Today's interview is with Michelle Gable, author of the bestselling women's fiction novel A Paris Apartment and acclaimed new novel I'll See You In Paris.
Kimmery Martin—Tell us about the origins of I’ll See You in Paris. How did you run across the story of Gladys Deacon, and how did the process of fictionalizing it take shape?
Michelle Gable---The first seed of I’ll See You in Paris was planted while researching my debut novel. Artist Giovanni Boldini was a central character in A Paris Apartment. Back in the Gilded Age, you weren’t anyone unless he painted you and so I studied every person Boldini rendered. When I stumbled upon Gladys Deacon, I decided she needed top billing in a future novel. She’s too delicious to leave to history!
One of the most riveting parts of Gladys’s story is that she disappeared from her palace in the 1930s and turned up in a dilapidated, Grey Gardens-style manse in the mid-70s. I knew the reader had to meet her in this location. In addition to this time period, the novel reflects on Gladys’s glory days and also includes a modern-day storyline. Weaving three (plus!) times periods together was a challenge, which is why I told chunks of Gladys’s story through a fictional biography, written by another character.
KM—Mrs. Spencer, as described in the book, lives in a decrepit manse called the Grange, and was renowned in her village for thumbing her nose at convention, to say the least. How much of her outrageous behavior in the novel was real?
MG---Almost all! I used many of the Duchess’s expressions, mannerisms, and real-life stories throughout the novel. Yes, she disappeared from her palace. Yes, she turned up at the Grange forty years later. Yes, she chased people with guns. And there were indeed dead cats in the fridge. My only problem was picking from the litany of bedlam. As mentioned, I’ll See You in Paris contains excerpts from a “fake” biography, but it’s only fake because I wrote it. It could be real because it’s true!
KM—You’ve woven at least two sub-themes throughout the narrative: the intense disruption of war and a love of classic literature. What do these topics mean to you?
MG---You can’t be a writer unless you’re a reader first and I’ve been a voracious reader from the start. As big of a role as books play in my life, they were even more important to Gladys. She was friends with many eminent writers including Proust, Woolf, Waugh, and Henry James. Whenever she’d feel melancholy, Gladys took to bed with books. She once claimed blindness due to excessive reading! I wanted this passion to translate in the novel.
War was a new topic for me, but an important one as this novel touches on World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War, and the war in Afghanistan. Mostly I’ll See You in Paris is set in the 1970s and 2001. I picked the post-9/11 angle due to its juxtaposition with Vietnam. Two wars: one very much supported (at least at first) and one vastly out of favor. But similarities still exist. Wartime is an insecure place, emotionally and otherwise. Sending thousands of our countrymen and women overseas to fight changes so much, not only during the battle but afterward…and forever.
KM—What is your writing process like? Did you plot out the novel prior to writing, or did the characters surprise you?
MG--I plot out my novel on index cards, using different colors for different time periods and characters. I always veer from this outline, and my characters love to surprise me, but it’s helpful to have a path from which to start. Another trick is that I always stop in the middle of a scene to make it easier to pick back up. That’s what Hemingway did!
With I’ll See You in Paris, I was on contract and had a deadline. Because I needed to make use of every spare minute, I wrote much of the novel in pencil at various softball complexes throughout Southern California. You could find me scribbling away behind the dugout and in my car as my daughters warmed up for games. This became a “happy accident” because I found it easier to get close to my characters and plot. Pencil is now part of the process!
KM—What’s in store for your readers in the future?
MG---My third novel is called Book of Summer and is slated to launch in May 2017. As with my first two, I used multiple time periods, but this one takes place on Nantucket. The story is based on the real-life erosion affecting the island. Central to the novel is Cliff House, a home that’s been in a family for 99 years and that’s now in danger of falling off the bluff. The story follows several generations of people who’ve lived there. It’s my favorite book yet!
KM---Thanks to Michelle for this engaging glimpse into her writing, both past and future! Keep reading for my review of I'll See You In Paris, below:
I’ll See You In Paris, by Michelle Gable, is entrancing historical fiction, blending star-crossed romance with a startling account of one of the 20th century’s most fascinating women. Fair warning: it takes quite awhile before anyone actually gets to Paris: most of the novel is set in a quaint village in the English countryside, alternating between the 1970s and the present day as it relays the (mostly) true story of the roguish Duchess of Marlborough, Gladys Deacon.
The duchess’s quirky, colorful life is processed through the eyes of two young American women living in different decades: Pru, who finds herself directionless after the death of her fiancé in the Vietnam war; and Annie, whose fiancé has just been sent to fight in Afghanistan in the tumultuous post-911 days of the early 21st-century. Pru, grieving and adrift, accepts employment as the caretaker of an elderly, reclusive English woman named Mrs. Spencer—who many people suspect to be the Duchess of Marlborough—in the village of Banbury. Many years later Annie journeys with her mother to the same village, and is captivated by a forgotten old biography describing the outrageous exploits of the duchess. At the village pub, she acquires a new friend named Gus, who knew both the remarkable writer of the book and its equally remarkable backstory; he helps her fill in the missing pieces regarding both the fate of the rambunctious duchess and the surprising connection between Pru and Annie herself.
The best thing about this novel is the dialogue, which is the definition of witty repartee. The characters are never content to talk if they can banter, never content to merely converse if there’s an opportunity to hurl brilliant zingers at lightning speed. If you’re not a fan of circa 1972-BritSpeak, this is not the book for you, since nearly every paragraph is riddled with fetching Briticisms. An interest in early 20th-century writers, artists and historical figures will also heighten the enjoyment for any reader of this novel, as the real-life duchess maintained a veritable who’s-who of friends, lovers and enemies from the period, including Winston Churchill, Consuelo Vanderbilt, Prince William of Prussia, and Claude Monet, among many others. In particular, the salon-set of the heralded writers of the era are celebrated, with quotations from Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton and Marcel Proust peppering the dialogue of the literary-loving protagonists. Book nerds take note! All in all, a charming read.
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