Amanda Lees on Paris at First Light

Suzanne Goldring

The novelist discusses the Resistance, the role of women during the war, and her new novel.
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Amanda Lees, congratulations on Paris at First Light. This is the 2nd part, coming hot on the heels of The Silence Before Dawn. The French Resistance during the Nazi occupation is an extraordinary story – why did you want to write about it?

I wanted to write in particular about the extraordinary women who served not just with the Resistance but also with SOE and OSS. There were, of course, extraordinary men too but this was the first time in history that women served in roles behind and on the front line, spying, decoding, acting as couriers and radio operators as well as carrying out acts of sabotage with exceptional heroism. Their individual stories are amazing enough but they became irresistible to me when set in the context of a war which is still within living memory. Those memories are, however, dying out which is why it feels more important than ever to tell these stories and imbue them with all the courage, daring and passion that these agents displayed.

Which books/historians did you find most helpful during your research?

For this book in particular:
Les Parisiennes by Anne Sebba
Paris After The Liberation 1944-1949 by Antony Beevor and Artemis Cooper
The Nazis and the Occult by Paul Roland

For the series as a whole:
The White Mouse by Nancy Wake
Between Silk and Cyanide by Leo Marks
Beaulieu by Cyril Cunningham
A Life In Secrets by Sarah Helm
The Spy Who Loved by Clare Mulley
Madame Fourcade’s Secret War by Lynne Olson

Plus countless articles and items in the National Archives, the Wiener Holocaust Library and the Imperial War Museum among others.

The experience of women in the war is increasingly a story being told – was there anything that you didn’t know about before but which surprised you when researching the novel?

How liberated women already were and how strong in their choices. Wartime brings with it a sense that you could die tomorrow so you might as well live for today and women certainly did, as much as they were able.  This was not confined to class – there were plenty of working-class women who joined SOE and the Resistance, notably Violette Szabo. There were also women like the entertainer Josephine Baker, an ‘honourable correspondent,’ who was living in Paris at the outbreak of war and carried notes written in invisible ink on her sheet music across Europe and North Africa. She also sold her jewellery collection after liberation to help feed the starving people of Paris.

Of course, that living for today extended to love affairs and plenty of them. I was surprised at their lust for this alongside their lust for life but only because I, like most of us, found it hard to imagine the older generation like that. I love the way they partied as hard as they fought. I also love the way the women of Paris defiantly looked their best at all times with red lipstick firmly in place to spite their German occupiers. They simply refused to appear downtrodden and that spirit of defiance will stay with me always. The one thing that never surprised me was their courage and resourcefulness.

The Resistance story is a fantastic one, and one that many French men and women can be proud of, but there was also betrayal – as we see in your novel. Do you think with the passing of time and as fewer veterans of the resistance are still alive, we’ll see more stories emerge?

There was less betrayal than you might imagine, given the size and often chaotic nature of the Resistance which was not one, single faction but rather a disparate collection of organisations with different agendas.  Resistance cells and SOE networks were most often betrayed by a résistant who had been captured and turned by the Abwehr or, as in the case of Jean Moulin the man charged with unifying the Resistance by de Gaulle, by someone who had been seduced.

As for more stories emerging, that’s a complicated question. Many in France prefer to forget the collaborationism and betrayal that occurred, focusing instead on amplifying the achievements of the Resistance. What I have tried to do throughout this series is to dig through to the truth, often translating testimonies from the French so I can read them in their own words.

When writing your historical fiction, do you build the plot around historical events, or have the plot in mind and then find the right historical setting?

I do both. I have a plot that is built around historical events and try to remain as true to those as possible while creating a compelling story with my characters.

Which authors have inspired you when writing your novels?

I think, as with many authors, it’s the authors from my childhood who have inspired me the most. I always hesitate to name any because it’s such a personal thing. People love particular authors for their own reasons and I am constantly being inspired by new ones. That said, Daphne du Maurier, Mary Stewart, Robert Harris and, for this series, those who actually lived through this including Nancy Wake and Patrick Leigh Fermor.

What’s next?

I’m currently writing the third book in the series which starts in Auschwitz.

Amanda Lees is the author of Paris at First Light, published by Bookouture.