Known for a blend of glamorous characters and well-researched historic details that she debuted with the 2007 launch of her four-book Luxe series and later with her Bright Young Things books, Anna Godbersen charts a somewhat different course with her new novel Beautiful Wild, which is set in an unspecified year around the start of the 20th century. Heroine Vida Hazzard is pursuing the man of her dreams aboard the luxury ocean liner Princess of the Pacific, until an accident leaves her stranded with fellow passengers on a remote island. There, Vida uncovers new capabilities within herself and comes to a different understanding of what her life can be. Godbersen—who teaches creative writing in New York City—spoke with PW about tackling the tropes of the shipboard romance and shipwreck narrative, the hazards and pleasures of research, and how her writing has evolved.
Setting out on a journey that abruptly turns into something unexpected seems like an apt story arc for our current Covid-19 era. What drew you to these two settings: a Titanic-like ocean liner and a nameless Pacific island?
When I [started to write] this book, [it] seemed like a very dark and divisive time. I really wanted to write something that was just beautiful and escapist. It was what I wanted to offer readers and it was what I wanted to meditate on myself. And my creative life felt like a flight of fancy from reality.
I think that there’s such a deep, compelling trope about shipboard romance and shipwreck romances, and—obviously Titanic is the most famous and successful—but there is something that is even broader. My previous book, When We Caught Fire, was set during the Chicago fire. And in this one, I wanted it to be a little bit more of what happens after the disaster.
In Beautiful Wild the disaster is kind of a dumb accident. It’s really not the point of the book. I think probably a lot of disasters are like that, that they are fairly arbitrary. They come out of stupidity and human negligence, and then the question really for us is, what do we do after that disaster? Do we turn in on ourselves? Do we hunker down with our closed ideas about what life can be? Do we hoard and turn against each other or do we reconsider things? Do we work together? Do we find beauty in small things? And do we question our materialist stories about what a good life is?
I hope readers will be able to have a little bit of an escapist fantasy while at the same time kind of meditating on those questions.
Throughout the novel, there is an interplay between glittering surfaces and interior truths. On the island, Vida literally strips away layers—first to bathe herself and later to create a sail for Fitz’s rescue craft. Can you talk more about that?
I feel like that’s the theme of my whole writing career, actually. When my first book came out, more than a decade ago, it had this beautiful cover that obviously I didn’t shoot, it had nothing to do with me, so I can totally brag about it. It was just a huge epic dress. And Beautiful Wild has that same aesthetic. It’s a big-dress book. I guess I think of myself as doing a little bit of bait and switch: come for the big glamour, stay for the feelings and the revelations of self.
It actually feels very true, not only as a theme of my work, but as a theme of my life. I came to New York when I was very young. It was the Sex in the City era. I bought a lot of shoes. I was, in my own modest way, very interested in a glittery city life. When I started writing this book, it was the end of my 30s, I’d had my first child, and I was a lot more interested in what is the beauty in the natural world.
But I think for young women in particular, but [also] women of all ages, we know intuitively that the clothes we’ve put on are telling a story about ourselves and we need to tell those stories. So I don’t mean to tear it down. I think that an important part of how we build our identities and our power is how we clothe ourselves for the world and in that way, communicate who we are. But I do think that when we face crises, we have to go and find those deeper inner resources. And we also have to be willing to change our stories about ourselves and reconceive ourselves.
I think that’s a lot of what my heroine is going through. She’s doing pretty well in life. She has a strong sense of herself and she is winning in her world as she knows it. But for reasons beyond her control that world is ruined and she has to learn some new stories about herself. And I think that’s one of the most powerful things we go through in life. So I hope that is inspiring for readers, to see this young woman have to change her mind and learn some new tricks and tell some new stories.
You are known for doing a substantial amount of research for your books. What kind of research did you do for Beautiful Wild and when did you know you had done enough?
One of the things I tell my students when I teach creative writing is that research is a huge source of inspiration, but it can also be a gigantic method of procrastination. And you can find yourself so far afield, but at the same time, first we want to get all the details right.
I was so obsessive about the research for my previous books, but for this book [it was] more about inspiration and telling a sort of fantasy story.
My first book was set in New York City and I really wanted to get all the details right about what New York was like at the time—the politics and the intrigue. [Beautiful Wild] is for the most part set in a place that has no history and is really just human beings dealing with each other. So I would say that my research was more kind of aesthetic. What is the trope of the shipwreck romance? What is the literature of disaster and ocean liners? It was more like image-collecting this time around.
It’s been 13 years since The Luxe came out. How have your interests and passions evolved since writing that first series? And how are the concerns of this book different from the Luxe series?
I think I wanted to offer a lot of the guilty pleasures of excess and gossip and soapiness and intrigue. While at the same time getting to some deeper issues of characters discovering themselves coming of age, making some realizations about their family and who they are, and where they really want to go versus what they’ve been handed as a life path. I do think that it was really a different time, both in the world and in my life when I wrote those first books in the series.
I think that I am much more interested in quieter stories now, that are closer to one character. My first book has five point-of-view characters. My next series had three point-of-view characters. My last book, When We Caught Fire, had two point-of-view characters, and this one just has one. I think in some ways that is a harder task as a writer. If you’re moving around a lot of point of views and you have a lot of storyline, you can do a little razzle dazzle and cover up a lot of sins. But I think that I have more confidence as a writer now. And so being able to stay with one character and her story and her revelations of self and her coming of age is something I’m really proud of. I’m more interested in it now, and I don't think I would’ve been able to do it as a younger writer.
By the novel’s end, it feels like Vida’s life will continue to unfold in rich ways, but readers won’t necessarily be privy to the details. Would you ever return to Vida’s story?
I really wanted to write [Beautiful Wild] as a book that was satisfying in and of itself and I didn’t really consider sequels or anything. But I found it really powerful when I was a young woman to read stories about women who had latitude and were able to go into the world. So much of what I want to impart to young readers is [that] the world is big. And when you’re young, you feel like the whole world is the embarrassing thing that just happened to you, and whoever your parents say you should be, and whoever you seem to be in the hierarchy of your high school.
But the reality is that the world is so large and every time you take a step out into it, it just expands and expands and expands. And I think whatever story I’m writing, that is what I want to communicate to young readers. So I honestly hadn't considered it, but I do love the idea of a story that is [Vida]—with or without her guy, whoever the guy is—traveling the world and having even more revelations of how the world can be and who she is. So maybe I’ll think about that.
Beautiful Wild by Anna Godbersen. HarperTeen, $18.99 Nov. ISBN 978-0-06-267985-7