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July 21, 2023

Wagner-Wright’s latest historical novel, Ambition, Arrogance & Pride, follows two families in colonial Massachusetts as they build their business empires. BookLife Reviews called the book “bold” and said that the “detail—about maritime trade, love, politics, and social mores in the American colonies—creates an immersive sense of the textures of life.”

This is the first time one of your historical novels has been set in the American colonies. What drew you to this setting?

During the early 1990s, I was in the greater Boston area and visited the Peabody Essex Museum. The PEM has a wonderful collection of historic houses, and I was especially drawn to the houses associated with the Derby and Crowninshield families. Intrigued, I stopped by the PEM Phillips Library and took notes on letters written by Crowninshield women. The notes languished in my “Future Projects” box until the Covid-19 lockdown began in 2020. Since I couldn’t travel for research and wanted to start a new project, I pulled out the Crowninshield notes.

Can you describe the historical research you did for Ambition, Arrogance & Pride?

I researched the historical period and the Crowninshield family’s place in it. With modern research tools and sources available through the internet, I could access materials online. But to meet my characters “personally,” I needed to go back to primary sources so I could see their handwriting and read their original phrasing. In spring 2022, I took a research trip to the Phillips Library, where reference and library services librarian Jennifer Hornsby and her staff extended me every courtesy.

What responsibility do you feel to reimagine or change events or characters based on real people? 

As a historian, I am committed to accurately portraying the historical record. As a fiction writer, I aim to tell an engaging story. I cannot change the historic record, but I can imagine the impact an event had on the people involved or how it occurred.

Two examples: On February 25, 1775, an event known as Leslie’s Retreat occurred in Salem. British Colonel Leslie arrived in Salem prepared to use all means necessary to seize military supplies. Americans defied the order. Negotiations defused the situation, and the first shots of the American Revolution were not fired that day. Along with a few eyewitness accounts, these are the facts. I thought it likely that Captain Derby and George Crowninshield were present, that they chatted and perhaps shared a flask of whiskey, and that, after the situation was diffused, they doubtless repaired to a nearby tavern to celebrate. The scenes in chapter 12 reflect the documented record as it intersects with the people in my story, both as authentic supporters of the American Revolution and as characters in the story. On September 2, 1774, Mary’s sister Sarah Derby Gardner died. The only certain fact is her death date. I researched 18th-century diseases and medical practices to describe what could have happened. Scenes in chapters 12 and 13 reflect my conclusions.

What do you think is the hardest part about writing historical fiction?

This dance between the actual events, real people, and the story joining them together is hard to execute. If, by the time I complete the manuscript, my characters and their stories are as real to me as my next-door neighbor, I’ve done my job.

Book Two in the Salem Stories series picks up in 1790. The Crowninshield and Derby families continue into the next generation against the backdrop of the new United States and the growth of local and national political factions. The Crowninshield siblings take divergent pathways, with some rising to political prominence and others sinking into bankruptcy. Brothers wrangle over business. Women’s roles expand. There is even—shudder—a very public divorce.