Author Beatriz Williams discusses how a 1930s storm inspired her newest book, plus the New England shores she loves most.

By Marisa Spyker
July 29, 2013
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Photo: Marilyn Roos

A self-proclaimed "history nut," Beatriz proved herself as a master of historical fiction when her first novel, Overseas, debuted with international acclaim. Her follow-up is the recently released (and already buzzed about) A Hundred Summers, which tells the story of the close-knit community of Seaview, Rhode Island, which was severely rattled by the hurricane of 1938.

What inspired you to write a book set during the 1938 hurricane?
BW: Oh, it was such a dramatic episode! I first learned about the storm when my in-laws––who live in Old Lyme, Connecticut––pointed out Katharine Hepburn’s house in Fenwick, which was rebuilt entirely after the hurricane destroyed the original. I thought to myself, 'Any storm with the chutzpah to take on the Great Kate must be worth another look!' And the more I looked into it, the more fascinating the tale became. Here’s a hurricane that raced unseen up the Eastern seaboard at sixty miles an hour, packing wind speeds of up to a hundred and fifty miles an hour. It struck Long Island and the New England coast with such force that seismographs in Alaska registered the impact. Nobody had any idea it was coming. You noticed the sky had turned a sickly shade of yellow ochre, and you looked out to sea and saw an enormous fog bank rolling in. And then you realized that the fog bank was actually a 20-foot wall of water—the storm surge of a hurricane you didn’t even know was coming. As a writer, how could I not want to turn that into a novel?

Why did you choose Seaview, Rhode Island, in particular as the setting?
BW: I read so many jaw-dropping stories about what happened that day, but the history of Napatree Point both horrified and intrigued me the most. This beautiful sandy peninsula extends into the ocean from Watch Hill, Rhode Island––a classic New England beach community––and in the summer of 1938, it was home to over forty lovely shingled beach houses and a small club. All of it was swept away in the first few minutes of the storm, and the survivors had to cling to pieces of wreckage and ride them across a hurricane-tossed Little Narragansett Bay to the mainland. I fell in love with this narrative of a patrician, old-money beach enclave—with all the family history and secrets and relationships that implies—facing such a cataclysm at the end of a long, hot summer, so I took the bones of the story and the geography and reshaped them into my fictional community of Seaview.

How much research went into the planning of this book?   
BW: Though I’m an unapologetic history nut, I also feel that historical novels shouldn’t let the history get in the way of the storytelling. I take on subjects and eras that fascinate me, and I read and read until it’s all soaked into my bones. Then I put the books away and start writing, and I really only stop to look up facts when I need them. To me, a good historical novel is one that evokes the period with dialogue and everyday details––the way people talked and acted and ate and dressed and treated one another––not data dumps. It’s about how people lived.

Are any of the characters based on real life people you encountered in your research?
BW: A few of the incidents are taken from the historical record, but I haven’t taken on any real-life characters, either from my research or my own life. The one exception is Aunt Julie, who was inspired by my husband’s great-aunt and was a madcap flapper back in the day. Though she died before I arrived on the scene, stories about her are legend in the family, so I couldn’t resist!

You live near the shore in Connecticut. What's your favorite beach town to visit in the summer?
BW: I love visiting my in-laws in Old Lyme, which is right on Long Island Sound and has some beautiful beaches, along with a classic New England village center. But I also have to include Sea Bright, right up at the northern tip of the New Jersey shore, where my mother-in-law’s family have summered for generations. The clubhouse there is just a lovely turn-of-the-century building, and it evokes that timeless summer feeling so effortlessly. We play with the kids in the surf and drink cocktails on the boardwalk at sunset while the waves roll in. It’s magical!