Where It All Began
The French Photographer / The Paris Orphan actually began, not with the main character, but with another important secondary character. If you’ve read my previous book, The Paris Seamstress, you’ll remember there was a scene near the start of the book where Estella witnesses the exodus of people out of Paris and Northern France in late May and June 1940, as civilians tried to escape the advancing German army.
A Child, Fleeing
I saw a lot of footage and read a lot of first hand accounts of the exodus, all of which were heartbreaking. The ones that I found impossible to forget were the stories of mothers who, thinking their children would be safer in a vehicle than on foot on the road, handed them over to French soldiers travelling south in trucks and cars. The mothers planned to meet up with their children in towns on the other side of the Loire river.
But many of them were never reunited because there were simply too many people on the road. People became lost. And so many people died while fleeing, strafed by the German planes flying overhead.
There was one face in particular I could not forget. A child clutching a bear, on the road out of Paris. What happened to that little girl? I often wondered. And so the very first idea for The French Photographer was to write about that child. What would life be like if it started in such a way? How terrible to be an orphan at the very beginning of a long and deadly war. And so the character of Victorine Hallworth, an orphaned child who grows up on a battlefield, came into being.
The Collision of Disconnected Ideas
I’ve always said that stories consist of two or three seemingly unconnected ideas suddenly coming together in a writer’s mind and this was certainly the case with The French Photographer / The Paris Orphan.
As I was researching The Paris Seamstress, I came across an article that talked about the sudden and drastic change from Rosie the Riveter to Harriet the Homemaker. What this article referred to was the fact that, while women were actively encouraged to work during the war, as soon as the war ended and the men returned, women were actively encouraged to give up their jobs for the men, to return to the kitchen and cook roast dinners.
How disheartening and how galling it must have been. I thought that was the story I wanted to write, beginning in the last year of the war and following one woman or several as they tried to negotiate this drastic about face. As I read more, I came across the story of Lee Miller and I suddenly saw that, while she had certainly suffered from the difficult shift post-war in relation to how society viewed women’s talents, she also had an incredible life during the war. And that life was hugely inspirational.
Lee Miller: An Inspiration
Lee Miller was stunning. She modelled for Vogue for years. She moved to Paris and became a photographer, discovering the solarisation technique while working with Man Ray; she was also his lover. Then, during the war, she became a photojournalist, writing some gut-punching pieces and taking many brilliant photographs for Vogue.
What happened to Miller after the war is heartbreaking and I’ll talk a little more about that next week, as that was the inspiration for the contemporary storyline in The French Photographer/The Paris Orphan. Stay tuned till then!