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Lauren Willig

DA3 Interview & Giveaway: The MacGuffin

DA3 Interview & Giveaway: The MacGuffin

Filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock popularized the term “MacGuffin,” using it as shorthand for whatever object put the characters (and the story) in motion. For Hitchcock, the MacGuffin mattered mainly because the characters cared about it enough to go after it–whether the audience precisely understood it was a secondary concern.

Today’s novels all feature a story centered around an object of desire. Are the objects true Hitchcockian MacGuffins? I ask the authors about that. But first, a little about the books:











In Susanna Kearsley’s The Firebird, it is the story of the object rather than the object itself that provides the chase, one that crosses maps and centuries as a psychic antiquities dealer tries to discover the secrets of a Russian woodcarving. First sentence: He sent his mind in search of me that morning.  

In Lauren Willig’s The Garden Intrigue, spy Augustus Whittlesby goes undercover as the worst poet ever, all in the name of finding Napoleon’s secret weapon, which may or may not be hidden at Josephine Bonaparte’s estate. First sentence: “A little to the left…. A little to the…No!”

The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen in Syrie James’s book doesn’t stay lost, which means readers get the treat of a story-within-a-story, experiencing Austen’s “first” novel along with a librarian and British aristocrat of the present day. First sentence: The minute I saw the letter, I knew it was hers.

The protagonist’s six word memoir:

SUSANNA KEARSLEY: I freed myself by being myself.

SYRIE JAMES: Samantha’s story- Lost Austen novel changed my life! Rebecca’s story in “The Stanhopes,” the Austen novel within The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen- Life…and love…cannot be predicted!

LAUREN WILLIG: They seek him here, they seek him—oh, wait, that’s been used already. Um, how about: When Napoleon asks you to write a masque, you say yes.

The heroine is:

SUSANNA KEARSLEY: Nicola buys, sells, and authenticates Russian fine art for an exclusive private gallery in London, England.

SYRIE JAMES: Samantha McDonough is a Special Collections Librarian at a small private university in southern California. Rebecca Stanhope is a rector’s daughter in England circa 1801.

LAUREN WILLIG: Giddy widow/socialite in public, privately passionately interested in issues of drainage and engineering. (Hey, we all have to have a hobby.)

What readers will love about the hero:

SUSANNA KEARSLEY: Rob (who some readers may remember from his first appearance as the young Scottish boy with Second Sight in my novel The Shadowy Horses) is strong, comfortable in his own skin, and dependable, which sounds really boring, except with Rob, it…isn’t.  And Edmund, in the 18th century sections of the story, is the good kind of bad boy, complete with scars, inside and out. Both of them, really, are easy to love.

SYRIE JAMES: Anthony Whitaker is a smart, handsome, hard-working, goodhearted Englishman who learns, through his admiration for the heroine, to love Jane Austen. The hero of The Stanhopes is an excellent man of outstanding moral character, who would do anything for the woman he adores.

LAUREN WILLIG: Doesn’t everyone love a poet in a puffy shirt? At least, until you read some of his poetry. Augustus Whittlesby puts the verb back in verbose. And the adverb. And lots and lots of adjectives.

The first kiss happens:

SUSANNA KEARSLEY: In an Edinburgh sidestreet, at night, in the rain.

SYRIE JAMES: 4) I can’t give that away! You’ll have to read the book and find out!

LAUREN WILLIG: Josephine Bonaparte’s country estate, Malmaison.

Tell readers about the object your characters are after. Was it a starting point for your story, or something that evolved as you wrote?

SUSANNA KEARSLEY: The Firebird is a small wooden carving, brought in to my heroine’s gallery by a woman who desperately needs the money from its sale, and needs to prove its origins. So in one sense, it’s the history of that carving that my characters are chasing. But in another sense, the “Firebird” they’re chasing is a person, too—the heroine of the past story, Anna, who once owned the carving. If they want to learn the carving’s past, they have to find and follow Anna’s path. Both Anna and the Firebird carving were there on the page at the beginning of the novel—they’re the seeds from which the story grew.

SYRIE JAMES:  The lost Jane Austen manuscript that Samantha goes in search of was definitely the starting point of my story. Every Austen fan despairs that she only wrote six novels. I thought: what if there was a seventh, but somehow it went missing? Wouldn’t it be thrilling to find, and read? In “The Stanhopes,” Rebecca and her father are cast out of their home and livelihood when he is accused of misappropriating church funds. What happened to the money? That question haunts them on their journey and becomes the object of an important quest.

LAUREN WILLIG: It’s a bit tricky, since I can’t reveal the actual object without my major spoilers since my characters don’t know exactly what it is, either, until the very end. My hero, who has been undercover in Paris as an excruciatingly bad poet lo these many years, has had word that Napoleon has commissioned a top secret device to aid in his attempted naval invasion of England. In this case, the device definitely came first, since the device was one that Napoleon actually did commission, and it’s one of those incredibly cool, quirky, historical fun facts that I just couldn’t resist using in a book. And that’s where I’ll have to stop, since I don’t want to give too much away….

Besides being a literal thing, what thematic or symbolic importance does the object in your book have?

SUSANNA KEARSLEY: The Firebird is a familiar character in old Russian fairy tales. In every version of the tale, the hero sets off on a quest to find and catch the Firebird, and bring it back. But really, it’s the journey, and the unexpected lessons and rewards it brings, that always prove to be the greatest treasure, of more value than the bird itself. So in my book, the Firebird carving serves as a reminder of that fact—that, as Rob puts it: “What you bring back with you in the end might not be what you started out in search of to begin with.”

SYRIE JAMES: The missing Jane Austen manuscript is not only an important and exciting discovery for enthusiasts of literature, it is also a valuable commodity, which could make its owner extremely wealthy. In “The Stanhopes,” the discovery of the missing money is of crucial importance to the Stanhopes; it could rescue them from dire circumstances and return them to the life and home they loved.

LAUREN WILLIG: One of the things I loved about writing this particular device and scenario is that the hero, Mr. I Rely On No One But Myself Professional Spy, has no hope of getting near or understanding this thing without the heroine. Augustus initially writes Emma off as a flaky socialite, but it’s Emma’s connections to the Bonapartes that he needs to get an invitation to Malmaison, and, when he does finally get his hands on the plans, he can’t make heads or tails of them without Emma’s engineering know-how. So, in many ways, this device represents Augustus’s acknowledgment of interdependence. (It’s always fun humbling the hero, isn’t it?)

Do you consider the object of desire in your story a “MacGuffin”? Why or why not?  

SUSANNA KEARSLEY: I’m not sure it is, in the classic Hitchcockian sense of the word. A true MacGuffin can be swapped for another item without changing the plot—it doesn’t matter, for example, what’s in those bottles in the wine cellar in the movie Notorious; Hitchcock could have changed the uranium to gold dust without altering the story. But the Firebird, I think, has a significance within the book that would have made it difficult for me to swap it with another object. If it was any other item, even any other bird, the story wouldn’t be the same. So no, it’s not a real MacGuffin, in my view.

SYRIE JAMES:  The missing manuscript is not really a MacGuffin in this story, since it is found relatively quickly; it is then the content of the manuscript, and its fate, that become the important and most pressing issues. In “The Stanhopes,” the missing money isn’t a MacGuffin either, because it’s not so much the money itself that’s important, but the truth behind its disappearance—upon which a main character’s profession and entire reputation depend.

LAUREN WILLIG: I would be disingenuous if I didn’t admit that a large part of the purpose of the Extra Secret Device was to throw Augustus in Emma’s path, but it also has significance in and of itself (see cool historical fun fact!, above). Among other things, Emma is an American who has close emotional ties to the Bonaparte family. She’s not automatically inclined to help an English spy. When it comes to deciding whether to help Augustus or hinder him, the nature of the device plays a large role. (Because it sure ain’t his poetry.)

In keeping with the theme, what’s the last thing you went hunting for?

SUSANNA KEARSLEY: A pencil with a point. They’re hard to find, sometimes, in my house.

SYRIE JAMES: I’ve been searching for several years for the perfect comforter set for my bedroom. My husband and I both love blue, but couldn’t find anything we really liked. I must have looked at 10,000 comforter sets in stores and online before I found the perfect one—and it was worth waiting for because it’s gorgeous!

LAUREN WILLIG: My work ethic. I keep misplacing it somewhere.

Your favorite book at age 10:

SUSANNA KEARSLEY: OK, so this will make me sound like a big geek, but that was the year my family went to Britain for the first time, and I was reading to prepare for it, and stumbled on an old used book I fell in love with: A Shorter History of Scotland to the Union of the Crowns, by P. Hume Brown. I read it over and over. It’s still on my shelves.

SYRIE JAMES: A tie between The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables.

LAUREN WILLIG: Gone With the Wind, hands down.

What’s coming up next from you?

SUSANNA KEARSLEY: I’m working on a new book, called A Desperate Fortune—a twin-stranded story with modern-day codebreakers, Jacobite ciphers, real history, a road trip from Paris to Rome, and a sharpshooting Highlander bodyguard. [NOTE: The Firebird has its U.S. release June 4.)

SYRIE JAMES: A new Jane Austen memoir, about her first young love. It’s the most amazing story; it’s never been told, and I’m having a great time writing it!

LAUREN WILLIG: My next book, The Ashford Affair, is a women’s fiction/historical fiction hybrid that rackets back and forth between 1999 New York, Edwardian England, Jazz Age London, and 1920s Kenya as a modern woman uncovers a long-held family secret that challenges everything she thought she knew about her family and herself. I call it my Downton Abbey meets Out of Africa book. 

Many thanks to Syrie, Lauren, and Susanna for taking time out for this interview. If you’d like to be eligible to win one of today’s books, leave us a question or comment!

REVIEW: The Garden Intrigue by Lauren Willig

REVIEW: The Garden Intrigue by Lauren Willig

As Napoleon pursues his plans for the invasion of England, English operative Augustus Whittlesby gets wind of a top secret device, to be demonstrated over the course of a house party at Malmaison. The catch? The only way in is to join forces with that annoying American socialite, Emma Morris Delagardie, who has been commissioned to write a masque for the weekend’s entertainment. Even so, it should leave plenty of alone time with Augustus’ colleague (and goddess), Jane Wooliston, who has been tapped to play the heroine. Or so Augustus tells himself. In this complicated masque within a masque, nothing seems to go quite as scripted… especially Emma.

Dear Ms. Willig,

For the first time in years, I’ve actually got the latest “Pink Carnation” book read at the time of its initial release. Go me! This one varies slightly from the usual fare in the way the French are depicted and in that it’s not centered on the League that the Pink Carnation oversees – hence the lack of a “flower” title. We also get a glimpse of the personal life of the Pink Carnation which makes me wonder what you have in store for her in the future.

The Garden Intrigue	Lauren WilligThe use of the term “masque” for the entertainment that Augustus and Emma write must have been a deliberate choice since it points in the direction of what both main characters are doing – which is wearing many public masks. Emma appears to be the Merry Widow awhirl in the sophisticated social life of Paris and the circle surrounding the First Consul family. She is friends with or at least the acquaintance of all who are fashionable; she is sought after and looked for at all public events. But few know that this was initially to hide her pain from her marriage. When she eloped, her family was horrified and for a while cut communications with her. Her disillusionment with the marriage lead her to flee back to Paris to the arms of the de Beauharnais women who had been her friends for years. After her husband’s death, she wished to hide her grief. Now she’s been doing this for so long that it’s almost become second nature and she avoids thinking about whether it’s time to make a change. I like that Emma doesn’t take her grief and wrap it around herself like a beloved shawl. She has lost in love but she doesn’t cry off of it for future nor does she drag her past misery around like chains.

Augustus has actually got a set of masks to pick from. He’s worked as a secret agent for over ten years using the cover of his horrible poetry to convey his information to the English. The verse is bad enough that the Ministry of Police can’t force themselves to read it closely enough to see the truth but not truly execrable enough that they suspect a ruse. Writing to this level is a fine art, Augustus has found, though he never lets down his guard for fear a casual word or action will give up the game. His second mask is tied to the first in that lately he’s officially been using Jane Wooliston as his “muse” for this bad poetry while hiding from everyone his true feelings for her. It takes a young and silly new agent to start Augustus down the mental path where he starts to question how much longer he can play this game. It takes Emma’s pointed comments before he then wonders how much longer he actually wants to try.

These two have a lovely slow romance that I enjoy watching happen. Too often a couple is at odds for much of a book and then the authorial BAM strikes and I’m supposed to believe they’re in love. Here I can see it grow and eventually flower. It’s not painless, there are false starts and miscues but when each finally realizes it and admits it, I believe it. Emma’s first marriage is also not what I’m used to seeing. She married young, in a haze of Young Love’s Dream and only later woke to the cold, hard realities of marriage. It took a lot of work and growing up before she was at a point to be ready to try again and attempt to make something of the relationship. And then Paul died. So here’s a marriage that had its rocky spots, where both loved each other and the only villain was youthful naivete and unrealistic expectations. It’s nice that Paul isn’t forced into the villain role in order to make Augustus look better.

In many of the earlier books in the series and in almost all the Regency era books I’ve read that focus on the Napoleonic Wars, the French are portrayed as badly at best and as demons at worst. What a refreshing change we see here. Emma is American so at this stage of the conflict, she doesn’t have a horse in the race. She doesn’t hate England so much as it just doesn’t mean a great deal to her. But the French and France? Ah, those she loves. After living there for 10 years and being befriended by Hortense de Beauharnais and her mother, Emma feels at home there and has no desire to act on the lures cast by her mother to get her home to New York. Emma also wanted to continue the work begun by her husband – that makes me think of the movie Ridicule – of draining the marshland around his family estate. It’s in studying his plans and those of the American inventor Robert Fulton that she gains her knowledge of engineering that stands her in good stead when Fulton arrives at Malmaison with whatever it is that Augustus has to discover. How funny is it that she’s the one who has to explain it all to Augustus!

Jane Wooliston is shown in a new light to me. It’s only after Emma divines Augustus’s feelings for her that Emma reveals some intriguing things about Jane. And as Augustus bares his heart to Jane after which Emma scolds Jane for her reaction, Jane shows a coolness about romance that might be the stepping stone to a bang up book. Is she really as those two see her here? Or are there hidden depths to be uncovered? While I was intrigued about what’s in store for Jane, I was confused about another secondary character. Georges Marston shows up as someone from Emma’s past who is initially painted in tones of menace. He does pop up at needed times in the book to be slightly threatening, but ultimately either I misread him or his part in this book really fizzled out. He seemed like he’d play a larger and darker role than he – at least to me – does.

I found that the modern sections, with Eloise and Colin facing off the American film crew which has invaded Colin’s beloved Selwick Hall, captured my interest and seemed to move their relationship along more smartly than in “The Orchid Affair.” It’s still “fits and starts” as compared to the historical stuff but finally these two are settling deeper into coupledom.

Though this is a long running series, you keep it fresh by not concentrating on the same set of people and by limiting “guest appearances” of past couples. The settings change as well from England to India and now on to France. I don’t know what’s next but I do know I’ll be eager to find out. B


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