Written by Catharine Bramkamp
We are so proud of Meg Waite Clayton! Her well researched novel, The Race for Paris hit the San Francisco Chronicle/NCIBA bestseller list in its 1st week out. How wonderful is that? The book is fiction, but based on ten years of research and on again, off again writing.
“I did a tremendous amount of research on real journalists like Lee Miller, who reported and photographed for Vogue, Martha Gellhorn, Lee Carson, and Sonia Tomara, the great photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White (who was never accredited to Normandy, as she was seen as too temperamental), and Dickey Chappelle, who photographed in the Pacific.
“I chose to draw on their real lives but fictionalize them, as that allowed me to gather a wide range of experiences and load them into a couple characters, which allowed me to build the challenges the real women faced into a story with a more classic story arc and narrative drive that might not always be there in real life but helps carry the reader along. But the scene in the operating room in the opening chapter, for example, was inspired by an experience Bourke-White had in Italy. A much later scene is inspired by a moment Martha Gellhorn had in France. I drew heavily from the writings of Lee Miller, the letters of Martha Gellhorn, and the extensive interviews with the women correspondents, which the Women’s Press Corps had the brilliant idea to record while these extraordinary women were still alive.
“I came across the term the Race for Paris in Andy Rooney’s memoir. He wrote for the Stars and Stripes during the war, and he described the ‘race for Paris’ as a spirited competition among the journalists in Normandy about who would be the first to report the liberation of Paris. I imagine them trash-talking each other, but always with the understanding that to be the first to report the liberation would be a huge coup.
“Most of the journalists were male, of course, but there were women vying to be first, too, and some made it to cover the liberation, and even had claims to be first. Lee Carson, who reported for INS, rode in on a jeep with Bob Reuben of Reuters, who joked that Carson claimed to be first and was not sharing the honor even with her jeep mates, as they were in the back while she had very particularly chosen the front seat!
“Research is wonderful. I could have continued for another 15 years. There are so many things you need to create a world that is gone. I have a decent grounding in the big picture, thanks to a terrific education at the University of Michigan, where I studied history, with a focus on 20th-century American wars. But when you’re writing historical novels, you have to get down to the level where your characters live. What does the vanilla caramel in a ration taste like? (Or even just finding out what was in a ration.) What words were used then that aren’t now? What would the jeep my characters drive in look like? Does the mud of Normandy smell the same as that of Nashville, where I lived when I started writing this? How did those women die their hair? And how the heck do you get anything clean—your body, your hair, your clothes—when you’re washing it in a military helmet, with water you have to fetch yourself?
“That, I suppose, was the hardest part. Not that it was seventy years ago, but that my characters were living in a war unlike any before or since. Trying to imagine that. Trying to do justice to these real women correspondents who have largely been forgotten, trying to keep them alive as best I can.”