Meg Waite Clayton on Finding New Ways to Tell Old Stories
The Author of The Postmistress of Paris Talks to Jane Ciabattari
Meg Waite Clayton’s historic fiction is energized by her focus on real-life women who risked their lives during dark times in the 20th century. Reporters like Margaret Bourke-White, Martha Gellhorn, and Lee Miller were the basis for her fifth novel, The Race for Paris (2015), in which two women journalists make the perilous journey from Normandy to the French capitol in 1944, determined to be the first to capture the Allied liberation after four years of Nazi occupation. Gellhorn is the narrator of Clayton’s 2018 novel Beautiful Exiles, about the journalist’s relationship with Ernest Hemingway while they two are both covering the Spanish Civil War. The Last Train to London (2019) is based on the heroic work of Truus Wijsmuller, a Dutch resistance member known as Tante Truus, who shepherded thousands of children from inside Nazi Germany to countries willing to shelter them.
Clayton’s new novel, The Postmistress of Paris, was inspired by Chicago heiress Mary Jayne Gold, who joined Varian Fry and others to work with the Resistance during World War II. The novel immerses readers in the dangerous world of Vichy France, where serving as a courier of messages and people means risking your life. Clayton highlights the courage, resilience and inventiveness required of these World War II heroes.
Jane Ciabattari: How has the uncertainty and turmoil since March 2020 affected your life and work?
Meg Waite Clayton: My working day looks much the same: I hang out with my imaginary friends in my office-playroom, writing books. Because I haven’t been traveling for all the events I was meant to do else-world, I’m actually left with more time to write.
But getting into the psychological space to write has been difficult, not only because of all the uncertainty produced by the pandemic, but also due to serious health issues my mom has been facing for more than a year now, and my dad’s recent passing.
Research is so much more difficult when I can’t travel, and even local libraries are closed. And I have come to see how much creativity depends on getting out in the world, seeing things, talking to people — at least it does for me.
JC: This isn’t your first historic novel set in France. What influences drew you to base your main narrator, Nanée, on the American, Mary Jayne Gold? How did you piece together her life during the years 1938-1940 in Paris, at Villa Air-Bel in Marseille, at Camp de Milles outside of Aix-en-Provence?
MWC: I was first drawn to this story when I learned more or less at the same time about Camp des Milles and the French internment of refugees even before Hitler invaded, and Varian Fry’s secret list of prominent artists, intellectuals, and writers for whom he could get American visas if he could get them out of France. In researching Fry’s effort, I learned of Mary Jayne Gold, her Villa Air Bel, and the life they lead there. I found life at that villa so evocative.
The story is inspired by Gold’s but is not hers. Nanée is a bit of a mashup of Gold and a German refugee named Lisa Fittko, with a good dose of fiction tossed in. But Nanée’s courage is definitely meant as an homage to theirs.
Piecing it together was a lot of research, a lot of different sources. But I love that part of this!
JC: What were the challenges of writing about Varian Fry and his team of refugee artists (Andre Breton, Jacqueline Breton, Max Ernst et al), all real people who have appeared numerous times in fiction and nonfiction?
MWC: Because they aren’t the center of this story, that was less daunting than you might imagine. I did want to get them “right,” or as right as I could, of course. To that end, having nonfiction sources about them was a help rather than a detriment.
I hadn’t actually read any fictional treatment of them until after I had sold the novel to Harper, on a proposal as part of a two-book deal with the first book, The Last Train to London, already finished. I did have a quick look at one that was published as I was writing The Postmistress of Paris, with the idea that I might have to do something different if that story was too similar. But it was Varian’s story, and a very different book than I have written.
One bit of writing wisdom I gathered from I know not where is that there are no new stories, only new ways of telling them.
JC: And the parallel challenges of creating a fictional artist, Edouard Moss, and his daughter?
MWC: Edouard and Luki were quite interesting and fun to create. I used as a jumping-off point some of the information I collected about real artists at the time, and the experiences of people in hiding and trying to escape France.
Luki … well, I fell in love with her from that moment she showed up on the page at the end of the first chapter. Edouard too, but don’t tell my husband that!
The biggest challenge was understanding the emotional pain of leaving a home, which is of course what all refugees do, amplified by the grief of losing a spouse or a mother.
JC: Games played by Surrealist artists like Exquisite Corpse and Truth are part of the plot in this novel. When they first meet, Nanée has recently landed after a hair-raising flight in her red Vega Gull and is wearing her flight jacket and scarf, a look she calls “aero-Chanel.” In one game session, Edouard draws Nanée with aviator glasses and scarf, but her head is in a birdcage. What made you create this game moment as a first inkling of their attraction? What has he sensed about her?
MWC:The game they play, Exquisite Corpse, is a game they really did play first in Paris, and later at the salons hosted at Villa Air Bel. That is part of what attracted me to this story: the way the real people who inspired it faced these dangerous times with humor and good spirit, buoyed by friendship. So I knew from the start that I wanted to have them playing Surrealist games at Villa Air Bel, and it made sense, structurally, to introduce that element early.
The birdcage was a research gift. The Surrealist exhibition Nanée attends in the opening chapter was real, and in researching it I found one of the exhibits there was a hall of female mannequins dressed according to the fetishes of various male artists, one mannequin with her head in a birdcage. It turns out birdcages were a bit of a thing among the Surrealists. And that was so evocative to me, so telling of the way women were seen and often still are, and the way we sometimes see ourselves.
Because structurally Nanée and Edouard were going to be separated for much of the first section of the book, and him just widowed, too, I wanted their connection to be immediate and close, to carry the possibility of a romance forward even though they don’t act on it in the opening.
But honestly, so much of writing happens on a subconscious level. What I do is research until I am pretty steeped in a period or event or a story, and then sit down and write a few chapters without any outline or plan. What emerges often surprises me. I do outline, but not generally in any real detail until after I have a few chapters and some idea where a story might go.
JC: Luki, Edouard’s four-year-old daughter, is another narrative voice in The Postmistress of Paris. She brings a different set of emotions into a story in which courage and stoicism, loyalty, secrecy and risk-taking are valued. How did you imagine her? And her stuffed kangaroo mom and baby?
MWC: The first time I really wrote child characters in a big way was for The Last Train to London. In writing that book, I found it touches something deep inside me, where my best writing always comes from. And so often the world seen through children’s eyes is clear and direct.
Luki, when she showed up in that opening scene, was dragging that kangaroo, the baby (a joey, she would tell you) already missing. I did find a period-true stuffed kangaroo, but I don’t honestly remember if I was looking for a stuffie for Luki and found the kangaroo, or if I wanted her specifically to have a kangaroo and found the photo I used for the details. The missing baby? I didn’t consciously think about the emotional weight that could carry for a child who has lost her mother and is too young to understand what that means when I put the mama in her hands, but it is the kind of thing that just bubbles up when you start putting words on the page.
JC: And Dagobert! Nanée loves him so much, he is a comfort through so many dangerous moments. Where did he come from?
MWC: The real Mary Jayne Gold had a real poodle named Dagobert, and as much as I would like to take credit for him barking madly whenever anyone said “Hitler! Hitler!” that too was real. Nanée’s Dagobert is smaller than Gold’s, and his personality bears a striking resemblance to Frodo, our Golden Retriever, who passed away five years ago now and was truly the most wonderful dog that ever was. I’ve never written a dog character before. It was so much fun!
JC: Nanée and Eduardo spend time in the darkroom, he photographs her in an image that brings to mind Man Ray. How does the rapidly evolving art of photography of that era play a part in this story? As inspiration? As aesthetic underpinning?
MWC: I think pretty much everything I do in writing fiction is attempting to deliver emotion slantwise, so the reader feels joy or sadness or anger or grief rather than simply being told it’s there .I love photography, hence my dipping into that well again and again. I’ve had cameras since I was quite young, and grew up with a darkroom in my basement, and while I am a crap photographer myself, I cannot pass by a photography exhibit without stopping. It is just the perfect mix of reality and art, creativity. And here, with the way the Surrealists played with the medium, it was very fun to play with it myself.
JC: As the “postmistress of Paris,” Nanée risks her life and acquiesces to behavior she would normally never accept in order to deliver messages and guide refugees to safety. How did you research this part of the story? How realistic are the hair-raising border-crossing journeys? The moments of love?
MWC: One of the things I find so interesting is that being a courier was one of the most dangerous things anyone could do. It seems simple and ho-hum: you’re just taking a message from one person to another. But the sender and recipient are hidden or protected, near fires or toilets where evidence might be destroyed, while a courier is literally out on the street, exposed.
This research was not really done specifically for this novel, but rather an accumulation of decades of reading about this period. That having been said, the real Mary Jayne Gold did act as a courier. She did go to a different camp, not Camp des Milles, to try to get some internees released—not in quite such an extreme way, but there is a long history of female spies doing what needs to be done.
The details of that border crossing … Let’s just say that three times I had plans to hike over the Pyrenees on the path over which refugees escaped, only to get sick the first time, face 108-degree heat the second, and have the trip cancelled altogether the last time, due to Covid travel restrictions. So even the physical details are drawn from research sources, probably most importantly Escape through the Pyrenees by Lisa Fittko, and to a lesser extent in part because I came to it later in the process, Eva and Otto by Thomas, Kathy, and Peter Pfister. Tom Pfister was also incredibly generous in sharing his own experience with the hike, as well as photos.
JC: What are you working on next? Will you return to this historic period? Any of these characters?
MWC: I’ve been superstitious about talking about what’s next for me writing-wise ever since the book I thought would be my third novel was finally published as my fifth, and that after leaving a publisher I loved to get it done. I will say it will likely be a WWII book, as I love this era and the extraordinary things women did—many of which are only now coming to light. I don’t expect I will revisit these characters, but never say never. I do love Dagobert!