For several years now, as I’ve turned my attention to solely writing (and mostly reading) historical fiction, I’ve subscribed to M.K. Tod’s indispensable blog, A Writer of History, where she examines crafts, interviews authors, and reviews historical novels. Awhile ago I read and greatly enjoyed her novel Time and Regret, so when she released Paris in Ruins last month, I ran out to get it (well, ordered it ASAP on Amazon).
I really enjoyed this novel set during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the subsequent Paris Commune, an era of which I knew nothing about, the latter event being essentially like an echo of the French Revolution. Mary did a wonderful job with her dual-narrator story and her setting of war, destruction, and economic and social upheaval. I couldn’t wait to discuss it further with Mary.
|1 – What did you find most surprising about the time period you chose (Paris 1870 – Franco-Prussian War and Paris Commune)?|
As a young person, I found history boring, which might say more about the way it was taught “back then,” with a focus on dates and facts and famous people rather than the lives of ordinary citizens. When I landed on 1870 (see question 2 for more about that), I had no idea I would discover a siege followed by a bloody and devastating civil war that destroyed so much of Paris. War, destruction, death, starvation, and a ruthless insurrection – all that drama. Surely, I can cook up something, I thought at the time. As with my other novels, small details surprised me: mail delivered by hot air balloons, the butchering of two elephants from the zoo to help feed Parisians during the siege, a famous actress who nursed the wounded, an underground system to vent steam into an American-run outdoor hospital, the women who took up arms, the wealthy who abandoned the city, the treasure hoarded by Napoleon III and his wife Eugenie, and so many more. Not every detail made it into the story, but collectively they helped me get inside the hearts and minds of my characters.
2 – Why did you choose to focus on the experiences of two upper-class women rather than any other class, given the importance of class in your story? And why women in particular?
Paris in Ruins was prompted by readers’ questions about an earlier novel titled Lies Told in Silence. That story begins in 1914, when a young woman called Helene Noisette leaves Paris along with her mother, grandmother, and younger brother to escape the threat of war by moving to the fictional town of Beaulieu in northern France. Helene’s grandmother, Mariele, is a widow in her mid-sixties, a woman whose past holds tragedy and secrets. To my delight, readers were taken with Mariele and the role she played in Helene’s coming of age. They wanted to know more about her. What could Mariele’s story be? I pondered this question for a while and eventually asked: What if I went back to a time when Mariele was a young woman and the historical events that might have shaped her life? I did the calculation and landed in 1870.
Camille – the other main character in Paris In Ruins – was also from Lies Told In Silence. Since both women were already established as well-to-do in that novel, I couldn’t change their backgrounds. To feature characters from the working class – their struggles and the glaring gap between rich and poor – I included women as household servants, as destitute children, and as members of the Montmartre Vigilance Committee. In the course of my research, I became very sympathetic to their plight. I hope that comes through in the story.
3 – Do you prefer writing dual narrator stories versus focusing on a single narrator? Why or why not?
What a great question! I don’t think I set out with that intention, but now that you’ve asked, I realize that all of my novels – four that are published and two that are in the works – have more than one voice. When I let my characters speak, I get inside their heads and their stories become real to me and hopefully to readers as well. In Lies Told In Silence, four characters told the story, adding both male and female perspectives as well as those of different generations. In Time and Regret, a dual timeline story, I experimented with first-person point of view for the present-day character and third-person for her grandfather’s point of view. Writing in first person was quite a liberating experience.
I feel that my writing has evolved with time. Discovering my characters’ voices is easier than it was ten or eleven years ago, but I’m still learning!
4 – Do you hide any secrets (or Easter eggs) in your books that only a few people will find?
I live in Toronto, Canada but my stories take place elsewhere. In almost every story, I include something from my city – perhaps a borrowed street name or a setting. Perhaps the name of a historical figure or a personal friend. Something to remind me of my city and country 🙂
5 – How do you balance novel writing with work on your popular blog, A Writer of History? Does your blog work inform your novel work (and/or vice versa)?
Thank you for asking about my blog, Gina! I’m astonished to realize that it’s been going for nine years and has over 1000 posts! The original objective for A Writer of History was to reach readers of historical fiction. However, having been a consultant for much of my business career, I’m so accustomed to analyzing situations that the themes and topics I’ve covered on the blog have evolved into an exploration of the elements of historical fiction and what makes this genre tick. To answer your specific question – the work I do on the blog and the guest articles I post have definitely informed my writing. And I often post short blog pieces about the research I’m doing or some other aspect of the current manuscript I’m writing. Definitely a win-win!
6 – Do you feel visiting a location is crucial to your work (as you did with visiting Paris)? What advice do you have for writers unable to travel during Covid (or for any other reason)?
Visiting places like Paris for Paris In Ruins or New York for Time and Regret has definitely added to the feeling of immersion that helps a scene come alive. When you are actually there, you develop a feeling for the subtler aspects of smell, taste, mood, language, gestures and so on. But … we can all “travel” using other mechanisms: diaries and journals, websites, blogs, museums, travelogues, books (both fiction and non-fiction), old maps, fashion magazines … the list is only limited by your imagination. Your readers might want to check out blog posts on A Writer of History that explore the element of setting.
7 – Do you prefer to read only historical fiction or do you ever branch out? If you do, what do you learn from those books?
I read constantly! Roughly 50% is historical fiction, another 20% is general fiction, and 30% is non-fiction. When I read fiction, I’m constantly analyzing for style, for ideas, for intriguing phrasing, for voice, for drama, for structure, for what doesn’t work. I learn so much by reading other authors. When I read non-fiction, it’s usually for research purposes: the timeline of events, the people involved, the reasons behind wars or other disasters, the social and political norms, the small details that can be woven into a novel and add to its feeling of authenticity. Some books are purely for pleasure – but not many!
Many thanks for your interest in Paris In Ruins and for the effort you put into sharing your passion for reading with others. It’s a delight to share my passion for writing!!
And thank you, Mary, for both your blog and your wonderful historical fiction, including Paris in Ruins, which I highly recommend!