Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Q&A with Charles Kaiser

Charles Kaiser, photo by Joe Stouter
Charles Kaiser is the author of the new book The Cost of Courage, which details the story of a French family in World War II. He also has written 1968 in America and The Gay Metropolis. A former reporter for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, he lives in New York City.

Q: You write that your family and the Boulloche family knew each other for many years. At what point did you decide to write a book about their experiences in World War II? 

A: I think I’ve always known I would write this book since I first became a writer for The New York Times four decades ago.  I started to interview family members after Christiane wrote her own brief memoir for her grandchildren, 15 years ago. 

Q: The family members chose for decades not to speak about what happened during the war. Why was that, and why did the story finally come out? 

A: Most people with genuine war experiences are usually reluctant to talk about them. I think that’s partly because they were so intense, they don’t think anyone who hasn’t been at war can really understand them. Or they don’t want to relive that intensity themselves. 

When Christiane’s sister Jacqueline died of cancer, Christiane was the only one left who could tell the story. At that moment she realized that if she didn’t do something, the story would die with her. Being above all a woman of duty, she then hired a Sorbonne student to be her research assistant, and forced herself to write 45 pages – for her grandchildren.  

Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify to you? 

A: The title is exactly what the book is about. Because of the extraordinary heroism of the three youngest Boulloches, the other half of their family was wiped out by the Nazis. That was the gigantic cost of their courage. 

Q: How did you research the book, and was there anything that particularly surprised you as you conducted your research?   

A: I moved to France and lived there for two and a half years to immerse myself in the subject. I’m lucky because I’m fluent in French, a language I learned when I was living in Senegal when I was 10 – and I’ve never forgotten it. 

I started by doing multiple interviews with Christiane, and Odile Boulloche, the widow of Christiane’s brother, André. Then I interviewed Postel-Vinay, the extraordinary man who recruited André into the Resistance at the end of 1940, and who had an incredible escape story of his own, which I reproduced in the book.  

Dr. René Cler was also very important – he was the man who hid Christiane during the final weeks of the Occupation; it was also one of his patients who had been in the prison cell with Jacques, who begged him to strangle him so that he wouldn’t tell the Germans where André was hiding.  

After that I interviewed all of the children and several of the grandchildren of the main actors of the story. Postel-Vinay’s daughter, Claire Andrieu, is one of the great French historians of the Resistance.  She became my guide through the French National Archives. 

The French government commissioned an oral history of the Resistance immediately after the war, and sent out interviewers to find everyone they could who had been in the Resistance. Those files were indexed in such a way that I could find all of the ones in which the Boulloches were mentioned. 
Finally, I telephoned the Public Record Office in London (now merged into The National Archives) to find out what they had on André Boulloche, from the time he had spent in England in 1943, before being flown back to occupied France to be de Gaulle’s personal representative in Paris. He and several other actors in the book had been interviewed in great detail by the British when they arrived in England. 

The first stop for every self-described Résistant was Patriotic School, established by British Intelligence to weed out the double- and triple-agents from the real resisters. Everyone had to provide an almost day-by-day account of what they had done during the war before they arrived in England, so those interviews provided me with an incredible amount of detail. 

All of the files were secret, but all I had to do to get them declassified was to prove that my subjects were dead. When André’s file arrived in the mail from England, that was one of my eureka moments.
The most surprising thing about all of my research was, everything that Christiane had told me was confirmed and elaborated upon by everything I learned afterwards. She has an incredible memory. That’s one reason for the last sentence of the book: “She still remembers everything.” 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I’m doing a big book about New York since 1970. That’s all I’ll tell you! 

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: My husband Joe Stouter and I went to Europe in December for a month. Our last stop was Paris. The third night we were there, we dined with Christiane at her big apartment in the 16th arondissement–the one where I first met her when I was a child in 1962. I have so many vivid memories of animated lunches and dinners in that apartment. 

Christiane turned 91 last November 11. My own birthday is November 13; that’s one of the things we have in common – we are both incredibly stubborn Scorpios! 

Photo by Tomas van Houtryve
I had told Christiane the book was coming out in June, so she didn’t expect to see it until then. When I handed her the galley, she was thrilled–and her expression was captured forever by a great photographer, Tomas van Houtryve, who happens to be the husband of Mathilde Damoisel, the documentary film maker who was Christiane’s research assistant when she was still a student at the Sorbonne.  

Handing Christiane the galley was one of the finest moments of my life – and we made that picture the final photograph in the book.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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