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Beatriz Williams on Her New Novel: COCOA BEACH

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For our very first in-store event, we hosted Beatriz William, New York Times bestselling author of A CERTAIN AGE, among others. Her most recent novel, COCOA BEACH, is an enchanting blend of love, suspense, betrayal and redemption set among the rumrunners and scoundrels of Prohibition-era Florida. We asked Williams a few questions about her new book in preparation for the event!

Can you tell us briefly what drew you to writing novels?

Since I was a child — essentially since I could read — I’ve been writing fiction. I don’t know if this impulse is instinctive or the result of childhood programming. My parents immersed me early in just about every form of storytelling, written and performed, from yearly trips to the Shakespeare festival (starting age five) to season tickets to the opera (age eight) to Rogers and Hammerstein to ballet to — of course — literature. I’ve never known a moment in which I didn’t want to create stories, tell stories, sniff out some truffle of the human experience and imagine it into a narrative, and now I get to do that for a living.

You write historical fiction with tinges of romance and mystery. What about this genre attracts you?

Clearly it all goes back to my childhood! Not only did that bath of classical storytelling encourage my fascination with history and the peculiar timelessness of human nature, it gave me a reverence for plot. I’m fascinated with human love, particularly sexual love, because love always raises the stakes. Love strips us to our essential selves, it forces us to nail our colors to the mast. If you look at Verdi, at Wagner, at Shakespeare, love is the catalyst, our weakness and our strength, that leads us on to heroism or disaster, or both. And of course there must be some element of mystery; human beings need to get to the bottom of things, to know the unknowable, even when knowledge is dangerous. Understanding whom we can trust, the keeping of secrets — as I learned as an anthropology major, these are potent, potent things.

Where did the idea for COCOA BEACH originate?

Like most of my books, COCOA BEACH arose from a confluence of sources. I happened to be traveling in Florida several times over a short period, and each time I was struck by the environment around me — its lushness, its ruined buildings overtaken by nature, the contrast between its developed areas and its vast stretches of wilderness. And I happened to be reading a history of the 1920s that devoted an entire chapter to Florida, which went through a period of intense change during that decade — not just the property boom, driven by the wealthy building their winter palaces as well as the usual collection of promoters and dreamers and scoundrels, but the character of the state itself. Add Prohibition to all this, and Florida’s miles and miles of remote coastline, and it just seemed to me like the perfect setting for a Gothic type of novel, in which a woman both battered and naïve enters this new, exotic landscape and must decide whom she can trust.

You set COCOA BEACH in Florida during Prohibition and France during World War I. What drew you to write about these time periods and locales?

One of my historical obsessions is the transition of Western civilization from the Romanticism of the 19th century to the modern world in which we live today, and while all the elements of modernism came bubbling up in the years before the First World War — artistic innovation, technological and scientific innovation, social change, political change, global economic growth—the war acted as a kind of crucible in which these forces came together and were forged into the culture we see around us today. By alternating the narrative between the Western Front and the Roaring Twenties — France and Florida being two geographic epicenters — I hope to draw this profound change into relief. If COCOA BEACH is a novel in which the ground isn’t steady beneath your feet, in which you can’t figure out what’s what and who’s who, if you don’t know whom to trust, who’s the hero and who’s the villain, it’s because that reflects the reality of the period, the extreme dislocation felt by those who lived through it.

Historical fiction requires an amount of research. Are any of the characters or events based on real events? What was it like to research for this novel?

None of the major characters are based in any way on real people, although of course they participate in the historical events that occur during that period. I tend to be more concerned with what it was like to be an ordinary human being living through a particular time — to be a woman living through a particular time — and it’s hard to do that when you’re writing about a real, larger-than-life person, whose experience of that period is atypical by definition. So while I read, and have read, extensively about the historical facts, I was more concerned with the details of everyday life, and the larger forces shaping the way people viewed their world. Not only do I read histories and biographies, I read memoirs and letters and novels, I watch movies and plays and listen to music made during the early part of the twentieth century. An authentic voice is absolutely vital to immersing readers into that historical world.

Can you share with us a little about your writing practice?

I’m all about discipline! I have four children, so I need to focus my writing energy on the morning and early afternoon. As soon as the school bus leaves, I’m sitting down with coffee and a laptop, preferably outside the house so I’m not distracted by all the unmade beds and piles of laundry. But I also need lots of thinking time, which happens — this is such a fortunate thing my brain does — when I’m doing chores like laundry and making dinner and shuttling the kids around, repetitive tasks that kick my subconscious thoughts into my conscious mind. And running. I go running without headphones or any distractions, and I call it my idea factory.

Our readers love books! What books are you reading and loving now?

I’ve been swinging like Tarzan from writing deadline to writing deadline lately, so I haven’t had time to read much! But I squeezed in Anya Seton’s classic KATHERINE -- I’d been doing some research on medieval England and became re-obssessed with John of Gaunt—which is just a brilliant, addictive piece of storytelling. I’ve got a precious review copy of Lauren Willig’s upcoming THE ENGLISH WIFE that’s next on my list. And I think before I start my next book, I’m turning back to my old love, Patrick O’Brian, whose historical voice has no peer.

Are you working on anything new? What's next after COCOA BEACH?

I’ve just finished up next summer’s book — as yet untitled — which is set on a fictionalized version of Fishers Island (off the Connecticut coast) during the years after the Second World War, and I also wrote the next book in my WICKED CITY series, about a flapper and a Prohibition agent thrown together in Jazz Age New York. And while the WICKED CITY books form their own series, they also exist in the same universe as my other stand-alone novels, so readers might recognize a certain Prohibition agent who turns up in COCOA BEACH...

Cocoa Beach: A Novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9780062404985
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: William Morrow - June 27th, 2017