Carol Wallace ’73 has written more than twenty books, including the New York Times bestseller To Marry an English Lord, which was an inspiration for the television series Downton Abbey. Her new novel, Our Kind of People, was released in January 2022. Wallace holds degrees from Greens Farms Academy, Princeton University, and Columbia University. She currently lives in Washington Heights, New York with her husband and has two children and two grandchildren, one just a few blocks away.
Your new book Our Kind of People, which follows the Wilcox family’s journey through riches and ruin was recently released. How did you get interested in the Gilded Age and historical fiction?
Some of it had to do with growing up in Southport. If you stand by the harbor today and squint it could almost be 100 years ago.
I grew up on Pequot Avenue in a Victorian house across the street from Trinity Church. We had a grand staircase and a dress-up chest from my mother. There was lots of pretending to be someone else, someone grander in an alternative universe.
I was always drawn to reading. We lived so near the Pequot Library we would walk over barefoot. There was a stern librarian who would try to influence our reading, but we would sneak around and check out Regency romance novels when he wasn’t there.
I understand you had a signing at the Pequot Library earlier this summer and there was a good group of GFA alumni in attendance.
Yes, there were around seven of my classmates at the talk at Pequot Library. Those friendships are incredibly valuable to me. We have been through great and terrible times together and I cherish those relationships.
Can you tell me a little bit about your time at GFA?
GFA was such an important place for me. I started in third grade in 1963.
I remember having Mr. Keller who was an extraordinary and eccentric English teacher. My friends and I still imitate him. He had a rigid sense of how to teach grammar and spelling, but he believed 100% in what he was doing and you can’t fake that. Students understand what teachers are doing and when they are all in and that’s what gets students interested. Mr. Keller was influential, memorable, and timeless. I was extremely fortunate to have attended GFA. I got a great education and have lifelong friends who I adore.
What was your path post-GFA and how did GFA help prepare you?
I was so prepared for college. When I went off to Princeton I was apprehensive about not being prepared, but I was relieved to find out that college was challenging but very manageable. Which was not the case for all the students in my new class. Princeton also had a five to one male to female ratio at the time, so that was a big difference from GFA.
After Princeton, I attended a pre-professional six-week course at Radcliffe to prepare to go into book publishing. My first job was working at Workman Publishing. Peter Workman was something of a maverick in the industry. He commissioned books based on the passion of the author. I was there for two and a half years, which was very useful. I learned how to put a book together. I learned copyediting and proofing and realized that books are commodities, which I hadn’t thought about previously. Writing a book because you think it will sell and make money was a new and useful idea. I left because I was commissioned to write a book by a colleague and I loved the experience of being at my own desk and keeping my own schedule.
At some point around 1979, I was recruited by Workman Publishing to work on The Preppy Handbook, which was a super fun project. When the book came out people were astounded by the reception. It became a big deal and permitted me to write books that I wanted and not just books other people needed to be written.
Is there any advice you would give current students and young alumni interested in becoming writers?
In many ways, I’m not the person to speak to this. So much writing happens online now and is not paid. It’s really hard to get paid to write these days unless your writing is professional, like press releases and book jackets. There is so much free writing it’s hard to distinguish yourself as someone who should get paid for it. But, every once in a while someone brings something new to the table!