Beatriz Williams, HER LAST FLIGHT

Beatriz Williams, HER LAST FLIGHT

Zibby Owens: Beatriz Williams is the New York Times, USA Today, and internationally best-selling author of The Golden Hour, The Summer Wives, The Secret Life of Violet Grant, A Hundred Summers, and several other works of historical fiction including her latest book, Her Last Flight. She is the screenwriter for the television adaptation of The Summer Wives which is 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 best-seller 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.

Welcome, Beatriz. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Beatriz Williams: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: You have such an interesting background for an author having gotten your MBA and all of that. I actually got an MBA too. I wanted to talk to you a little about that and how your traditional, more consultant, strategy-type brain morphed and now started writing all this fiction. Tell me about that.

Beatriz: It’s actually the other way around.

Zibby: Oh, no way.

Beatriz: I was somebody who never wanted to do anything but write books. What was I doing in the business world, getting an MBA, finance, and all that? It does help — my father’s an engineer. I was never that kind of writer who is allergic to numbers and science. I always loved numbers and science. In fact, a couple of my books have dealt with science-y issues. In The Secret Life of Violet Grant, I was in the world of physics in pre-war Germany. Actually, my current book that’s coming out, Her Last Flight, deals with early aviation. Of course, I’m not going into long, technical explanations, but that whole process fascinates me, the science of flight and the various things that pilots would have to do in the age before GPS and sophisticated instruments to figure out where they were on the face of the Earth. This is all very fascinating to me. My love has always been literature and writing. I always wanted to do that. I think I was just scared, partly because my father, he’s British, and having grown up in a post-war rationing Britain, really wanted to have me do something practical with my life. I went to college. I actually majored in anthropology. He was very proud. It was more like trying to get a liberal arts education and wanting to square that circle.

How do I find a way to make a living and yet write? Writing, you do have to have a lot of guts or else just an enormous amount of unjustified self-confidence. You’re putting yourself out into the world kind of naked. People will judge you. They will say things to you that your boss would never say to you in a normal job. You just have to take it. You’re not even allowed to respond back to criticism. You do have to go in there with a certain amount of courage. As my father would say, many are called, few are chosen. What if this thing that was supposed to be my big talent all my life, what if I’m not actually good at it? I had all these fears. Also, going to a college where people were very success oriented, there was no point in doing anything unless you were going to be wildly successful, I went into the business world, Wall Street. Believe it or not, easier to succeed on Wall Street than to succeed in publishing. Then I got married, had kids. I was home with the kids and I thought, okay, this is the moment for me to actually do what I really want to do with my life, which was to write. I started taking classes and learning the more technical side of writing and storytelling in particular and eventually got to the point where I thought I had something other people might actually want to read.

Zibby: That’s amazing. I love that story. Thank you.

Beatriz: .

Zibby: It’s true. I feel like it really informs the reading when you know where the author’s coming from and how you had to keep coming back to that passion of yours. I think it’s really always nice to hear.

Beatriz: I had this enormous burst of creativity when I first started writing. You see I have so many books. I even had a pen name I was writing under. There are additional books there. It was partly because it was just, I had so much inside me, all this pent-up decades of stories that I wanted to tell. Now that kind of has slowed down a bit for me. I’m a little more measured about my books and just the sentences and everything that goes into them. There’s a complexity there. That initial freshness, that burst of huge creativity, it’s definitely transitioning for me into something more nuanced and thoughtful. I think the books are getting more complicated and not quite the sense of an ending that’s obvious and pat. If you’re somebody who doesn’t like ambiguous ending, I’m starting to kind of transition into that. That sense of ambiguity to me is so fascinating because it’s just so much of what we encounter in real life.

Zibby: I read you said somewhere that even though you write a lot of historical fiction, it’s really just the people in those moments, it’s the history itself that draws you to the stories. Tell me a little more about that.

Beatriz: I’m obsessed with history from my childhood. We were out there in suburban Seattle. My parents, we would go to the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon, every year. That was our family vacation. Everyone else got to go to the beach. I was watching Shakespeare plays. We had season tickets to the Seattle Opera, which was actually quite, certainly at the time and I think even now, a very innovative opera house. They had a really dynamic company there. Opera is historical fiction. They were doing historical fiction. Shakespeare was doing historical fiction even in his own time. To me, the past has always been a window into the present. The best way to understand what is going on today is to understand what happened in the past. I go back to again. It was who said facts are not important, which is heresy right now if you’re a historical fiction writer. Facts are obviously important. You want to create that verisimilitude.

What is more important, because can disagree about the facts and the interpretation of the facts, to me, what is important is understanding how people lived and breathed and talked and ate and encountered the world around them in a particular historical era. I will do everything I can to make sure that the facts are right. If I need to sort of bend a few dates and so on for the purposes of storytelling, I will try to make it very clear in my author’s note. You can read facts in nonfiction. There are some amazing nonfiction writers who do it brilliantly. What you’re coming to with fiction is the human story and what it is like to exist within a certain historical environment. What we learn is not just that, wow, these people are the same as us, but that also history is repeating itself. We are so often making the same choices or faced with the same impossible, sometimes, choices that we were in the past. How do we get through that? How do we square human nature with the sense of civilization? Learning to become better human beings, to me, that’s kind of the core of my project as a historical fiction author.

Zibby: Tell me a little more about Her Last Flight.

Beatriz: Her Last Flight kind of goes back to — I keep talking about my dad, but he really did have an enormous influence on me as a child. He actually was a pilot back in his college days until they figured out he’s actually colorblind. He was flying with, they called it the University Air Squadron. In the UK, it’s like the ROTC for pilots going into the RAF. I always had a background of aviation going on in the household, loved to fly, and had read some books that were set in that period. I’m fascinated by it, and particularly by the pilots. Your chances of dying were so high. I wanted to write a book about a female pilot. My initial prompt was the Amelia Earhart mystery, which of course is one of the most fascinating mysteries in recent human history, what happened to her. I sort of posed a what-if. Then I went off and did research and realized that she was not the only fascinating female pilot out there. She just had a really good publicist who happened to be her husband. That’s one part of the story, a female pilot who has a really good publicist for a husband and is not quite sure that this is the life she wants to lead. She wants to fly. All this other stuff going on, to her, gets in the way of the purity, the beauty of flight.

The story’s actually told through the eyes of another character, a photojournalist. War-weary, she has been taking photographs in the European battlefield in the second world war. She was there during the trials at Nuremberg. She’s at a moment in her life when she really wants to find something worthwhile. She goes in search of, actually, the pilot that had been this — Irene Foster, her flying partner, who also disappeared around the same time. She goes all the way to Hawaii. She follows clues and ends up in Hawaii and discovers a woman who’s living there who she thinks is actually Irene Foster, the vanished pilot. That’s actually the starting point of this story. We go back and forth between Irene’s story, which is told as excerpts of a biography written by our photojournalist, Janey Everett, many years later. We hear Irene’s story through Janey’s eyes. Then we hear Janey’s story as she slowly starts to unpeel the layers and we start to realize why she’s been so obsessed with these pilots and their disappearance.

Zibby: Wow. That’s the best sell.

Beatriz: I just realized in the middle that I haven’t actually done the sell speech yet, so I was really making it up as I went along. I hope it wasn’t too convoluted there.

Zibby: No, it’s great. I’m sorry. I always put people on the spot. I like to hear what people come up with.

Beatriz: Discovering the mystery behind what happened to this person. It’s not Amelia. I certainly borrow some biographical details from Amelia Earhart because she is a fascinating person. So much is woven in there. There are all these other pilots. To me, that sense of, god, the courage it took to get out there and fly back then. Whether you were a man or a woman, the odds were good you were going to crash and die. What kind of person does that? Why do they do it? What’s driving them? Where are these people today, by the way? What are they doing now, this type of person? To me, the psychology that is so fascinating, particularly when you’re telling it — I use that device of the biography, excerpts from a biography, because I wanted to tell that story a little bit from the outside in trying to understand this person as a public figure, but also the private figure behind that public figure. I wrote that part first, the biography first. I kind of knew Janey before I started writing her actual story on the page. That was a really interesting process as well, how I created a voice for a character that we hadn’t actually met yet because of course the biography is inevitably in Janey’s voice, not that of Irene. I’m always trying to challenge myself a bit in terms of storytelling technique. This was certainly a fascinating challenge for me to get into. I was trying to understand two different women at the same time. I think that adds a certain layer to the story. You find out why as we get towards the end and the mysteries start revealing themselves.

Zibby: What does this process look like? Do you use notecards? Is it spread out all over? Is it all in your head? Where do you do all this work? It’s in your head?

Beatriz: I have a notebook. I scribble things down in the notebook. There’s the classic debate between the plotters and the pantsers. The pantsers plot by the seat of their pants. They make it up as they go along. I do a little of both. I know where I want to go. This is one book where I kind of knew what the twist was going to be going in, which was good because it’s essential to the story. I visualize it in my head almost as a three-dimensional piece of architecture. I can see the scaffolding, but I can’t see all the layers and the cladding and everything that goes on top. Gradually, everything gets — you have this bare bones. Then you just keep adding flesh onto it and flesh onto it until it becomes a real thing. I am linear. In fact, I’m so linear, that’s why I write that piece that takes place in the past first. Then I layer the other piece, the mystery-hunting piece of it, on top, because I need to know what happens from beginning to end, the actual mystery taking place. I need to know the solution. I need to know how it happens. I need to know who these people are before I can send my sleuth on the hunt and picking it apart. I know a lot of writers who do the dual narrative write back and forth even as it’s written. I’m so incredibly linear that I have to do it literally from one, beginning to end, and then start the other one beginning to end. Everyone’s got a process. Everyone’s astonished when I say that’s how I do it. I just literally can’t imagine writing it any other way.

Zibby: You’re clearly super smart. In fact, as an aside, I think one of the smartest things you did was decide to coauthor books with two of your good friends so that you could travel together on press tours.

Beatriz: The best idea ever. It is breaking our hearts right now that we can’t get together. We’re usually together two or three times a year. It’s so much fun. We need to plot out our next book. We’re managing to do it by Zoom, but it’s not the same. Yes, it did start out as very much wanting to spend more time with each other, but also really loving each other’s talents and getting together. Creating stories together is just the most incredibly creative process ever because there’s three of us. We like to say it’s like three brains in one body. When we’re really tired, we accidentally say that it’s one brain in three bodies, but that’s a completely different scenario. I think the challenge with plotting on your own is that you can’t foresee the problems that lie ahead. Suddenly, you realize you’ve written yourself into a corner and you’ve got to go back and rework something. When it’s three of you, you’ve got everybody picking apart all the ideas as we go along so that by the time we finish plotting something out, and in this case we do actually plot the whole thing out very carefully before we start writing, we’re able to sort of troubleshoot and foresee all these problems before we get to them in the writing. I love doing it because it’s just a much more efficient process than using one singular feeble brain that needs a considerable amount of caffeination in order to work properly.

Zibby: You’ve written so many books. As you mentioned, you also have written a ton of historical romance and mystery. How many books have you written in total?

Beatriz: You know what? I kind of stopped counting. I wrote some books as Juliana Gray. There were two romance trilogies. Then I moved into more historical mystery. There’s two of those plus a novella that connects. I like to have my worlds all sort of be the same, so there’s a novella that connects the romance to the historical mysteries. I guess that’s six, seven, eight, plus a novella. I left some threads dangling in historical mystery number two, so I would like to get back to that at some point. Then of course, we have now written three books as Willig, White, and Williams. Then I think Her Last Flight is my twelfth book as Beatriz Williams.

Zibby: Amazing.

Beatriz: After a while, it’s not that I don’t want to count, it’s just that it doesn’t matter to me. It’s not something I keep a tally board how many books I’ve written or how many words I’ve written. It’s really the stories. Some of them connect. Some of them are a little more stand-alone. I have three books that literally were a sequence. They’re not exactly a trilogy because they’re three different women, but they’re sisters. The stories flow a little bit into each other. That’s the most connected books. Then I’ve got my Wicked City series as well, which is a definite series, Wicked City, Wicked Redhead. The next one is still in my head. I tend to see the books that way rather than, oh, I’ve written my twelfth book. I have to literally count them up when we do the biography for the book jacket and be like, okay, how many is that?

Zibby: What does writing do for you? What do you get out of it?

Beatriz: It’s a little bit like what I hope my readers get out of it when they’re reading, which is not so much escape as just immersion in a different world. I think that when I’m writing well, I’m writing fast, I’m writing in that flow state that we all try to get to when we’re writing, which is just a total immersion in a story. That is what keeps me going through the harder bits when it’s just not working and I need to figure out why it’s not working and get these characters where I know them well enough that everything that happens to them just seems preordained. It is really that process, getting myself into that flow state and creating that world that is what motivates me, what gets me in front of my laptop every day. I don’t want to make this sound magical, but to a certain extent maybe just the way some people are born mathematicians — they have a knack for mathematics. They see something more in mathematics than we do. They see the story that is in mathematics. They see the truth that is inside the numbers. When you’re laboriously graphing out what — you’re graphing an equation, and so these numbers actually mean something real and tangible. They translate into things. I think that you’re somebody who instinctively feels that or not.

I think with storytelling, you’re somebody who — when I write a story, it’s like the words on the page are maybe ten percent of the story that is in my head. All the details of a person’s life and personality and so on, it’s really distilling that. I think a part of that is just innate. I think our DNA kind of gives us certain jobs that we’re good at because that’s what I was — here, here’s the anthropology major speaking here. We need storytellers. We need mathematicians. We need inventors. We even need a couple of sociopaths to sort of make the tough moral choices that we don’t want to make. That’s why, whatever, five to ten percent of the population is technically psychopath. I think we kind of need them in some way. We just have to channel that evil energy into good. I think that’s what my role is in the hunter-gatherer group. I’m the one who — we’re by the campfire. It’s nighttime. We need to process and understand what’s happened to us today or the past few weeks, and so you spin a story that helps people come to terms with what has happened and who they are and literally put that to bed.

Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Beatriz: Read. Definitely, read. Read widely. I’m on deadline right now, but I do try to get some fiction in in the evening. I finally started Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Maybe it’s just because my brain is so occupied during the day because I’m also, by the way, running a B&B for — I’ve got four kids at home. Three of them are teenagers. One’s almost twelve years old, plus my husband and all these pets and everything. I don’t know these people who are like, lockdown is so boring. I’m like, are you kidding? I am on my feet all day long. Then I get these little pockets of time to write in. I was trying to read. I was like, you know what, I need to read something more fun right now. My lovely friend, Eloisa James, wrote her latest — I haven’t read a historical romance in actually quite a while. I was like, I’m just going to read something that is fun and engaging and romantic. She always delivers. I started that last night. I felt so much better. I actually learned a lot from romance authors. They’re just good storytellers. They know instinctively what certain elements of human relationships are irresistible to us and also how to tell a story to keep the reader engaged on the page.

I would say read everything, romance, mystery, literature fiction, classics. I find reading novels that were written in the period that I’m writing about are just so much more useful than many other sources. You get the feeling and the rhythm of human interaction and storytelling. Read all you can. We spend so much time worrying about the words. I feel like the words come when the story is there. You need to think about, what is the story you’re trying to tell? Why would be people be interested in this story, anyone other than you yourself? Those are my two pieces of advice. Read all you can and really think of yourself as a storyteller. Worry about the writing later. The writing obviously comes with the editing. Focus on the story. Think about why it is you’re telling this story and why it’s important and why people would care.

Zibby: That’s great. Thank you so much. Thanks for sharing your life experience and your technique and all the rest of it.

Beatriz: Thank you so much. Like I said, I’ve been sitting in front of my laptop, so talking to somebody outside my family is just a really exciting moment for me right now. I appreciate it.

Zibby: I agree. I’m glad we got this to work. By the way, like you, I have four kids. I loved how you said that you write while you’re not doing laundry because I feel like I do laundry all day, every day. That’s what I do.

Beatriz: I’ve got a load right up there. As soon as I’m done here, I have to go put that in the dryer and make sure the right stuff is hung up. I could hand it off to somebody, but I just don’t trust anybody else with the laundry.

Zibby: No, me neither. Anyway, thank you. Hang in there.

Beatriz: You too.

Zibby: Send me any laundry tips.

Beatriz: We will get through this. I love the microphone, by the way. I need a microphone like that.

Zibby: Thank you. Blue Yeti. Have a great day. Thanks again.

Beatriz: Thanks so much.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Beatriz Williams, HER LAST FLIGHT