Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Meg Waite Clayton talks about THE RACE FOR PARIS, the pleasures and perils of historical fiction, the amazing women correspondents, and so much more

 I've known and loved Meg Waite Clayton for years. She's the kind of person you can call in the middle of the night if you need to, and the kind of person who always has a brow pencil ready when you need to paint on freckles to complete a clown outfit! To me, what is so wonderful is how Meg, after writing four critically acclaimed novels, suddenly changed paths and wrote her first historical--The Race for Paris, and it's incredible. I'm not the only one singing The Race For Paris' praises. Not only is it an Indie Next Pick, a Glamour Magazine recommended read, one of the BBC's Ten Best Summer Reads of 2015, a Bookreporter Bets On Selection, but it's about to enter the world and rack up even more raves. 

Meg is also the author of The Wednesday Sisters, one of Entertainment Weekly’s 25 Essential Best Friend Novels of all time. Her first novel, The Language of Light, was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction (now the PEN/Bellwether). She's written for the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Runner’s World and public radio, often on the subject of the particular challenges women face.
The only thing more thrilling for me than hosting Meg here would be to sit down and have lunch with her. Thanks, Meg!

I always ask writers what the “spark” moment was for his or her book. What was haunting you that led to this story?

 The idea for The Race for Paris actually came to me while I was doing research for my first novel, The Language of Light. I read photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White’s autobiography, Portrait Of Myself. Something she said in that—about motherhood, I think I can say that much without spoiling the plot—really moved me. I had to read the autobiography in the stacks of the Vanderbilt library because it was out of print and couldn’t be checked out, so you can picture me sitting in the stacks, weeping.

The story really began to take shape when I read about how Martha Gellhorn got to cover the Normandy invasion. Only male journalists were allowed to go. (The excuse: “no women’s latrines there, and we aren’t about to start digging them now”—never mind that the press camps were generally set up in lovely big French chateaus with running water and sometimes whiskey literally on tap.) Martha stowed away in the loo of a hospital ship and went ashore with a stretcher crew, one of the very few correspondents to cover the invasion from French soil. nAnd her reward for her bravery? She was taken into custody on returning to England, and stripped of her military accreditation, her travel papers, and her ration entitlements. She was confined to a nurses’ training camp until she could be shipped back to the U.S.

So here’s what she did: She hopped the fence, hitched a ride on a plane to Italy, and covered the war without the benefit of her swanky military credential, sweet-talking wireless operators into send her work out, while all the time looking over her shoulder for the military police charged with apprehending her.

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—and was censored in England, where the journalists had 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.

I always want to know about process. The Race for Paris is richly drawn, multilayered, and gripping--and it’s also your first historical novel, right? How daunting was it to dip into the past?  What was your research like? Did anything surprise you? Did any of the research turn the story you thought you were writing into something completely different?

Thank you, Caroline. That is high praise coming from you!

Daunting, yes—absolutely. I just didn’t want to get it wrong, and I wanted to do these extraordinary folks justice. The women especially, because they are less well known. I suppose that’s perhaps why this book took so much longer than anything else I’ve written. I started it literally before the turn of the century! I’ve written three other novels in the time I’ve been working on it, but this is the one I kept always returning to.
The Race for Paris is my first novel being marketed as historical fiction. But because The Wednesday Sisters was set in the 1960s, when I was a child, I’ve always thought of it as historical, too, and the process of researching for this book was much like that in some ways.For this one, I did do the really fun stuff, like spending a month in Paris not once, but twice. I really enjoyed learning about how the press operated during the war, and all the details of what they did. I stayed in a chateau that was a press camp in Normandy, now owned by a man who was born there during the war. That was amazing, to sit by myself and watch the sun come up in a room where extraordinary journalists like Ernie Pyle wrote during the war.  And I covered the path my characters cover in the book—an excuse to see a lot of Europe!

I also immersed myself in books about the time, and in primary source materials. Letters and journals of real WWII correspondents. The pieces they wrote and, in the case of Lee Miller, some earlier drafts of pieces she wrote. For me, seeing the world directly through their eyes that way makes their world come alive. I loved gathering the little details of the everyday lives: for example, that they washed their laundry in their helmets, and often stopped menstruating due to the stress. And funny things like that the photojournalists—because it rained all the time in Normandy—would put their spent film in condoms and tie them up to keep them dry.

The problem wasn’t finding the interesting bits to include in the book, but choosing which to include, because there was so much great material. And then knowing when to stop. I love the research. I was a history major in college with a focus on 20th century American wars, so this is a real sweet spot for me.

There was one thing that I found well into the writing of the book that … well, it didn’t exactly turn the direction of the book, but it was just the thing I needed to make it all line up, and it was not the thing I was looking for. I don’t want to say too much, but I read about something that really happened in a cave during World War II, and that led me to an ending that was quite different than I’d envisioned. Who was it who says that an ending should be the “inevitable surprise”? Aristotle? I suppose if an ending doesn’t surprise the writer, then perhaps it can’t be the inevitable surprise that is so satisfying in literature.

I love the totally empowering characters of Liv and Jane (and Fletcher), who are determined to be the first to get to Paris and photograph the city’s liberation from the Germans. And I love it even more that she’s based on real-life characters. How did you go about crafting these characters?

I have to say I just loved drawing from the real experiences of women correspondents who covered the war. I couldn’t have made up some of the things that really happened. It might have been fun to do nonfiction, but the form of the novel allowed me to collect the most interesting of their experiences into one narrative arc that I hope will appeal to readers, but isn’t always there in real life.The way I develop character is generally in a sort of character scrap book, where I gather all sorts of bits until they start to take shape as a whole character. I pull photos from magazines, add poems, little snippets of things they might say, where they might be from, what their backstories might be. And just writing.

This story started with Liv, my ambitious photojournalist who carts her Speed Graphic to France intent on covering the liberation of Paris and in the process making both history and her own career. 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.”

I wanted to explore the challenge war presents for love, in part because many correspondent marriages did not survive the war. Many marriages didn’t survive the war, for that matter. The Race for Paris isn’t primarily a love story, but it’s not exactly not, either, if that makes any sense. So Charles, Liv’s husband, came along with Liv, and Fletcher sort of showed up in a scene in London that I long ago pulled from the book. (After learning a whole lot about the tea service at the Palm Court and what robot bombs sound like just before they fall!)

Jane—my journalist with her lovely foldable Corona typewriter who narrates the novel—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, so I thought I’d better get on over to Europe and find me one!” As befitting any character modeled on my Aunt Annette, she eventually took over the telling of the story, and that’s when it all starting falling into place finally.

Although these characters are dashing for “the scoop of their lives”, there’s much more to be gained than career goal. Can you talk about that please?

While Liv comes to Normandy intent on making her career, what she finds is that that isn’t what she needs or wants after all. Or perhaps a better way to say it is that she finds that “making her career” means something completely different than she thought it did. And I think that is so often true in life, that what we think we need and what we find we do are not the same.

So I suppose on one level that is what the book is about: the importance of leaving ourselves open to the possibility that what we need isn’t what we want.The book is very much about what we do in war, or on the excuse of war. All my characters come to the war with an idea of our humanity that gets challenged. That is a very important aspect of this novel. I think that like other extremely difficult times—children in hospitals, loved ones dying—being at war scrapes us down to exactly who we are.

So much of this fascinating novel is about the limits put on women, and the few who dared to defy them.  It works brilliantly for the time period, but I think it also has a lot to say to women today, don’t you?

I do, absolutely. One moral of this story is that if the rules get in your way, go around them or over them, or just break right through them. And that remains so true for women today.Women war journalists still face a whole lot of complications that men don’t. I’m not sure I’ll ever get over seeing photos from Afghanistan of my friend Masha Hamilton…in a headscarf. But what is true for women journalists is still, sadly, true in pretty much every walk of life. There are so many ways in which our expectations for women are shaped in ways we don’t even realize—what I can our embedded gender presumptions.

No one thinks twice if a male journalist (or soldier, or businessman) leaves his family behind for a week or a month or longer for a job, but if a woman does the same, her maternal instincts are suspect, right? And on the flip side, a stay-at-home dad is suspect, too. I think very few of us thing we discriminate based on gender, but in fact every study ever done shows indisputably that we all do.So I’m a big proponent of “name it change it.” Not that it’s that easy, but I think the more we call out the different ways we see each other based on gender, race, and the like, the more likely we are to be aware and to therefore change. I don’t set out to write on a theme, I start out to write a story, but I can see now over the course of five novels that this is turf that stirs my passions, which is I think where I do my best writing.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’ve been working on this book for so long that I find myself absolutely obsessed with helping it make its way in the world. But I’m also really longing to get back to the writing. That is the happy place for me, at my little computer with my pretend friends and my fictional worlds that I hope will make readers feel understood. (And then there is the coming election. I’m definitely obsessing about that already!)

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

 Perhaps, “Why Paris?” Why not, say, “The Race for Berlin”?For this story—WWII—Paris was … well, it sort of felt like the liberation of Paris would mean the war was won. The war didn’t end there, of course—the fighting continued to Berlin—but the liberation was symbolically so important. The epigraph I use for the novel was written by Martha Gellhorn in late 1943, shortly after she was accredited as a war correspondent and headed for London:

I would give anything to be part of the invasion and see Paris right at the beginning and watch the peace. The two were intertwined in people’s minds: Paris being liberated was the peace.

And Paris is such a romantic, evocative city, even in war. Or perhaps especially in war. If you can walk along the Seine, or just sit out on one of the bridges at night with a bottle of wine … the lighting is lovely, the reflection off the Seine. Now you have the young kids gathering at the tip of the Isle de la Cité just to be together. The warm colors of the sunset and that very fun moment of the Eiffel Tower lighting up. The Hôtel de Ville at night—where the novel opens—is just stunning. Really, if you can’t fall in love in Paris, then you’re probably doomed. If you can’t write in Paris, or about it, you certainly are.

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