One of the questions I’ve been asked a lot is how and why I’ve used a mix of the real and the imagined in writing The French Photographer. Most of you know my main character Jess was inspired by Lee Miller, and I’ve used aspects of Miller’s life in writing Jess. But there are plenty of other real people in the book too, and lots of instances where I’ve enjoyed the challenge of mixing fact and fiction.
Martha Gellhorn was a brilliant war correspondent with a long and illustrious career. She is sometimes referred to as one of Ernest Hemingway’s wives, but she was so much more than that. Martha appears as a character in the book, as a good friend of Jess’s in fact, as someone who supports and sustains Jess through the difficult job of reporting on a war as a woman.
Martha was almost as extraordinary as Lee Miller. I felt like she would be exactly the kind of woman Jess would befriend. I found her very inspiring to write about and I think if my characters inspire me as a writer, then hopefully my words will resonate with the reader.
Martha tried everything she could think of to fight against the kind of chauvinism and sexism faced by female correspondents, eventually stowing away in the bathroom of a hospital ship to break the ludicrous rule that women were not allowed to travel with the D-Day invasion fleet. She was the first woman to report from French soil post invasion, beating her husband to the story.
For her courage, she had her passport and accreditation papers taken from her and was confined to a nurses’ training camp, from which she absconded and made her way to Italy to report on the war from there. Go Martha!
Lee Carson and Iris Carpenter
Lee Carson reported for International News Service and Iris Carpenter for the Boston Globe. Lee was almost court-martialled for flouting another of the army’s ridiculous rules that the female correspondents were to be quarantined in Rennes in the lead up to the fall of Paris for their own safety. Lee avoided Rennes, and an order to apprehend was put out on her, but she reached Paris with the first troops, fluttered her eyelashes beautifully at one of the majors in charge and was let off without having to face a court-martial.
Iris Carpenter, like Lee and Martha, was almost court-martialled too. She was one of the first women officially allowed over to France after D-Day when the nurses went over and she strayed too far from the beach-head, going all the way to Cherbourg to find her story. Upon her return to England, she was apprehended but she had been smart enough to have a colonel attest that the beachhead included Cherbourg and so was let off with a warning.
If it seems to you that a lot of the women were continually apprehended for ridiculous reasons when none of their male counterparts were, then you would be right! In the fall of 1944, Lee and Iris were two of the first women to be given permission to access all areas, to go to Press Camps, to go to the front, to report as a man would. I imagine they celebrated pretty hard when that happened!
Not Just People, But Events
And then there are the real events that are mixed into the story. I think it’s important for the reader to know what’s real and what’s not, so I’ve included a lengthy Author’s Note at the back of The French Photographer, which tries to spell a lot of this out. I always try not to play with history too much and, if I do, I definitely point this out to the reader.
I think the thing with writing about a war is that there is so much drama anyway, so you don’t really need to make too much up in order for your story to have momentum. Of course using real events makes it harder for the writer to fit their story around the facts of what happened but writing is hard and it would be laziness to play with the facts too much just to make my job easier.
So that’s a quick summary of how and why I combined the real and the imagined in The French Photographer. As I say, there is a whole lot more information included about this in the book, so make sure you read the Author’s Note at the end!