Beatriz Williams’s first novel, Overseas, commutes between eras with the story of Kate Wilson, a contemporary Wall Street analyst, and Julian Laurence Ashford, a brilliant hedge-funder who’s from a different world—WWI England.
You say the novel combines the two worlds you know best, Wall Street and the British experience in WWI. How did you come to know early 20th-century Britain?
I’ve been studying it all my adult life, starting from when I read Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth. The war was such an incredible waste of brilliant young men... it’s as if every young man in the Ivy League today went off to war and got killed. And with Downton Abbey coming out, the rest of the world is starting to realize what a fascinating time it was. I had a vision of one of these extraordinary young men who died in the war walking the streets of Manhattan. It was my way of saying they didn’t actually die; they were taken to another place. And then there’s the new trauma of adjusting to this other world. That was a challenge as a writer, trying to convey the enormity of what happened, but doing it through Kate’s eyes.
It’s a time travel novel in some ways, yet that’s not really the focus.
I didn’t want to make it about time travel, that’s just the way it occurs. I thought of it more in terms of circularity: it’s all sort of existing in this universe; the past is with us. You can go to a WWI battlefield and it’s amazing to look around and think that just one dimension separates us from that. You can’t see the past, but it’s there.
Were you worried about making Julian too perfect?
I grew up surrounded by British literature, and my father pointed out that when Jane Austen wrote Darcy, she didn’t hold anything back; she wasn’t afraid to make him larger than life. And there are people, real people, who are larger than life. But it’s hard to be perfect: you expect so much of yourself... Kate’s the one woman Julian can be himself with. Since the War and then WWII, we’re more cynical. But Julian’s able to say these wonderfully romantic things, and the beauty of Kate being a modern woman is that she’s laughing it off, but inside, she’s eating it up. I wanted to write a great big classic gushy love story. If I can make romantics out of cynics, that’s my goal.
And what’s next?
My next novel is set during the devastating hurricane of 1938, sometimes called the Long Island Express. There was no radar yet; it literally came out of nowhere. I love these events that change one person’s world and the world as a whole.