Mark Pryor on Writing a Novel Set in WWII France to Honor His Family History

Regarding my new book, DIE AUTOUR DU SOLEIL, which takes place in Paris in 1940, I encountered the same question several times: why did you want to write a book about the Second World War?

I quickly realized that there were actually three parts to this question: why did you ask it in Paris, why in 1940 and why you?

Let me try to explain, and with the easiest part: Paris. As a child, we crossed France by car at least once a year on vacation. My parents retired to the Pyrenees, so a visit to their home always meant a stop in Paris. It’s a beautiful walkable city, and one of its biggest features, ironically, is a remnant of World War II. You see, in England, some people sometimes make fun of the French who surrender too quickly. What it meant, however, was safety from the air raids and bombings that every other major city in Europe endured. Where London, Berlin and Dresden had to replace centuries-old buildings with modern ones, Paris did not. It looks like it did before the war today – no skyscrapers or skyscrapers to darken the streets with their shadows. Paris remains intact.

So the next question: why 1940?

When I was ten, my grandparents’ retired gardener, Joe Wallace, came to live with us. His health was rapidly declining and he had no one else to take care of him. He spent his days in bed, life ebbing day by day, but several times during his (unfortunately brief) stay I brought him cups of tea or food. Each time, he would ask me to sit down and listen to his memories. And the vast majority of his stories were about World War I, which he enlisted in when he was fifteen.

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He had fought in the trenches and, looking back, his stories were probably not the best for a young man like me to hear. But they were compelling, gripping, and because he survived every encounter and incident (obviously!), any tragedy in those stories was distant in time and unrelated to me. Two are particularly etched in my memory, and both are told in DIE AROUND SUNDOWN, in slightly different form, of course.

Something else related to the war happened when I was about ten years old; I spent the day with a friend my age at the farm in the English countryside that his family had just bought. They were rich and had no intention of farming, they just wanted a nice big house and some land. As a result, many of the farm’s barns and outbuildings had lain unused for some time – prime exploration territory for two boys.

I remember spotting a chicken coop at the edge of a field, and for some reason that became our focus. I dimly remember we made our way through a jammed door, and it was dusty and kind of falling apart. I don’t remember why we lifted a few planks, really not, but we did and under the ground we found a uniform. A soldier’s uniform, jacket and pants. We were spoiled. And, of course, totally thrilled.

We ran to the farm to show an adult, any adult, our great find, because of course we did! But… they weren’t impressed. Not only impressed, I remember my mother being horrified by the scruffy, moldy and dirty uniform. He was swept away from us and thrown out of sight, before we could even get through the pockets!

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Honestly, I don’t know why my mom and hers were so disgusted. I’m sure it was some kind of health hazard, sure, but it was also… I mean, it was a soldier’s uniform that was intentionally hidden in the floor of a chicken coop !

Forty-five years later, I can’t explain it, and forty-five years later, the questions that swirled in that ten-year-old boy’s head still echoed in mine. Whose was it? Why was it there, of all places? And why did our parents react so strongly to what they must have known was a super cool find for two curious, exploratory boys?

The fact is that for so many people (especially in Europe), World Wars I and II live on, not just in our imaginations but before our eyes. If you live across the pond, there are daily reminders in each village, where crosses or statues honor the dead and injured. There are museums, lots of them, housing guns, maps, tanks and… yes, uniforms. There are even many buildings or other sites damaged during the war that have been preserved in their ruined state to this day.

And the wars, both, keep revealing themselves to us in the stories that keep coming to our ears. And there are still new stories coming out because a war involving millions of people is a war that means a million different things to those people. What I mean by that is that World War II caused extreme hardship for millions of people, but in so many different ways. A housewife in Coventry did not experience what a general commanding troops in North Africa experienced. And these two people have, or had, a story to tell.

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First example: last year, I read A WOMAN WITHOUT IMPORTANCE, by Sonia Purnell. This is an exceptional book about one woman’s bravery as a spy, working for the Americans and the English in France. A woman who confused the Nazis for years, even escaping on foot through the Pyrenees mountains to escape them – on foot literally because she had a wooden leg (she shot her foot in an accident of hunting !).

One thing that struck me, beyond her bravery and exploits, was the fact that I had never heard of her. How was it possible? But it became increasingly clear to me that there are countless people I haven’t heard of who might fascinate me.

In my own book, Princess Marie Bonaparte, great-grandniece of the little emperor himself, becomes a main character. It was an accidental discovery for me, a name on the Internet during a moment of research in a café. She piqued my interest, so I bought a book about her, read it, and now she will be a major force in all future Henri Lefort stories. Before this internet mention, then the biography, I had never even heard of the descendant of Napoleon Bonaparte who was a pupil and then a colleague of Sigmund Freud.

Resistance stories are my current focus, and yes, for a new Henri novel. Individual bravery, perhaps forgivable cowardice, relationships and rivalries. Each is a different story for the people involved, and each fascinates me. If old Joe, a boy soldier in a trench, can pass on his gripping memories, I know I still have a lot to learn from Resistance fighters. To learn and share with my readers.

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We found this soldier’s uniform more than 30 years after the end of the war. Maybe it wasn’t even war but… no. It was. It was in our imagination, that’s for sure. Thirty years after the guns fell silent in Europe, the Second World War was still revealing its secrets, this one in a plot of events that put a uniform in a chicken coop in rural Hertfordshire. Partly revealing its secrets, should I say. I still don’t have any answers, and when I went to see my mother a few years ago to ask her what she remembered, she looked at me blankly and said, “Nothing.

I can only conclude that she is involved in this particular conspiracy and that someday in the future she will tell me everything as I bring her cups of tea in bed.

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Irene B. Bowles