Bestselling U.S. novelist Meg Waite Clayton learned many things while researching her eighth book, The Postmistress of Paris.
Her main character, the wealthy adventurer Nanée, was partially inspired by Chicago heiress Mary Jayne Gold. She worked with journalist Varian Fry to save about 2,000 Jewish artists and intellectuals in France.
Clayton not only had to dig into the details of this extraordinary Second World War rescue mission, she also needed to learn about French internment camps where Jews were imprisoned after fleeing Germany.
"For example, at Camp des Mille, there were artists and writers and musicians," Clayton tells the Straight by phone. "And so even in this old brick factory, where the brick dust was so thick that it made the floor lumpy to walk on and it filled their lungs, they still created art."
One of her characters, Edouard Moss, is a Jewish photographer from Germany who's being kept in Camp des Mille. Clayton points out that even under such gruelling conditions, the inmates created a cabaret in an underground cavern that was once a kiln.
"They wrote plays and performed them," Clayton adds. "They wrote operas and performed them. It was really inspiring—the fortitude of people in those circumstances—and the way art and literature and the creation of it carries people through difficult times."
Clayton praises historian Donna F. Ryan's The Holocaust & the Jews of Marseille: The Enforcement of Anti-Semitic Policies in Vichy France for helping her understand what took place in those years.
After the invasion in 1940, the Nazis ruled northern France and the Atlantic coastline to Spain. Southern France was ruled by a new French government in Vichy, which cooperated with Germany in rounding up Jews, many of whom were later murdered in Auschwitz.
But these internment camps for fleeing German Jews were actually set up before the invasion—a testament to the degree of antisemitism in France at the time. Now a museum in southern France, Camp des Mille is where 10,000 people of 38 different nationalities were interned from 1939 to 1942.
The character Nanée takes extraordinary risks to save Jews in the face of this. The Postmistress of Paris opens with her flying a Vega Gull over Paris with her poodle Dagobert at her side.
Among those whom Mary Jayne Gold helped save in southern France included artist Marc Chagall, writer Hannah Arendt, and Nobel Prize–winning biochemist Otto Meyerhof.
"With the exception of Edouard Moss, the artists and writers named in the novel, including André and Jacqueline Breton and Max Ernst, are based on real people," Clayton writes in an author note and acknowledgements. "The depictions here are meant to honor those involved in these rescues, but all, including Varian Fry, are to some extent a product of my imagination."
A book for her mother
Clayton is drawn to historical fiction because the research helps get her into the world that she's about to create before she even starts writing.
She likens creating a novel to writing a marathon. The former lawyer didn't start writing until she was in her 30s—and only then, this came after growing up as a huge reader.
"If you woke up in the morning and you had never run and you said, 'Okay, I'm going to get up and run a marathon,' you would never finish it," she says.
"For writing, I just get up every morning and I sit down and I write," she adds. "I write word after word after word and it eventually becomes a novel."
As she works on her first draft, she tries not to look back and judge what she has done because she feels that she can do this in later drafts.
"Often, I don't know until I get to the end of a novel what it's about, what needs to be brought up, what needs to be cut, and even what I need to know," Clayton admits. "I try to be kind to myself and not have expectations. And that works for me."
Clayton doesn't feel that there have been enough stories about the courage of women in the Second World War, which is one reason why she wrote The Postmistress of Paris. And in this instance, she was driven to complete the book by one woman in particular: her mother.
In the fall of 2020, Clayton's mom, Anne Tyler Waite, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. That prompted Clayton to call her agent for the first time ever to warn that she might not meet her deadline.
But Clayton also really wanted her mother to see the book. Fortunately, Clayton's editor, Sara Nelson, agreed to read a "pretty raw first draft" and worked with her on a weekly basis to finish it on schedule.
"The first galley that went to anybody went to my mom," Clayton reveals.
Sadly, her father died a few weeks after that, but he was able to read her dedication to her mother. Clayton says that her mother is still alive, "thanks to the miracles of modern medicine."
"I would like to emphasize it's a very optimistic book," she states. "The San Francisco Chronicle called it 'Casablanca if Rick had an artsy bent.'...
"Many books around what happened in World War II can be quite devastating," Clayton adds. "I'm not saying this doesn't have devastating moments, but I hope that readers will feel hopeful and inspired when they finish the last page."