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December 19, 2017

The Christmas Presents that Inspired Beatriz Williams’ Novels

Posted by tom

Beatriz Williams is the bestselling author of A HUNDRED SUMMERS, THE SECRET LIFE OF VIOLET GRANT, ALONG THE INFINITE SEA and several other works of historical fiction. In her Holiday Blog post, Beatriz explains how two nonfiction books she received from her father-in-law for Christmas helped serve as the inspiration for her Jazz Age novels, A CERTAIN AGE and COCOA BEACH, and her new Wicked City Prohibition series --- the first installment of which, THE WICKED CITY, will be available in paperback on December 26th.

At the time I fell in love with my husband, I didn’t know that his uncle had founded the legendary Toadstool Bookshop in Peterborough, New Hampshire, or that my father-in-law was a shareholder. When you’re falling in love, you don’t think of the practicalities. That’s what Jane Austen is for: gently reminding us, dear readers, that true love is even better lived on 10,000 a year. Or, in my case, an annual supply of well-chosen Christmas books.

Growing up, I belonged to another bookish family, although book-giving back then was as much a matter of economy as principle. First Little House, then Anne of Green Gables, then thick, door-stopping nonfiction on subjects my father Thought I Ought To Know. I always loved opening them. You knew it was a book, of course, but what book? What new and fascinating world, waiting to be discovered? These days, when I receive my Christmas book from my father-in-law, that same thrill tickles me, only better. As an early investor in the Toadstool, my father-in-law naturally turns to his brother for a recommendation and a shareholder discount, and Uncle Willard --- who, to be fair, has an exceptional window into my mind, since he sells my books --- gets it right every time. In fact, I can trace the inspiration for my Jazz Age books, A CERTAIN AGE and COCOA BEACH, and my new Wicked City Prohibition series, right back to a pair of Toadstool selections.

Now, I confess, I didn’t get around to reading Frederick Lewis Allen’s ONLY YESTERDAY until three months after Christmas, when I set off on a book tour to promote the paperback release of A HUNDRED SUMMERS. For one thing, I have four young children and a domino chain of writing deadlines, and for another thing --- well, a work of history written in 1931? I hefted it in my hands and pictured the long, dry, passive sentences inside, the interminable droning-on about Teapot Dome and industrial production and Herbert Hoover. Imagine my delight, then, to settle myself in an airplane seat and discover a sprightly, gossipy, deeply insightful book about the transforming cultural landscape of 1920s America, told with wit and verve by a man still whiplashed by his experience of the decade. I happened to be flying into Orlando as I read the chapter about the Florida land rush, and as I looked out the window and saw the lush, overgrown scene below, I thought, I must write a Gothic novel set in Prohibition Florida. (Hello, COCOA BEACH.)

After a smashing success like that, you’d think I’d have opened up the second book as soon as the Christmas wrapping paper had gone into the recycling bin. But writing again got in the way of reading, and it was likewise springtime before I turned the cover of BIG BOSSES: A Working Girl’s Memoir of Jazz Age America, authored by a scrappy woman named Althea McDowell Altemus, who had worked as a secretary to several of the decade’s legendary…well, big bosses. Now, I discovered at once that this pick didn’t exactly share the polished, elegant storytelling of ONLY YESTERDAY. Altemus was not a professional writer. Her manuscript had spent most of the 20th century buried in the archives of the Vizcaya Museum in Miami, Florida, before it got dusted off and published in 2016.

But while the pages have been wonderfully annotated with historical background and cunning revelations about the men and women entangled in Altemus’ life, the original text is preserved largely intact in its raw state. Why? Because Althea McDowell Altemus has a voice, oh boy, a frisky, witty, sensational voice that reminded me so much of Gin Kelly, the flapper at the heart of THE WICKED CITY --- the manuscript I had just turned in --- that I kept catching my breath in rapture. And the details! The small, telling revelations about daily life in the Roaring Twenties, about daily life for a remarkable working girl who worked for a series of remarkable men, gave me actual thrills, the best kind of writer thrills, the ones that make you want to scribble everything down and remember it. Bring it to life in some new story, some new character, some new book.

There will be some fine presents under the tree this year, most of them for the kids, most of them ripped open with abandon and squealed over and hugged, as they should be. As for me, I’ll be looking for the neat, telltale rectangle from my father-in-law, the red or green or blue wrapping paper that disguises some new and fascinating world, one I plan to enter long before springtime this year. If I’m lucky, it might just contain my next great idea.