By Leslie Lindsay
A crisp September evening. Preschoolers tucked in bed. New friends. Wine and books…this was my first introduction to Meg Waite Clayton, author of THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS. After our introductions (some of us didn’t know each other yet), a sweet, quiet and assuming member thrust a book my way, “You need to read this,” she encouraged with a smile. I did. Later, flipping the pages, and nodding in agreement, in reliability, I knew this was my life. A writer is first a reader. That’s what I think Meg Waite Clayton’s book taught me.
Today, I am honored to have Meg chat with us about her newest book–perhaps her most ambitious title to date, THE RACE FOR PARIS. For me, it’s the perfect combination of history, women’s rights and independence, my appreciation for photography, and of course–books.
Leslie Lindsay: Can you tell us in a few words what The Race for Paris is about?
Meg Waite Clayton: The novel was inspired by the actual “Race for Paris” and the journalists who first reported the liberation of the city in August 1944. It’s the story of two women journalists hoping to make history, and a British military photographer who joins them. It’s a bit of an underdog story, because while the male journalists had access everything they needed and were free to roam Europe, the women correspondents were restricted to covering red cross donut girls and nurses. If they wanted to win this spirited race to be first to report from Paris, they had to break rules. It took me 15 years to write—I started it before the turn of the century!—and I’m just thrilled to be talking about it with you.
L.L.: Where did the story idea begin for you?
Meg Waite Clayton: 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. And 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.
L.L. So, the Race for Paris…it’s a real thing, then? Can you tell us about that?
Meg Waite Clayton: I came across the term in Andy Rooney’s autobiography; he wrote for Stars and Striped during the war. He describes it as a spirited competition among the journalists over who would be the first to report the liberation. They all know Paris wouldn’t be the end of the war, but everyone imagined the liberation of Paris would mean the war was going to be 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.
L.L.: Gosh, Paris! I’ve been once, but how fun was it to write about?
Meg Waite Clayton: 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. [Check out Meg’s literary guide to Paris here]
L.L.: This is a definitely a research-intensive novel. Can you tell about how you went about researching THE RACE FOR PARIS?
Meg Waite Clayton: I did the really fun stuff, of course—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 canisters in condoms, tie them 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.
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.
L.L.: I’m always curious if there a character authors identify with most in their work. Is there one for you in The Race for Paris?
Meg Waite Clayton: I think maybe you have to be able to identify with anyone to deliver them well. So I hope I identify with all of them. Fletcher, 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? I even identify with Charles, Liv’s husband.
Liv is my ambitious photojournalist who comes 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.” 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.
I also identify with Jane, though. 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.
Jane actually started as a small 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, “Well I wasn’t getting any younger, was I? 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 where they were 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. So I suppose that suggests I identify with her even more than I think I do.
L.L.: Oh, wow–thank you so much for being with us today, Meg. I can definitely see where your passions lie.
Meg Waite Clayton: Thank YOU, Leslie!
Bio: Book club favorite and New York Times and USA Today bestseller Meg Waite Clayton is the author of five novels, including The Race for Paris (HarperCollins, August 11), and The Wednesday Sisters, one of Entertainment Weekly’s 25 Essential Best Friend Novels of all time.
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[All images retrieved from Meg Waite Clayton’s website and used with permission from the author.]