Lily Graham on The Last Restaurant in Paris

Lily Graham

The novelist discusses her latest novel, set in Paris during WW2.
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Lily, congratulations on your new novel, The Last Restaurant in Paris. It’s set in Occupied Paris during WW2. Why did you want to write about it?

Thank you so much. I love Paris, it’s architecture, food, history and joie de vivre and I’ve always been fascinated by its past, particularly under occupation, a time when life must have been incredibly difficult to live through.

This is the second book I’ve set here, my first was The Paris Secret, with a very clear heroine. With The Last Restaurant in Paris, though, I wanted to write more of a complicated character, a kind of anti-heroine. I also wanted to explore the idea of inheritance – the physical thing and the emotional one we sometimes take on too. I think a lot of us would wish that a relative had left them something of value. But what if what you inherit isn’t … wonderful?

Sabine Dupris discovers that she is now the owner of an old property, a former restaurant, that closed down forty years ago, where the owner, who she also discovers was her grandmother, Marianne Blanchet, poisoned all its customers one awful night.

I wanted to write about a dark legacy, and how that might unfold, as well as how things are never as black and white as we imagine. Because what if you discover that everything you think you know is wrong?

Paris under occupation is fascinating part of the Second World War. What kind of research did you do, and did you find anything that surprised you?

Incredibly fascinating. I read a lot of articles and books. The thing that most surprised (and shocked me) for this novel was how the Germans wrote a regular newspaper that was so praise-worthy towards the French, to the point of flattery, in an effort to really drive the idea of collaboration. Many of the soldiers behaved as if they were on holiday – taking in the theatres, restaurants and other attractions and Paris was the jewel in their crown. I think before I started researching it I would have assumed that the Nazi approach was altogether different, more utterly despotic, and somehow this felt more chilling – the idea that not only did the Parisians have to endure an invasion, they had to also pretend that they were happy about it.

Those labelled as collaborators could face terrible consequences, couldn’t they?

Definitely. Some of the stories of people accused of collaboration are chilling. Yet, I do believe that many were dealt with too harshly, as many, simply had no choice. Paris, in particular, was a city of women predominantly, as well as older men. Abandoned by their government who fled to Vichy, leaving them to face the world’s deadliest army alone. Even the ones who fought back – and many did- they had to operate under a guise of collaboration in order to live and fight another day. While others were simply trying to keep their families alive. I honestly am not sure that in today’s age we would act any differently really – the young women facing rations and hardships falling under the spell of handsome soldiers, the opportunists, the resistors and the survivors doing what they could– we often like to think we change but I don’t think humans do all that much.

Is your heroine Marianne based on a real person?

No but she was partly inspired by all the incredible stories I read about the ordinary men and women who helped to resist the occupation of the Nazis across Europe, as well as the film A Call to Spy which follows the true life accounts of remarkable women who were recruited and trained by the British government to help sabotage German operations from within the Occupation, their bravery and courage was incredibly inspiring. I knew that my next novel would likely feature someone like this as result. But when I read of two young Dutch sisters,  Truus and Freddie Oversteegen  and their friend, Hannie Schaft, in an article in the New York Post who took up arms against the Germans in the Netherlands, by luring Nazis away from bars and inviting them to go on walks where they would shoot them, the seed was planted for a more morally ambiguous story and the price someone might pay for justice.

Victory comes at a price, and sometimes that price, as Truss told Sophie Poldermans, her biographer in the book, Seducing and Killing Nazis: Hannie, Truus and Freddie: Dutch Resistance Heroines of WWII, is on one’s soul.  ‘I wasn’t born to kill. Do you know what that does to your soul?’ After each attack, she often fainted or broke down in tears and years later they all suffered from depression. Hannie Schaft, however, was executed by the Nazis, their legacy though lives on, a story of incredible personal sacrifice and courage as together they helped sabotage military installations, bombing munitions shipments and power lines, and killing many Nazis.

Were there any history books you read that proved useful when writing the novel?

I was fascinated and inspired by Rick Stroud’s brilliant book: Lonely Courage: The True story of the SOE heroines who fought to free Nazi-occupied France as well as Leo Mark’s Between Silk and Cyanide: A Code Maker’s War 1941-45 – both offered real insight into how the Resistance operated, my story though took some poetic licence, with regards to code names and also the sort of thing that they might have sanctioned from a spy – they most likely would not have approved of anything Marianne Blanchet did! But I did try to make it somewhat plausible by having her as a bit of a maverick character.

What’s on the menu at The Last Restaurant in Paris, and what’s your favourite Parisian dish?

Provençal fare mostly, things using local, seasonal ingredients, not too fancy but good, country-style food. Like ratatouille or stews. My favourite French dish is boeuf Daube, which is very similar to boeuf Bourguignon, (from Burgundy) – a top tip is not to mention the latter, more well-known variety while in Provence – I made that mistake and got a (gentle) telling off! It’s a bit like the Devon/Cornwall divide with scones, and the order of the jam and cream and who actually invented the thing. Now that I’m mostly veggie though, I’m on the lookout for a good alternative.

What comes first for you, the plot, protagonist or historical event?

It depends. With The Paris Secret the character came first and then the story but with this one, it was the plot – the idea of someone inheriting a restaurant linked to a terrible event and not knowing about this legacy.

At Aspects of History we’re always keen to encourage debut and emerging authors. What advice would you give to a budding historical novelist, looking to write and publish their first book?

I think my best advice would be to concentrate on getting a first draft done, give yourself a deadline, like say a year or six months and make the focus not on making it a perfect book, or having all your historical detail in place but getting a rough draft done. The first book I ever finished, was set on a vineyard and I spent three weeks researching how a vineyard worked – from the soil to the production and climate, in the end I only used about five percent of all I researched. While it was useful, to a degree, it wasn’t at all necessary – I quickly saw that if I took this approach to everything I needed to research, I could quite easily get overwhelmed and abandon the story.

So now, I do ‘light research’ as I write – dates, a rough plot synopsis and that sort of thing, and then after I’ve written the first draft and have a rough idea of the story I want to tell, I dive deeper into the research. This adds more flavour to the story, more accuracy, I feel but then isn’t an info dump. Though of course sometimes you do come across something more fascinating (the truth is always more shocking that our imaginations, I find!) and that can give your story more depth – and I rewrite parts of the story accordingly. But, to me, it’s always about getting a rough draft down first so that I know what I want to say (or don’t want to say when it’s not working, which is useful too) and then I bring it to life in the edits.

What are you working on next?

A story set during the Blitz, the main character, Finley is so much fun to write, feisty, indomitable and brimming with confidence. She came first – fully formed – and so utterly different to me, which has been a blast to explore. She’s longed for a life on the stage but when war breaks out she doesn’t let that stop her. I think it will be more of an uplifting read than some of my others, as I do feel we could all do with some more ‘up-lit’ but in typical style, it’s bound to have some tear-jerker moments, as I can’t seem to help myself, grin.

Lily Graham is the author of The Last Restaurant in Paris, published by Bookouture.