Today on The Joys of Binge Reading Meg Waite Clayton, international bestselling author of The Last Train to London, returns with another haunting wartime story–The Postmistress of Paris.
Hi there, I’m your host Jenny Wheeler and on Binge Reading this week, Meg talks about her latest acclaimed wartime story set in the early days of the Nazi Occupation of France. It’s a haunting love story of high stakes danger and incomparable courage, based on the true story of a young American heiress who helped artists hunted by the Nazis escape war torn France.
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Links for this episode can be found at:
Links to this episode can be found at:
Mary Jayne Gold: Oral History interview at the Holocaust memorial Museum site.: https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn513492
Crossroads Marseilles, 1940: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1245926.Crossroads_Marseilles_1940
The Last Train To London: https://www.megwaiteclayton.com/books/the-last-train-to-london/
The Writer’s Lab: https://thewriterslab.nyc/
Thrifty Umrigar Honor: https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/56271394
Karen Joy Fowler: Booth https://www.karenjoyfowler.com/
Purchasing Meg’s books in Australia and New Zealand:
And elsewhere: Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/1102395.Meg_Waite_Clayton
Where to find Meg Waite Clayton:
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to the show notes in The Joys of Binge Reading.com for important mentions.
But now, here’s Meg,
Introducing author Meg Waite Clayton
Jenny Wheeler: Hello there Meg, and welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.
Meg Waite Clayton: Jenny, it’s so delightful to be here. Thank you for sharing your time with me.
Jenny Wheeler: This latest book you’ve recently published, The Postmistress of Paris, has received the most amazing reception. You’ve got a whole host of international reviewers who are all eagerly anticipating it and hyping it up before it even hits the stands. That’s a wonderful place to be in, but you did have quite a good apprenticeship to get there, didn’t you?
Meg Waite Clayton: I did. This is novel number eight. Here in the United States, it’s the first one that’s been reviewed by the New York Times, so that’s my long apprenticeship. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s been a lovely run and a lovely career and I feel like it keeps growing in a lovely way.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s wonderful. The central character of the Postmistress is Nanée. She is a wealthy American who stays on in France after war is declared in 1939, partly because she feels it’s her home – she has been living there for quite some time – and also because she has this lovely idea, or some might say silly idea, that she wants to make a difference in the war effort.
She was based on a real person named Mary Jayne Gold who I had never heard of before your book. Can you tell us a bit about Mary Jayne?
Inspired by an American heiress
Meg Waite Clayton: Yes, absolutely. I will say for starters that the character of Nanée is inspired by Mary Jayne but not exactly based on her for a reason I’ll tell you about. Mary Jayne Gold was a real Chicago heiress who was indeed living in Paris when Hitler invaded and she decided to stay.
She was an extraordinary woman. She flew airplanes before people did, and she chose to live outside the normal parameters of somebody who was raised in her kind of wealth and privilege. She did indeed stay in France and help Varian Fry’s effort to rescue artists and writers and other great thinkers from France after Hitler invaded. She is a wonderful person. She wrote a memoir herself called Crossroads Marseilles, 1940 which you can still get in French. It’s out of print in English.
One of the main differences with Mary Jayne Gold – a real love story – was that she fell in love with a Marseille mobster, basically a gangster, whose name was Killer, not because he was killing people, but because he killed the English language. It’s a lovely story, but it didn’t fit into the parameters of what I was trying to do, illuminating this effort to rescue people. That’s why Nanée is inspired by, rather than based upon Mary Jayne Gold.
Jenny Wheeler: It’s an interesting little detail about flying planes though, because Nanée does fly planes as well, doesn’t she?
Varian Fry a quiet hero of the escapes
Meg Waite Clayton: She does. There are many things that Nanée and Mary Jayne Gold have in common, including that Vega Gull which was the real airplane that Mary Jayne Gold flew and the dog Dagobert who barks madly whenever Hitler’s name is mentioned. I’d like to have made that up but it was the real Mary Jayne Gold’s dog who did that. It was too beautiful to leave out.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s absolutely right. You mentioned the name Varian Fry. He plays a very important role in the story. He is the secret US coordinator for these people they are trying to get them out as refugees before the Germans really managed to clamp down on the country while they’re still in transition to Vichy France.
I had never heard of him either. I didn’t realize until I read your footnote at the back that he was a real person. Tell us about him too.
Meg Waite Clayton: He was indeed a real person. He was involved in organizing this effort from the United States to send somebody over to take visas and help get people like Picasso and Matisse and Chagall out of France. Hannah Arendt was one of the names on his list.
They couldn’t figure out anybody else to do it so he said, fine, I will go. He spoke French. He spoke German. He was a writer, so it was totally outside of his bailiwick, but he went across to France and stayed far longer than he was meant to and helped rescue about 2,000 people before he was booted from France.
Surrealist artists among the rescued
Jenny Wheeler: The surrealists also play a big part in the story. They are very much the background to the story, and I wondered why you chose particularly the surrealist movement. Nanée is very much involved in the Paris art world before the Germans take over, isn’t she?
Meg Waite Clayton: She is. I will read you a quick line from the second paragraph of the book, which is Nanée’s thoughts on surrealism. She’s going to see this exhibit. She describes it as 300 artworks depicting gigantic insects, bizarre floating heads and dismembered or defiled bodies that she knew were meant to be thought provoking, but always left her feeling unsophisticated and far too American Midwestern – not even from Chicago, but from Evanston.
That’s really how I feel about surrealist art. I found it daunting before I researched for this book. Researching for this book gave me a great appreciation for what they were doing with surrealist art. Nonetheless, I don’t think I could hang most of it on my walls. It would give me nightmares.
The reason I chose surrealism is because it was the art of the time and many of the artists who were rescued in Varian Fry’s effort were indeed surrealists. So that’s period appropriate.
Jenny Wheeler: I did wonder if you had done this research particularly for this book, and that is the case.
Meg Waite Clayton: Yes indeed. I did.
Famous artists interned by Nazis
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. I’m with you there. It’s not an art movement I’ve ever been naturally drawn to.
A lot of the real-life artists have parts in the book as well. There are a couple who have reasonably prominent roles – André Breton and Max Ernst for starters. That obviously was also part of the development of the story.
Meg Waite Clayton: Yes exactly. I turned to Max Ernst because he was somebody who really was at Camp des Milles, which was this French internment camp outside of Aix-en-Provence where the French first, even before Hitler invaded, interned Jewish refugees, feeling fearful that they would be spies for the Reich.
Max Ernst was interned there not once, but twice, and his story in that regard is really interesting and very demonstrative. He was put in this camp and when they let him go finally, he could have left and gone to the United States or someplace else, but instead he chose to stay in France. He could not imagine that they would arrest him again or anything bad would happen to him. He was arrested again and put back in the camp. That’s part of the reason he’s there, because his real story is something I can thread through.
Similarly with André Breton. He was the leader of the surrealist movement. He is a really fascinating character. He did indeed live at Villa Air-Bel with Mary Jayne Gold and Varian Fry during this period I write about, with his wife and child, while he was waiting to try to be gotten out of France. He was both a great character and true to the real history. I always like to be as true to the real history as I can.
Jenny Wheeler: I didn’t realize that Mary Jayne had gone to the south and lived there with Varian, so that’s very much true to your story.
Villa Air-Bel the center of rescue efforts
Meg Waite Clayton: Yes. She is the one in real life who rented Villa Air-Bel, which was this ramshackle old villa outside of Marseille where many of the people involved in this effort lived together.
That was one of the things that drew me to the story. They lived together, they threw these salons with artists and they played these crazy surrealist games together. Somehow or other they managed to have this incredibly good-spirited time together, actually fun, while at the same time risking their lives in order to help save people. It was such an extraordinary story that once I learned it, it called to me to write a novel about it.
Jenny Wheeler: Dare I ask what happened to Mary Jayne in the end.
Meg Waite Clayton: The real Mary Jayne was eventually booted out of France and went back to the United States for the rest of the war. After the war was over she returned to France and lived the rest of her life there.
If anybody’s interested in hearing more about her, there is a wonderful series of interviews with her on the US Holocaust Memorial Museum site from toward the end of her life. They are really extraordinary. She is such an amazing character and it’s lovely to hear her talk about her story in her own words.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s wonderful. The book before this one has got quite a lot of parallels to The Postmistress and also enjoyed very strong international success. It’s a story based in Holland, I think.
The Last Train To London
Meg Waite Clayton: It’s primarily set in Vienna, Austria and then in Poland. You are absolutely right though. The rescue in that story is the story of the Kindertransport, which was this fabulous effort that rescued 10,000 children from the Reich before the war began.
There was a woman named Truus Wijsmuller. That story is based on a real woman who was Dutch and did go into Vienna and did extraordinary things in order to help save these children. It’s set in part in Holland, in part in Vienna and then in part in England where that rescue effort was organized.
Jenny Wheeler: Both of these books emphasize the ability of one person to make a difference in desperate times. It’s very much the case that they both are risking their lives and they are both driven by this conviction that one person can make a difference, and they prove it. Is that something that resonates with you?
Meg Waite Clayton: It does. One of the reasons I enjoy writing historical fiction in this period is that by looking back on what people have done, I can be inspired to think about what I can do in the time I live in and be my best person. So often we think, what can I do? What difference can I make?
It’s true that one person often can only make a small difference, but millions of people making small differences together make a big difference. Sometimes one person can make a big difference all on their own, and you never know unless you give it a try. I find these stories very inspiring myself and hope they will similarly inspire readers.
Jenny Wheeler: That brings up the other thing, that they are great adventure stories, they’re wonderful emotional stories, but they do have an underlying intellectual content, a challenge to people to look at their values and how they behave. One reviewer described it as being both intellectually provocative and emotionally moving. How do you get that balance right when you’re writing them?
Meg Waite Clayton: That is a very good question. So much of writing is instinct, especially in the first draft. You follow where your heart and your brain together take you. But then a huge proportion of writing is in the rewriting. I do go draft after draft after draft trying to get the balance just right.
For The Last Train to London, I probably went through 50 or more drafts. For The Postmistress of Paris, fewer than that, but a lot of drafts. What I find is I swing too far one way and then I try to fix it and I swing too far the other way. It takes me all those drafts to settle into the middle, to the right balance. But thank you. I hope I get that balance. I work really hard to do so.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s remarkable. 50 drafts. How long does it take you to do that?
Working on multi-drafts of manuscripts
Meg Waite Clayton: It depends on a few things. Right now, I’m working with an editor, Sara Nelson at Harper, and she’s fabulous because I can send her a pretty raw draft and she will look at it and help me focus it. Before I was working with her, I would have to do a lot of that work myself which would mean I would have to put the manuscript aside for some number of months before I could go back to it.
My husband does the same job for me, but you can only do that freshly so many times. After about five drafts, he knows what I know and so he can’t see what’s not in the manuscript, which is often the hardest part to figure out. The Last Train to London I started researching in 2007 and it came out in 2019. It didn’t take me as long to write but it took me a long time to research because I was very daunted about taking on that story.
The Postmistress of Paris was somewhat faster, honestly in part because I wrote it mostly during the pandemic and there were no distractions except for the distraction of having to make yourself sit down and write every day with everything going on.
It wasn’t like I was flying around the country or the world promoting books or anything like that. I would do my writing during the day and my promotional Zooms and things like that in the evening. It ended up being, shockingly, a very productive time. You hate to say that in the midst of a pandemic, but it’s been a very productive time for me.
Jenny Wheeler: The Last Train was selected by Nicole Kidman and Rees Witherspoon for their Writers Lab. Has there been any further development with that? Is it going into production anytime soon?
Meg Waite Clayton: I would like to say it was a selected by them. Along with Meryl Streep who is, I think, the main driver of The Writers Lab, there is a group of women in Hollywood who are very interested in bringing new female voices into Hollywood writing, movie writing, and TV too.
Working with The Writer’s Lab
They fund this effort called The Writers Lab. They choose a dozen women a year and bring them all together with a fabulous group of mentors. One of my mentors was Robin Swicord, who was Oscar nominated for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and did The Jane Austen Book Club and all sorts of great films. She mentored me on the screenplay.
It’s been a tough time to get a story like that made right now because the pandemic and the way films are made right now. Most films being made are smaller, independent films with smaller casts and not a $50 million film like that will be. So fingers crossed, but nothing yet.
Jenny Wheeler: Is that the first screenplay you’ve written?
Meg Waite Clayton: It’s the first screenplay I’ve written and it’s actually the way I first wrote The Last Train to London. I was very daunted about taking on the story because it is a really important story in the Jewish culture. A little secret. I’m not Jewish, I’m a Gentile. I grew up Irish Catholic in the Midwest of the United States, so I thought, I’ll just write it as a screenplay because I don’t know what I’m doing and it will be nothing. It will be freeing just to write something and nothing will ever happen to it, but it would be fine. I’ll get the story out of my system and I can write something that might actually be published.
Writing the screen play before the novel
I had such fun with writing the screenplay and also it focuses my writing in a different way. I am very focused on what each moment is, each thing that happens, why it’s important and if it’s not important, then it doesn’t belong in the story. It has made me a much better writer and I will always write that way from now on.
Jenny Wheeler: Did you write a screenplay for the Postmistress as well?
Meg Waite Clayton: I did. I wrote a very early version as a screenplay and then I wrote the novel from the outline of the screenplay. Honestly, it’s all happened so fast and there’s been so much else going on in my life that I have not yet gone back to the screenplay to see if it’s anything worth working with. But it was very fun to do it that way, and it did set up the arc of the story and the characters very well for me.
Jenny Wheeler: It’s interesting because I do think that novelists generally are becoming more and more influenced by film and TV because it is so much part of our world now. You can’t ignore it, can you? Our readers are also watching those forms of entertainment and they transfer some of their expectations from film and TV to books.
Meg Waite Clayton: I totally agree with that. I think we all consume so much media and especially movies and TV now, that it shapes the way we see stories. I’m still a book person. I still prefer to read a story, and if ever there’s going to be a movie I want to see, I always read the book first.
Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway
I think books have more to offer in many ways than film does. But you can watch a film in an hour and a half or two hours, and the book takes 10 hours to read, and so just by the very nature of how long it takes, we are as a society consuming more. Also, you can do movies with friends and loved ones, and so I think we are consuming more and more film and TV than we ever did before.
Jenny Wheeler: I was also fascinated by one of your books – I think it might have been the one before The Last Train to London. It was Beautiful Exiles, and it was the story of Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway. I became fascinated by them last year because I read Paula McLain’s take on that story in Love and Ruin. It’s a story that’s recently been told a number of times – there is a Nicole Kidman movie about it as well – but you brought something fresh to it. What the reviewers say is that you made that story come alive in a way that no one else had. How do you do that?
Meg Waite Clayton: I will tell you that that particular novel was a work of stubborn will on my part. I started pitching my second novel, which was published in 2008, a book called The Wednesday Sisters. I was publishing with the Random House Imprint at that time, and my publisher asked me what I wanted to write next. I said I had a couple of stories.
Martha – amazing but not always likeable
One was about World War II women journalists hoping to be the first to report the liberation of Paris. One of those journalists was Martha Gellhorn. I said, I also have this great idea for a story, for Martha Gellhorn and her first husband, Ernest Hemingway, and their relationship. I could not get anybody to bite on that one. My publisher at the time said, oh, Martha Gellhorn, she’s not a very likable character. I was like, what do you mean she’s not a likeable person? She’s amazing.
I worked on that story for a long time. I have read everything that Martha Gellhorn wrote. I have read all the letters she wrote that are available. I have been a passionate fan girl of hers for these two decades. If I bring anything particular to it, it’s just a really deep knowledge of, and love and admiration for her.
Jenny Wheeler: I think the reviewer said that you’d taken years of research and turned it into something sexy. That’s pretty nice, isn’t it?
Meg Waite Clayton: Well, they definitely had a sexy relationship and she’s definitely a sexy character, so that’s fine.
Jenny Wheeler: I really liked Nicole Kidman in that movie. I thought she did a great job of being Martha. You mentioned the race for Paris, and that also sounded fascinating. What do you think is drawing our contemporary readers to World War II? It has enjoyed a tremendous surge in popularity as a period, hasn’t it?
The rise of interest in World War stories
Meg Waite Clayton: It has. It’s interesting because when I pitched the First Word War book, which was right after The Wednesday Sisters, so in 2008, my publisher, who I adore, didn’t think that Martha Gellhorn was an interesting person. She also didn’t think that women would like to read about war, and most of my readers are female.
I kept thinking, that’s just wrong because the thing about war is that it raises the stakes. You take real human stories and put them in a high stakes environment and almost by definition you have more narrative drive. But I think part of the reason is because, among other things, Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale made the world see that women do care about reading about war, and that stories about women during war are really inspiring and we all love inspiring stories. I think it’s as much that people realizing that women did a lot of things during the war and we don’t know about them yet and we want to, that is driving a lot of that.
Jenny Wheeler: We are starting to come to end of our time together, so turning away from the specific books to talk a little bit more about the arc of your career – when you started out with writing, what was your main goal? I would imagine that by now you’ve more than surpassed it, but what did you expect when you first started writing?
How Meg started her writing career
Meg Waite Clayton: When I first started writing, I had no idea what I was doing. I was practicing law and I had taken the minimum of English courses at university. Literally I took freshman year classes that were required, and then years later I took a talking class pass/fail. I was very daunted by the way English was taught but I was always a huge reader and especially a reader of novels.
What I wanted when I started was to be able to write a novel. I was so delighted when my first novel was published, I just cannot tell you. To have eight novels published now, I feel like I’m living this dream life and somebody is going to wake me up and I’m going to be very disappointed with the real world.
Jenny Wheeler: Meg as reader, what do you like to read? You mentioned that you’ve always been a big reader. We like to get a few recommendations for our listeners, mainly in the genre area because that’s what they’re reading, but anything you can mention.
Meg Waite Clayton: I love reading anything that is well-written. I was a history major in college and so I love historical books especially. I read Margaret Atwood, both her historicals, which I love, and her speculative fiction, which I also love. I love Alison McDermott, a US writer who writes a lot about being Irish Catholic in America.
What Meg Waite Clayton is reading now
In terms of what I’ve read lately that’s been really amazing, there is a book coming out in the United States by Karen Joy Fowler, who was the first American shortlisted for the Booker Prize. She has a new one coming out called Booth that is just extraordinary. Thrity Umrigar has a new novel out called Honor. It came out in January. That is about the Indian experience and Indian history and contemporary India. That is beautiful as well.
Jenny Wheeler: Looking back down the tunnel of time, if there was one thing about your career that you’d like to change, what would it be?
Meg Waite Clayton: I think I would have started earlier. But as much as I say that, I’m not sure I would have had the gumption to stick with it. It took me 10 years from when I started writing until my first novel was published, and if I hadn’t been a woman of a certain age and a certain stubbornness by then, I’m not sure I wouldn’t have given up and gone back to the practice of law. So probably even the things I want, I don’t really want.
I will say, my dad passed away earlier this year, and The Postmistress of Parish has done so incredibly well, and I wish he would have gotten to see that.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s lovely. Ten years before you were first published. That shows remarkable persistence.
A long road to being published
Meg Waite Clayton: It turns out to be, if you believe Malcolm Gladwell, the average amount of time, that 10,000 hours, that you need or whatever to do anything well. I didn’t know what I was doing when I started. I had some early success both in publishing short pieces and in getting an agent for my first novel, and then the first novel didn’t sell. It took another five years from when I had my first agent for it until it actually sold.
In this business, in writing, so much of it is about finding the right person for your work. My best friend had 135 rejections from agents before she found an agent. She sent him her manuscript on a Friday, he called her up Sunday and said he’d like to represent her, by Tuesday he had a six-figure deal for two books for her. She kept saying, it’s the same book that all those other people rejected.
I think it’s really, really important, if you want to be a writer, to keep believing in yourself long after your own mother has given up on you.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s wonderful advice. What is next for Meg, the writer? Looking down the next 12 months, what are you working on at the moment?
Meg Waite Clayton: I have two projects under development right now. One is set in Paris and is another World War II story. It’s based on a true story, and it’s a book about books. The other will be a little different.
The role of women in old Hollywood
It’s set primarily in Carmel by the sea where I live now, and it will be a book of old Hollywood and the blacklist and the role of women in old Hollywood. They are both tugging at me in equal measure right now, and I’m not sure which one’s going to win that tug of war. We’ll have to see
Jenny Wheeler: But they are both going to get written. You mean which one will get written first.
Meg Waite Clayton: You never know. So much of writing is in the moment. What moves you. At least for me it is – will it move me? If I don’t have something that’s ripping my own heart out, it’s not going to be a good book for me, so it depends on where my heart is in any particular moment.
And when you come up from writing a book, you are, at least I am, inevitably a different person than I was when I went into writing it. It’s hard to say, once you come up from a book, what is going to be the next thing you want to write until you get there.
Jenny Wheeler: That sparks a question for me because when I finished The Last Postmistress, I felt as if you’d had a tremendous amount of emotional energy invested in that story. There was so much wonderful detail. I think particularly of the little girl Luki and the soft toys she had that became almost like religious objects. They were something that gave her security through all the turbulence of the war and the separation from her father, et cetera.
Could you tell us, if it’s not too difficult, how did you change in the writing of that book? How were you different at the end from when you went in at the beginning?
The part children play in Meg’s stories
Meg Waite Clayton: The first child I wrote in any meaningful way in my books was in The Last Train to London. That was a book about kids and rescuing kids, and that really opened up this idea for me, that I like to write children. I was really surprised that I like to write children. What this book did for me was, even though it’s in a dark setting, Luki is in some ways a very light character. I poured a lot of love into her, and it made me think that I would probably never write a book without a child in it somewhere again, because it’s so fills my own heart.
But this is also the first time I ever wrote a dog. Dagobert is my first dog character ever, and it opened up my world to the possibility that humans are not the only beings worth writing about on this earth. That is a little bit of a different perspective for me.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s lovely. I’m not sure how you like to interact with your readers. I’m sure you like to hear from them in some form or other. Are there ways that you interact with them online or even in person, although that hasn’t been so easy in the last 18 months or so.
Meg Waite Clayton: I do love meeting readers in person. The last time I did that I was on tour in The Netherlands and Belgium. I got back as the coronavirus was becoming known. That was in January. I really miss that part. I do a lot of virtual events and I like that as well.
Where to find Meg Waite Clayton online
I love hearing from readers and answering questions and I hang out online. I do love the interaction we get online. I am primarily on Facebook. I’m there under the moniker Novelist Meg, and I always try to answer questions and respond to comments and that kind of thing. I’m also on Instagram where my primary goal is to make everybody want to live in Carmel because it’s so beautiful here, so lots of pictures of Carmel. And I’m on Twitter where I mostly talk politics, so if you want to hear my political views come to Twitter.
Jenny Wheeler: Thank you so much for your time. It’s been delightful to be able to chat.
Meg Waite Clayton: My absolute pleasure, Jenny. Thank you again for having me. I really appreciate your sharing your time with me.
If you enjoyed Meg you might also enjoy…
Kirsty Manning’s book The French Gift treats the story of French Resistance fighter Agnes Humbert and her remarkable efforts to combat the Nazis.
Next week on Binge Reading
Next week on Binge Reading, fellow Kiwi author Catherine Lea with a new mystery series for fans of Ann Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope series. The Water’s Dead is a police procedural introducing Detective Inspector Nyree Bradshaw, and a murder mystery set in small town New Zealand. Look out for it next week.
That’s it for today. Get advance warning of books we’ve got coming up on the show so that you can read them ahead of time, by subscribing to Binge Reading on Patreon for exclusive bonus content. www.patreon.com/thejoysofbinge reading.com
Bye for now and happy reading.
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