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?