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Kirsty Manning’s lush dual timeline stories, dealing with family secrets and female friendships in international settings, have drawn favorable comparison with blockbuster authors like Penny Vincenzi.
Her latest book, The French Gift, is a tale of loyalty and betrayal in World War II Germany and Paris today. It is based on the true story of an iconic French Resistance fighter and won’t disappoint.
We’ve got three E-book copies of The French Gift to give away in our All New Aussies Giveaway.
Hi there, I’m your host Jenny Wheeler and on the show today Kirsty talks about the remarkable woman who inspired The French Gift, an amazing jewelry find, and a medieval walled garden reborn in her best sellers.
Just a mention – the sound quality on this episode is sometimes a little distorted as it was recorded in rural Australia and our WIFI connection danced around a little at times. I hope it won’t distract too much – it’s only in a few places that we get wobbly…..
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- Why multiple time frame novels appeal to Kirsty
- Why she sees writers as magpies
- Being captivated by Agnes Humbert
- The glamor of the 1930s French Riviera
- The mystery of a hidden jewel hoard
- How a French holiday started her writing
Where to find Kirsty Manning
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to important mentions.
But now, here’s Kirsty:
Introducing author Kirsty Manning
Jenny Wheeler: Hello there, Kirsty and welcome to the show. It’s so good to have you with us.
Kirsty Manning: Hello. Thanks for having me.
Jenny Wheeler: You are talking this morning from the Macedon Ranges in Victoria, a place made famous by the movie Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Kirsty Manning: Yes, it was, and of course it was a novel before that. I live right on the northern faces of Mt Macedon, in an old chestnut grove, and you can see Hanging Rock sometimes from my house. I’m surrounded by gumtrees, and if you walk up the hill a bit further from where I am, you can look right across to the valley and Hanging Rock peers up from the valley floor. It is very mystical and magical.
Braemar College is just around the corner from my house and my kids went there in their early high school career.
(Editor note: Braemar College is believed by some to be the model for the school in the novel. Novelist Joan Lindsay attended the girl’s boarding school near Mount Macedon, then named Clyde College,)
Jenny Wheeler: It sounds like a wonderful place to be set as a writer.
Kirsty Manning: Yes, it is. It’s private and quiet and very beautiful. A lovely place to spend your day.
Female friendships & family secrets
Jenny Wheeler: We are talking about your fourth novel, The French Gift, but they have all got a very similar feeling. You have set yourself a tradition of lush dual timeline stories with an international reach, dealing with family secrets and female friendships. This is literature you have been drawn to yourself, isn’t it?
Kirsty Manning: Yes, it is. When I started to write, people said write what you love and what you are feeling at the time. A book that really captivated me when I was at university was Possession by A. S. Byatt. That was set in multiple timeframes.
Later on, Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book, which traces the Haggadah through the ages. I thought about the way those books and that plot unfolded. Elizabeth Kostova is another one, toing and froing between history past to present. I was drawn to those stories.
I have always loved historical fiction and when it came to write my own story, I started writing historical fiction, but I found that the contemporary thread started to weave its way in quite naturally. Now it has become an enjoyment for me, because it really helps you as a writer. It keeps it fresh for me that we can do both – write a historical fiction book and write a contemporary book at the same time.
Linking two generations
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. The French Gift moves between World War II France and Germany and the present day. It interlinks two stories – that of two women who were imprisoned in a World War II German labor camp, and present-day Ellie, the daughter-in-law of one of them, who is preparing a memorial exhibition for her life. Where did the genesis for this story come from?
Kirsty Manning: A couple of different places. I think writers are a bit like magpies – we collect ideas and build a little nest, and from that a story unfolds. The first one was a book of memoirs of people on the Riviera pre-World War II. It was an era of decadent parties. Winston Churchill holidayed there, a lot of European aristocrats and socialites, and even the Duke and Duchess of Windsor after their abdication holidayed there.
They had the most outrageous parties and each summer they seemed to outdo each other – in the late 30’s. I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to write a book that started at one of these parties. They had these incredible party games, and I thought, what if I had one of these party games and it went wrong. That was the beginning of my book.
A famed Resistance fighter
At the same time, I was reading a memoir of Agnès Humbert. She was an early French Resistance writer, she worked as a curator in a French museum, and she started writing a newsletter called Résistance. They had eight editions which were distributed across Paris, and they smuggled airmen out of Paris.
The Résistance was a very informal network early on in Paris, and she was right at the heart of that. They used to meet up under the guise of being literary fan group or a book club, if you like, and they would do everything from map out places where munitions were stored to rescuing Allied soldiers and fighting against the French Vichy government in occupied Paris.
She was caught and sent to Fresnes Prison, and we only know of this because, like a true French woman, she smuggled in a book of French philosophy. She had Descartes’ Discourse on Method, and she smuggled that with her to the prison. In that philosophy book, in the margin, she kept a diary of her time in the Phrix rayon factory in Krefeld.
It was essentially a slave labor camp where French and European women were sent to work because it was too dangerous. The spinning of rayon involved lots of acid and very little airflow. The acid literally ate away at their hands and feet and slowed their heart rate and ruined their eyesight.
The dreadful factory conditions
It made them desperately ill, and they worked they worked these women to the bone because the key to German success was fabric, warmth and keeping those supply lines open. They couldn’t get access to natural fibers and forced women to work in that environment.
Josephine comes into contact with Margot, the character from the party where it all went wrong in the Riviera, and they form a tight friendship and support each other through that time. It is a story that is bleak in parts. It’s very dark, it’s a little-known pocket of World War II history, but it is also about courage and resilience and hope. It is about how optimistic and funny humans are when they are in the most adverse set of circumstances.
That was the starting point of my book because Agnès Humbert had a wicked sense of humor in her diary and amongst the horror I wanted to capture the wonderful humanity of Agnès. That is what I hope I captured in Josephine my heroine.
Jenny Wheeler: Has Agnès’s diary been translated into English, or did you read it in the French?
Complimented by the translator
Kirsty Manning: No, it was translated into English. It’s published in English by the translator Barbara Mellor. I have read pockets of it in French, but my French is very rudimentary. I actually sent a copy of the manuscript of The French Gift to the French translator, Barbara Mellor, and she read it cover to cover.
I was humbled and honored because she was very complimentary at the homage I had managed to display towards Agnès while still writing a fictional story. She thought that I had got the balance just right, so that was probably one of the biggest compliments I could get.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, that was a wonderful thing to do. You made sure that the details were perfectly correct as well.
Kirsty Manning: It is a tricky thing when you are writing historical fiction because you’re always trying to negotiate how far to lean to the truth. You need to immerse people in a world that is true and create a world for them.
Whether it’s a science fiction world or a World War II slave labor camp, readers need to believe that. But because I was also going into the area of real people’s lives, I wanted to honor their experience and not glorify it or commercialize it. I wanted to open up people’s eyes to that experience.
Honoring past experiences
I find with all of my books, certainly with The Jade Lily, the story of the Jews in the ghetto in Shanghai, and the story of the Cheapside hoard – people come along with you for the story, but then there are a lot of references in the back of my book, so they can go to the true story and see the facts for themselves.
I think a lot of my readers enjoy that process of learning something new about history that they didn’t know. Because they are very engaged readers and very clever readers, they will often write to me about their own little research hunt that they’ve been on. A lovely part of the writing is the reading, and what readers take away from it.
Jenny Wheeler: I understand in other books as well, that you have a sense of social awareness – what the social conditions were like and bringing to the fore some of the more serious aspects, even though the stories are great international, emotional adventures at the same time.
Kirsty Manning: I think I am always conscious of the way that history has been told and history has been written. As we know, history has been written by men, and largely by educated men. Women’s stories have sometimes been lost through history.
The Lost Jewels & Cheapside hoard
The Lost Jewels is the story of Essie. She was an underprivileged woman who was just working to make life better for her siblings. And Margot is a maid. She is certainly very underprivileged. She wanted to finish her education, and then she wanted to travel, she has all these dreams of things she would like to do but the reality is that wasn’t going to be the case for her.
People who work hard and quietly and solidly to make life better for their parents, the children, their siblings, have seemingly ordinary stories. But I find that women have always been very strong and have always been the emotional ballast of the family and do quite extraordinary things in a very quiet way to drag everyone they love to a better future. There is real power in that.
Even though some women didn’t have the time or the luxury to march in women’s marches or, like Margot, didn’t have the luxury of adequate legal representation – all of those stories and all of those outcomes are very much based on class and privilege and the power you have access to at the time, and the voices you have access to at the time.
Framed for ‘faked’ murder
I try and write that into my story because I am very aware of it. As we look back through history, we can see that we owe these women a great deal.
Jenny Wheeler: The hook for The French Gift that you were referring to, Margot is an innocent young maid, who is ordered by her employer to take part in what is supposed to be a hilarious party trick, a fake murder of one of the guests. She is told that the guest is in on it, and it is going to all be a great laugh.
There is a lifelong outcome from that event. We are not going to give the storyline away here, but she was so ill-prepared and so trusting of the people around her, wasn’t she?
Kirsty Manning: She was, and she had been brought up to believe that it was a cog in a machine and if she did what she was told she would be looked after. Her mother also worked in the villa, and that’s just the way life was, so she didn’t question.
Jenny Wheeler: Your first book, The Midsummer Garden, was described as a fictional Eat, Pray Love, and the Australian Women’s Weekly described it as right for a screen adaptation. That sounds pretty marvelous, and it was very much praise for the way you handled food, wine and the natural world. It sounds as if these were personal passions of yours that you brought to the fore in this first book. Would that be right?
The Midsummer Garden
Kirsty Manning: They definitely were. The Midsummer Garden came about from a holiday I took in France. I went to a walled garden and imagined my character in that garden. Some of the things that had happened in it sprang to life. I guess all of my books are asking a question that I grapple with in my own life.
The Midsummer Garden was about a walled garden in medieval times, and it was about the metaphorical wall that modern women faces, and how to juggle that eternal balance.
People talk about balance. I think that is very hard to achieve as a woman, in partnership, in family. It is about a young woman grappling with how to balance a career with the needs of the man she wants to marry. It’s her emotional coming of age.
My books generally have older women who are educated. My first character in The Midsummer Garden, Pip, was a little younger, finishing her PhD and unmarried. It is a love story, but it’s not about the love story. It’s about her. It’s not about her quest for love, because she has that when the book opens. It’s about how she can finish her PhD and get to where she wants to be and do everything else she wants to do along the way.
From medieval France to Tassie
Not all of us are going for our PhDs, but we are all trying to work out how to blend work and family and all those sorts of things. That is where that started from – grappling with that issue.
Jenny Wheeler: It’s like a personal identity story from the 15th century in France and modern-day Tasmania, isn’t it? Right across that huge arc.
Kirsty Manning: Yeah.
Jenny Wheeler: You mentioned The Lost Jewels, and that is another fascinating story. It was a 17th century cache of jewels that were found 300 years later in Cheapside, London. That was the truth of it – the greatest hoard of Elizabethan and Stuart jewelry in the world, and it disappeared again fairly quickly after it was discovered I gather. Is that the underlying story?
Kirsty Manning: Yes. There have been curators working on this for years around the world – and historians. The bulk of the collection – well, we don’t know if it is the bulk of the collection, but there are about 300 pieces in the Museum of London and some at the Victoria and Albert.
A remarkable treasure trove
The gist of the story was around the 1600s – so around the time of the Great Fire of London and the Plague and the Civil War, some time in that era – the jewels were buried in a cellar in Cheapside.
They don’t know how many jewels were actually buried, but they think in excess of the 300 they have managed to retrieve. At that time, it was known as Goldsmiths Row. It was an area where all the gem cutters and stone traders were working in London.
It was burgeoning with the Elizabethan era. Elizabeth had her ships all over the world and they were all bringing goods, including jewels and stones and gold and exotic ornaments, from all around the world back to London. London was the center of a burgeoning globalization and colonialization. The jewels were buried and then seemingly forgotten about.
In 1912 a series of workmen were working on a worksite in Cheapside, and they put a pickaxe through either a trunk or just in the ground – they don’t know what it was, the details are sketchy – and they literally started scooping up jewels.
We don’t know who these men were, they remained anonymous, but what we do know is H.V. Morton, the journalist, was supposedly at Stony Jack’s the pawn brokers on the day they were discovered.
Mystery still unsolved today
There are tales of workmen bringing in football sized clumps of clay. Imagine an AFL football coming into a pawn broker! He would whip them upstairs and whip the football under the tap and from the mud would fall diamonds and turquoise and enamel and gold necklaces and champlève rings and emerald brooches. It was quite extraordinary.
He had just been employed by the Museum of London to keep a watch out for things, because London was in a state of excavation – well, it’s always in a state of excavation, isn’t it – but things were being dug up all over London, everything from Roman ruins to treasures.
Nothing like this had been seen before, so he set about acquiring the jewels from all the so-called ‘navvies’, the workers who brought it in, and apparently there was a parade of workers because of course they had all dug it up on the work site and flicked it into their pockets and down their pants and up their shirts.
Some of them, I’m sure, took the jewels home and gave them to their loved ones. Most of them would have been pawned. Apparently nobody turned up for work the next week because they all went up to Gravesend and got drunk for a week with their newfound wealth, so it disappeared.
The Jade Lily – WWII Shanghai
We know that he acquired many pieces for the Museum. We don’t know who buried the jewels, we don’t know who discovered them, and we don’t really know how they came to be in the Museum of London, so I thought, that’s a great tale for fictionalizing.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, it is, and it sounds like you’ve had the most amazing journey in researching some of these stories – that story and the World War II Shanghai story. Have you had any specific adventures with your research that left you feeling amazed?
Kirsty Manning: Not really amazed, but with The Jade Lily, that story came about when I was in Shanghai. I wasn’t there researching a novel; I was on holidays with my family. We had stayed in the French Concession and then we had switched to another hotel in Hongkou because it had a swimming pool of all things. I had little children and I have discovered if you have a pool, that is gold when you travel, that’s all you need.
We had been out and about, and we’d got some food and some dumplings. They were very narrow little streets, and somebody pointed out, on a red door down this tiny narrow lane way, what looked to be a Star of David. I walked back to the hotel and the concierge at the hotel asked me how my day was. I said, great, and I told him about the Star of David I’d seen on the door.
Jewish ghetto in WWII China
The thing about Shanghai is you don’t see religious iconography anywhere. It’s a communist country. There’s nothing. There are no crosses. There are no stars, nothing. I asked him about it, and he said, that area you walked through, or this whole area, Hongkou, used to be the Jewish ghetto during the war. I thought that I had studied history, and he said 100,000 Jews lived here during the Second World War.
I said, what do you mean? He said, if you go down to the end of the street tomorrow, take the children to the Jewish Refugees Museum. And so I went there. There is a wall with the names of all the people who were in Shanghai during the War. They have got their suitcases and their battered shoes and things they left Europe with, because of course they were only allowed to take a suitcase and ten reichsmark.
They lived alongside Chinese families in these tiny apartments and shared Chinese food and survived. They set up Jewish schools – a lot of the refugees were very educated. Shanghai was the only place you could go in the world without a visa. China opened their arms to the Jewish people. When everyone else closed their doors and ignored what was happening, Shanghai did not.
Telling forgotten stories
I went through this Jewish Museum with my eyes completely on sticks. I couldn’t believe the history I was seeing. At the end of it, there was a little photo of two girls standing in the street. I think one of them had a hula hoop in her hand.
One girl was Chinese and one girl was Jewish and they both had Peter Pan collars. I remember the Chinese girl was very pretty. She had dimples, and they might have even had their arms around each other.
That was the beginning of The Jade Lily. I thought, imagine if I told the story of the Jewish ghetto in Shanghai. It is the story of Romy having to flee Germany after Kristallnacht and come to Shanghai. She grows up in Shanghai and gets to understand the city through her Chinese best friend, who was this little girl she had her arms around. Sometimes I see an image and a story just explodes. That is how it started.
Wide international readership
Jenny Wheeler: It probably helps to explain why you seem to have done very well with international translations of your books. You have got books in quite a number of different countries and languages, don’t you?
Kirsty Manning: I do. I was very touched when that one got picked up by the Jewish community in Israel and was reviewed in The Jerusalem Post, because you never know how books are going to be translated. It was translated into Hebrew, and my books have been translated into Russian, Serbian, Dutch, German, and some others I can’t remember. It is always a delight and a surprise when the translations come through.
Jenny Wheeler: Moving on from talking about your specific books to your wider career, tell us a bit about your life before you started writing fiction, and has that experience helped with your writing?
Kirsty Manning: It’s all cumulative, isn’t it? I studied literature at the University of Sydney, and history, and a bit of law, a bit of industrial relations. I wasn’t sure whether to go and finish a law degree or do arts, but a legal internship one summer holidays made me realize I was going to go back and do my honors thesis in literature and not be a lawyer.
The life story before writing
I did that and then went traveling for a year. I had a gap year after my year of university, and then I got a job in publishing in Melbourne. I worked in various editorial roles, working my way up to the position of publishing manager or head of a list in nonfiction.
I never worked in fiction, but with nonfiction you’re always dealing with people’s stories and events, and it’s all about the voice best to tell that story. That was a very useful training ground, and it was good to see the inner machinations of a publishing house.
When I had kids, I left working full-time. I had a slow breakup with publishing, I guess. I started working part-time and then I started working contract and it was getting trickier and trickier with children and with deadlines that never shifted.
So I started doing some freelance journalism, writing features because in couple of the publishing companies I worked for they published magazines and newspapers as well.
I put my hand up to write some articles here and there, and they were well received so I put my hand up to do more. I ended up doing lots of travel and features, and I did a lot for Fairfax and also for SBS online, which was new and exciting at the time. I was working as a freelance journalist when I started to cross into writing novels.
A walled garden and French holiday
Jenny Wheeler: That was partly sparked by that holiday in France and the walled garden, was it? It came together there.
Kirsty Manning: It did. I had been in publishing, I was going to a lot of writers festivals because I was interested in it. I was edging closer and closer to writing a novel. I did my research. I went to endless writers festivals and talked to people. I just went from there.
I think turning 40 is formative in some way. Not always, but it galvanizes you. I thought, if not now, then when? When am I going to do this? My kids were up and running if you like, they were all late primary school. There is a freedom when your kids are a little older – more space to write and more space for your own thoughts in your head. Things open up, the sky gets a little higher as the kids get a little older.
Jenny Wheeler: We are starting to come to the end of our time together, so turning to Kirsty as reader. This is The Joys of Binge Reading, and we like to talk to you about your taste in books and recommendations you might have for other people. I don’t know whether you are a binge reader, but what are the books you’re into at the moment, and could you recommend any.
What Kirsty is reading now
Kirsty Manning: I just read a great English thriller, The Other Passenger by Louise Candlish. It lost me a bit at the end, but it was really tight right up until then. I was very intrigued by that. I love Jane Harper’s work. I really enjoyed The Survivors. I am reading a lot of crime at the moment.
I really like Michael Robotham. (On The Joys of Binge Reading here The International Crime Master. ) I think he is extraordinary. I’ve just re-read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. That is a classic. It’s a crime book, but it’s really thoughtful, and the setting of Savannah – I have never been to Savannah, but he makes that city sing. It is an extraordinary piece of work.
I’m writing a new book at the moment and I’m reading that to feed the brain to keep writing. Reading good writers helps you become a better writer.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. At this stage in your writing career, if you were doing it all over again, is there anything you would change?
Kirsty Manning: Million-dollar question. I don’t know. I would love to be a writer who was a plotter, who knew exactly what I was writing and when, and was systematic about it. I think I changed my process. I tend to be a lot more cavalier, and it creates a lot of stress for myself.
Pantser or plotter – it all depends…
People talk about plotters or pantsers. I tend to be more of a pantser, with key plot points in my head and it all gets thrown out onto the page in a frenzy at the end after years of research. I would like to be more systematic.
Jenny Wheeler: Does that mean you also do several drafts?
Kirsty Manning: I do.
Jenny Wheeler: That makes a lot of work, doesn’t it?
Kirsty Manning: It does make a lot of work, but I seem to get better in the rewriting. We all have our process, and I have come to make peace with the fact that what goes onto the page at first isn’t perfect. I have learned to make peace with that and trust that I will get there, because I know I can do it now. Let go of perfection. That has been a big one for me because it’s okay. It’s done is better than perfect.
Jenny Wheeler: Looking ahead for the next 12 months, you mentioned you’re working on a new book. Can you tell us anything about that, and what does your next 12 months hold in store?
Kirsty’s next 12 months
Kirsty Manning: We have got a big 12 months because, as a lot of your listeners will know, we are just getting back on our feet after lockdown in Melbourne. We have a restaurant and wine shop, so we are putting that all back together. It’s all going well, getting that up and running.
I’ve got a Year 12, so that’s all happening in our house. Professionally for me, I am working on two manuscripts at the moment, both mysteries again, both based on forgotten snippets of history. One is pure historical, and one is a dual timeframe, so I am tag teaming both books at the moment and seeing where they go.
Jenny Wheeler: Can you give us a hint for their setting? Are they Europe based?
Kirsty Manning: Both are Europe based. One heads back into the wall, and the other is set in Paris.
Jenny Wheeler: For those who are outside Australia, and there are quite a lot of listeners – translate Year 12 for them.
Combining work and family
Kirsty Manning: Year 12 is the final year of school in Australia. It is the year before you head off to university, so it’s a year of exams and new beginnings. I write about that a bit. It’s funny, what you write yourself towards. Even my contemporary character has a child, Hugo, who is leaving school.
He in no way resembles my own child in terms of personality, but it is instructing writing my emotions onto the page. That grace of letting go of your child, that mixed feeling of pride that they are so independent and strong, and letting go because they’re off. They are doing their own thing, making their own decisions and plotting their own path. It’s about making peace with that and enjoying that ride.
Jenny Wheeler: Great. Do you enjoy hearing from your readers and where can they find you online?
Where to find Kirsty online
Kirsty Manning: They can find me on Instagram, @kirstymanningau, or on Facebook Kirsty Manning Writer. I love hearing from people. People write to me all the time and it has been great.
People have been writing to me so much about The French Gift more than any other book, about how much they love it. But people are still discovering The Lost Jewels and The Jade Lily and writing to me and telling me about that or how it’s affected them.
That’s great. If you have a question or you want to say something, reach out and let me know, because it’s so joyous. We are in a room by ourselves and the fact that somebody has taken the time to write about your work or write to you is really humbling.
Jenny Wheeler: Kirstie, thank you so much for your time today. In the show notes for this episode we will put links to your books and your social media, so that people will be able to find them quite easily.
Kirsty Manning: Thank you. It has been a joy.
Who to read/listen to next?
If you enjoyed hearing about Kirsty Manning’s dual time line saga you might also enjoy Natasha Lester’s The Paris Secret.
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