Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Q&A with Christine Wells




Christine Wells is the author of the new historical novel One Woman's War: A Novel of the Real Miss Moneypenny. It focuses on the life of World War II-era spy Victoire "Paddy" Bennett. Wells's other novels include Sisters of the Resistance. She lives in Brisbane, Australia.


Q: How did you learn about Victoire “Paddy” Bennett, and why did you decide to write One Woman’s War?


A: I have been interested in spies ever since I saw my first James Bond movie at age 7 and I’ve written several novels about female intelligence operatives. It wasn’t until I read a couple of biographies of Ian Fleming, who wrote the James Bond novels, that I understood the role Fleming played during World War II in British Naval Intelligence.


I wanted to know more about the women employed by the Naval Intelligence Division and stumbled across the name of Victoire (Paddy) Bennett in a newspaper article.


She seemed a most redoubtable character—university-educated, beautiful, and charming, not to mention the kind of woman who hit the newspapers once again at age 75 when she foiled a mugger by kicking him in a tender spot! I had to write about this woman.


Because Fleming based most of the workings of Bond’s intelligence service not on the real MI-6 but on his wartime experience of Naval Intelligence (Bond is a Navy commander, and M is known to be based on Rear Admiral John Godfrey, head of Naval Intelligence) Paddy best fits the bill as Fleming’s inspiration for Miss Moneypenny.


However, unlike the Moneypenny character in the Bond canon, Paddy was not at all impressed by Fleming’s charm!


Paddy really came into her own when she was given the chance to participate actively in Operation Mincemeat, which took place after she had finished her stint at Naval Intelligence.


Q: How did you blend the history with your own fictional story while writing the novel?


A: The action of my novel centers around Operation Mincemeat, in which the British planned to float the dead body of a Royal Marine off the coast of Spain, planting false documents on him that showed the Allies were going to invade Europe via Greece, rather than the expected (and intended) landing point of Sicily.


Spain was rife with German spies and the British trusted that whatever intelligence washed up on Spanish shores, the Germans would get their hands on it. If successful in diverting German troops from Sicily to Greece, the deception would save tens of thousands of Allied lives.


In case the Germans had spies in England who could check up on this ruse, the British created a full persona for the dead marine, complete with girlfriend—enter Paddy Bennett, who played the role of “Pam,” the marine’s fiancée, as the British prepared the evidence trail for the Germans to follow when verifying the clues left on the body.


However, the photograph of Pam that was planted on the marine’s body was of a different woman, Jean Leslie.


The wonderful thing about fictionalizing Operation Mincemeat was that because the real event read like an adventure story, it had an inherent story structure.

However, as a fiction writer it’s always incumbent on me to find the personal struggles that arise from that event. I made up a personal conflict for Paddy, imagining the strife it might have caused within her marriage to keep her mission a secret, particularly as it involved writing love letters to another man!


The second problem I had was that while everyone is in London, preparing for the operation, the enemy (and therefore the antagonist) is far away. Paddy was not on the spot to see how the gambit was received by the Germans.


To dramatize events that would only have been reported second-hand in reality, I needed someone to be an antagonist both in England and, later, in Germany.


Having researched agent provocateurs previously for my novel The Traitor’s Girl, I already knew about a glamorous Austrian double agent called Friedl Gärtner. Friedl became romantically involved with Duško Popov, one of the spies on whom Fleming is thought to have modelled James Bond. Popov was active on the Iberian Peninsula and involved in Operation Mincemeat.


Thus, Friedl became the antagonist who not only acted against Paddy in London, where Friedl was given the task of verifying the information the British had fed the Germans, but who also travelled to Berlin to report to German High Command.

Q: Can you say more about how the relationship between the real Paddy Bennett and the James Bond character Miss Moneypenny?


A: In the Bond books, Moneypenny is purely a private secretary or personal assistant to M (although recently in the movies she was given a backstory as a field agent).


Paddy had a lot more responsibility than the fictional Miss Moneypenny. During the war, Paddy would have taken part in analysing the intelligence reports that flowed into Room 39 at the Naval Intelligence Division. She worked for seven officers and had a huge workload.


She was Sorbonne-educated and very clever, so as with many women like her, she was given responsibility commensurate with her talents rather than with her status and pay.


Paddy was highly valued by her colleagues—when she left Room 39 to get married, as women did in those days, the Room 39 officers jokingly accused her husband of greatly setting back the war effort. And of course, later, Paddy’s involvement in Operation Mincemeat sent her into the field, so she played an active role.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on Operation Mincemeat in the novel, and how did you research it?


A: Operation Mincemeat was one of the most eccentric and effective intelligence operations in history. I am a huge Anglophile and I found the corkscrew wit behind the operation irresistible and the people who took part in the operation quirky and fascinating. 


Not realizing that a movie would soon be made about the operation starring Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen, I thought it was a fascinating part of history that deserved wider recognition. Incidentally, Paddy is not mentioned at all in the movie, as they conflated her character with that of Jean Leslie, whose photograph was used in the operation.


As for research, there are many books about the operation, and several excellent biographies and memoirs about the different people involved, and many newspaper articles, as well. I love reading primary sources and was particularly pleased to sift through the MI-5 file on Friedl Gärtner, which had been released to the public relatively recently.


Unfortunately, travel was out of the question due to the pandemic, but I have promised myself I will make it to the Hotel Palaćio in Portugal one day!


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Currently, I am writing a novel with the working title The Royal Windsor Orphan about Cleo, a young woman growing up in Cairo at the luxurious Shepheard’s Hotel, who comes to believe she is the love child of Edward VIII, the king who abdicated the British throne and married the American Wallis Simpson.


Cleo travels to pre-World War II Paris to investigate, but the truth is even more shocking than she imagined.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Christine Wells.

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