By Moira Macdonald
The Seattle Times
For her best-selling 2018 novel “The Summer Wives,” Beatriz Williams was inspired by the idea of a secretive island world. The book, which spans several decades (early 1930s to late 1960s) and two generations of a high-society summer family and a local clan, takes place on Winthrop Island, a place that doesn’t welcome outsiders.
Williams, who grew up in the Seattle area and now lives in Connecticut, said that Winthrop Island is fictional, but it owes a significant debt to the real-life Fishers Island, on the East Coast. “The island was first pointed out to me many years ago by my husband,” said Williams in an interview this month. “His parents live on the Connecticut shoreline, and if you look across on a clear day you can see Fishers.”
Fishers, like Winthrop, is “a place where people go to maintain a particular culture without changing,” said Williams, noting that the real-life island has no hotels or restaurants. “You have to belong to one of the clubs on the island. All the entertaining is domestic entertaining — you have to be part of the group. I thought, that’s really fascinating. I kept my eyes open over the course of years; I thought it would make a really interesting setting.”
Winthrop Island borrows elements of Fishers because “there were certain things I wanted to say about the midcentury WASP culture,” said Williams, who’s fascinated by “the notion of islands — what we are keeping out, what we are keeping in.”
“The Summer Wives” is a stand-alone novel but contains elements of some of her previous works: Miranda Schuyler, who returns to Winthrop Island to confront her past, is related to the heroines of Williams’ Schuyler Sisters trilogy: “The Secret Life of Violet Grant,” “Tiny Little Thing” and “Along the Infinite Sea.” Williams, who loves the novels of Anthony Trollope and their interconnected worlds, said she wanted to write a book related to that trilogy, but with fresh characters — a new branch of the family. “At some point I’ll weave that story and some of the characters into a later book.”
Like all of Williams’ novels, “The Summer Wives” uses multiple narratives and time periods, moving between 1969 (Miranda’s return to the island, as a successful actress), 1951 (Miranda, as a teen, attending her mother’s wedding to one of the island’s wealthiest residents), and 1930 (where we come to know young Bianca Medeiro, who lives on the island year-round, and whose story sets both later stories in motion). “I’m always fascinated by this dialogue that we have between present and past, and how what has happened to us in the past influences where we are in the present,” said Williams.
Though a fluid and prolific writer of historical fiction, Williams came a bit late to writing books. She grew up in Kent as an avid reader in an arts-loving family, speaking affectionately of going to Seattle Opera as a child and of family trips to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. After graduating from Kentwood High in 1990, Williams dreamed of becoming a writer, but her engineer father urged practicality. She attended Stanford University and then Columbia University, graduating with an MBA in finance and working as a communications-strategy consultant.
But still, writing fiction seemed to call her. “The business career was something I was doing to be successful at, until I had the nerve to try what I really wanted,” she said. “I was always writing. I was literally writing books on company laptops and scrubbing the files before I turned the laptop in. It was always what I wanted to do.” She married, had children, left her job, and decided it was time: “I thought, it almost doesn’t matter now if I crash and burn — at least my kids need me and love me. Now that writing was no longer the most important thing, I had the guts to go ahead and try it.” After “a few failed attempts,” her first novel, “Overseas,” was published in 2012.
She’s aware that many readers come to her books for “a fun beach read,” and she’s fine with that. “Certainly, you can just enjoy that surface story,” she said. “But for me what is going on beneath the surface is the fascinating part.” Those early years immersed in theater and opera, she says, informed the way she writes. “It’s very scene-based, with dialogue and action telling the story, showing the story, not just endless exposition. I want to always be in scene, and to explain what I’m trying to say through my characters. You get those wonderful layers beneath the story. All of that, I picked up from that childhood and those experiences.”