Meg Waite Clayton is an award-winning writer whose eighth novel, The Postmistress of Paris, released last week. Her previous novel, The Last Train to London, was a finalist for the Jewish Book Award and has been published in twenty languages.
Based on extensive research about the resistance during Germany’s occupation of France, The Postmistress of Paris tackles questions like, how do people continue making art under the most traumatic of circumstances? While staying true to its thematic underpinnings, the novel also spins the best kind of suspenseful tale, where the reader worries not so much about what will happen but how it will happen. Inspired by the life of an American heiress who helped artists hunted by the Nazis escape from war-torn Europe, The Postmistress of Paris features a feminist heroine, a love story, a celebration of art and human creativity, and resistance against fascism (with strong parallels to the current rise of fascism, here in the US and abroad).
I had the opportunity to talk with Clayton about The Postmistress of Paris a few weeks before its publication date.
The Rumpus: The opening sentences, paragraphs, and scenes of novels are so important. In the opening of The Postmistress of Paris you have the protagonist flying (and almost crashing) a small plane over Paris. Tell me about the choices and decisions you made in writing this beginning.
Meg Waite Clayton: Ack, openings! You have to lure readers into the world of your story without them seeing you open the door. For Postmistress, my character Nanée came to me in her Vega Gull, the plane flown by real Chicago heiress Mary Jayne Gold, who was part of the inspiration for Nanée. But the near-crash, as Nanée maneuvers to avoid killing a bird, came later, after I’d finished a draft of the novel. I felt the opening needed more excitement, and this editing of the scene allowed me to foreshadow the arc of a whole story I hadn’t even known myself when I wrote that first draft of chapter one.
Rumpus: That scene says so much and it works so well at establishing setting and character.
Clayton: Thank you. That only took probably a hundred and three drafts and forty or fifty pages in the dust bin to get these eight! In earlier versions, the scene at the Galerie des Beaux-Arts was another chapter, but I wanted to get the key players, including Nanée and Edouard and Luki, onstage. I write a draft, then pick out the best of it, the most telling details, and throw out the rest.
Rumpus: Did you take flying lessons in order to write this scene and character?
Clayton: I wish! I’d been up in a four-seater years earlier, so I had some sense of what it was like, but I didn’t know Nanée was going to join us in her plane until I started writing, and most of the writing was done during the pandemic so I couldn’t take flying lessons. Fortunately, a friend connected me with the amazingly generous Christopher Keck. Chris, with the help of Sue Hulme, whose father owned and piloted a Vega Gull, set up a flight simulator with the plane details and Nanée’s route, and “flew” me by simulation over Zoom. We tinkered with the path and flew it again and again, with him telling me at each step what the plane could and couldn’t do and what the pilot would be doing and feeling. He even suggested how the bird should approach so Nanée would credibly be unaware of it until it was too late.
Rumpus: Did you travel to France to research some of your settings, such as Camp des Milles and Banyuls-Sur-Mer?
Clayton: I did! I’m never quite sure whether I travel to write or write to travel. The first setting I visited for Postmistress was Camp des Milles, now an incredibly moving museum. On that same trip, I wandered around Marseille. I visited Arles and Cap d’Ail, thinking the character that would be Edouard might live there, only to later learn how important Sanary-sur-Mer was to refugees. I planned three times to visit Banyuls-sur-Mer and the other settings so important to the end of the novel. The first time I got sick. The next time it was one hundred and eight degrees there. I made yet more travel arrangements for a return 2020 visit, during which I also meant to visit Sanary, but by then there was no traveling to France due to COVID-19. Luckily, I happened to reconnect with an old friend, Tom Pfister, who’d researched his parents’ path out of France for his wonderful book about them, Eva and Otto, and he generously shared his photos, knowledge, and experience with me.
Rumpus: Postmistress is inspired by the life of Chicago heiress, Mary Jayne Gold, who worked with American journalist, Varian Fry, to smuggle artists and intellectuals out of France during World War II. Why did you decide to fictionalize her story rather than write a biography or nonfiction?
Clayton: I loved Gold’s involvement in the effort to get refugees out of France, and the life she set up at Villa Air Bel. Who doesn’t love an old French villa in Provence where artists and writers and thinkers hung out together, drinking wine and playing games? Oh, yes, and evading arrest by Vichy and/or the Nazis or helping others do so?
Clayton: But like [Anne Frank’s father] Otto Frank, I believe in “learning lessons from history” rather than “learning history lessons.” And while I learned a lot of history on my way to a degree, the lessons I’ve learned from history very often come from novels like All Quiet on the Western Front, War and Peace, and the novels of Elie Wiesel.
What a novel does differently than a history text is invite you to inhabit a life or lives, to imagine yourself walking in other shoes. For me, fiction is the lie through which I feel the truth, the way it seeps into my bones and changes me, makes me want to be a better person.
And as a writer, I like to imagine. So, in Postmistress, Nanée is inspired in part by Mary Jayne Gold, but also by German refugee Lisa Fittko. Nanée’s love story is entirely fictional, a choice I made to allow me to explore more intimately what the life of a refugee was like than either Gold’s or Fittko’s real love stories during this period would have allowed.
Rumpus: I was interested that you used Varian Fry’s real name but not Mary Jayne Gold’s.
Clayton: In some of my prior novels—Beautiful Exiles, about Martha Gellhorn and her relationship with Ernest Hemingway, and The Last Train to London, about Truus Wijsmuller and her involvement in the kindertransport rescue of children from the Reich—I stayed quite close to real events. The stories were close enough to their own true stories that I wanted to use their real names to honor them. I know writers who freely write characters based on real people doing things they never would have done, but I feel uncomfortable with that myself.
So, to the extent I use real names, those characters hew very closely to the actual experiences of the real people. That’s the case with Varian Fry. He came to France with a list of prominent artists and intellectuals he could get American visas for if they could be found and gotten out of France. He did in real life go to Portugal, as he does in Postmistress. The ways he orchestrated the rescue effort are the ways described in the book. His personality is, I hope, as I’ve portrayed him—diligent and effective, hardworking, but also fun-loving in his own way, once he was comfortable in a situation. He really did play the piano. He did smuggle out lists of people for whom he wanted American visas in the way he does in Postmistress, with Lena (who really was his assistant) writing them on narrow strips of paper she then attached end to end, rolled up and encased in plastic, then hid in tubes of toothpaste. Sometimes you just can’t make things up any better than they really were.
Rumpus: How much did you veer from Gold’s real life? And how did you make these choices about veering or not?
Clayton: I drew on details from Gold’s life in creating Nanée—she’s from Evanston, flies planes, joins Varian’s effort, and rents Villa Air Bel—as an homage to this incredible real heroine. But Nanée’s story is not Gold’s. For example, her love story is quite different. Gold fell for a Marseille mobster, which is an interesting story she tells herself in Crossroads Marseille, 1940. By having my Nanée instead fall for Edouard, I keep the story focused on the effort to rescue refugees. But Edouard, well, he doesn’t exist except in my mind, on the page, and if I’ve done my job right, in the reader’s mind.
The choices I made were at every turn in service of keeping the story focused on this rescue effort. I sometimes drew on the real facts of Gold’s life, such as the trip to find Villa Air Bel. I sometimes drew on the real facts of Gold’s life but fictionalized them to further the story. For example, as far as I know, Gold never visited Camp des Milles, but she did visit another camp, in order, to try to free some refugees. I sometimes drew from real events that had nothing to do with Gold. For example, Chenonceau is a real château that spanned the river that was the border between occupied and free France, and the woman who owned it allowed people to escape through her gallery, but as far as I know, she and Gold never met. And sometimes I drew from real people other than Gold. For example, Nanée’s actions at the end of Postmistress are closer to the things that Lisa Fittko did than anything Gold did.
So this is, in the end, fiction. It’s fiction based in fact. Fiction meant to illuminate a true story. Fiction meant to allow the reader to better understand the time and circumstances, to feel what it was like.
I’m sorry to say that even Nanée’s code name, “the Postmistress” is a fiction. There was a forger in Cassis, a Frenchwoman who may or may not have worked in a post office, but one source said she did, and that’s where the code name and the title come from.
Rumpus: Writing high drama—and any story chronicling the heroism of the resistance during World War II is high drama—is tricky. How do you avoid over-dramatization on one hand and giving your truly heroic characters’ short shrift on the other?
Clayton: Oh, you should see the drafts! I write a scene, and it’s too much or too little. I revise it and go too far the other way. The pendulum swings until finally it comes to rest in the proper place. Or that’s the hope.
Rumpus: Your prose style is crisp and restrained. Is this always the style in which you write, or did you consciously alter your style for this novel?
Clayton: I suppose I’ve always written like this. I like to allow the reader to bring something to the story themselves, to engage personally in it. Alice McDermott, under whom I had the great fortune to study, calls this “letting the white space talk.”
Rumpus: Your writing style is also extremely visual, painterly. I can see your settings, and the actions of your characters, so clearly.
Clayton: I started Postmistress the same way I started The Last Train to London, as a screenplay, a very visual medium. I also use photos for inspiration. The caped woman in the novel and the story about her, for example, only exists thanks to a photo my husband took in Paris. Sometimes as I’m revising, I have to consciously think of the other senses. And that’s part of what I look for when I’m traveling, the smells and sounds and tastes.
Rumpus: You’ve chosen to write this novel in multiple points of view, including one character’s little girl. Why did you make this decision?
Clayton: I love the first-person retrospective point of view I used in The Wednesday Sisters and The Race for Paris, which is one character telling the stories of everyone. I can do this when that character knows the others’ stories, including their most private moments. I love the intimacy of first person.
But for more expansive stories like The Last Train to London and The Postmistress of Paris, no single character could do that. Yet it is so important to allow readers to inhabit each of these lives. So, I write initially in first person from each point of view, to better imagine myself as that character. Once I have each character in my head and in my heart, I switch to close third person, because it’s easier for readers and allows me some flexibility I don’t get in first.
Rumpus: I love the way Postmistress foregrounds art and creativity as its characters resist fascism. I deeply appreciate this because it is much more difficult to write about how people behave well than about how they behave badly, in other words how humans do cooperation and compassion rather than conflict, and, also how people create against all odds. The novel shows how the artists at Camp des Milles, and in their restrictive hideouts elsewhere, made art. Tell me about the research supporting this.
Clayton: Honestly, after I read about what the men interned in Camp des Milles did, and especially after I visited and could see so starkly how they lived and some of the actual art they made in those circumstances, I had to write about it. And I carried that inspiration with me as I wrote throughout this pandemic. It’s hard to feel sorry for your own circumstances when the artists at Camp des Milles are there to measure yourself against.
I also read writings by those who lived through this, such as Lion Feuchtwanger’s The Devil in France, various letters and notebooks, and Hans Sahl’s The Few and the Many, a break from my usual resistance to reading other people’s novels about a time I’m writing about. And Rosemary Sullivan’s Villa Air Bel included a fabulous photograph of Danny Bénédite up in a tree, hanging a painting, that made me want to know more. But Edouard’s story, the art story, was very much informed by my visit to Camp des Milles, without which I’m not sure I would have had a book, and certainly not this one.
Rumpus: As you were writing about fascism in Europe in the last century, how much did you think about parallels to our current experiences with fascism in this country? Did this have an effect on the way you wrote this novel?
Clayton: Very much. I’d begun writing The Last Train to London before the 2016 election, but after the election, I wrote like mad. It was my way of trying to say, “Wake up, everyone! This happens. It happens faster than you would imagine. And it can happen here.” Harper published that novel unbelievably quickly, for the same reason. They felt it was such an important story for the time.
I wrote Postmistress quickly, for the same reason. I wish I could say that our brush with fascism is behind us, but it is not. Hitler’s rise to power in Germany wasn’t a straight path, and the current tactics being employed by the far right are his, including scapegoating, violence, lies, and the undermining of the press and the existing political structure. I remain very concerned for our democracy.
Rumpus: Besides your novel giving its readers the triumph of art under the most difficult of circumstances, it also gives us a couple of love stories. I was so impressed by how you handled these love stories, sensitively and realistically portraying how it would be to love under those severe hardships, and with all the traumas the characters had endured.
Clayton: Love is the most powerful and universal of emotions, and the most uplifting. It takes root even in the foulest soil and leads us to our best selves. I suppose that’s why I write, a quest I began as a reader, an endless search for my own best self that requires me to dig out and examine the worst in myself, but also allows me to wallow in the good stuff. And love, that’s definitely the good stuff.
Photograph of Meg Waite Clayton by Adrienne Defendi.