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The Transformative Power of Historical Fiction


While historical fiction has the ability to transport us to another time and another place, for me, one of the most powerful aspects of writing and researching my most recent novel The Paris Maid, is the fact that it has transformed the way I feel about Paris for good.

Now, when I look at photographs of the areas in the city where I set the novel, I find myself incredibly moved in ways that I have not properly understood or felt before. Writing and researching this book has brought my respect and compassion for the people who lived in Paris between 1940 and 1944 to an entirely different level again. It has given me a far greater depth of understanding of what Paris suffered, and an appreciation for the beauty, grace and courage that epitomises the city, and was never allowed to die.

I am certain that next time I go to Paris, and sit outside at one of the sidewalk cafés, I will not just be thinking about food, and art and people watching. No. I will be imagining what it was like for my characters to walk the streets of the city with not only incredible courage, under the watchful eyes of the Nazis, but with constant fear laced in their hearts.

However, it was setting my novel in the iconic Ritz hotel in Paris’ luxurious place Vendome, that has really deepened my understanding of the complexities that were brewing in Paris toward the end of the Second World War.

The Ritz was officially a neutral hotel, because it was owned by Swiss proprietors, and therefore was not supposed to be on one side or the other. However, this did not deter the Nazis from taking full advantage of one of the most beautiful and opulent buildings in occupied France.

From the Imperial suite, decorated with silk canopies, and exquisite furnishings, Goering orchestrated the blitz, along with some of the most reprehensible acts that occurred during the Second World War. Coco Chanel lived in the other side of the hotel with her German lover, the Nazi, Hans Günther von Dincklage. But one of the most fascinating characters I found while carrying out my research was the film star, Arletty, who throughout her lengthy career as an actress, had moved from dance halls, to theatres, to pictures, culminating in her playing some of the silver screen’s most iconic roles. Arletty also tucked herself away in the Ritz for the duration of the war, forming a liaison with Luftwaffe officer, Hans-Jürgen Soehring. Ultimately, it was Arletty who fascinated me, and so she became a character in my book.

But as soon as the Nazis moved into the Ritz, the French guests were moved from the grander place Vendome side of the hotel to the slightly less exuberant rooms that looked over the Rue Cambon. Top ranking Nazis moved into the suites overlooking the place Vendome, and filled the restaurants and bars with what was often regarded as indiscreet chatter, overheard by many of the Ritz’s loyal staff. The hotel was like a cauldron on the boil. In a situation that was officially neutral, everybody had to choose a side. Many people were double crosses, and it is said that the place Vendome was filled with spies.

In the bar on the rue Cambon side of the hotel, legendary barman Frank Meier oversaw a string of resistance activities. The manager of the hotel, Claude Auzello orchestrated the widespread underground network amongst the staff in the hotel. His wife, Blanche, was an important figure in the French resistance, only to be captured by the Nazis in the summer of 1944. Blanche felt wonderful. She had to go into my novel as well.

However, ultimately I wanted to explore what it might have been like not to be one of the grand and illustrious guests in the hotel. I wanted to write from the perspective of someone decidedly un-grand in a grand setting. Someone who, if I had not written about them, might slip behind the scenes. Louise Bassett, therefore is a maid working in the Ritz hotel. She has an excellent memory for numbers and attracts the attention of Frank Meier, who asks her to join the underground network that is operating amongst the staff.

Frank is initially interested in the fact that Louise can remember strings of numbers, words and statistics without any effort at all. She can recall which Nazis stayed in which rooms on which dates, and who visited them. The underground network in the Ritz hotel operated by sending coded messages to the Allies in neutral territories informing them which Nazis were staying in the hotel and when.

For Louise, the opportunity to do something truly brave while using her extraordinary memory is an offer that is too tempting to turn down. What’s more, she wants to be recognised for more than her abilities with numbers and letters. Here is her chance to truly be part of something human and real.

While Louise may only be a simple maid, she has eyes and ears everywhere. She is the perfect person to be a spy, because she knows how to scuttle around the hotel without drawing any attention to herself. Who is more invisible than a maid? While Arletty has become famous by drawing attention to herself, Louise has done the opposite.

At times, the Nazis were known by vegetable codenames. Louise thinks it is hilarious that Goering is referred to as a potato! In her daily rounds, she cleans his magnificent Imperial suite, running her fingers through his bowls filled with sapphires and rubies and emeralds, and dusting around his saucers filled with illicit amphetamines.

Arletty comes to trust Louise, and this becomes problematic. Louise is drawn into Arletty’s complicated relationship. But when a Jewish friend of the once famous actress is murdered at the hands of the Nazis, Arletty is forced to make a choice that ultimately is going to determine her own fate. For the lives of the women in the Ritz, life was never going to be the same again once the Allies arrived. Seeing all of this drama through the eyes of a maid was fascinating, but then, my maid Louise was faced with an impossible dilemma of her own. Her life took a strange turn, and suddenly, she was thrust into the spotlight of her own story, even though she had tried to hide away in the hotel from her past.

But it was outside the Ritz that the true tragedy of the war was playing out in the homes of Paris. Starving, freezing through long winters, and not able to afford to buy clothes or shoes for their families, the terror that the citizens of Paris must have felt in their everyday lives seems to be all but wiped clean from the Paris we know now. It’s certainly not something I ever thought about when I first visited Paris as a teenager, or even on subsequent visits, not having looked so emotionally at what happened there during World War II.

And I think this is the power of historical fiction. It is an emotional art form that is unique because it is about being able to inhabit a person from the past and understand their hearts and minds, and the decisions they had to make.

In the Paris Maid, my story threads outside the city as well into the northern countryside of France, where an Allied air force pilot must abandon his plane. He parachutes straight into St Germain-en-Laye, and is thrust into the countryside of France, forced to rely on the kindness of the underground network, in order, simply to survive.

This part of the novel for me, is again, an intensely personal story. My father was an Allied air force pilot during the Second World War. He dropped parachutists over France to aid in the French resistance, and reading accounts of what they saw, experienced, and felt was also an incredibly moving experience for me.

Again, it is that sense of place that I find so overwhelming and powerful in writing historical fiction. Imagine hearing the sound of a prop engine on an aircraft groaning and grinding like a sinking ship as it is about to go down, the way the whole plane would have shuddered, and the shaky view of the patchwork fields of France spreading out below as you opened your silver parachute and headed straight into Nazi ground.

Paris, for me is now enhanced. More beautiful, more fascinating, more layered and moving and complex. For I truly think that it is only through historical fiction that we can really begin to feel the past. This is one of the true inspirations for me, and one of the most powerful reasons why I write.

Book Blurb:

Paris, 1944. “Traitor!” yells the crowd as they push me down onto a stool. “Nazi collaborator.” Tears blur my vision as the razor grazes my scalp, waves of blonde hair falling to the ground. As men paint a swastika across my face, I hold onto one small glimmer of hope. They have no idea who I am.

Louise Basset works as a housemaid at The Ritz Hotel, home to the most powerful Nazis in France. As she changes silk sheets and scrubs sumptuous marble bathtubs, she listens and watches, reporting all she can to the Resistance. The only secret she never tells is her own.

Everything changes for Louise on the day a young Allied pilot, hunted by the Nazis, is smuggled into the hotel. As he and Louise share a small carafe of red wine hidden amongst her cleaning bottles, she feels her heart begin to open. But if Louise trusts someone with the truth, what will happen?

Years later, her granddaughter Nicole looks up at the ornate façade of the infamous Paris hotel. She is reeling from her recent discovery: a black-and-white photograph of her grandmother as a young woman, head shaved, branded a traitor. Devastated by her new legacy and about to start a family of her own, Nicole searches for answers.

When a French historian calls Louise by a different name, Nicole realizes there must be more to her grandmother’s story. Was the woman who taught Nicole so much about family and loyalty a resistance fighter, or will her granddaughter have to live with the knowledge that she is descended from a traitor? And will Nicole be able to finally move forward with her life if she can uncover the truth?

An utterly heart-shattering and gripping novel about love, betrayal and how one courageous young woman paid a terrible price to save those she loved. From top-ten bestseller Ella Carey, fans of Fiona Valpy, The Nightingale and Rhys Bowen will never forget The Paris Maid.

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Author Bio:

Ella Carey is the international bestselling author of The Things We Don’t Say, Secret Shores, From a Paris Balcony, The House by the Lake, and Paris Time Capsule. Her books have been published in over fourteen languages, in twelve countries, and have been shortlisted for ARRA awards. A Francophile who has long been fascinated by secret histories set in Europe’s entrancing past, Ella has degrees in music, nineteenth-century women’s fiction, and modern European history. She lives in Melbourne with her two children and two Italian greyhounds who are constantly mistaken for whippets.

Ella loves to connect with her readers regularly through her facebook page and on her website.


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