Fiona McIntosh

Getting started two years ago…

Eiffel Tower snapped from Montmatre - a location for the novel

My goal was that this hugely romantic story would be a big adventure with plenty of action.  I wanted it to have tension and fear at its core.  So,the wartime setting and particularly the Occupied Zone of France did a lot of the hard yards for me in achieving horror, strain and uneasiness at every turn.

Re-capturing what it was like to live under occupation wasn’t easy.  I did a lot of reading and it was fascinating to discover how resourceful people became through the war years. I have to wonder if younger generations – and I include mine in that – could ever be that resigned and resourceful. The British in particular were brilliant at making do – and probably because of that whole sense of pulling together made it easier on their emotions.  In France, where most of the novel is based, the ability to survive was complicated by some people being anti-Nazi and prepared to risk theirs and the lives of their loves ones to do everything in their power to defy the occupiers, to those who went along with the demands of the occupiers in order to keep their families safe.   I thought by going to Paris and interviewing people about their memories of life under occupation I might have gathered a lot of helpful material – what I discovered was suspicion and even hostility.  So many people who learned what I was writing became instantly distant or aggressive.  It was as though I’d touched a raw nerve and apparently I had; it occurred to me that it was likely those who were hostile may well have been the sons and daughters who had belonged to collaborators during the war.  They may not agree with their parents’ path – and may well live with guilt, even though they were just children … especially if their elders had anything to do with giving up French Jews for transport.

Hilltop village of the Luberon

Collaborators were seen as cowards by the Allies but I tried looking at it a different way.  I looked at it as a middle aged woman today that I am with sons I love to bits and would give my life for.  Then I looked at it from the perspective of when I was a 31 year old mother with twin newborns and I probably would have killed someone who threatened their lives!  That’s how passionate just about every parent becomes about any child but especially their flesh and blood.  Any one of us who is a parent understand the paramount importance of protecting the lives of our children.  We would do anything wouldn’t we?  I know I would.  I know most parents would.  And maybe if I had babies and I had a choice of a bullet for them and myself, or allowing Nazis to eat at my restaurant or live in my house I might have taken the ‘safe life at all costs’ situation for my children.  It’s very easy to be judgemental all these decades on but the more one reads about life during the war years, the more you realise just how little the French were living off.  They were starving in Paris.  Ask a Parisian about turnips – or rutubaga as it was called.  They recoil in horror at the mention.  People were making soup from acorns and coffee from barley…if they could get the barley.  Meat was unheard of as were most colourful veg or fruit. An egg was impossible – no hens anywhere and any eggs that came into Paris were snapped up by restaurateurs to the Germans who used Paris like a holiday playground on leave from the Front.  Fresh food was only available at exhorbitant prices on the black market because the occupiers took 20 per cent of all fresh produce.  Food was all that people thought about – how to get it, where to get it, how to hide it.

  Anyway, all of this conflict and despair meant that the setting was always going to be France and it provided enough of a backdrop that I didn’t need to look much further than Provence and London in the early chapters and then basing the meat of the tale in Paris, which was flying with swastikas by the time my tale begins.

Walking through the streets of Paris you can still see the bullet holes from the last days of the occupation.    And as you walk around this truly gobsmackingly beautiful city you would surely be a liar if you thought, it would have been better if they’d never allowed the Germans in, fought to the last French person standing and let Hitler raze the city, which had been his intention.

France remains the world’s most popular destination, but also the globe’s most desired attraction to visit as well.  Favourite destination/attraction sound like the same thing but they’re not …not by a long shot.   So to be both favourites to the world means France really is something special – certainly in the minds of holidaymakers.   France has the ability to conjure images for travellers more swiftly and effectively that most other country / city names and it is almost always a romantic image that people admit to seeing in their minds’ eye when France is spoken about.

So setting the book in France is deliberate because it works at a visceral level for the majority of people who will read The Lavender Keeper.

At Senanque Abbey in Provence - famous lavender site and featured in the novel