full writer sibling. The previous year, my agent had sold another novel, by debut author Christopher Farnsworth, to my new editor at Putnam. Same agent, same editor: our books must be like twins, right?

Er, no.

But while a taut, pulse-racing vampire thriller like Blood Oath might seem worlds apart from a sweeping love story like Overseas, Chris and I soon figured out we had a lot more in common than our shared publishing connections and an aggressive appetite for bacon. Both of our protagonists are historical misfits, operating in the modern world by paranormal means; both of us find much of our inspiration from examining the past and asking the imaginative what if?. In Chris's case, the answer is Nathaniel Cade, a vampire sworn to protect the President of the United States from supernatural threats, and seriously, what could be more awesome than that?

So I loved Blood Oath when it came out last year, and when Chris was kind enough to send me an advance copy of the sequel, The President's Vampire (due out April 28), my squee set off car alarms for blocks around. Once I finished hyperventilating, I begged Chris to let me interview him in my usual hard-hitting Diane Sawyer fashion, and he was gracious enough to indulge me.

Give us a little background on Nathaniel Cade. Where did you get the idea for a presidential vampire, and why doesn't he sparkle in sunlight?

The idea came from a semi-true episode out of American history. According to news reports, in 1867, a sailor was tried and convicted for killing two of his crewmates and drinking their blood. And for some reason, the president at the time, Andrew Johnson, chose to commute his sentence to life imprisonment. The idea stuck with me. I kept thinking, "There's got to be a story behind that. What would the President of the United States do with a vampire?" That's how Cade was born.

Ah, yes, the sparkly question. Cade doesn't sparkle because vampires don't sparkle. Vampires, in my mind, have always been predators. They're meant to eat teenagers, not date them. I'm eternally grateful to Stephenie Meyer for resurrecting the undead once again -- I seriously doubt my book would have been published without the success of Twilight -- but I just don't see vamps as romantic. I stick with the classic Stoker model -- smarter, tougher and meaner than any human.

THE PRESIDENT'S VAMPIRE and its prequel, BLOOD OATH, take all our favorite conspiracy theories and up the ante. Are you a conspiracy believer or a skeptic? Somewhere in between? And what's the nuttiest (or scariest) thing you've uncovered in your research?

I've become more and more of a skeptic. I was a reporter for a long time, and everything I learned about people in that job convinced me that there's no such thing as a successful conspiracy. I once covered a three-person County Commission -- just three people, and they couldn't keep anything secret. If they couldn't stop bickering over low-stakes stuff like zoning ordinances, then it doesn't seem possible to me that the New World Order and the Illuminati would be able to hide the murder of JFK and the presence of aliens on Earth.

That said, I do have a higher tolerance for weirdness than most people. I like to think I'm still open to the possibilities of all the strangeness out there. Lately I've been doing a lot of reading about the idea of a Satanic cabal that is supposed to be the organizing force behind the Manson murders, the Son of Sam, the Zodiac, and a small army of serial killers. There are times when that scares the crap out of me.

But as much as I love delving into all these twisted secret histories, I take them primarily as entertainment.

Of course, I could be in on the cover-up, which would explain why I'd say that.

The confrontation between Cade and Osama bin Laden blew my mind. Any qualms about rewriting history? No fatwa worries?

A friend of mine seriously warned me about including bin Laden in the book. And I'll admit, in light of the whackjobs who threaten people over cartoons of Mohammed, I wondered if maybe I was asking for trouble. Religious zealots seem to have no sense of humor whatsoever.

Then I remembered I write about a vampire who's also a secret agent, and I kept the story the way it was. If a copy reaches Osama in his cave, I may have to reconsider.

In all seriousness, I wrote that chapter before I wrote any other parts of the book simply because it had been festering in me for a long time. I love those old comic-book covers from World War II where you could see Captain America or Superman punching Hitler. Having Cade fight Osama was basically just my attempt to do the same thing.

The relationship between vampire Cade and handler Zach Barrows develops all kinds of layers between BLOOD OATH and THE PRESIDENT'S VAMPIRE. Where do you see the bromance headed? Is it really possible for a vampire to be friends with a human?

That's a good question. I think the answer is uncertain, at least for Zach and Cade. I like to say that Cade, as a vampire, no longer has genuine feelings but instead runs something like a human emulation program. He tries to act like he believes people should act. Again, vampires are predators -- developing feelings for their prey would get in the way of eating. But Cade can still find certain human traits genuinely admirable. He prizes duty and self-sacrifice above almost all else; those times when Zach is tempted to act like a hero -- stupid as it can be -- are the times when Cade sees the qualities he lost when he gave into his need for blood. Zach challenges Cade -- and reminds him what it means to be human.

Dialogue is such a strength in both books -- realistic, witty, plot-advancing -- which must have something to do with your background as a screenwriter. Did you find the transition from scripts to novels challenging? How do you think your screenwriting experience affects your approach to story creation?

I was actually writing books -- unpublished, thank God -- long before I ever wrote a script. I was a frustrated novelist out to make a living, so the actual transition from writing scripts full-time to writing novels full-time has been a joy. Scripts end up being a group activity; everyone has a say in the final product. When I wrote BLOOD OATH, I simply put everything I liked on the page without worrying too much if some studio reader was going to get the jokes.

That said, I learned a lot by writing scripts. A screenplay requires you to cut any line of dialogue that's not carrying its weight, if for no other reason than producers and development execs often refuse to read any block of text longer than a paragraph. I read a lot of David Mamet trying to get that same economy and impact. I tend to block things out in terms of scenes now, and I'm always trying to end each scene on a powerful image, or at least a good exit line.

Vampire bodyguard: pros and cons?

Pros: Works nights. Never wants time off for Christmas. Doesn't demand health insurance. Can travel in baggage compartment.

Cons: Might eat you.