Today I’m delighted to be heading back to Jazz Age New York with Beatriz Williams on the latest stop on her blog tour for her new novel, A Certain Age. A graduate of Stanford University with an MBA from Columbia, Beatriz spent several years in New York and London hiding her 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. She now lives with her husband and four children near the Connecticut shore, where she divides her time between writing and laundry. Welcome Beatriz!
The 1920s is one of my favourite periods of history and I love the glamour and glitz associated with this period in New York; what drew you to write about this particular time and place in A Certain Age?
I think I’ve always wanted to set a book in this era; my other novels have referenced the 1920s, but I wanted to find just the right idea to tell the story of this extraordinary decade. So much change was taking place—in art, in society, in science and technology, in transportation and media and relations between genders and races—and layered on top of all of that you have the rise of youth culture, which still dominates our lives today in so many ways. So it’s ripe as a setting, because narratives thrives on conflict, and when I thought about Richard Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier, which features an aristocrat and her young lover, and the ingénue who steals his affections, I thought how well that story and those themes translate into the zeitgeist of the Jazz Age.
How did you go about your research for the book and did anything that you found surprise you?
I tend to focus on primary sources – books and materials that were written around the time in which I’m writing. So I read some Fitzgerald and Hemingway and others, and watched old movies and listened to old recordings, and I stumbled across this wonderful book called Only Yesterday, which is an account of the 1920s written in 1931. I thought it would be deadly boring and focused on all the usual historical facts in a dry, passive voice, but instead it was an incredibly engaging reflection on all the social changes taking place. The author spoke of how sex had taken over as a topic of conversation, and how women had entered the workforce with such determination that those who didn’t work found themselves having to defend that choice. So it really illuminated the vast social revolution that took place in the years after the First World War, which we tend to forget. The Sixties were only picking up where the Twenties left off!
If you could spend a day as one of your characters from A Certain Age who would you choose and what would you do?
Oh gosh! That’s a difficult question. My first instinct is to say Theresa Marshall, because she’s such a vibrant character, but she’s led such a terribly lonely, grief-stricken life and I don’t know whether I’d enjoy being in her skin. So I might choose Octavian instead and go flying over Manhattan in an airplane, or else visit Belmont Park and watch Man o’War race!
The book is set during the Jazz Age – which music or pieces would be on the soundtrack for A Certain Age?
Well, as I learned in my research, so many of the familiar jazz standards were actually composed after the years in which the book was set! But I did put together a playlist for my publisher, to which you can now listen on Spotify. Just click here.
Which classic novels or factual accounts would you recommend to readers interested in this period?
Definitely Only Yesterday by Frederick Lewis Allen for a factual account. Most people have read The Great Gatsby, but Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise also gives you a wonderful picture of young people in the years before and after the First World War. And there have been a number of nonfiction books written about the period recently, including Bill Bryson’s 1927 and David Pietrusza’s 1920.
When I was a child, I loved the Little House on the Prairie and Anne of Green Gables books, and I think the way girls took centre stage and did fearless, remarkable things has always informed my creation of strong female characters at the heart of my books. In terms of adult fiction, the list is long and runs from Trollope (whose creation of a fictional universe, populated by characters who appear in other books, inspired the way I built my own world) and Patrick O’Brian (who had an amazing ability to effortlessly immerse the reader in a historical setting) to Vera Brittain.
And finally … what can we expect next from Beatriz Williams
My next book, The Wicked City, comes out in January, and it’s about a straight-arrow Prohibition agent who recruits a flapper to help him break a New York City bootlegging ring with roots in Appalachia. And then I pick up the story of Virginia, Sophie’s sister in A Certain Age, who’s run down to Florida at the end of the book in order to find her missing husband. So I’ll be living and breathing the 1920s for a few more books to come!
Thank you Beatriz – I’m already looking forward to The Wicked City.
A Certain Age is out now in paperback, ebook and audio formats.