Ah, Paris! This city always has been–and always will be–magical in print. So we asked two novelists to interview one another another about their new, Paris-centered novels. Up first Dana Gynther interviews Meg Waite Clayton about her novel, THE RACE FOR PARIS (and congratulations to Meg, by the way, as this book just became a national bestseller!) And don’t forget to check back on Thursday for the second half of this interview and learn about Dana’s novel, THE WOMAN IN THE PHOTOGRAPH.
Dana: I was two-thirds through Dickens’ Bleak House when your book arrived in the mail. Contrary to custom, I left my current reading to gather dust on my bedside table and picked up your gorgeous novel. I was surprised to find that, for these two books, you and Dickens used the same, singular style: an omniscient narrator interspersed with a first-person one (a decision that caused quite a stir in 1852). Why did you decide to tell the story this way? Have you read many books that use this device? (which, btw, I will be stealing in the future).
Meg: The narrative point of view I use in The Race for Paris is the same I’ve used in several of my previous novels, including The Wednesday Sisters. I think of as 1st person retrospective.
In this case, Jane is telling the story of the years she spent as a journalist in France during WWII from the perspective of 50 years later, as she is returning to Paris for an exhibit of her dear friend Liv Harper’s photographs from the war.
Jane and Liv were in France, living and working 24/7 with British military photographer Fletcher Roebuck in very intense and intimate circumstances—covering the war together and hoping to be the first to report the liberation of Paris, which would make both history and their careers.
While Jane isn’t there at every moment of every scene of the novel, she knows the stories she tells the way we know the stories of our family and our closest friends. She was there, nearby if not in scene. She’s shared long, late-night conversations with Liv and Fletcher about the moments she wasn’t there—some at the time, and some in the intervening years.
It’s actually a pretty common narrative technique, with probably the best known example being The Great Gatsby. But the way I came to it was through my family. I grew up making weekend treks from Chicago to Iowa, where my dad grew up, and being regaled with stories of their youth by my Uncle Jim.
Dana: One of irresistible things about this novel is that it deals with a trio (two, in fact, but let’s concentrate on the central one): the three traveling companions, Fletcher, Liv and Jane. Did you have a favorite among them? Why?
Meg: I think you have to be able to identify with anyone to deliver them well, so I hope I identify with all of them. Fletcher, for example—my British military photographer—he’s this really lovely guy who has the habit of falling for the wrong person again and again. Who can’t identify with that?
But I’d say if I had to choose a favorite it would probably be my photojournalist, Liv Harper. And I should say that she was Harper long before Harper was my publisher, and I just realized about two days ago that the two were the same!
Liv comes to France intent on covering the liberation of Paris. She is ambitious in a way that Fletcher and Jane are not. She’s not uncomplicated, no one is. And she’s far from perfect. Perfect in a character is boring. But I think it’s a hard thing for women to embrace ambition. It ends up leaving us considered “bossy” or “unfeminine,” “undesirable.” But she does embrace it, much as she struggles with doing so and tries to balance her ambition and her family obligations, and that’s a struggle I’m quite familiar with.
But I also love Jane—my journalist with her lovely foldable Corona typewriter who narrates the novel. She’s single and in some danger of becoming an old maid, and I certainly remember those years! She’s a Nashville gal from the wrong side of the tracks, who sort of backs into being a war journalist—she’s a secretary at the Nashville Banner when the war breaks out, and she’s smart, and so when the boys go off to war and the editor needs more writers, he turns to her. She doesn’t imagine herself as a writer until someone helps her do so, which is very much how I came to writing.
Jane actually started as a bit player who disappeared after the early chapters, and was a small homage to my Aunt Annette, who was in Normandy with the Red Cross. When I asked my aunt why she chose to go to war, she said, in a southern accent I can’t replicate, that she was twenty-something, “and the boys were all over there and I was going to be an old maid before they came home if I wasn’t already, so I thought I’d better get on over to Europe and find me a beau!” As befitting any character inspired by my Aunt Annette, she eventually took over the telling of the story, and that’s when it all starting falling into place finally.
Dana: Although these characters are your own invention, we have quotes from real correspondents as well as many cameos (like Andy Rooney and Ernie Pyle). How much of the action here is real? Did you have any historical scenes that you wanted to include but were finally edited out?
Meg: There is so much real material from the war that is so interesting that much of the novel draws from the experiences of a whole collection of journalists (male and female), and others as well. The opening scene—the bit in the operating room, which was actually one of the last scenes I wrote—was inspired by a short passage in Margaret Bourke-White’s autobiography. The scene where Liv and Jane meet up with Fletcher was inspired by a Collier’s piece by Cornelius Ryan titled “The Major of St. Lô.” Ernie Pyle’s reporting from the St. Lô—Perriers Road was indispensible to the short-bombing scene.
What I wanted to do was compress a number of experiences of real journalists into one story. This was especially true of the women journalists. So Liv’s and Jane’s struggles are very much inspired by real women who covered WWII.
While the male correspondents went wherever they wanted, and returned to nice warm press rooms in chateaus and 5-star hotels, the women correspondents who managed to get accredited to France were largely confined to hospitals. They worked at tables they set up in fields when the weather wasn’t terrible, which it mostly was. While men were able to negotiate changes to copy with on site censors at the press camps and send work by wire, women journalists’ work went by pouch—much slower, so not as timely. Their work was censored in England, leaving them no ability to make changes to accommodate the censors. Whatever was left after the censors did their dirty deeds—often not quite the truth and sometimes pure gibberish… well, off it went to their editors anyway, with their names on it.
For many women, the only option if they wanted to cover the war in a meaningful way, was to go AWOL—absent without leave—leaving them without resources, often in danger, and with the added challenge of having to evade military police send to take them into custody. Several who did so, including Lee Miller, Catherine Coyne, and Dot Avery, were taken into custody and held at Rennes, and so missed covering the liberation of Paris.
When you just look at what these women did during the war, they seem daring and risk-taking and sort of superhuman. But if you peek behind the curtain… Well, let’s just say that as a child attending fortnightly dance classes, Martha Gellhorn hid with a friend in the coatroom rather than have to stand unselected by the boys.
One of the things I wanted to do in The Race for Paris was explore how very human and like the rest of us these women really are. I’m not saying they didn’t do extraordinary things—they did. But a lot of women in a lot of circumstances in WWII did, too, and I like to think that even if I might not have, many of my readers would.
Dana: For me, choosing the names of the characters is crucial as they can provide insight into personality and identity (which is a real downside when writing about real people. I would have never made up the name ‘Man Ray’!). Your fictional characters’ names are spot-on: the British aristocrat working as a military photographer: Fletcher Roebuck; the rich New Englander recently married to a newspaper magnate but working as photojournalist: Olivia Harper, better known as Liv (pronounced ‘live’—a war zone imperative); the southern working-class girl, making it as journalist: Jane Tyler. The one name choice that seemed more mysterious to me was Renny. What made you choose that name?
Meg: Renny is short for Renata. I chose it because it’s a bit unusual, and I needed that name in particular to be memorable. It’s Latin, and while not exactly French, is French-sounding, which I liked. But most importantly, it means “reborn,” and the role Renny plays in the novel is very much about looking to the future, and the hopefulness that comes with that.
Dana: In the Acknowledgements you mention the fact that this book was a slow train coming, that it took “more than a decade.” Why was that?
Meg: That is a very good question. There are a number of reason, there are always a number of reasons, aren’t there?
I started this one literally before the turn of the century, so by one measure it was 15 years in the making. But I struggled with it, and set it aside to write and publish three other novels over the course of that time.
Part of the struggle was that I wanted to do right by the real women journalists, so I just obsessed over every detail. And part of that was that I loved the research, so it was always a joy and never a chore.
Part of it was that I struggled to get Liv right. She was quite off-putting in early drafts, and I wanted readers to fall in love with her as surely as I did.
A big turning point for me—a turning point that came well into that 15 years—was changing the narrative point of view. I had been alternating third person close, with Liv and Fletcher, for years. When I had the idea to let Jane tell this story, it really did fall into place. I think that’s in part because Liv is a big character. If you tried to tell The Great Gatsby from Gatsby’s perspective, well, it just wouldn’t work, would it? And that’s what I was trying to do in those earlier drafts.
And then, to be honest, by the time it all began to line up, I was publishing with a Random House imprint—a team I adored and still do, but who saw me as a writer of contemporary fiction, and really wanted me to pursue a contemporary novel we all thought would be a good next step for me. But my amazing agent, Marly Rusoff, was incredibly enthusiastic about the Paris manuscript, and felt that it ought to be my next novel. But she also thought—insisted—that it needed to be in just the right hands. She introduced me to Claire Wachtel at HarperCollins, who was just the perfect editor for this book. (Perfect editor, period!) I feel like before I started working with Claire I was standing on one side of a door, writing well but not necessarily growing as a writer as much as I wanted to. Well, Claire effectively put a hatchet in my hands and told me to ignore the doorknob and break that door to bits and step right on through. I’ve grown tremendously as a writer in the process of working on this book with her, and now have a whole long path of writing growth ahead of me. And that is an amazing place to be, an amazing gift she has given me.
And of course part of the struggle was letting go of The Race for Paris, because I so enjoyed writing this book. Now that it’s done, I don’t get to return to it whenever I want. I have so loved writing this novel, and I’m absolutely delighted to be sharing it with readers.
The New York Times bestselling author of The Wednesday Sisters returns with a moving and powerfully dynamic World War II novel about two American journalists and an Englishman, who together race the Allies to Occupied Paris for the scoop of their lives.
Normandy, 1944. To cover the fighting in France, Jane, a reporter for the Nashville Banner, and Liv, an Associated Press photographer, have endured enormous danger and frustrating obstacles—including strict military regulations limiting what women correspondents can. Even so, Liv wants more.
Encouraged by her husband, the editor of a New York newspaper, she’s determined to be the first photographer to reach Paris with the Allies, and capture its freedom from the Nazis.
However, her Commanding Officer has other ideas about the role of women in the press corps. To fulfill her ambitions, Liv must go AWOL. She persuades Jane to join her, and the two women find a guardian angel in Fletcher, a British military photographer who reluctantly agrees to escort them. As they race for Paris across the perilous French countryside, Liv, Jane, and Fletcher forge an indelible emotional bond that will transform them and reverberate long after the war is over.
Based on daring, real-life female reporters on the front lines of history like Margaret Bourke-White, Lee Miller, and Martha Gellhorn—and with cameos by other famous faces of the time—The Race for Parisis an absorbing, atmospheric saga full of drama, adventure, and passion. Combining riveting storytelling with expert literary craftsmanship and thorough research, Meg Waite Clayton crafts a compelling, resonant read.