FIONA VALPY – the author behind the bestseller The Dressmaker’s Gift: ”The courage and determination of women in challenging times continue to fascinate and inspire me”

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Fiona Valpy is a highly acclaimed bestselling author of both contemporary and historical fiction. Since the debut with The French for Love in 2013 her books have conquered the world in over twenty different languages. One of them is Swedish. We had a talk with Fiona Valpy about her much loved series of books about the Second World War in France – a country where she has lived for several years and it is an excellent place for resarch – especially when food and wine is involved in the story …

– Your books are so immersive, lovely and thoughtful! In Sweden they are published by Forum and, may I add, the covers are very attractive! Sömmerskans gåva (The Dressmaker’s Gift) and Biodlarens löfte (The Beekeeper’s Promise) are as advertised part of the same series – but they are also very individual stories with strong, memorable heroines.

Think of those books as “sister” novels

– How much do you think of your novels as parts of a series? And … how many parts are planned in the series? What can we look forward to in the future?

– I think of those two books as “sister” novels. They are closely related – and of course they tell the stories of two sisters each finding their own ways to survive the war years in France – and some of the themes, locations and characters cross over between both of them. I don’t have more World War II-based books planned in that particular series, but there is a sequel which is set at Chateau Bellevue in the Sud-Ouest region of France and follows a series of weddings, set in more contemporary times, which are held at the chateau over the course of one summer. There are some very familiar characters in it!

Women traits seen as undervalued

– How would you introduce your heroines?

They are ordinary women living through extraordinary times. In the past – and it is still all too often the case today – many of the traits women naturally show were undervalued or seen as somehow being weak. And yet things like compassion, empathy and kindness have always been desperately needed in the world – and this continues to be the case now, more than ever. I like to think my heroines are able to remain true to themselves while navigating their way through the complex issues that life puts their way. And they often find that they are stronger than they ever knew. I hope my readers will relate to them and draw inspiration from them!

Tasted a lot of French wines along the way

– Do you spend a lot of time travelling and doing research? Researching a French wine cellar must be fun! That is my idea of good research!

– I certainly used to, before the global pandemic made travel so much more difficult! During lockdown in the UK, I wrote a novel set in Morocco. I had a research trip planned which was postponed repeatedly and then, finally, cancelled. So that was very frustrating, but I just had to find other ways to do my research.

I do always try to visit the places I write about – and yes, I did taste a lot of French wines along the way! But I also lived in south-west France for seven years so I got to know that part of the world very well. I did go on a research trip to Paris specifically to do some of the research for Sömmerskans gåva – I stayed in an attic room in the Saint Germain area, just around the corner from the rue Cardinale where I set the atelier in which the dressmakers work. While other tourists were photographing the tourist sights, like the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame cathedral, I was taking pictures of cobblestones and streetlamps, the little details that I like to weave into my books so that the reader really feels transported to the setting.

A shockingly brutal act of cruelty

– Is there anything you have found out, particularly fun or interesting or surprising, big or small … which surprised you, and that ended up in one of your books?

– In Biodlarens löfte, the beehives are burned as the enemy retreats in order to try to starve the local population even further. When I lived in France, I kept bees myself and was talking to a French beekeeper one day who told me that story which had happened in a local village. It seemed such a shockingly brutal final act of cruelty!

– When I was researching the sections for Sömmerskans gåva set in the German concentration camps, I discovered that there were far, far more such places than the main ones that we tend to hear about. Referenced in a New York Times-article by Eric Lichtblau – “The Holocaust Just Got More Shocking” (1 March 2013) – a research project at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum documented all the ghettos, slave labour sites, concentration camps and killing factories that the Nazis set up throughout Europe. What they found shocked even scholars steeped in the history of the Holocaust. The researchers catalogued some 42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps throughout Europe, spanning German-controlled areas from France to Russia and Germany itself, during Hitler’s reign of brutality from 1933 to 1945. They estimate that 15-20 million people died or were imprisoned in the sites.

Both of these strands worked their way into the novels – the one so very local and the other so wide-reaching across Europe.

Characters take on lives of their own

– Do you have favourite characters when you write, like persons you enjoy writing the most or people that you fantasise spending time with? Main characters? Or … maybe also some of the supporting cast or peripheral characters, making cameos in your stories?

– As I write, my characters become very real to me and they even take on lives of their own and lead me off down unexpected paths sometimes! I loved writing each of the three dressmakers in Sömmerskans gåva – they are such different characters and yet they become firm friends as they support each other through those difficult times. I would love to have met them all as I think they embody the strength of women. I also adore Eliane, the main character in Biodlarens löfte, and I think she would be a really good friend to have! She is a very gentle person, but another strong one too.

At the same time, sometimes it’s the minor characters who can surprise me the most as I write them. I think they can enrich a novel a lot, even without taking centre stage, and they can really help give the story diversity and momentum.

1945 has always been “ages ago”

– Have you got a favourite era in history?

– I have a particular fascination with World War II and I think perhaps that’s because as I have lived my life my perspective on those war years has changed. I was born in the 1960:s and, as a child, the war felt like ancient history to me with little relevance to my life as I grew up. It’s only more recently that I’ve realized the significance of the fact that the war had ended less than 20 years before I was born – that’s the equivalent of the decade of the 2000s to us today and it feels like yesterday! I suppose age does that to us – it changes our perspective on time.

– Oh no, it’s not age, it just means that you are modern, that you feel that way! You were born when the modern age started, with the launch of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, James Bond, popmusic, popculture, modern design and so forth. According to fashion experts and music critics nothing new really has happened since the 1960s – now we are just recycling everything! So I think you are right – 1945 has always been “ages ago”, those events belong in another era, while 2000-something will feel like “yesterday” for a long time! As well as the 1960:s … and I don’t even remember the 1960:s, it’s just in our popcultural DNA …

A challenge finding connections between separate eras

– Now, back to history! And the future! Writing about historical Europe – or historical France (both these books take place in France) – do you think about historical fiction as escapism from the stressful life of today, or as a comment on today’s life, or a warning for us, where we might be heading, if we don‘t take heed? Or maybe a combination … ?

– History constantly repeats itself! We can learn so much from reading about how people responded to challenges in the past and applying those lessons to the world today!

That’s why I also include a contemporary slant in my books, though, and write dual timeline novels. There’s a challenge in finding the connections between two separate eras and pulling them together in a way that’s convincing. I love the sense of interweaving two storylines which may seem disconnected at first, but which later converge. And of course, our histories are still such a part of who we are today.

Heartbreaking challenges

– Your love stories come with a lot of obstacles – well, of course, otherwise there would not be a lot of excitement for the reader! – is love facing worse obstacles today or in the historical times of the Second World War that you write about?

The pressures of those war years threw up heartbreaking challenges and tragedies for so many people and it’s definitely an era that puts an intense focus on relationships. We are fortunate to live in a time of relative peace, in Europe, at least, but that’s not to say that individuals don’t still have challenges in their lives today. Even if the world has moved on, human nature hasn’t changed much and personal heartbreak is something many of us still have to face. There’s something reassuring, though, in knowing others have found ways through before us and that we are not alone in our suffering.

Several novels on the go at once

– What inspires you the most? Do you have favourite music to listen to when you write? Dog walks where you look at strangers and fantasize … homages to favourite authors?

– I read avidly and usually have several novels on the go at once. I have definitely drawn inspiration from many different authors – some of my favourites are Barbara Kingsolver, Anita Shreve, Annie Proulx, Anne Tyler, John Steinbeck, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Elena Ferrante… the list goes on and on.

I also enjoy walking in the hills near my house. I find that the best time to work out storylines in my head is when I’m walking – it seems to help wake up the creative part of my brain somehow, far more than sitting staring at a blank screen and trying to think what to write next!

Working on World War II novel set in Italy

– Do you have any childhood favourites or current favourites that you always come back to, for inspiration or just because they are so good?

– Jane Austen, certainly. I love contemporary novelists who are good at capturing a moment in time. She was so talented at doing that!

– Have you got any plans for your next book that you can hint at or reveal?

– I’m working on a novel set in Italy during World War II at the moment, as well as revising my first three books (The French for Love … series of contemporary novels) which are to be re-issued in the coming year, so that is all keeping me very busy!

– The courage and determination of women in challenging times continue to fascinate and inspire me. I’d like to explore some different historical and geographical contexts for future books and already have a couple of ideas that I’d like to pursue once I’ve finished my next World War II-based work.

– Thank you so much for two really captivating books and thank you for you time!

– It’s my pleasure! Thank you for your questions!

Written 2021-10-05

Fiona Valpys books are available in Swedish from Forum förlag. Sömmerskans gåva (The Dressmaker’s Gift) and Biodlarens löfte (The Beekeeper’s Promise) are out now.

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