A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams (Putnam; 368 pages; $26.95)
Jaime Boler: Thank you, Beatriz, for letting me ask you these questions. I devoured A Hundred Summers; it’s the perfect, propulsive summer read. I read that you hid your “early attempts at fiction, first on company laptops as a corporate and communications strategy consultant, and then as an at-home producer of small persons.” What were your early attempts like? And how did you overcome that hurdle of wanting to hide them? What finally made you take that chance?
Beatriz Williams: Well, they weren’t very good! I was always able to put sentences together pretty well, but I really had no idea how to tell a story. So I’d think of some scenario, or a couple of characters, and I’d plunge right in without any kind of engine to thrust the story along.
Finally it hit me: I needed to put the story first, to put interesting characters in real jeopardy, and then it all started clicking together. Once I had something I felt people might actually want to read, I forced myself to crawl out from under my rock at last!
JB: How would you describe A Hundred Summers in ten words or less?
BW: High Society meets A Perfect Storm.
JB: What was your inspiration for A Hundred Summers?
BW: My in-laws live in southeastern Connecticut, close to where the great New England hurricane crashed ashore, so the storm has fascinated me for a long time. Nobody even knew a hurricane was on its way; the forecast that day called for sunny skies in the morning and a bit of bluster in the afternoon. What they got was a minimum Category 3 surge forcing a 15-20 foot surge that came in like a tsunami.
Whole beach communities were washed away, the old New England kind, and I thought about the nature of those towns and beach clubs, how insular and full of family secrets that simmer under the surface, and the story just started taking shape in my head.
JB: Are any of your characters based on real people?
BW: No! I don’t think I’ve ever deliberately drawn someone from real life, though occasionally I’ll find myself using certain speech patterns and mannerisms and minor biographical details, because that’s all part of the stew inside my brain.
I did have an “aha” moment when I read about the Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, who majored in architecture, and how this training––or, more accurately, the way his architect brain was wired––made him look at the playing field in a completely different way. So that’s how Nick became an architect!
JB: How did you envision the fictional seaside town of Seaview Neck?
BW: Like most fictional creations, it’s a composite. Geographically, of course, it’s a representation of Napatree Point, a sandy spit of land off Watch Hill, Rhode Island, that was originally home to forty-odd shingled summer homes that were wiped away by the 1938 hurricane.
But I had my own story to tell, and my own experience with the old East Coast beach club, so socially and architecturally that’s all mixed in. So Seaview is not a re-creation of Napatree; it’s got its own personality and history and cast of characters.
JB: Your love of the coast is very apparent in this novel. From where does your love stem?
BW: You know, I grew up near Seattle, which isn’t exactly a beach mecca, and we never did beachy trips when I was growing up.
It was only when I met and married my husband, who’s a native New Englander, and whose family has held the same bathhouse key to a beautiful vintage beach club along the New Jersey shore since 1931, that I began to absorb the rhythms of that summer life.
I was fascinated by the way these people had known each other, had summered together every year since they were children. The way they dressed, the drinks they drank––it’s such a culture.
For whatever reason, my generation hadn’t taken up in our parents’ houses in Seaview, as had every generation past, filling the narrow lanes and tennis courts with screaming young children and moody teenagers, with sailboats racing across the cove and Fourth of July floats festooned in contraband impatiens. I could understand why. The things that attracted me back to Seaview every summer–its old-fashionedness, its never-changingness, its wicker furniture and the smell of salt water soaked into its upholstery–were the very things that turned away everyone else. You couldn’t satisfy your craving for slickness and glamour and high living here at the Seaview Club. During Prohibition, the liquor had been replaced by lemonade, and now that the gin and tonic were back in their rightful places, the young people had moved on.
That being said, I don’t have much patience for sitting around on a beach for hours on end! I need a book or a story idea to keep my mind busy.
JB: How were earlier versions of A Hundred Summers different from the final copy?
BW: Actually, I pretty much drafted it the way it appears now––both my agent and editor loved it right away, so luckily there were only a few changes, apart from the usual copyediting.
I wrote the 1931 episodes first, and then built the 1938 summer around it; I needed to be certain about what happened to Nick and Lily in the past so I could tell the later story the right way.
But I had the overall arc in my head when I started, and I could picture the key scenes, like the evening in the roadhouse and the meeting of Nick and Lily in New York near the end. That’s how I know I’m ready to sit down and write!
JB: Do you have a favorite character in A Hundred Summers? If so, who?
BW: Oh, it’s so hard to pick favorites! Because of course I’m in love with Nick and Lily––I think you have to love your main characters––and Budgie was such a compelling character to write, such a mystery unveiling herself, layer by layer.
But the most fun was definitely Lily’s Aunt Julie. She’s based on a great-aunt of my husband’s, who was a party girl in the 1920s. She actually did date Ty Cobb for a bit!
JB: What was the most difficult thing about writing A Hundred Summers?
BW: Anytime you write alternating storylines, you have to put the puzzle together carefully, so that each episode interlocks with the one before. So that was the greatest challenge, constructing the plot. Once you have that, the writing just flows.
JB: What do you like to do when you are not writing?
BW: I haven’t had a lot of non-writing days lately, so when I do, I love to catch up with my long-suffering family! I have four kids, so that’s a lot of soccer games and ballet recitals, but we also try to mix it up with weekend trips and days in the city. We went off TV a year or two ago, which is fantastic for productivity, and I would much rather pick up a book or go have dinner with friends anyway!
JB: What is a typical day of writing like for you?
BW: It’s appallingly regimented! We see the older kids off on their various school buses by eight, and we drop my four-year-old at preschool at nine. I have three hours to write, and I always go to Starbucks or the diner, where I don’t have all the distractions of unfinished housework waiting to suck me in whenever I get stuck.
Writing is all about discipline, about making yourself put words on the page until everything starts to flow. Then I pick up my preschooler and do all my errands with her, because once the older ones are home, it’s all taxi duty until dinnertime! If I have any energy left, or I’m on deadline, I try to get a couple more hours done before bedtime.
JB: Will you go on a book tour? If so, which cities will you visit?
BW: I’ll be visiting Westerly, Rhode Island; New York; various locations in Connecticut; Peterborough, New Hampshire; Westhampton, New York; Tampa.
It’s all on my website and on the Events tab on my Facebook page. I’ve got some great material about the 1938 storm and other aspects of the book, and I’ll be inviting audience members to share their family stories and firsthand accounts. I’m really looking forward to meeting people!
JB: Do you have any advice for those working on a first novel?
BW: Develop a good writing discipline and the humility to understand that you can always make your writing better, you can always improve your craft. Learn what makes a story good, and how to tell it well. And read widely, not just in the genre you’re writing! The best books transcend genre definitions.
BW: In the first place, I hope they have a wonderful time! I love books that immerse me in a particular world, and that’s what I tried to do with A Hundred Summers.
But the book is really about all the things that take place beneath the surface of a persona and a community, and the social and sexual turmoil that was turning everything upside-down in the years after the First World War. That’s the real storm taking place at Seaview and Western culture generally, and I think the book rewards a close attention to the details.
JB: What’s next for you? Are you working on anything new?
BW: I’ve just finished my next novel, to be released in 2014, which adopts another branch of the Schuyler family and alternates between 1964 Manhattan and 1914 Berlin, with more secrets and love affairs and family upheavals, and cameo appearances from Aunt Julie and Nick and Lily!
JB: Ooh, I can’t wait for that! Thanks, Beatriz, for a wonderful interview. Good luck with the book!