Zibby is joined by New York Times bestselling author Lauren Willig to talk about her latest novel, The Lost Summers of Newport, which she wrote with her fellow bestsellers, Beatriz Williams and Karen White. Lauren explains how the trio crafts their historical fiction, when she decided to make the shift from practicing law to writing full-time, and how the pandemic affected her daily routine. The two also talk about how Lauren first fell in love with writing historical romances and the multiple books she is working on next.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Lauren. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Lost Summers of Newport and your whole career and all the good stuff.

Lauren Willig: Thank you so much for having me. I’m so happy to be here.

Zibby: I’m so excited that we were introduced by Danielle Ferris-Mahfood, my really good friend from college and your preschool co-mom or whatever you call it.

Lauren: Exactly. It’s so lovely to have a sympathetic fellow writer there while we’re waiting for preschool pickup.

Zibby: We were at her event for The Last Season, which she coauthored with Jenny Judson. Us being there, it just highlights, not the difficulty, but the challenge in getting the word out about any book. We work so hard on all these books. Then you have events. You hope people come. At least you meet like-minded people at these events too. That’s wonderful.

Lauren: I know. It’s always so much fun, all the intersections. You always bump into people you knew that you didn’t know them. It’s like, wait, the world only has ten people in it. How did this happen?

Zibby: I know. Exactly. First, let’s talk about The Lost Summers of Newport. I’m actually going to Newport soon for some book events, so this is excellent preparatory material. Can you tell listeners what this book, which you coauthored with Beatriz Williams and Karen White, is about?

Lauren: It covers three periods of Newport history. We open in 2019 — we did not want to deal with the pandemic — when a single mom is working on a mansion makeover show. Her career is in tatters. She needs this in order to salvage her TV producer career. The problem is the mansion that the show is making over belongs to the reclusive Lucky Sprague, the matriarch of the Sprague family, who’s given very distinct orders about where the show is and isn’t allowed to go. The producers want to dig up the dirt about the Spragues going back to the 1890s, to the Gilded Age where the young Sprague heiress, an heiress from a Colorado mining fortune, totally new money, no polish, tried to break into Newport society with a daring marriage to an Italian prince. We go back in time to 1899 when a young music teacher is hired to teach Maybelle Sprague arias to catch the ear and the heart of the prince. Then fifty years later, we join her granddaughter, Lucky Sprague, who is at that point a young matron in the 1950s in Newport as the preservation movement is getting underway. Lucky is unhappily married to her — I guess you could call him a stepcousin — her stepcousin, Sty Sprague — no blood relation, we want to make clear — and also working on the Tiffany Ball with Jackie Kennedy and others, which is raising money for preserving these houses that are beginning to fall into disrepair that can’t be kept up as they once were. On the night of the Tiffany Ball, something shocking happens that changes Lucky’s life forever. Our poor 2019 heroine, Andie, is there digging up all the dirt from the 1890s and the 1950s.

Zibby: Wow. How did the three of you, A, come up with this idea, and B, divide the writing of it? Did you each take a character, a timeline?

Lauren: With our first book, we sort of stumbled into our process by accident. What we wound up doing was we got together in person. We plotted the whole thing out. It’s amazing when we get together. We call ourselves the uni-brain because there’s this incredible synergy. These ideas just unspool. The characters feel so real. It’s like they’re sitting on the table in between us. Sometimes they’re squatting there mocking us, but you take what you can get. What we do is we plot the entire book out together. We do a chapter-by-chapter outline. Only then once the whole book is there in front of us and we’ve all contributed do we each claim a character. Then we go to our own little parts of the world. I’m in New York. Beatriz is in Connecticut. Karen’s way down south in Georgia. We write round-robin. That’s how our process works.

Zibby: What does that mean, write round-robin?

Lauren: The books, we always alternate chapters between the time periods. In Lost Summers of Newport, we start in 2019 with Andie, then move to 1899 with Ellen, and 1957 with Lucky. We never tell who wrote which character. Whoever wrote Andie wrote the first chapter, then emailed it to whoever wrote Ellen. Then whoever wrote Ellen emailed those chapters to whoever wrote Lucky. Each of us, before we start our own chapter, is always reading the previous two chapters written by the other two. Actually, we’ve decided it’s because we’ve all been choral singers at some point or another. When we read each other’s words, our voices blend. You always read the other chapters right before you write your own. Then you pick up on their themes and symbolism and voices. It all sort of melds into something unique and different. That’s how we write. We write it in exactly the order in which you read it as it appears on the page.

Zibby: That is so interesting.

Lauren: As for the idea, this was — we like to tease Beatriz about her procrastination habit. In the morning, she likes to peruse high-brow publications like The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. She found this article about a mansion makeover show in , the stately pile being invaded by camera crews, but the family needs them because they need to repair the roof. On the other hand, they don’t want them digging into family secrets, which of course, the camera crews are there to do. I’m like, oh, my god, this is the best idea for a book. Let’s move it to the US. We were like, where can we find a good stately pile? Then we’re like, of course, Newport. Newport is synonymous with stately piles. That’s how the idea started. We were in love with it, partially because we are all obsessed with historic house restoration, but particularly Karen. Her daughter has a degree in historic preservation from — gosh, I forget the exact name of the school, but the place in Charleston where they do very serious historic preservation. I just like watching Cheap Old Houses. Between the three of us, we were like, oh, my gosh, how fun. From there, we got into the historical periods.

Zibby: That’s great. I love this idea. How fun to collaborate with two like-minded — I’ve already said like-minded; I don’t know what’s wrong with me — two other amazing authors. It’s like a writing assignment, if you will. Yet you come out with these great books. It’s not like you’re just having fun. You actually are producing the books. It’s amazing. It’s great.

Lauren: It is, but we’re also having fun. That’s how it all started. We were drinking at a bar one night. We were like, “Oh, my god, why can’t we just be together always?” Then one of us — I can’t remember which one. We were several cocktails and empty bottles of wine in. One of us was like, “Oh, my god, it’s so simple. If we write a book together, our publisher will have to tour us together and pay for our girls’ trips.” We were like, this is the best idea ever. We Karen’s editor. We’re like, “Oh, my god, we have the best idea.” She does not drink. She moved out of the blast of our alcohol fumes and was like, “Why don’t you go upstairs? Have some aspirin. Drink a lot of water.” She was horrified when we came back to her several months later and were like, “So this book idea, we actually are going to write a book together.” Everyone was horrified. Our agents were horrified. Our editors were horrified. They were like, “But anthologies don’t sell.” We’re like, “It’s not an anthology. It’s a single book.” They were like, “But there are three of you.” How can that be a single book?” They humored us. It was purely a humor buy. Then they got the book. They were like, “Oh, it’s actually a book.” We’re like, yes, and now you will continue to pay for our girls’ trips.

Zibby: Wow. Has that happened? Have you gotten all-expense-paid girls’ trips as a result?

Lauren: We do. Actually, now we have a regular — it’s all work, work, work, but we get together at the beginning and the end of each book and, of course, book tour where we just have such a blast. Now we know at least three times a year we will have tax-deductible or publisher-paid excuses to get together, drink lots of prosecco, and produce a book at the end of it.

Zibby: Very smart. My wheels are turning. I’m like, who would I do this with? What a great idea. You also all have your own careers. How are you doing this with writing your own books and managing all that? Is this just this interstitial type of work?

Lauren: Exactly. We like to joke that the tri books break the time-space continuum. That was a big concern when we first went to our agents with the idea for our first book, The Forgotten Room. They were all like, “But you’re all under deadline.” In fact, I had just had my first kid and was writing two books a year at the time. I wasn’t just under deadline. I was so far behind deadline. My deadlines were miles away from me. Anyway, we so badly wanted to do it. They humored us. We discovered that, actually, the crazy thing that happens is we’re more productive when we’re writing the Team W books together because you always get to a point in your own work — I know you know this too — where you get stuck. The characters are out to lunch. They’re not talking to you. You know there’s something wrong with your manuscript, but you don’t know what it is. For me, it’s usually, I have a plot idea, but my characters have developed in another direction. I’m trying to force them to do what I thought they should do. They’re like, no, strike. Then the Team W book comes across your email inbox. It’s such a great excuse to pull back, do something else. We outline the book, so your portion is already there. You come out of writing your chapter like, wait, I do know how to write. I know how to do this. It energizes you to go back to your own work. Instead of being a time suck, it’s like Hermione Granger’s time turner. It adds extra time.

Zibby: Wow. Talk about your own books for a minute. How did you even get started in the writing world? How did we get to here?

Lauren: I was the annoying kid who announced to my entire first grade class that I was going to be a novelist when I grew up. When you make that declaration in a class of twenty-seven girls, it’s really hard to walk back. I spent my misspent youth producing all sorts of really bad derivative manuscripts. Then I went off to grad school to get a PhD in Tudor-Stuart England in the theory that this would help me write completely accurate historical novels. I was going to write this doorstop work about the English Civil War. Dissertations are very boring things. While I was drowning in footnotes, I was like, I’ve got to do something to keep myself sane. I wrote a swashbuckling regency romp set during the Napoleonic Wars, a total spoof on The Scarlet Pimpernel, spies in black masks swinging through windows, mistaken identities, Napoleon doing stupid things. It was like a Julia Quinn, Georgette Heyer, Baroness Orczy mashup. I passed it around to my friends just for fun. One of those friends had a friend who was an agent. I got a call out of the blue being like, “Hi. I want to represent you.” I spilled coffee all over myself. It was the book that was never meant to be published, the book that was just for fun. I wound up signing my first book contract at twenty-six in my first month at Harvard Law. It was this really weird journey.

Zibby: You finished your PhD and then went to law school?

Lauren: Actually, my fourth year of grad school, I was like, wait, I really don’t like grading student papers. I like researching lots of things, not just three years of the English Civil War. Maybe I’m not actually cut out for academia, but I should finish the PhD because I’ve been working on it. I walked down the block to Harvard Law and started there with the idea that I was going to do a joint PhD/JD, finish up the PhD while I was getting my JD. Then I got this book contract. It was a two-book contract. Everyone’s like, “Wait, but you can’t write a book as a 1L. Just give them the book you’ve already written.” I was like, “But they might come to their senses. No one’s going to let me write another book once they publish the first one, so I need to take the two-book contract,” and so the PhD gently — that dissertation is still ABD. For a while, I used to take it out, blow the dust off it. It’s been twenty years now, so I figure that ship has probably sailed. In the end, I wound up having two books come out while I was in law school instead. That was crazy.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Law school, that’s the most intense environment ever. I read Scott Turow’s One L, so I feel like I’m an authority on this.

Lauren: There were a lot of people in my class at HLS acting out One L. In some ways, that’s why having book deadlines helped. I couldn’t play the paper chase game because I was too busy being like, wait, if my heroine goes into that deserted garden and this guy comes out from the ballroom, what’s going to happen? It actually made law school a lot easier.

Zibby: Wow. I love this idea that every time you add work, everything is easier. It never takes away. It’s all just additive, this magic power of, more work is making my life better.

Lauren: Actually, yes. Although, sometimes it does backfire periodically. I call it my theory of productive procrastination. I will only work on something if I’m avoiding something else. The trick is to layer just the right number of things to avoid so you get done the things you actually need to get done.

Zibby: The other day, I did two big presentations in Canva about Zibby Books, the company. I’m like, I’m doing this because I really should be sitting on this plane working on my novel. Instead, I am going to do a second PowerPoint presentation here.

Lauren: people who have layered on so many things.

Zibby: I get procrastination in other productive ways. The way you do it, it’s amazing. Adding in a novel as the extra, that’s great. That’s just amazing.

Lauren: I have to say, that was before I had kids. It’s easy manipulating things like law school schedules and whatnot around your writing schedule. When you add real live people, that’s just a whole other level of difficulty I had not anticipated.

Zibby: Tell me about that. How did you manage it?

Lauren: By the time I had kids, mercifully, I was writing full time. I am in such awe of people who have day jobs and kids and write because that is a level of juggling I don’t think — even with my theory of productive procrastination, I think I would just crumble under the weight.

Zibby: Take us through the rest of your career. Two books while you were in Harvard Law School. Keep going.

Lauren: Oh, gosh. My third book came out my first week as a litigator at Cravath, which was fun. People would sidle up to me and be like, “I saw your book in the partner’s office,” which is always entertaining. I lasted as a litigator for a grand total of a year and a half before I was like, book deadlines and briefs don’t really go together. I was terrified of turning in the wrong thing to the wrong people, which would’ve been really bad on many levels. I left the law to write full time back in 2008. I’ve been doing this ever since. For a long time, I was writing this series about swashbuckling spies during the Napoleonic Wars, the Pink Carnation series. Then the world got more serious. I got older. I had kids. I started writing more serious books in the Kate Morton vein of past/present interwoven stories. That’s really largely what I’ve still been evolving around, a lot of historical sagas. I love getting to have an excuse to jump around in research, different time periods, and be like, but it’s for work.

Zibby: How many books in total have you written, cowritten or written on your own or both?

Lauren: I am working on number twenty-four and twenty-five right now because we’re working on a tri book, and I’m working on an independent book. I think it’s something like five tri books right now, twenty independent books.

Zibby: Unreal.

Lauren: It’s for a really long time.

Zibby: No, but still. The fact that the fountain of ideas does not ever run out — isn’t that a fear, that one day you’re going to just get to the end and there won’t be any material left?

Lauren: It’s always the opposite. I’m always finding things and being like, what if? How would someone have felt in this situation? For me, it’s always absences. There are the bits that are missing from a story. I’m like, but wait. The book I’m working on right now is about the Manhattan Well Murder, which is New York’s first fully recorded — actually, America’s first fully recorded murder trial. It’s a really famous case. Hamilton and Burr were counsel for the defense. There’s this big hole where the murdered woman should be. No one has written anything about her, who she was. A lot of the theories of the murder make very little sense to me because no one’s fleshed out this woman’s personality. I randomly read a book about this because a friend sent it to me. I was like, wait, there’s something missing from this story. This woman is missing from this story. I went down this crazy rabbit hole. That’s how most of my solo books start, with my being like, but wait, what are they not telling us here? Why has no one filled in this gap? I’ll start hunting and find crazy things.

Zibby: What did you find about the woman?

Lauren: I’m still working on that one, but just all sorts of stuff. This is a whole different rant. This was one of those cases where no one had bothered to look at the personality and the childhood of the murdered woman and figure out who she was and what might have happened in the leadup to her death. This is something I can be totally obsessive and talk too much about, so I should probably save it for two years from now when that book comes out.

Zibby: Okay, fine. That sounds really interesting.

Lauren: It’s author lag where the book you’re working on is always two years away. The book that you’re talking about, usually, you wrote two years ago. You always have to your brain.

Zibby: Interesting. That sounds amazing. Then you’re also doing another tri book, as you call them?

Lauren: Yes. I think I’m allowed to tell you. We like to keep this stuff secret just because we like to mess with people. It’s set in Scotland. We’re having so much fun with that. I like to call it our Monarch of the Glen meets Knives Out book.

Zibby: A lot of the year has to be spent in publicity. It’s one thing, the production of the words, but then the marketing of the end product, that must take a while too.

Lauren: It’s funny how much things have changed. With my first book, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, back in 2004, 2005, I remember being like, “Do I need to do anything?” They were like, “No, no, no. We do all of this. You just need to write the next book and occasionally phone in for radio interviews.” This was the dark ages. I’d be there in my fuzzy slippers with my landline talking to random radio stations. Now I think back wistfully on the days of, “No, no, you just write the next book.” You know, there’s so much marketing and publicity. I find I’ve always written in fits and starts. I’m either producing thirty pages a day or staring at the same paragraph, which may be a result of my having ran around academic schedules and my lawyer life where you had to cram the writing in or maybe just the way my brain works. I find I’ll have marketing phases where I do nothing but drive my poor marketing woman at my publishing house crazy with emails being like, “I just had this really great idea,” or I’m deep down the rabbit hole with my characters in my own world trying desperately to remember, wait, what are my kids’ names again?

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Wait, I want to hear your good marketing ideas.

Lauren: Apparently not that good.

Zibby: I don’t know. I love rethinking things.

Lauren: I found this new website called — I think it’s something like UPrinting. I’m like, I can make cool little doodads on it. It’s such a time waste. Again, I think it’s back to productive procrastination. There’s clearly something in my book that’s not working. Designing notepads with the next book’s cover on it gives me time for my brain to work out whatever the plot problem is. At least, that’s my excuse.

Zibby: Well, if it works, keep going. This is the most effective procrastination I’ve ever heard of. It’s amazing. How do you deal with kids and work? I know that’s a big question. I feel like creative pursuits — can you fit it into a “they’re at school; I’m going to get it all done” type of timeframe? How do you do it?

Lauren: When my older daughter was in preschool and it’s the three hours a day, I would do the drop-off and then go to the nearest Starbucks and just perch there with my computer until it was time to run and be the last mom in the pick-up line. I’ve found when I am in hardcore deadline mode, I can work that way because I am really, really focused. I think it’s harder when I am scattered and trying to do too many things at the same time because then everything expands to take more time. I feel like I could not do what I do without childcare and/or school. When the pandemic happened, we went into lockdown. My husband was working from home. There was no childcare. There was Zoom school for my older one. The younger one was two and also a disaster magnet and needed someone with him twenty-four/seven. My husband gave me two hours a day. I found I could finish — I wrote a chapter a day on my last book, Band of Sisters, in that two hours a day. I finished the book on deadline, literally on the day of deadline. Actually, I need an extra hour beyond what my husband could give me, so I let the kids play while I sat up my computer in the dining room. There was suddenly this screaming.

They had somehow taken my daughter’s Barbie Dreamhouse pool into the kitchen and filled it with water and were having a Barbie pool party, which went really well until they flooded the kitchen. I just needed one hour to finish the book on deadline, but the book got in. The kitchen floor was really clean after that. I found that it was really hard to maintain that kind of schedule on two hours a day when I was then starting the next book. I wound up pushing that next book, which is coming out in March, by the way. It’s a historical called Two Wars and a Wedding. I wound up pushing that book a full year back because I could not do it without regular school and childcare. I sort of feel like some people like to pretend to be Superwoman. I think it’s very hard for other people to hear that and think, well, I’m not doing this. She’s writing books with all these kids around and has no help. It’s like, wait, no. Actually, I have help. I could not do it without help. If I didn’t have help, I wouldn’t be writing books.

Zibby: I couldn’t do it without being divorced, seriously. I have long weekends every other weekend. I get so much done. I catch up. If I didn’t have these big breaks, there’s no way. There’s just no way.

Lauren: Honestly, that sounds amazing. Huh, my husband worry.

Zibby: No, it’s sad. I would much rather be less productive and have my kids all the time, but this is life. What are you going to do? Perks to everything. This has been amazing. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Lauren: Not to try to get things right. Don’t give yourself a right or wrong. Just let yourself play because sometimes the book that works may be the book you never intended to write. Books go in directions you didn’t think they would. Just give yourself grace. Just put words on the page. See where they go. Don’t super edit yourself in the process.

Zibby: Excellent. Lauren, I’m so unbelievably impressed by you. You are so brilliant and accomplished and articulate and a great writer. You have all the things. It’s really inspiring. Yet you’re humble. It’s just amazing. I’m so excited our paths crossed, I got to hear your story and how the love and fun of writing and this procrastination technique really fuels you and makes you do all these amazing projects. It’s awesome. It’s really awesome.

Lauren: Thank you. The feeling is entirely mutual. I feel like you are the queen of juggling multiple projects.

Zibby: I don’t know. That’s just how my brain works. Maybe I have short circuits or something. Congratulations. Lost Summers of Newport, so exciting. So much more to come from you. I just can’t wait to be along for the ride.

Lauren: Thank you.

Zibby: Have a great day.

Lauren: It was so much fun.

Zibby: Thank you. Bye, Lauren.


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